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October 12, 2007

Bill Moyers talks with Professor Anouar Majid

BILL MOYERS: Once upon a time, heretics were burned at the stake. You're about to meet a man would put a microphone in their hand and have all of us listen to them. Heresy, says Anouar Majid, just might save us from an apocalyptic future.

ANOUAR MAJID: I think all of us are fundamentalist in some sense.

BILL MOYERS: Anouar Majid wrestles with what he believes is the most inflammatory issue of the 21st century — the rivalry between America and the Islamic world, and he has some provocative ideas about what we should be doing to diffuse the conflict. The answer is for both to rediscover their radical roots. His new book is A CALL FOR HERESY: WHY DISSENT IS VITAL TO ISLAM AND AMERICA. To Majid, America as a nation and Islam as a religion are both bound in straitjackets of religious, political and economic orthodoxies. It will take creative thinking from courageous dissenters, he says, to set them free and put the world on a path away from catastrophe.

ANOUAR MAJID: If we do not have dissent, if we do not have heretics among us, if we do not cultivate these habits of mind, in other words to think creatively and imaginatively and so on we're gonna remain doomed.

BILL MOYERS: Anouar Majid came to the U.S. as a student from Morocco twenty years ago. He went on to write numerous articles, a novel, and two acclaimed books about Islamic ideas and culture. And he beaome the founding chair of the department of English at the University of New England, where he also teaches. He was in New York City this week and we invited him to join us here in the studios. Anouar Majid, welcome to THE JOURNAL.

ANOUAR MAJID: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: You call yourself a Muslim heretic. What is a Muslim heretic?

ANOUAR MAJID: Well, a Muslim heretic is a Muslim who believes in social and cultural pluralism, someone who believes very firmly, strongly believes, that people ought to have different ideas. Because that's the basis of a good and fruitful conversation. If people did not espouse different viewpoints and if people were to all embrace the same orthodoxy, then cultural and social and intellectual creativity withers. And that is very dangerous and eventually detrimental to any civilization.

BILL MOYERS: And you say that for both Muslims and Americans, heresy is the only life-saving measure left to avoid an apocalyptic future.


BILL MOYERS: Why is that?

ANOUAR MAJID: In the case of the Islamic world, we know that religious orthodoxies have stifled creativity and have silenced the voices of dissent. And that has been happening for over a long period of time. Consequently, now the Islamic world, now, is in a very precarious intellectual and cultural state and unable to take care of itself properly if it does not allow for those heretical or dissenting voices to emerge in order to engage in solid meaningful debates, philosophical debates and conversations.

BILL MOYERS: I understand you were moved to write this book in no small part because of your experience when your-- one of your children-- was being treated for leukemia in the hospital. How did that shape the writing of this book?

ANOUAR MAJID: My son was diagnosed with ANL, which is a severe form of leukemia, in 2004. And I was in the hospital for seven months. And right there in that hospital, in his room, I was watching the unfolding war in Iraq and other events.

And on one hand, it was almost a surreal experience or maybe it's a schizophrenic experience. Here I am in this place where everybody is rushing and people are just making this heroic attempt to save lives. And out there in the real world, lives are being wasted almost nonchalantly.

BILL MOYERS: Did you want to write a book based upon that experience?

ANOUAR MAJID: I initially wanted to write a book on why America matters. To explain, because I felt at that time that the United States has not been able to explain it--has not been able to explain it adequately to Muslims and Arabs. Instead of, like for example, in my view, emphasizing the significance, the landmark event of the American Revolution and what the American Revolution had inaugurated and how Americans have have been trying to negotiate the tension between a religious life and a secular one from the very early days of the-- from the late 18th century on to today--

BILL MOYERS: You're very much of an admirer of the American Revolution, right?

ANOUAR MAJID: Oh, absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: I mean, you write about it not only here but elsewhere with great appreciation.


BILL MOYERS: What about it that appealed to you?

ANOUAR MAJID: I think it's the greatest event in modern history. Probably surpasses, in my estimation, the significance of the French Revolution because it's the first attempt in human history to create a political system where people can live without a king, without a monarch, for example. And-- it was almost like a miracle-

BILL MOYERS: You say in here that no place offers more instruction about how Islam and America might co-exist than that, the American Revolution.

ANOUAR MAJID: Absolutely.


