I have a register which lists 397 eliminated villages, Kurdish villages in
northern Iraq. ... The work is called "The Register of Eliminated Villages."
You flip the pages, beautifully scripted and done with a pencil. Then the
writer of this book has covered it, folded it very neatly with a nice, great
big book cover made of paper, with great big white flowers against a red
background. It's a very decorative, pretty thing. ... You look at this person
who has taken such immaculate care of this book, which records the destruction
of 397 Kurdish villages. ... You look at the book and you know you're touching
So the important point for you is to always see it on the human
Yes. ... Suggesting evil is human doesn't mean we can always understand it, or
doesn't mean there's only one way of understanding it. It's sort of like a
great work of art. You can never fully absorb it. It's got many dimensions. It
lives on through time, in different ways.
I think the same is true of evil. We go around it. We try to look at it from
different prisms and angles. We try to appropriate it to ourselves, via
readings or interpretations or observations or drawings or films. But it's
evil, in the sense that it is never fully explicable in some easy, pat way. ...
Connect it to the hijackers. What, if anything, have they brought to the
discussion of evil? Do you see them as part of the banality of evil? Or
No. The hijackers bring in a different element of evil. ... They have invented
a form of it. ... Not fully invented it, but they'll say they've carried it to
an extreme. ... I would say it's this sort of perfection of the death instinct.
It is the infatuation, rapture, in the event of killing one's self and others,
of death, as many people as possible. That's what they bring that's so new --
this ability to be at one with the desire to die and to inflict death on as
many people as possible -- not as an instrument, not as a means. ... In order
to get into this state of mind, all sorts of bizarre changes take place in the
person's mind. But death is absolutely essential -- an enormous act of
destruction, apocalyptic in nature.
This is what Sept. 11 is about, in that this was done in a new way. We don't
know anything quite like it on this scale and with that kind of dedication of
purpose, and with that kind of, let's say, greatness of execution. A planning
of a spectacle that combines all these various qualities: numbers, death,
greatness of spectacle, and absolute commitment to desire to kill oneself. ...
I don't think politics, economics, sociology, and certainly not pathology are
what is truly the essence of this human phenomenon, evil. It's somewhere else.
We've had a number of people respond to the videotape of bin Laden laughing,
feeling that they had moved into a different zone of trying to understand evil
-- the disregard and the humor and the playfulness and the giggling. Did you
have a response to looking at that bin Laden tape? If so, what was it?
... The tape that depicts bin Laden joking around and sitting in a social
situation with a sheik from Saudi Arabia and other visitors and talking about
what happened at the World Trade Center towers building is, I think, a good
illustration of the phrase that Hannah Arendt uses, "banality of evil," because
the social setting was utterly banal. This was a typical Gulf Arab congregation
in the evening. ... What was evil was not the laughter and the various gestures
and mannerisms that are part and parcel of that particular setting if you are a
What was so jarring was what the conversation was about, which was this act of
apocalyptic destruction. So here are these men having a totally ordinary social
conversation, perhaps around cups of coffee and teas and pastry. ... But what
they're talking about is the death and destruction of 3,500 people, and they're
praising it and so on. That is the jarring element.
It's exactly like Eichmann sitting behind his desk, turning out his paperwork,
which results in hundreds of thousands of people being shipped off to the
concentration camps. It's the coming together, the confluence of these two
things that is, I think, so evil. The fact that these people have so
internalized the act, so accepted it; not a single qualm is there. Nothing.
They're very happy with it. They're talking about how many people are going to
be converted to Islam because of it. ... The kind of demented quality of this
speech and the expectations that was present in that tape, that is frightening.
Frightening, and truly exceptional. ...
In the wake of Sept. 11 ... I think all of us ... have had the most searing
conversations about the role of religion, and not even one particular religion,
which we'll get to, but just religion generally, and the darkness at the heart
of religion. ... One rabbi said to me off-camera and on-camera, "Religion drove
those planes in to the building," and developed his thinking about why that was
the case. ... What is your response to that very provocative phrase, "Religion drove those
planes into the building"?
At this point in time, in this place, at this conjuncture in our history,
religion did drive those planes into those towers. In that sense, in some deep
sense, some deep way, religion is responsible. ... Not any religion, but Islam
in particular. But you just have to change the time and the circumstance, the
moment. Move back 50 years, a hundred years, whatever, and you can have an
entirely different circumstance. ...
I have always thought there were dark ... corners in religion. I took that for
granted. That's not the surprising thing for me. ... The frightening thing is
rather that, in the Arab world, we have let the darkness of religion flourish.
