I was very angry, [but] not at God. I must confess I was very angry at our
behavior -- meaning my fellow brethren and sisters, Muslims. Well before this,
there was the destroying of the Buddha statues; there [was] the oppression of
women in Afghanistan; there [was] the decision to have Christians and Jews wear
distinctive marks in Afghanistan. It's ugliness after ugliness after ugliness.
In many ways, 9/11 made me care far less about what my fellow human beings
[thought] of me, and care much more about my accountability before God
ultimately. God, I believe, is beautiful, and seeks beauty. It is my burden and
privilege and virtue to go out and try to create beauty, as much beauty that is
reflective of the beauty of God. ...
Sometimes, when you try to be beautiful and to create [beauty], not only is
that personally difficult, but a lot of times you encounter people that say
you're naïve, you're simplistic, you're idealistic, you're this, you're
that. I think after 9/11, I felt that I really don't care what those quote,
unquote "politically savvy" people think of me anymore. This is something that
is going to go in history.
My son is going to ask me, "How could this have happened in the name of the
religion you follow?" How can I justify, not just to neighbors and friends, but
how can I justify to my son that this happened in the name of the faith that [I
am] committed to? ... In order to be able to respect myself before my son, I
must be able to say, "Here is what I've done." ... Otherwise, I really don't
think you can hold your head high and have a sense of dignity about yourself if
you can't clearly confront the fact that this remarkable amount of ugliness was
committed in the name of the faith that you believe in.
[What should Muslims be talking about?]
It sometimes helps enormously to think about things in very basic and
simplistic terms. There's always a temptation to go to great, grand political
theories and international conspiracies and so on. But you know, I could have
been killed in this, and my father as well. As a Muslim, I think -- or I
thought, and I continue to think -- that it's highly relevant, and it's
something that I should be able to talk to my fellow Muslims about. If I was
killed and my father was killed, and you went to someone like bin Laden and
told him, "Here is this Muslim scholar who was killed ... in this event," bin
Laden would have been happy about it, would have gloated about it.
The fact that we have an element in our religion, in the religion that I
believe in, that would rejoice at my death and the death of other human beings
and their suffering and their pain and think that there is some good, is
something you have to take account of at an individual level before you jump to
these great, grand theories.
The fact that my son rides an airplane ... and he often travels unaccompanied,
alone, and God forbid if he was on a plane in which this happened; just the
thought of the panic he would be going through and I am not there. To come in
and say this is beautiful or acceptable, that God looks upon this and says, "I
understand," because [there are] bigger political causes or higher political
objectives. ... When I deal with it at that level, that's what motivated me
since 9/11 to speak more, to lecture more, to sleep less, to be as if I am on
fire. Because it is that personal element, that personal pain, that personal
image is the one that I cannot bear. I cannot bear it happening to a Muslim or
a non-Muslim. ...
[Help us understand the roots of Muslim fundamentalism.]
... I grew up in Egypt and Kuwait, mostly Egypt. But as a teenager growing in a
context of an underdeveloped country, a despotic system where there's a lot of
corruption and very, very few victories to speak of, there is a temptation to
be extremely frustrated. That is already there as a teenager anyway, but is
just exaggerated ... by the fact that you are in that context.
In my case, I felt a remarkable amount of anger -- a desire to feel a sense of
self worth, to feel a sense of dignity -- but at the same time, an anger and an
intensity of anger against those that come from the rich and influential
families, against those that work in corrupt institutions, against the fact
that there's nothing that could make me feel pride in terms of [my country],
internationally and domestically.
Of course, then I didn't really understand it that well. But to go and have
someone that comes in and basically gives you something that you can belong to,
... it's as if someone comes in and says, "You know what? I can give you a
fictional card that says you belong to the elite of the elite. Let all these
people think that they're great, they're wonderful and so on. But I can tell
you, you are the very best. And you're the very best, why? Because God says so.
And why does God say so? Because I know, because I have the secret of the book
of God and the secret to the key to the will of God. If I say you're good, you
must know that you're good." You come in, and it's being high on God,
All my angers and all my frustrations and everything, it was always so
convenient to say, "I'm not angry for myself. I'm angry for God. I am not
speaking because I want X or I want Y. No, no, no, no. It's because God wants
[it]." ... You basically take your own emotions and you ... project these
emotions upon God. You pretend as if God is basically a frustrated, highly
angry teenager. That's how you start imagining God. ...