ANOUAR MAJID: Because in the early days of the American Revolution, the decade after the American Revolution-- we see it's an attempts to use Christianity for example, to justify the Republican system of government. People were quoting the Bible. The people are using Christianity as the moral edifice. And that combination, that combination would be extremely useful to Muslim society today, trying to combine, wrestling with how to create or maintain religious piety, to maintain their own spirituality while at the same time, creating cultures of freedom for everybody including for non-Christians and atheists and people with different political and cultural practices.

BILL MOYERS: But one thing that happened is that the founders substituted natural law for revealed law. The founders did not say God tells us to do this. These laws are self-evident.


BILL MOYERS: And you can't do that in the culture, when it's the Koran, the revelation of God, that is the is the measure. Right?

ANOUAR MAJID: That's true. But if you have the Koran sort of supervising that entire structure, it makes it very difficult for the people who are not of the Islamic faith to live comfortably in those societies and have equal, full equal rights on those societies But it's equally bad for Muslims. Because Muslims are losing the opportunity to engage and to converse. Conversation, by the way, was a critical element in the philosophy of the enlightenment. Adam Smith and Condorcet and others thought of conversation as that which keeps enlightenment alive. If conversations vanish from any society, meaningful conversations where you're talking with people that are very different from-- radically different from you, then you end up with a series of monologues.

BILL MOYERS: But there's another conundrum in what you write and say, which is that in the early days of the American republic, there was almost a bipartisan agreement among our founding fathers, that Islam was a despotic religion. And that it was to be resisted. In fact, our first war as a nation, as you know, was with, what you could say were Muslim rogue states, the Barbary states. We had-- our Navy came out of that war with the Barbary corsairs, right?

ANOUAR MAJID: Yeah, yes.

BILL MOYERS: And there was a great animosity toward, and fear of, Islam.

ANOUAR MAJID: And Jefferson was a hawk in that war. He was a strident, an absolute believer that the United States should not negotiate with the Barbary state. But by the same token, it was also Jefferson who created the Religious Act in Virginia prior to the writing of the Constitution. It was Jefferson who was the first one to eliminate - the religious-- quo-- religious--affiliation.

BILL MOYERS: No religious test--

ANOUAR MAJID: No religious test to become-- every other state had it except Virginia. Virginia was the first one to do it. And Jefferson was behind it.

BILL MOYERS: In the world as polarized as it is right now, how do you get Muslims in the theocracies to take this kind of look at the American Revolution that you recommend?

ANOUAR MAJID: What I've noticed is Americans berate themselves all the time for not knowing enough about other cultures. But the truth is, a lot of Muslims do not know nearly enough about American history and culture. Most of their understanding of American culture comes through TV and current events and so on. Very little understanding of the origins of the settlements and the colonial period and how-- you know, and how it became the revolution it became and so on. Almost none.

And the other interesting thing, and it's something I've always believed in, is like, if you're gonna bring foreign students from the Islamic and the Arab world to study in the United States, they should at least take a number of course in American studies. Because most of them tend to be in the sciences, in the hard sciences or engineer, you know, MBA. Very few go into humanities. So, if people had a much fuller understanding of American history and culture, maybe what they see on TV or the commercial-- in the commercial world will be somehow alleviated or attenuated by their understanding of the history, the depths of American history.

BILL MOYERS: Where I come from, heresy is belief or practice contrary to orthodox opinion. What is the orthodoxy ruling the Islamic world today?

ANOUAR MAJID: The Sharia is the cannon law that regulates Islamic behavior. And it's basically the tyranny of the imams -- imams who are highly schooled in very traditional form of Islamic learning. So, what happens is, they they basically influence people thinking about their fate and their spirituality. And that is the kind of orthodoxy that you see. For example I was reading recently a number of reports on-- you know-- morality cops or vice cops in a variety of nations in the Islamic world, watching people behave or how they dress or where they're breaking the fast of Ramadan. It's really — faith ought to be a personal matter. It should not be monitored by the police or by a security apparatus that makes sure people are in line and so on. The relationship between the individual and his or her God ought to be in some ways a private relationship.

BILL MOYERS: But the orthodoxy is that we have God's voice in our ear. We have the last word from God. Right?


