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INTERVIEW: Kanan Makiya

What is your own image of evil? Have you ever had an intimate personal encounter with it? Does it have its own taste and smell and configuration? ...

Evil is something that, when you see it, when you know it, it's intimate. It's almost sensual. That is why people who have been tortured know it by instinct. They don't need to be told what it is, and they may have a very hard time putting it into words. ... That's the nature of the phenomenon. It's hard to put into words. But you have to have that intimacy with it, that kind of shoulder-to-shoulder rubbing. ...

In order for me to understand evil, to see something as evil, I have to be able to see myself in it somehow, and yet not be there. If I'm not able to do that, then it's just a phenomenon. It's just a thing -- terrible, bad, whatever -- [but] it's not got that intimacy. You have to be able to see yourself there. Otherwise, it runs this terrible danger of becoming something someone else is, and not you. When that happens, of course, awful consequences can unfold. ...

Evil, while it is very definitely different from something that's "very bad" ... is a human thing. It's humanly explicable. But it is only so when we can touch it and see ourselves in its place. That's why one of the most brilliant observations about evil ever made, I think, came from Hannah Arendt in her book on the Eichmann trial, the phrase, "banality of evil."

There's a deep truth to that. When I handled the paperwork of the Iraqi bureaucracy, as it has killed tens of thousands of its own citizens, I see evil. I look at the paperwork. I look at the squiggles of the line and I wonder about the person who wrote in his handwriting style. ...

Kanan Makiya is a professor of Middle East studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. A native of Iraq, he has written several books, including Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. An atheist, Makiya here discusses how Sept. 11 affected his beliefs. He says that the Arab world has allowed the "dark corners" of religion to flourish, and that the Sept. 11 hijackers represent a new and particularly dangerous form of religious extremism. This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Helen Whitney in the winter of 2002.

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 evil somehow.

So the important point for you is to always see it on the human continuum?

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 something different?

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.

I have always thought there were dark corners in religion. The frightening thing is that in the Arab world, we have let the darkness of religion flourish.

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 Gulf Arab.

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 their faith.

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 of rejection.

... 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 challenge.

Why not?

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 isolated.

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 creating. ...

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 [Islam]? ...

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 and absorbing.

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 notion. ...

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 fluency?

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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