My father was a scholar already of religion, and I grew up in a very religious
family. ... Looking back now, I realize what I felt is that I am a special
soldier of God that belongs to the elite forces of God. ... Therefore, of
course, if you think of yourself as one of the elite soldiers of God ... you
expect immediate obedience and immediate compliance and so on. Thank God,
through God's blessing, that phase didn't last long in my life. ...
It is when you're in that frame of mind and especially the way that you are
exploited by those and manipulated by those who are always happy to sacrifice
your life, my life, for whatever goals they have. ...
[What is your concept of God?]
I don't know how my fellow Muslims experience God. ... I know God by
experiencing God. I've experienced God, and so this is why a matter of faith is
not a question for me. How can I question what I've experienced at the most
intimate of levels? ... God gave us the gift of life and intellect and
conscience. God does intervene to save us from the evil consequences of our
pettiness, our selfishness, our self-centeredness, all the ugliness, the ways
that we abuse these gifts. ...
There's a difference between intervention that mitigates and intervention that
completely denies autonomy. So my understanding, my feeling of God is that God
intervenes to mitigate, so that instead of over 3,000 people perishing, that
God intervened in many small different ways. ... The number could have been
But can God negate and override and overcome our will entirely? To me, it's
highly abstract and uninteresting whether God has the ability. The issue is
whether it makes sense for God to do that, and it doesn't in my view. Because
I insist on my autonomy, I insist on my right to defy God if I want. Part of
autonomy is to enjoy and suffer the consequences of my acts, of my decisions.
[Describe the Muslim version of a God who pre-ordains, and your concept of
The idea of destination or that everything is pre-ordained, decided by God, I
know that it has its supporters in the Muslim community. I know that there are
Muslims who believe that God has written it all out and that we just experience
what God has decreed a long time ago. I think that is fundamentally
inconsistent with my experience of God. I would even go further and say it's
inconsistent with the holy book of Islam, the Quran, but that's another matter.
... It ends up making God responsible for all the good, and also all the evil.
It means that God is actually responsible, the author of evil.
How can you believe in such a god? How can you kneel in submission to a god who
authors evil? I follow a school within Islam ... [that] said God doesn't
pre-ordain everything; God doesn't write everything somewhere, and God is not
the creator of evil, is not the maker of evil, and also is not the creator of,
maker of, all good. There is so much good that is the product of my decision,
my consciousness, my will as a human being.
[What is your experience of evil?]
I don't think that evil is a social infraction or a violation of a norm. I know
that evil has a feeling. It reminds me of the justices of the Supreme Court,
when they were talking about pornography and they said, "Well, we know what it
is when we see it, but we can't describe it."
In my experience [of] evil, it feels like a stillness, an emptiness, an absence
of life. It has this nearly stale existence to it, that suddenly you get the
feeling that nothing lives, nothing exists. That feeling then allows for the
emergence of actively ugly and scary things. But evil, it's as if experiencing
something where you just feel not only that life is absent, but that there [is]
the deconstruction, the breaking down, the tearing apart of life.
The Quran, which I believe in as a Muslim, when it talks about evil at one
point, it says [that it is] the undoing of what God has put together. The
remarkable thing is that is consistent with my expression, my experience of
evil. Evil, it breaks down your memories. Evil breaks down your will. Evil
breaks down your ability to feel or to appreciate. ... I believe that demons do
exist. I think their will is contingent upon ours. In other words, they exploit
our own weakness. You can open the door for evil. You can open the door to evil by failing to affirmatively build beauty and undoing and breaking
down things, whether it's breaking down, undoing a human being or undoing the
product of what human beings built. ...
[Is bin Laden the face of evil?]
... When I look at that face, I see someone who has not engaged in any beauty,
any building. I can't imagine that bin Laden has built the reflected divinity
in building or constructing beauty. I can't imagine that he can appreciate
beauty. ... I see evil, both in the sense of the inside evil, and in terms of
internalizing the outside evil -- someone who has become taken over.
I remember when I was in Egypt, [bin Laden's lieutenant Ayman] al-Zawahari ...
was a medical doctor and he had turned extremist. Al-Zawahari had a lot of
students. ... I remember that al-Zawahiri and his students never spoke about
building anything, creating anything. They never spoke about art, music,
beauty. In fact, they considered music to be a sin, art and beauty to be
unnecessary. They only spoke about one thing, and one thing only, and that's
destruction. Breaking, destroying, maiming, undoing. That is evil. That is the
heart of evil. ...
