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Dialogue: In the Name of Islam

August 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: A month after suicide bombings rocked London’s public transit system, and additional attacks killed scores at an Egyptian resort, Muslims around the world are discussing how and why these attacks occurred.

Here in the United States, a group of American Muslims recently issued a fatwah, or legal pronouncement, denouncing people who commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam, calling them criminals, not martyrs.

SPOKESMAN: Islam strictly condemns religious extremism and the use of violence against innocent lives.

RAY SUAREZ: That same day, the Council on American Islamic Relations released a 30-second public service announcement in English, Arabic and Urdu, called “Not in the Name of Islam.”

AD SPOKESPERSON: We reject anyone of any faith who commits such brutal acts.

RAY SUAREZ: These releases are part of a growing debate within Islam about why it is that so many recent perpetrators of terrorist attacks are Muslim and what ordinary Muslims can do to keep people from killing in the name of their religion.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on this subject, we brought together four Muslims with diverse perspectives: Salim Mansur, an associate professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Shadi Hamid, a master’s candidate in Arab studies at Georgetown University; he spent the past year as a Fulbright fellow in Amman, Jordan. Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter; she’s the author of “Standing Alone in Mecca.” And Shaker Elsayed, the imam of Dar al Hijrah in Northern Virginia, one of the largest mosques on the East Coast. Guests, welcome. Who speaks for Islam? Imam?

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: There are some councils — councils of Islamic law spread all over the Muslim world: One in Europe; one in America; one in; two in Saudi Arabia; and one in Egypt. And they have a lot of respect and recognition by the Muslim world worldwide. But there are also some individual Muslim personalities who have posed as speaking for the Muslim world, and they are listened to by millions and millions of Muslims.

RAY SUAREZ: And do they often have different things to say, Asra Nomani?

ASRA NOMANI: I can tell you Osama bin Laden does not represent Islam. He does not represent me; he does not represent millions of Muslims out in the world. He brings cameras into caves and speaks as if he is the authority on Islam. But ultimately, we are within… we are in a war within Islam right now, within our Muslim world. We have people who are competing with their various ideologies, and there are people with –trying to speak with great authority and yet they don’t always represent the mainstream. And the sad testimony today is that so many Muslims are basically unrepresented among our leadership and we remain silent, and that’s why we have had to stand up now and take back the faith.

RAY SUAREZ: You said Osama bin Laden doesn’t speak for you, but does he speak to some?

ASRA NOMANI: Sadly, he speaks for a lot of people, and he represents what I think we are facing in our Muslim world, which is an ideological terrorism that is basically trying to grab the hearts and minds of our youth and so many people who are willing to stand up then and act in the name of Islam in a violent way.

And so that’s why it’s incumbent upon us as moderate Muslims to respond to this in a nonviolent way, and challenge word for word every statement that they put out in the name of Islam. So what happened last week in North America was vital; it was so important for our leaders to stand up and basically throw down the gauntlet and say you cannot represent us, and we are going to stand up to you.

And this is what we need to do in Muslim communities all around this world is take back our mosques and the extremists, go into our mosque and challenge the rhetoric of intolerance and fundamentalism that is trying to take over our world.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Asra Nomani just cited that fatwa recently developed here in North America. Is that heard in Europe, in the Mediterranean, in South Asia, professor?

SALIM MANSUR: No. I mean it’s an important point that it’s a very belated step and it’s a welcome step, but it’s a very small step. In the modern world, the Muslim world is totally fragmented, and there is tremendous jockeying and struggle taking place within the Muslim world, within Islam itself of what and how Islam will eventually come to be represented in this modern world, in the 21st Century, and then how that view will be articulated. And now Muslims are struggling to find sort of a reconciliation with the world they inhabit and an identity with which they will be comfortable that will speak to their understanding of Islam.

RAY SUAREZ: Shadi Hamid?