The forces that are dampening it at this moment in our history are weak, and
that is frightening. ...
It was born out of conditions which I can follow and track and see. I think
that's very important to understanding it, because there are all sorts of
elements in Islamic tradition. For instance, you can take a word like "jihad."
These young men saw themselves as committing an act of jihad -- martyrdom for
But there is an entirely different notion of jihad, which is a self-questioning
of the soul. They chose not to see jihad in that sense. ... They chose to
pick a martial tradition. They chose to reference themselves to 10 years of
Muslim history. There's 1,400 years of Muslim history to pick and choose from.
But these young men chose the years 622 to 632 exactly, because that is the
period when the prophet was essentially forced by Meccan society, which
considered him a dangerous threat to them, to leave Mecca. After he left Mecca,
he set up a city-state.
So [in] the first 10 years of the Muslim city-state experiment, based in the
city of Medina, the prophet waged war against his enemies -- defensive war at
times, and offensive war at others -- and unified the peninsula. This, for
these young men, is chosen and singled out to be the paradigmatically perfect
model society. They disregard what the prophet said previously to that in
Mecca, which are some of the most generous and sort of compassionate verses of
the Quran. They choose a particular interpretation, and they argue that that
interpretation excludes and supercedes all the others. ...
I say this to highlight what you can do with religion. You could have chosen
those 10 years, or you could choose another 10 years. What's frightening is
that so few people are repudiating their choice. ... The frightening thing
about that choice is that it has touched a chord in large numbers of people.
... Obviously, [the chord] was there already. But they picked it ... and they
have enormously strengthened it by what they've done. That's frightening.
That's truly frightening. But it's not inevitable. ...
The rejection and repudiation of that, in the name of Islam, is still
inadequate, too weak, to counter that. It doesn't yet have the force that is
required -- the moral force.
In other words, these young men have captured the moral high ground. Not the
whole of Islam yet, but they are in danger of capturing the moral high ground
of a great religious tradition. The great, great challenge that faces Muslims
today is to repudiate that. Not just the act; it's not about saying, "We're
against an act of terrorism here or there." It's a much more foundational act
... What specific parts of tradition did they pick up and make their own?
They didn't make them up of a whole cloth. ... Who did these kids speak for?
How deep is the chord throughout the Muslim world? ...
Perhaps the most dangerous element that was picked out of the Muslim tradition
and changed and transformed in the hands of these young men who perpetrated
Sept. 11 is this idea of committing suicide. They call it martyrdom, of course.
Suicide is firmly rejected in Islam as an act of worship. In the tradition,
generally, to die in battle for a larger purpose -- that is, for the sake of
the community at large -- is a noble thing to do. Self-sacrifice yourself as
you defend the community -- that is a traditional thing, and that has a
traditional meaning of "jihad." But what is non-traditional, what is new is
this idea that jihad is almost like an act of private worship. You become
closer to God by blowing yourself up in such a way. You, privately,
irrespective of what effect it has on everyone else. ... For these young men,
that is the new idea of jihad.
This idea of jihad allows you to lose all the old distinctions between
combatants and non-combatants, between just and unjust wars, between the rules
of engagement of different types. All of that is gone, because now the act of
martyrdom is an act of worship ... in and of itself. It's like going on the
pilgrimage. It's like paying your alms, which every Muslim has to do. It's like
praying in the direction of Mecca, and so on and so forth. It is an individual
act of worship. That's terrifying, and that's new. That's an entirely new idea,
which these young men have taken out, developed. ...
The battle to rid Islam of that notion of jihad ... is a terribly, terribly
important one, which it does not seem to me we are up to yet. Moderate, that
is, Muslim thinkers from within the tradition themselves, have not yet met the
There is an intellectual failure. There is a lack of courage at the moment in
the Middle East. And I should say it's very important to single out the Middle
East here from the whole of Islam ... because that's where all of this
comes from. Even if [Afghanistan] has become involved and Pakistan has become
involved, the origin of all of this unfortunately is in the Arab part of the
Muslim world, which is less than 20 percent of the whole.
Why are we not up to it? ... One reason is that my generation did not
appropriate its own traditions. It considered this part of the past, and
ignored it and pressed ahead with ideologies that came from the West. It did
not try to reappropriate its own tradition and take it on board, thus leaving
it to clerics and other elements. So there is a generational break. ...
We have lost contact with our roots. That means that those roots were
appropriated by the ignoramuses and the other clerics, so we don't even have a
battle of ideas engaged. ... So there is a battle over texts, over ideas, that
needs to take place within Muslims, among Muslims. ... So people like myself
and my generation ought now to consider it necessary to engage, however
liberal, socialist, nationalist they may be in other outlooks in their general
outlook on life. But [we] haven't.