[What is your personal experience with evil?]
I have seen enough. I've seen enough. I've seen a considerable amount, whether
it's in the realm of people getting killed in a raid, military raid, bombing.
Or even more tragic situations where people die in extreme pain inflicted by
other human beings, most of which it's too painful to even talk about.
I can share with you this part: that what you observe on the part of that who
embodies the evil, that who is inflicting the pain [or] the agony, is a
remarkable abandon. That's the only way I can describe it -- ... as if they
detach themselves for that period of time, whether it's a minute, or an hour,
or more or whatever. They detach themselves from life itself. It's as if they
become breathing, functioning, moving, but not alive. And it is in this state
that they engage in destruction of life, destruction of whatever is before
[Give us a compressed look at Muslim history.]
... There's no doubt that the Islamic civilization generated much beauty and
much culture, much richness, much art and music. It is in fact one of the
richest civilizations in terms of its intellectual product and so on. Of
course, extremist organizations, intolerant extremists, have existed -- like
any other context -- in Islamic civilization from hundreds of years ago. But
the mainstream of Islam ... had always been very strong. It was always able to
marginalize the extremists, and in fact relegate them to sort of a footnote in
terms of their actual effect.
In the modern age in Islam ... what arose is a fairly puritan, extremist,
highly intolerant school of thought within Islam which claimed to go back to
the pure origins of Islam. But part of this movement, known as the Wahhabi
Salafi ... was that it was very anti-intellectual, very anti-cultural, rejected
the historical practice. ...
That school of thought, however -- because its approach to politics is quite
authoritarian and quite despotic, and because the mainstream culture of Islam
that in the past had marginalized extremists like that had crumbled in the
modern age for a variety of factors -- ... had managed ... in the modern [age]
to become significant, very significant, especially since the 1960s.
That doesn't mean that the majority of Muslims are extremists. It doesn't even
mean that a sizeable minority are extremist. However, what it does mean is that
certain of the attitudes of the school of thought have had a considerable
amount of influence, particularly the attitudes that don't celebrate moral
thinking, don't celebrate humanism, consider history to be unnecessary, an
aberration, something that you don't really study or analyze. ... What it has
done is that it created fertile grounds for the immersions of the type of
extremism that bin Laden represents.
Put it differently. If you consider that there is an intellectual orientation
within Islam, and there is a mystic orientation within Islam, like the Sufis,
the intellectual orientation and the mystical orientation within Islam did not
produce a single terrorist in this century. But this puritan orientation --
with its attitude towards non-Muslims, its attitudes towards heretical Muslims,
its attitude towards women, its attitude towards history and intellect and so
on -- has all the terrorists. ... That's really the historical background to
The issue is how marginal is bin Laden or what does bin Laden really represent. ... There are few that are as arrogant or self-righteous as bin Laden within the Muslim world -- but the most dangerous
is a type of thinking that would allow a person to think they speak authoritatively and decisively for God. And that type of thinking is more widespread in contemporary Islam than bin Laden.
[Talk about the darkness at the heart of religion.]
After Sept. 11, I've read a good number of people who are talking about, "Well,
this really is an example of the type of darkness and ugliness that the
monotheistic religions are capable of producing." Some have even gone as far as
to say religion itself is a problem. My feeling about this is that all
worthwhile ideas, all ideas, are capable of producing much good and beauty,
[and] are also dangerous. ...
If you look at the amount of ugliness that human beings have produced, among
the most traumatic experiences in human life was not religion-based. It was
either atheistic as in the case of Stalin in Russia, or the Chinese Cultural
Revolution, or a nationalistic ideology as in the case of fascism and Nazism,
and not so much grounded in religion. Does this now mean that all ideologies
that sympathize with the poor are to be rejected as dangerous? Or does it mean
that all forms of nationalisms, including patriotism for instance, the feeling
of pride about your country, is to be rejected because they're evil? No, it
In the same way, you must look at religion in the overall perspective. I'm not
in the business of doing body counts, of how much did atheism versus religion
kill? All I can say is, all matters of conviction could be dangerous whether
religious or not, all matters of fervent conviction.
But I also know that all hedonisms, lack of conviction, are also deadly. So on
the one hand, when you have no belief, it's deadly. It's sort of a hedonism,
it's suicidal. If you have a belief it can yield a lot of good, but it's also
dangerous. The trick is to know how to handle this, this beauty and this
powerful instrument in your hand. ...
