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Bill Moyers Interviews Azizah al-Hibri on NOW. 2.12.02

BILL MOYERS: Listening to each other is often hard.

Since 9/11, there have been tense exchanges, especially between Muslims and non-Muslims. At least one American I know is trying to change that: Muslim scholar Azizah al-Hibri.

She's a professor of law at the University of Richmond in Virginia, a securities and corporate lawyer, a careful reader of the Quaran and the American Constitution. She's also the founder and executive director of Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights.

BILL MOYERS: What would you say to those four Muslim students at that college who were so — uncertain and so apprehensive that they just didn't want to — talk? They just want to be invisible again.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well, it's wrong to be invisible because really suspicion is based on ignorance. So what you really need to do, if you don't want people to be suspicious of you, is go out and let them know who you are. Talk to people. Tell them about your values. Tell them about your beliefs. Interact with them, make friends, don't be invisible.

It's hard but it's worth it.

What is concerning me is that there is a lot of talk about how the troublemakers, the terrorists, the violent people in the Muslim community look like all the rest of us, and they are sleepers, and so on and so forth.

BILL MOYERS: A sleeper means they could be there for ten years and be activated one day by a terrorist message — and they would go out and do what—

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: They're just —

BILL MOYERS: — Mohammed Atta and the others did.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: But see, Mohammed Atta was never in—an American. Neither were the others. I think the American experience does something to people, that when you come to the United States, and you might come with a different perception, you might even come from these societies which feel that the U.S. has not treated them well in its foreign policy, but once you're in the U.S. you're under the protection of the Constitution, you're under the umbrella of democracy; you're sharing in all the economic...opportunities. And, you are meeting the average American who is a very decent person.

And, suddenly what you find out is that your perception of the United States is changing, and that you're becoming an American.

I mean, when I first came to study here for a long time I did not want to become an American. I thought, you know, I'm going to study and go back home to Lebanon. I am Lebanese.

And I kept telling this to myself until I went to Lebanon and I think — and found out that I was different now; I have become an American. I didn't even know it.

So that's the thing we need to be thinking about, what this society, what this community does to people. You can think of sleepers, even if they send somebody as a sleeper — 10, 20 years ago — are they going to stay the same? If they came with an intention to hurt, and they saw the society the way it is, are they going to stay the same?

I think we should have confidence in who we are.

BILL MOYERS: What was there in the Muslim Islamic world view that made it hard for you to be a woman, so much so that you started this organization on women's human rights?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: What was really hard growing up is the interpretation of Islam I was receiving in my society. And therefore, for a while I moved away a little bit because I thought that Islam was oppressive. And —

BILL MOYERS: Oppressive.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I thought so, when I was younger and less wise. And then I came —

BILL MOYERS: Well, that's the impression we lay foreigners have.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Right. But then at one point I decided that Islam as a religion tells me that there is nobody to interpret or to intercede between me and God. I have a direct relationship with God. I can sit and pray directly to God. We do not have a —

BILL MOYERS: So, like a good Baptist?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: We do not have a hierarchy, a religious hierarchy. So I thought if that's the case why don't I just grab the Quaran and read it from the heart, for myself, without having other people interpret it to me.

And when I did that I found out that I have all the rights I ever wanted, there was no reason for alienation, there was no reason at all to think that Quaran gives women a subordinate place in society. To the contrary. Except that people never — people who were of a patriarchal tendency did not see it that way.

BILL MOYERS: And you've had a hard time with the patriarchal — the hierarchy of Islam, haven't you? I mean, do you go — do you go to the mosque regularly?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well, some mosques I'm very happy to go to because I'm received very well. In other mosques I feel I'm marginalized. So as with other faiths, you choose the mosque or the church that suits you best.

BILL MOYERS: You've studied the Quaran, you've studied the American Constitution — do you believe in the separation of church and state?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Yes. When the Prophet established the first Muslim state, which was a city state in Medina, and it was established through the Muslims there who asked him to come and help them establish it — there were Muslims and Jews in that town. There were, as far as I know, none or very few Christians.

The first thing that the Prophet did was to put together a — basically a bill of rights, a charter between him who was chosen as the head of that city and the people of Medina, the Muslims and the Jews.

And in that charter he declares that the Muslims and the Jews are one people, but to each his own; they keep their internal beliefs, their internal behavior, etc., but then there is an overall commitment of loyalty from one to the other, very much like the federal system we have here. They have a responsibility of common defense, etc.

BILL MOYERS: If only Mohammed could see his followers now. In fact, Gandhi was once asked what's the best thing about Christianity, and he said Jesus Christ.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Exactly.