BILL MOYERS: And anybody who challenges that is in trouble. I mean, if you look at what happened to Salman Rushdie --


BILL MOYERS: And the, the penalty for asking questions or for challenging the tenets of faith is often death, right?

ANOUAR MAJID: Yeah, and I think - for me, it's like-- when I talk about heresy, I'm, as I said, I don't care too much about settlers and/or religiosity. What I want is to preserve a culture of augmentation and discussion and conversation.

BILL MOYERS: Critical thinking?

ANOUAR MAJID: Critical thinking. Because anything-- if I were to preach secularism and secularism can become tyrannical. Atheism also can become tyrannical -- any system they put in place-- whether it's economic, political or cultural, has a tendency over time to harden into orthodoxy. And if it's not perpetually ventilated by social discourse, by critical thinking, by conversation and so on, systems have a tendency to get self-enclosed over time.

BILL MOYERS: But you also say that America, which is not a religion, it's not a faith, it's a country, suffers some orthodoxy.


BILL MOYERS: And needs heretics?

ANOUAR MAJID: And it needs free thinkers, heretic and dissenters.

BILL MOYERS: What is the orthodoxy?

ANOUAR MAJID: The orthodoxy in my view has in the last, maybe century at least, it's economic orthodoxy, a particular kind of economic thinking that has sort of marginalized other possible ways of understanding community and how people relate to each other, or basically the pursuit of happiness in the broader sense, that Jefferson defined or described in the Declaration of Independence. What does it take to be happy? What does it take to be a happy American? These are questions that have been sort of neglected under the banner of a particular kind of economic orthodoxy.

BILL MOYERS: Cutthroat capitalism-If I may say so, right?


BILL MOYERS: That's the orthodoxy?


BILL MOYERS: You say the capitalist economy also leads to a lot of violence and suffering. It has terrorized many nations and communities with consequences similar to those of theocracy, right?


BILL MOYERS: But are you equating Wall Street with Wahhabism?

ANOUAR MAJID: Well, what is Wahhabism? Wahhabism is a particular religious ideology that is very orthodox and strict in its doctrines. It does not allow for deviation. It does not allow for transgression. Because all deviations are punished. If Wall Street is doing the same thing, one might give it the same definition. Because fundamentalism and orthodoxy are not necessarily all religions. They can be political. They can be economic. They can be cultural. And in fact one could say we all live with a certain amount of fundamentalism and orthodoxy. Because that's what gives us identity. But we have to be sort of mindful and careful with those. That's why I'm say-- that's why we need those conversations.

Heresy is a tool that opens up those spaces. I mean, I hope people understand that I am not using heresy as an attack on any religion or any culture. I'm using it only as a tool, as a device that allows for the opening up of this tradition that would then bring up-- that would allow for all kinds of conversations to take place. And if those conversations take place, society becomes more creative, more productive and, in the end, happier.

BILL MOYERS: But you can't have a conversation with somebody who doesn't think you're human, a conversation with somebody who wants to kill you, somebody who thinks you're subhuman, somebody whose purpose is to manipulate you, right? You can't have a conversation. That's-- I can hear people out there now, saying, "Well you see? Anouar Majid and Moyers are exactly what we're talking about. We gotta take care of the-- we gotta get rid of these secular liberals. Because they're always calling for a conversation in a world that has no place for it." Right?

ANOUAR MAJID: It cannot be. I mean, we lived-- and that's why I also talk about Sam Harris in his book.


ANOUAR MAJID: The End of Faith.

BILL MOYERS: --that recent-- an atheist, by the way.


BILL MOYERS: Who's very opposed to religion.

ANOUAR MAJID: And that's right. And in fact, part of this book is, in a way, a response of Sam Harris. Because Sam Harris is cha-- the book is challenging. He's telling us-- how could we in the 21st century still live by the precept of people who live more than-- 2,000 years ago? I mean, it's a very good question. And it's an embarrassing question. Because, you know, we have tens of thousands of cultural institutions, universities and colleges. We have a body of knowledge that is absolutely astronomical. And yet, when it comes to our identity and our belief system, we rely on the people who didn't have any of the assets we have today. And we have not been able somehow to create new spiritualities, new ways of understanding faith, new way to relate to each other based on our present circumstances and conditions.

BILL MOYERS: In fact, you say in here that both Islam and America are refusing to change with the times.