[Do you believe in an afterlife?]
I do believe in the afterlife. I mean, I do believe that I will be resurrected.
I will be resurrected, and I will be ... held accountable for my behavior and
my actions. But a lot of the kids that have joined bin Laden and so on, they
conceive of the afterlife in purely materialistic and physical ways, as if
[it's] the greatest bliss. The irony of it is you find them saying that we're
going to be drinking wine, and frolicking with virgins, as if that is the
highest joy. [In] my view, the highest joy is bliss, peace.
That tells me how materialistic their conceptions are which they project upon
the visions of the afterlife. It also tells me that they are in their vision of
the afterlife as enjoying virgins and so on, so forth, that they are expressing
more their frustrations of the male ego than anything that has to do with God.
My understanding of the Quran, my experience of the Quran, my experience of
God, is that in the afterlife, the greatest bliss is the company of my beloved,
is to actually unite with my beloved again, God. To feel the tranquility, the
friendship, the joy of union after I have shown that I am worthy of this union.
The greatest punishment is to be distanced from my beloved and to be removed
from that union so I can't enjoy that bliss. Wine and virgins and things like
that, I have no need for that. As a Muslim, [I] don't want it and don't care
about it. ...
The heart of it is that bin Laden, he is, and him and his followers are, very
materialistic in the sense of how they understand the world and how they
understand the hereafter. So when he thinks of evil, he can't conceptualize of
evil as a transcendental or a metaphysical concept, something abstract. He has
to contextualize it into something material, something physical. United States
is the biggest and the most powerful, and so it then becomes embodiment of the
In many ways, it's sort of like ... when you deal with children. Often the intellectual capacity in the psychology of the bin Ladens of the world has not really developed or matured.
You deal with children, and children think in polarized terms most of the time.
You either love me or you hate me. You're either one of us or you're not one of
us, and an outsider.
As they grow up and they become more nuanced, that's maturity, and their
judgment also becomes more nuanced and so on. But part of it is that children
often need to think in very material terms, concrete, specific terms. So
abstractions is something they gain as they get older.
Bin Laden is the same thing. He needs evil to become embodied in a material
entity, physical entity, and the United States has the fortune and the
misfortune of being the biggest and the most powerful. ...
[Talk about the death threats that you've received.]
... It all really started with an article that I wrote about 9/11 and the
necessity of introspection within the Islamic context. After the article, and
ongoing with the many appearances on television and response to my books and
articles and lectures and so on, there has been these various threatening phone
I think the humility that was ingrained in me, the humility that I learned from
my relationship with God, makes me resist acknowledging or admitting the role
that I play. ... I'm sort of the nightmare of the puritans and the extremists
that won't go away, won't vanish. The reason that I am that nightmare is
because I have been trained in the sources of Islam. I've studied and memorized
the Quran. I've studied and memorized the traditions of the prophet. I am
entirely comfortable with these heuristic traditions of Islam, and what I take
from them and what I communicate to people is a very different message.
What I communicate is a message of tolerance, of a conception of God as beauty,
the embodiment of beauty, and the insistence on the autonomy of the individual
and the importance of conscience and the acceptance that the law does not
necessarily embody morality, that morality must always examine the law and
shape the law.
In the paradigm that I pose and I've advocated, within all the works published
and otherwise, I am fighting for the soul and identity of Islam itself. There's
no question that the extremists and puritans want to be the only
representatives of Islam. They want to be the ones with the 800-number to God,
who can tell you what God wants and what Islam is and that's the beginning and
I believe that they are already at a disadvantage, because they have not
engaged in the experience of debate and in the process of interacting with the
other and having to contend with the ideas of the other. The only thing they
have, the only recourse they have when they confront people like me is to
threaten, is violence, because they can't win the logical textual argument.
They can't win the argument that relies on evidence in the Quran in the
traditions of the prophet that relies upon the evidence found in the texts of
So they are cowards. I say it with much defiance, because I know that they dare
not appear face to face and attempt to prove what they claim is the truth. But
as long as I am breathing, they might want to die and go enjoy virgins and wine
and heaven. But in my case, death is an opportunity. I welcome the blessing of
life and I enjoy it as long as God makes it possible for me. But death for me
is an opportunity to join my beloved, to go back to the divine origin that I
am, to unify with the divine that is in me. So they threaten what I do not
fear. ... Ultimately, they are cowards, and they don't know how to do deal with
a human being who is brave.
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