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Transcript:

FROM THE MOYERS FILES: Bill Moyers talks with Imam Zaid Shakir on NOW with Bill Moyers, January 18, 2002.



MOYERS: With us now is Imam Zaid Shakir. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut, where he's the spiritual leader of his mosque, and where Yale University lists him as a spiritual resource for students.

He travels widely and has become a national and forceful voice for the Islamic faith in this country.

Listen to what he said to the Islamic Society of North America a couple of years ago.

EXCERPT OF SHAKIR ON TAPE: One of the miraculous things associated with Islam is that this civilizational genus in Islam can manifest itself anywhere. And we can make this Islam manifest itself right here in the United States of America so that when people look back in history, they can talk about the Islamic civilization of America.

MOYERS: Wow.

You recognize that man?

ZAID SHAKIR: Yeah, I do.

MOYERS: You were born in Berkeley, California, grew up in Michigan, Georgia, Connecticut...

ZAID SHAKIR: Yes.

MOYERS: Served four and a half years in the United States Army.

ZAID SHAKIR: Air Force.

MOYERS: Air Force.

Became a Muslim in 1977.

MOYERS: It was a very good year.

MOYERS: What led you to accept Islam as your faith?

ZAID SHAKIR: Well, I grew up, as you mentioned, in Georgia, Atlanta, and Connecticut. We were in public housing projects. And growing up in those environments, there are a lot of good things, a lot of wholesome things. But you see a lot of negative things.

And as I matured towards the end of high school — 12th grade, specifically — I began to think about how we could possibly change these things.

And as I began to study religion — I was a Baptist so I studied Christianity, I studied eastern religions.

And I was a Communist for a brief period of time, and I felt that a Communist revolution would bring about change. But I eventually was led back to belief in God, and that rediscovery of God led me to examine religion more closely. And that examination culminated with my becoming a Muslim.

MOYERS: What was it about Islam that in particular said, this is the way I want to go?

ZAID SHAKIR: I think it was the structured nature of worship in Islam, as Islam has a set of moral teachings, Islam has an ethical code. But it also has a day-to-day program for living your life from sun up to sun down in terms of prayers, in terms of certain devotions. And a person who's looking for religion, this is the first way that usually religion impresses itself on a person.

MOYERS: When you heard that the terrorists on 9/11 did their violence in the name of Allah, did you feel betrayed?

ZAID SHAKIR: I didn't feel betrayed because I don't think that anyone who understands Islam could do such a thing in the name of Allah. Islam doesn't encourage nor endorse indiscriminate, insane murder.

MOYERS: Have you ever felt any divided loyalties between your faith in Allah and your values as an American?

ZAID SHAKIR: No.

I think that I definitely have gone through a phase of very strong Anti-American sentiment, but I think it was more dissent as opposed to a desire to bring harm to anyone or encourage harming anyone.

There's no divided loyalty because a lot of core... The core values of Islam are very much compatible with the core values that this country was founded on and the values which continue, even if at a philosophical or idealistic level, to inform what it means to be an American.

MOYERS: Do you resent that question?

ZAID SHAKIR: No, not at all.

I mean, what's happened, a lot of things that have happened in the aftermath, they're valid. Searches at the airport are valid.

When I go to the airport and only my shoes are being checked, that's a valid thing. I can't object to that, and I have to understand it. If I failed to understand it, I think I would be quite ignorant.

MOYERS: You do understand that people are scared because the terrorists use their religion as a call to martyrdom?

And people are saying, "How do I know that the young man down the street, the young men down the street, the people in your mosque, are... Wouldn't do the same thing if called several years from now to repeat that terrorism?" You understand that.

ZAID SHAKIR: I can understand it to a point, but I think that we really... Human beings are more complex than that, that indeed in any religious faith you have extremists, you have fanatics, you have people that are outright nuts. And Muslims, as Muslims, we haven't cornered the market on these categories of human beings. I think the fact that Islam is largely unknown sort of creates a bit of apprehension.

MOYERS: Well, what do you say, Imam, to people who do fear that extremists are hiding in plain sight?

ZAID SHAKIR: I would say that... Look at history.

We've been in this country as Muslims, even before the country a few. And during the slavery period, and some areas of this country, upwards of 50% of the slave population was Muslim off the coast of Carolina and the Mississippi Delta area, upwards to 30% of the slaves were Muslims.

A random African American who chooses to trace his roots, Alex Haley, ends up in a Muslim village in West Africa.

So Muslims have been here in this country. So Muslims have been here for a long time, and we haven't been involved in the sort of thing that happened September 11.

So Muslims have been in this country, we haven't been involved in this sort of thing, despite the fact that indeed some of us — I put myself on the list — at times have involved in... been involved in very provocative rhetoric.

MOYERS: You say in one of your essays, "Allah tells us in unambiguous terms, fight them on until there is no more."

Now, before you answer that, let me say, I grew up singing "Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before."

I mean, that's a pretty militant hymn.

You say, "fight them on until there's no more." Is that just a metaphor?

ZAID SHAKIR: This is a general instruction for those people or groups of people, particularly in the time of the prophet, he was told, "I've been sent to fight the people until they testify that there's no God but Allah and Mohammed is the messenger."