SAHDI HAMID: Yeah, if I could just add to that, I think we have to be very clear about how we define the struggle ahead of us. This is nothing less than a war of ideas, and I think that even though the people who do support bin Laden are a small minority, they have to be defeated and destroyed. We have to be very clear about that. There is not and should not be any moral nuance or ambiguity when it comes to fighting terrorism and those who brandish the name of Islam so selfishly in the name of terror. So I think as American Muslims the time has never been more urgent for us to stand up and have a more systematic, vigorous response to terrorism and say, not in our name, and we’re not going to tolerate it in our communities and we’ll fight it.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it hard to have that kind of — create that kind of authority?

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: You know, we have another religion that has ultimate authority in the person of the pope, that’s Catholicism. Nevertheless, people disagree with the pope and take positions politically and socially against what the pope teaches. So having an authority is not really the issue.

Having an authority would have helped unify the voice, but I see that in the discussion we tend to confuse the name of Islam with Muslims, even in this discussion. We tend to use these words alternatively when we say, for example, “Islam expressing this.” Islam is a religion that comes through two primary sources of text: The Koran and the traditions of the prophet. Those are the ones, if we talk about Islam, reforming Islam, for example, we’re talking about the text.

But reforming Muslims is something very needed. It is about Muslims not about Islam. Like, you know, when Timothy McVeigh does something, we don’t call it Christianity, we don’t call it Catholicism, or whatever school of thought he belongs to. We call it Timothy McVeigh.

This is Osama bin Laden having a war of ideas. And as Shadi says, a war of ideas is not going to be defeated by, you know, a tank and a weapon and airplane. A war of ideas needs engagement, and this is what we need to encourage our leadership to engage; not with terrorists, but at least with moderate Muslims. But this is not happening.

RAY SUAREZ: Is that a fair point? Is it the same thing, Osama bin Laden and Timothy McVeigh and their various relationships to their native religion?

ASRA NOMANI: We’re up against a formidable enemy and we cannot dismiss that fact. What I’ve brought is a copy of the Koran, which comes from Saudi Arabia, you know, one of America’s best friends, and the very first chapter says, “Guide us to the straight way, the way of those on whom you have bestowed your grace, not the way of those who have earned your anger.” Then in parentheses is, “such as the Jews, and… nor those who went astray such as the Christians.” So in parentheses — so these are the interpretations that are added into the layers of Islam that are a manifestation of the Muslim world.

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: But they are not e text, you have to admit this much.

ASRA NOMANI: But this comes…

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: You have to admit this much, it’s not the text.

ASRA NOMANI: This comes from the House of Saud.

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: But the House of Saud is not Islam.

ASRA NOMANI: But this is imported into America and this what is we have to face, and we have, while the law enforcement authorities are watching the borders and the boundaries, we have this ideological hatred spewing into America, into communities in England. I mean, right here I have a text also distributed at my mosque in West Virginia, that also takes the text and says that women can be beaten.

And then we have sermons downloaded from Saudi Arabia that say that we should not be friends with the Jews and the Christians. And we’ve heard this thousands of times, and at the end of the day, this is what we’re facing. I mean it’s a machinery; it’s Wahabiism incorporated, it’s fundamentalism incorporated. It’s beyond an individual; it’s an entire system that we’re up against.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let me get a quick response from the Imam.

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: I have to say something here. First, this is not the text of the Koran, these are interpretations.

ASRA NOMANI: Right, I completely agree.

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: When you talk about reforming Islam, Islam is the text, not the interpretation. But if you go through text and religious books and scriptures before that, you will find the talk about the gentiles in the Old Testament. You will find the talk about sell your garment and get me a sword if you can. You will find a lot of things. Religious texts have also carried the stuff that could not really be sorted out in a brief discussion like this.

ASRA NOMANI: So let me just finish. We have to take these books out of our mosque libraries. We have to take on the fact that these are mass distributed, they are going into the hands of our youth and that is fueling the violence, and we have to acknowledge this.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, is that a useful distinction that Islam is one thing, the faith, and Muslims, some good, some bad, some somewhere in the middle, is a totally other question?