BILL MOYERS: And then what's the worst thing about Christianity. Christians — he said.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: See, we're all guilty of this.

BILL MOYERS: Don't you think there's been too much God talk —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: That's not tenable —

BILL MOYERS: — in American politics?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Bill, it's not tenable, what you're suggesting. And I'll tell you why. We—he's saying we want to keep God outside politics, right? You are a person of faith. When you discuss politics don't you think that your religious values somehow—effect as a, as a perspective your evaluation of the politics? Not in the very narrow sense we're talking about, but in a general way.

BILL MOYERS: It does but it — then becomes lethal when I think that my religion must reign supreme and other religions — be degraded.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: That's the desire for power. That's what I'm telling you. God does not need you to defend Christianity or me to defend Islam.

BILL MOYERS: And we hear this — language, this invective — this violent rhetoric that pervades not only elements of Muslim but elements of other religions as well.

How do we change the metaphors? How do we change our religious discourse?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I've been working on that. And I found out that what I thought was the basic law of the Quaran on criminal issues, I understood it wrong. I thought it said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

What I didn't realize is that people who quote the Quaran never go — to the rest of the verse which says: but forgiveness is better.

And it is this idea of forgiveness and conflict resolution that we have to bring forward in all our societies.

The only time the use of force is allowed — is for self defense, and there are statements by the Prophet, that would indicate that even in self defense sometimes it's better to be the victim than the perpetrator of the violence. Okay?

And that therefore somehow you can teach through your being a peaceful person and refusing to be pulled into violence because somebody else pulled you.

But generally Christians, Muslims and Jews have missed a lot of this Abrahamic message in their religion.

Look at Christianity. We say turn the other cheek. When was the last time did we turn the other cheek when we got hurt?

BILL MOYERS: When you heard about the terrorists did you feel betrayed? Did you — when you heard that they had done this in the name of Allah, did you feel betrayed?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: How do you feel about the Inquisition?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I would have felt betrayed, I think, if — I had been there. Then yes, I mean, I do. I think that somebody — hijacked God.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: My reaction was — to, to dismiss the hyperbole, you know, the religious hyperbole and look at their actions naked as they are as political actions.

BILL MOYERS: Political actions.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I will not — I will not honor them.

BILL MOYERS: But they didn't —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I will not honor them as religious actions.

BILL MOYERS: But they claimed it was religious.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Yes. Yes, but more importantly there is politics that needs to be dealt with, and here is Islam which if we could explain it to — to a lot of people, not just the non-Muslims — see, I'm more concerned about explaining it to Muslims, that Islam is about harmony and conflict resolution and loving your neighbor. Is — Islam actually — has very clear injunctions about your neighbor and not just your immediate neighbor, many doors down your neighbor. The reason I cannot get very far with this approach in Muslim countries, some Muslim countries — I don't want to generalize — is because they're going to come to me and say all right, so you're preaching non-violence, conflict resolution and harmony. So why is your country using violence on us?

BILL MOYERS: The United States. They think the United States is using violence on them.

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Yes, yes. That our country — the principles underlying its foreign policy are totally based on the issues of force and might and military —

BILL MOYERS: Oil?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: — and military — capability, and yeah — protecting economic interests — oil, real estate.

I — really think that what we have here is a political problem, a very serious political problem, frustration, a third world issue that exploded.

BILL MOYERS: Why not — hit their own oppressive government?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: And I agree with you — and I asked that question in my class — why didn't they, for example, act in Saudi Arabia, especially since bin Laden says that his major concern, among others he elaborated, is the fact that there are American soldiers on the soil of Saudi Arabia in nationalist demand notice, you know, which has religious garb.

Now, I think the reason is that he didn't feel he will be able to succeed very much in Saudi Arabia.

BILL MOYERS: Because they're not a free society, because he has no room —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Not only that — not only that. The perception is many of these totalitarian governments or — non-democratic or monarchies, whatever you want to call them — are protected by the United States abroad, and that if they did not have that protection they do not have the support of the people, so that in a way many people in that region see the U.S. as responsible first, for imposing on them non-democratic regimes by protecting these regimes through its intelligence and other ways, and secondly sending people like me over there to — to preach to them about democracy.

BILL MOYERS: Because they're not a free society, because he has no room —

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: So that really makes them even more upset.

BILL MOYERS: You mean the fundamentalists…

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: I mean everybody.

BILL MOYERS: You mean the United States gets a bad — knock because it sends Azizah al-Hibri to lecture on democracy and human rights in Muslim societies?

AZIZAH AL-HIBRI: Well, I'll tell you something, that the first few minutes or hours of my lecture it's an uphill battle to make them trust me because they are so — confused and so unhappy about the role of the U.S. in their countries.



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