But we are told and taught as Muslims that that was specific to the people of the Arabian Peninsula, that particular command.

And so this, this statement came from an essay in which a lot of things were said, and... but the main point was that in the context of Muslims being involved in the political system here in this country that we have to look at a full range of political options.

And one of those is not guerilla war, as some people have tried to make out from this essay.

MOYERS: You say in that same essay, that Islam presents an absolutist political agenda, one which doesn't lend itself to compromise nor to coalition building.

ZAID SHAKIR: right.

MOYERS: Are you saying that Islam cannot be a part of democracy...

ZAID SHAKIR: No.

MOYERS: ...but not stand apart...

ZAID SHAKIR: I said... I said...

MOYERS: ...from democracy?

ZAID SHAKIR: I said that ten years ago. That essay was written over... over ten years ago.

MOYERS: Would you say it now?

ZAID SHAKIR: I would not say it now.

MOYERS: You would say that Islam is compatible with coalition building, with compromise, with democracy?

ZAID SHAKIR: No, but I would say Islam is compatible with working together with decent people at various social, political, and cultural levels to make the world a better place.

MOYERS: All right, let me just do one more that I found in one of your essays. Let me put this on the screen so our viewers can see it and read this...

ZAID SHAKIR: I'd like to see it also.

MOYERS: Well, I'll read it to you directly.

"The orientation of the Koran pushes us in the exact opposite direction."

MOYERS: I'd like to know a serious question: what is it that Allah might find illegitimate about America?

ZAID SHAKIR: I think that as a Muslim, I would say the — and it might not be to a negative consequence — but the ability ultimately to enact strictures and legislation that might be inconsistent with what we have generally...

MOYERS: With Islamic law?

ZAID SHAKIR: As general religious law, would be objectionable.

But having said that, that does not mean that as a Muslim I am not obligated to work for the betterment of this country and the betterment of the world and the citizens of this country.

But I am bound by that same Islamic law to not do anything to work against the public safety and well-being of this country or its citizens. I am... I have implicitly entered into a covenant of protection, and part of that covenant dictates that I remain here in a law-abiding fashion.

MOYERS: Tell me something about what you've gone through since September 11 as an American and as a Muslim.

ZAID SHAKIR: I think that there's been a lot of introspection in terms of coming to grips with ultimately what Islam stands for and what we as Muslims have to offer this country and the world at large.

As an American, you feel the pain of the innocent people being lost by the senseless acts that were perpetrated.

And as a Muslim, you feel the pain not only knowing a lot of those people killed there were Muslims, but that now your religion is put in a position where really you have to explain yourself where you haven't done anything as an individual nor as a community. American Muslims haven't been involved in this sort of thing in the past, nor in this terrible situation which took place.

MOYERS: You studied several years, and serious, in Islamic science, studied a number of subjects.

What did you learn there about why so many Muslims see America as the enemy of Islam?

ZAID SHAKIR: I think that this is an inaccurate statement.

I don't think many Muslims see America as the enemy.

I think many Muslims become angered by things that this country does periodically in the Middle East.

MOYERS: Such as?

ZAID SHAKIR: Indiscriminate, I would say, fairly indiscriminate support for Israel to the detriment of the Palestinians, even though there have been efforts to broker a fair peace. But in the final analysis, the bombs and the napalm and the tanks and jets and planes generally have "Made in America"

On them when they fall into the refugee camps. The Iraqi situation, as Muslims we see this as literally genocide.

MOYERS: So there's nothing in Islam that says America is the enemy.

It's in politics.

ZAID SHAKIR: It's political, primarily. And an indication of that, just see how long the lines are outside of the American Embassy in any Middle Eastern country.

So if people hated the country so much, there wouldn't be such a fervor to come here. And most of the people standing in lines have on blue jeans and "I heart America T-shirts."

MOYERS: And they want McDonald's hamburgers.

ZAID SHAKIR: So I think it's... I think it's a severe exaggeration to say Muslims hate America and they're out to get us...

MOYERS: But some do.

ZAID SHAKIR: ...they resent our way of life.

MOYERS: But some do.

ZAID SHAKIR: Some do, but they're a small minority. You can find a minority in any religion that hate a lot of things.

MOYERS: So what...

ZAID SHAKIR: But to extrapolate from the sentiments of that minority and to taint an entire class of a group of people, I think that's not accurate nor is it proper.

MOYERS: So what is your interpretation, as a student of the Koran, of a jihad?

ZAID SHAKIR: Jihad is two levels. One is a general struggle to improve oneself, improve society, and one is a struggle against forces that are antagonistic to Islam and the Muslim community, but in accordance to very well-defined rules.

And those rules aren't honored by people who slam jet planes into air... into buildings, if that's where this question is leading to. So there's no way the Islamic concept or idea of jihad supports the kind of actions that were undertaken September 11 allegedly in the name of Islam.

MOYERS: I appreciate very much your coming here and dealing with these questions. And I wish you well.

ZAID SHAKIR: I wish you well, and I thank you for this opportunity.

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