SALIM MANSUR: Well, at one level I agree with Imam. When we speak about Islam we are actually speaking about Muslim, because it is what Muslims do is the issue at focus. Whatever may be the text, because the text or the religion or the faith has to be lived through in the practical, daily life and conduct of Muslims themselves.

What America woke up to on 9/11, and what we are in some agree talking about is the problem of 9/11 must be found within the Muslims themselves, within the civilization itself that deals with the fanaticism of Muslim, the violence of Muslim, which is not something new, which is not unprecedented on 9/11. It is America woke up to that. It is the non-Muslim world woke up to that. Muslims have lived with this violence for 15 centuries, more than 1,400 years — that the primary victims of Muslim violence, of Muslim fanaticism are Muslims themselves.

Muslims must come to grips with the world in which they are in and must find ways and means by such discussion tackling with their history. There is no root cause external to Muslim history; the root cause is within Muslim, within Islam. This has to be looked at very seriously. We haven’t talked about it. We are engaged in too much apologetics.

RAY SUAREZ: Shadi Hamid?

SHADI HAMID: I think at the same time, though, yes, Muslims have to stop blaming the West, America, and Israel. This is what — I 100 percent agree with Dr. Mansur on this. But I think Muslims can’t defeat the scourge of terror on their own. But we need America’s help in engaging with the rest of the world and being at the forefront of this war on terror.

But what do I mean exactly? What I’m trying to say is that it is autocracies, dictatorial regime throughout the Middle East that have created a very poisonous environment conducive to the rise of extremist ideology. So if we’re going to be serious about fighting this war on terrorism, there also has to be a war waged on autocracy, meaning that we have to — we have to actively promote democracy in the Middle East so people can have a chance to express their grievances in a legitimate, peaceful manner.

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: All that I want to say is separate Islam from Muslims. Islam is a religion that is not as marred by its history as others. We did not initiate World War I; Muslims did not initiate World War II. They were not engaged, they were victims. Muslims did not go out to occupy other countries for 130 years, as it happened in Afghanistan and Algeria, back and again and again.

We have to be honest. All religions have in their history some… you know, something in their closet. But to say that Islam is a unique religion in that is far from the truth. We know that the facts are separate from people and people are separate from their own religion and their own guidance, and when they claim Islam, we accept their claim and then blame the religion, instead of laying the responsibility on the shoulder of the individual or the group or the country that takes on something that is contrary to their own teachings.

I believe so long as we blame the religion and instead of holding the book that is sacred in front of us, and instead of holding the book and saying to Muslims “this is even against your own religion,” we have no dialogue because we’re blaming the reference instead of blaming the criminal.

SALIM MANSUR: Look. This is the sort of apologetic that will no longer wash, you know. This is the apologetic that we have gone through for too long a time. Muslim has to acknowledge their own responsibilities of failure. This is absolutely intrinsically to the Koran.


SALIM MANSUR: Let me complete my thought. God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves. Apologetics cannot meet that challenge.

RAY SUAREZ: Asra Nomani.

ASRA NOMANI: We failed in our communities, as Muslim people we have betrayed Islam. Our leadership has betrayed Islam. What the Imam is saying, I understand very clearly, I know there’s a fear that Islam is going to be labeled and blamed for all the violence that’s been perpetuated.

But each one of us is sitting here for love of the religion, and every time I speak out, Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus are thankful and they write letters of gratitude because they say we want to hear a voice of moderation and the voice that will take responsibility for what’s perpetuated in the name of Islam.

Now, I’ve received three death threats, right. Where do they come from, from Seattle, Washington; Penn State University, Brooklyn, and Chico, California. You know, we have to confront the facts that people are defending an ideology of hatred with hatred, and violence, and this isn’t incumbent upon us because I think we know that the next attack can very much happen out of America.