Isn't there also a problem, too, which is theologically based, in that [the
Quran], your bible so to speak, is not considered a human document? The
scholarship around it hasn't been approached in the same as ours has been, for
good or for ill. I mean, to raise questions about the Quran is to incur a kind
of wrath or death threats or exclusion from academic circles. To ask the
appropriate sort of textural questions is very difficult.
The Western societies have had hundreds of years of reformation behind them.
Islam has never had its reformation, and that is part of the problem. If you
look back to the 16th and 17th centuries when men were killing one another in
the name of religion throughout Europe, that's where we're at more or less,
historically speaking, in terms of the level of debate and discourse. The Quran
is considered an untouchable text, not a historical document. ... This is the
literal word of God, and it is very dangerous to play with that in the Middle
East today. ...
Modern scholarship has moved on different tracks. I mean, you get excellent
works of sociology and political science and so on. ... But that secular
intelligentsia, very interestingly, has not touched religion, has left it to
others. That's what I meant about this bifurcation. So it operates on two
planes. We are left with a medieval concept of religious texts and a modern
life, in many other respects, with no lines, organic connection, between the
two. That is another level of failure in the society.
Which also helps make a bin Laden possible?
Yes, exactly. All he has to do is return to those texts, especially in a
country like Saudi Arabia. What's so interesting is that all these people, so
many of them, come from Saudi Arabia. ... It's so important to keep in mind
that, of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudis. Of all the various men that are
being held in the base by the United States, prisoners at the moment, hundreds
upon hundreds apparently are Saudis.
Saudi Arabia is not a country that produced a single interesting political
thought or political idea in the last 30, 40 years of Arab politics. But all of
a sudden, it's a moving force. It's shaping. Bin Laden is emerging. Young
Saudis are coming up with these ideas. It's not coincidence, because my
generation, the modern ideas -- the Palestinian resistance movement -- all of
these were ideas associated with the Fertile Crescent, with countries like
Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, et cetera. All of a sudden, the countries that had
remained in the backwaters are now appropriating the religion to themselves.
And, by the way, they started doing that much earlier. The Saudi government has
been pumping money in a quiet kind of revolution to shape Islam in its own
images since 1973, [with] oil price rises. It wasn't a noisy revolution like
the Iranian revolution was. It didn't have so much hubbub and noise associated
with it and all. But it was quietly done [with] Saudi influence, using money,
and the building of [madrassas] -- that is, religious schools and mosques all
across the world. ...
The very particular kind of Islam associated with Saudi Arabia ... is an
upstart. It was created in the 18th century. It was constrained and confined
entirely to the Arabian Peninsula right through to the late 1960s. All of a
sudden, this [Wahhabi] Islam -- which is espoused by these young men, which
considers even a Muslim like myself, because of my Shiite background, to be
dirty or not a real Muslim ... [is] probably the dominant form [of Islam] in
the United States. It spreads from one end of the world to the next. It's been
a quiet, silent revolution that's been happening, and suddenly exploded on the
scene with Sept. 11. ...
What was the great challenge to you as an atheist? How did the events of
Sept. 11 rock your boat, so to speak? [Do you think it was] harder for an
atheist than for a believer?
... It shook my belief in the one last remaining vestige of everything, the
foundation of everything -- in the human race, in the human species, and in
everything that I had been about, namely, trying to make some small
contribution towards improving its condition ... [and] the sense that you
could, through your efforts, do that. Then that does leave you very, very
Not knowing where to turn enormously reduces the scale of expectations. That
is, you can't hope any more the same way. You can't build, push towards it. I
mean, I found that over and over again. ... That's a spiritual crisis. But it's
not one involving God. I don't begin to doubt even my own lack of faith because
of it. It's a sense of sinking into an abyss in which you can't hold on to
anything in the world that keeps you going and keeps you producing and
So it's with effort that you strive to do this project, that project. Move on.
But I find all the projects that I do are all somehow Sept. 11-related. So, in
a sense, I've been yanked out of one mode -- before Sept. 11, where I was
writing about the past -- to a new mode, where I'm very firmly in the present.
I'm grappling somehow with what to do about it after Sept. 11. ...
It provoked not a scintilla or even the smallest ache in you for a belief
that might order things? ...
It didn't. You know, it's like the Holocaust. You must, no doubt, have
interviewed people who cannot any longer have faith after the Holocaust. When
you see human behavior like this, for me, it just reconfirms my atheism. It
doesn't make me militant about it at all. I'm not proud of it. It's just a view
of the world. It's just the way I am. I can't make meaning of the world
otherwise. But I certainly couldn't make meaning of the world through some
notion of God after a horror like that. I mean, it's almost impossible. It just
affirms that hopelessness. ...