It’s a matter of time; not whether it’s going to happen, and our community in America will have failed if we don’t confront the real problems that are being perpetuated in the name of our religion and basically betraying the faith. And our leadership needs to stand up for that.

RAY SUAREZ: Shadi Hamid.

SHADI HAMID: I definitely agree with Asra, I think that our national Islamic organizations, even after 9/11, failed to effectively condemn terrorism and fight extremism within our on communities. For example, I mean, I think it’s interesting how you’ve had all these suicide bombings almost daily in Iraq and Israel and of course we had 9/11.

But how come this condemnation, this very forceful condemnation that we mention after the London bombings, why did it take so long, why did we have to take three, four years for Muslim organizations to get together and issue a fatwa? What happened the last three years? And let me just emphasize one specific point is that for too long there has been a double standard. We’re very quick to condemn bombings in America, in Britain.

But when it comes to say a Hamas suicide bomber blowing himself up and killing innocent Israelis in cafes and pizzerias, I have not seen an effective Muslim response regarding that. There’s been a lot of equivocation. And I think the problem is when a lot Muslims argue that the immortality and illegality of these killings is contingent upon certain political considerations, say the occupation in Israel, we enter a very dangerous slippery slope. We have to condemn all suicide bombings, any time innocent civilians are killed, whether it’s Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Christians, it has to be one response that we will not told tolerate it. It is un-Islamic, immoral, and inhumane.

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: I believe there is no apology for terrorism. We condemned it; we condemned it on 9/11, I personally signed a paper on behalf of the organization I worked for at that time and sent it everywhere to the press. I spoke with the press. So for Shadi to say, this is very late, this is — why did it take three years, it didn’t take three years. It took you three years to note that there is something.

SHADI HAMID: No, my question to you is: Where was the explicit condemnation of innocent Israelis being killed daily?

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: You know that Israel is using Apache helicopter, gun ships and everything to demolish homes of innocent people. You can’t pretend talking here in the air condition here in Washington about what people in Gaza slums should be doing or not doing.

SHADI HAMID: Yes, but Palestinians are suffering, but that should never justify the killing of innocent civilians.

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: That is your view in Washington. Talk to the people in Gaza, talk to the people in Jerusalem. But to talk from Washington, you address people in Washington who would listen to you.

SHADI HAMID: This is the equivocation that I’m talking about from our Islamic leaders, from a lot of —

IMAM SHAKER ELSAYED: And you need to recognize, Shadi, we have to be fair. The law in the Koran stands for justice. Don’t be self-defeated because of the explosions here and explosions there. Bin Laden does not represent Islam; he doesn’t represent me. What he does is not only condemnable; it is inhumane on its face. But that doesn’t necessarily lead me to go judge everybody everywhere where they are bombed every day that they don’t do answer, don’t do anything that I don’t like. I don’t like suicide bombings; I don’t like people killing people. But that is not only one sided, that if a layperson kills ten people it is wrong, but when a country bombs 10,000 people it is right. There has to be justice.

ASRA NOMANI: Sure, we have to stand up for justice; we have to empower our youth and ourselves to stand, through civic society and through the process of nonviolence.


SHADI HAMID: I think we should talk now about what steps can we take as American Muslims instead of just reacting all the time, what can we do proactively to make sure what happened in Britain doesn’t happen in America.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there anything?

SHADI HAMID: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s very important for us to make sure that young easily impressionable Muslims here in this country feel that they’re part of the American political process, they’re part of American society; we have to make sure they’re integrated because I think the problem have you in France and Britain, a lot these European societies is that you have these ghettoized Muslim communities that didn’t consider themselves European; they feel very alienated and marginalized. And, therefore, they’re very susceptible to these very extremist kind of preachers. What we have to do here in America is make sure we don’t have a repeat of that and we have to kind of use the talents of American Muslims to reach out to the Muslim world and sew what we can do to fight extremism in countries, say Egypt, Jordan, et cetera.

RAY SUAREZ: Shadi Hamid, guests, all, thank you very much.