You're saying, "If anything, it reconfirms my lack of faith, my unbelief.
... Just look around you. Look at the darkness of the human heart." I say,
again, someone who doesn't have belief but aches for it -- aren't there some
deeds that literally cry out to heaven and hell? That to our horror ... or our
awe around these occasional acts of sheer goodness and heroism -- aren't they
sort of experiencing goodness and evil in themselves, signals of transcendence?
Definitely. Yes. But why is transcendence -- which is such an important idea I
value -- why does it have to mean other-worldliness? Why is it also not
something that we have within us at certain very exceptional moments, just like
evil? ... I cherish a category like transcendence as I value the word evil. But
I don't want to make it easy on us human beings by taking it away from what we
are and who we are. ... The closer it stays, the more complicated we become,
the more interesting we become. ... So I like to keep it there, and I can
understand it when it's there.
... What kind of reflections has Sept. 11 sort of provoked in you about
The defensiveness of Islam is its crucial feature today. It's what, by the way,
is in such contrast to the most interesting period of Islamic history, when
Islam was an open, absorbing religion, constantly taking in outside influences,
as opposed to its current hedgehog-like posture, prickly to the outside ...
always looking backward. This is not how it was in the creative moment, in the
first four, six, eight centuries of Islam, where it was constantly seeking out
So the existential question for Muslims today is, "Can they construct such a
dynamic sense of their own religion that is open to the world? Accepting of it?
Of 'otherness,' of people and religions and so on?" ... That takes on these
guys, this alternative "jihadic" strain of Islam ... [and] defeats it
intellectually, ... pulls the rug under it, by undermining the pillars and
pointing out the inhuman and ungodly, if you like, qualities and characters it
has taken on. ...
If you could talk about evil as we are seeing -- Americans are seeing --
from that perspective, and how those 19 hijackers came to believe that we are
the very embodiment of evil. ...
I have no doubt whatsoever that bin Laden and his cohorts, the broader trend
that he represents, think of the United States as evil. But I don't think they
come there because they are defeated internally. ... There's something very
different going on here. For these people, Islam is a resurgent force. That
resurgence is expressed in their actions, and I think even in their conception
of the evilness of the United States.
Now, on one level, evil for them is anyone who is not a true Muslim. That's
quite clear. An infidel, or a better word for it in this particular case is an
infidel, a non-believer. But they're certainly not out to convert the
population of the United States. ... This is not an act -- the language, the
symbols ... the martyrdom, all of this -- designed to address Americans or
attract them to anything. So there's a kind of a wall here. In a way, it's
addressing somebody else first.
Bin Laden's real audience is the Middle East, his other Muslims. I think he
thought that, by this act, he would win large numbers of converts to his cause
... [to] bring Arab regimes down. He would perhaps even take power in this or
that country, preferably Saudi Arabia. That is where he is looking to; that is
who is the audience. That is who his symbols are directed towards.
So this is unlike anything else in the history of Islam. Early Muslims, when
they left the Arabian Peninsula and entered the [Fertile Crescent], were
conquerors. They converted peoples, and they gave them time to convert. So they
didn't force them sometimes, and they were perfectly happy ruling over them.
They were setting up a state, and then people converted over time. Syria
remained Christian for hundreds of years after the Muslim conquest. So
something different is going on here.
The obvious sense in which the United States is evil is in the cultural icons
that are seen everywhere. They are seemingly trivial things, the influence of
the America culture, which is everywhere: TV, how women dress, the lack of
importance of religion. So these are the senses in which they are rejecting the
United States. But you're right; they don't see Americans as people. ... They
block that out. They only see as people the Muslims they want to convert to
their side, and that's terrifying. ...
But what drives [Osama bin Laden] really is then an ancient, spiritual,
religious idea -- whether you like it or not -- which drives so many of the
religions, which is the "pure" and the "impure."
Yes. It's that simple. That is very true. ... The world is ... divided into
these good and bad, very simple categories. He is out to restore justice in the
absolute sense, and good against evil. ...
As Andrew Sullivan said, "Yes, this is a religious war."
Yes. I mean, his [bin Laden's] part of it is a religious war, with this curious
twist that he is not demented enough to think that he can actually take on the power of the United States and destroy it. But he is hoping to win over
Muslims to him. So the battle has a kind of a long strategy with various stages
to it. The attack on the United States was, I think, primarily intended to win
over recruits to his cause, bring about disruption in the Arab world and lead
to his type of person coming into power in the Arab world, and then sort of
gradually would expand his post.
... Earlier you were saying to me, it's a story in the end that, when all
the fancy interpretations are over with, it puts cruelty first. How do you
create a religion out of a story that ... puts cruelty first?
... I find it very significant that no religious traditions, Islam included, is
ever in a position, I think almost by definition, to put cruelty first in the
order of its priorities of the terrible things that human beings can do. That
is perfectly illustrated in the story of Abraham's sacrifice with his son.
Because, of course, what the story's all about is faith, the importance, and
the primacy of faith. ...
What is the essence of faith in the story is Abraham's willingness (a) not to
question God about his command to sacrifice his son, and (b) to proceed slowly,
deliberately, over a period of time -- three days, I think it was -- [and] march up
the mountain, prepare the sacrifice, unquestioning, resolute. [It was] the perfect, as
Kierkegaard put it, "night of faith" model, exemplar of faith. And [Abraham] is, in
the Muslim tradition exactly that -- an exemplar of faith. That is the
importance of Abraham to Muslims. ...
Had he faltered, his faith would have been less, a degree or so less. He didn't
falter. God immediately stops it at the absolute last moment and, of course,
the act is ended. But what the story is all about is how faith in God comes
first, before anything else, and then follow various virtues, of which harm to
other human beings surely has to be below faith. It seemed to me that that is
something that the hijackers certainly took to heart.
In the ... manual that they seemed to have discussed before
the event, that was setting them up psychologically to proceed with their
mission, various circumstances are laid out in this document. One of them is,
what happens if one of the [passengers] resists? The manual very clearly tells
the hijacker to stiffen his resolve and make him able to do the deed he is
about to do. Consider if one of the [passengers] does, in fact, rise up and
stop you, consider that this an offering that God has given you. ... It is a
gift -- not an offering, a gift -- that has been bestowed, which you can give
as an offering to your mother and father as you slaughter the passenger.
The language used is exactly the same as the language in the Abraham story. The
word [means] ... "to slaughter" -- not "to kill." It is a sense that the
killing of the passenger ... is an act of slaughter emulating the great
sacrifice that stands at the foundations of religious faith, namely that of
Abraham sacrificing his son.
That's probably one of the most chilling moments. Here you see a story, a great
foundational story of faith in God and a definitional story of what is faith,
turned on its head. ...
Is it fair to say that submission to the rule of Allah is a core belief in
Islam, and to a greater degree even than in any other great monotheistic
traditions? Or has it come to be submission? Does that make it particularly
vulnerable for people like the hijackers?
That's a good question. Certainly submission is a key; that's the meaning of
the word Islam, to surrender, to submit to the will of God. The Muslim idea of
God is, in many ways, more abstract, more remote and less human, certainly,
than the Christian and the God of the Old Testament, who has passions and has
angers and often behaves very much like a human being in the various stories.
The Muslim is more remote, aloof, distant, and has to be obeyed. He has many,
many different facets. ...
There are stories in the Old Testament, for instance, where Abraham questions
God. I mean, Abraham, in the story of ... Sodom and Gomorrah, I think, he turns
around and he's not sure; he has a discussion with God over something. That
doesn't happen in the Muslim account of things. I think that perhaps
contributes to a more apocalyptic sort of notion of identification with
something that's more remote, therefore less human. ...
Submission has had different meanings over the ages. Submission can mean [what]
my grandmother used to mean by it, namely fatalism. A fatality. You believed in
God. ... It was a surrender to the will of God. ... But in these men's hands,
it's not submission so much as it's acting. ... It's acting, rather than
submitting. It's being. It's moving. It's about action. So it's a different
It's more like the unflinching Abraham. When you've got it fixed in your mind,
you don't flinch, you don't question. You know what to do because that is what
God wants. That is God's will. ...
What allows men like that to feel so confident that they are on a 1-800 line
to God? What is it about the times they live in, their own needs, or the
religion itself, that makes that possible -- that kind of confidence that they
are on some ecstatic connection with God and can speak for him with such
What makes people enter into cults? I think that kind of certainty about
something is not necessarily just religious. It was seen in secular
organizations, secular ideologues, ideological organizations of one kind or
another. I've experienced it among people I used to know in the 1960s and
1970s. It's a terrifying thing when you see it at work.
And in the end of the day, it can always have these deadly consequences:
betrayal of your friends and comrades with the greatest of ease. ... All of a sudden, you can
betray left, right and center, and people will die as a consequence. It's been
there in communist traditions. It's been there all the time.
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