ANOUAR MAJID: That's right.


ANOUAR MAJID: Well, because in modern society, I think Islam is a broad category. But you see in a lot of societies, Muslim society, people do not have the freedom to have this conversation you and I are having now. It's difficult. Because, you know, people somehow are heavily and emotionally invested in their faith. And so, they're not comfortable listening to contrary opinions, at least not publicly.

BILL MOYERS: You wouldn't be saying these things, would you, if you were living in Saudi Arabia? I mean, you might be thinking them. But could you write them? Could you publish this book in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, in Morocco today?

ANOUAR MAJID: Sure. Morocco I think, you know, you've-- I mean, I quote some Moroccan publications there. I mean, actually I make a point of mentioning some of the books I read, and I mention this book I bought in Moroccan bookstore.

BILL MOYERS: I know. But you also say in here with with a raised eyebrow, you say that the Morocco-- you grew up and-- in Morocco where there are beaches and music where people could talk about God with a glass of wine in their hand.


BILL MOYERS: That Morocco is under assault from Wahhabiism, from radicalism from Saudi Arabia. Even as we speak, right?

ANOUAR MAJID: And that's another effect of globalization. I mean, Al-Jazeera, for example, the satellite channel has had a tremendous impact on Moroccan thinking. Just like CNN and Coca-Cola and other companies that are associated with the west have some influence on global opinion. Al-Jazeera has a different kind of influence. So, there's a clash of-- media influences competing or media outlets competing for, let's say, the Moroccans allegiances. And it's a very interesting phenomenon to watch. That's another example of how globalization is operating and how it's shaping and how it's exacerbating existing conflicts. Or at least tension.

BILL MOYERS: What are the contradictions that need to be addressed in Islam and what are the contradictions that need to be addressed in America?

ANOUAR MAJID: How to maintain the spirit of the American Revolution alive in the United States. How to maintain that spirit alive and make sure you don't let a form of economic tyranny intrude and somehow almost completely undermine, you know, this legacy, which is the best thing that the United States has ever done.

BILL MOYERS: The legacy of?

ANOUAR MAJID: The legacy of the American Revolution. It's America's best gift to human civilization. It's the conception of a state. The conception of a society that came out of the American Revolution. That is miraculous almost.

BILL MOYERS: With its own scriptures.

ANOUAR MAJID: With its own scriptures.

BILL MOYERS: The Declaration of Independence.


BILL MOYERS: Gettysburg Address.


BILL MOYERS: The Constitution, right?

ANOUAR MAJID: Yes. There's always a tension. And a tension is fine between those who want more religion in society and those that want to maintain that kind of artificial, imaginary wall that separate the two camps. But, in any case it's being negotiated. The tension still exists today. But I think that America offers a model. The United States offers a model to religious societies like Iran, like the Islamic world where if they could combine the-- if they could be more mindful of this history, they might find solutions to their own contradictions by studying American history in and the early American history. But, the United States over time, has sort of abandoned a lot of these ideas and principles because of the economic system that governs and dominates the social structure. And I'm not saying that economic-- by the way, the economic system is not necessarily American. It is global. It has no nation. In fact, Americans are victims-- as much victims of it as Mexicans and Canadians and Moroccans and Spaniards.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you come to America from such an interesting culture of your own?

ANOUAR MAJID: I came to study. I came to study New York first. And then I--

BILL MOYERS: When was that?


BILL MOYERS: What was your impression?

ANOUAR MAJID: Fascinated. I mean, New York City. I mean, so, it was amount-- you know, the diversity is what struck me. The diversity. I mean, every national cuisine in the world you can find in New York City. All languages. Almost un-American a sense. In a sense-- I mean, because the perception in other places about New York is not truly American. But-- or it does not represent--

BILL MOYERS: But, I think it is.


BILL MOYERS: It's that ideal you were talking about that's actually playing out in the streets.


BILL MOYERS: All the time.

ANOUAR MAJID: It's a port city like Tangiers. It's a port city. So, it's connected to the outside world through maritime trade and historically and so, port cities are very interesting. That's why if I may venture this crazy hypothesis-- that's why coasts usually tend to be more liberal than the hinterlands or than the-- because they're exposed to outside influences. Tangier is more liberal than Marrakesh and Fez, Morocco. Historically have been.

BILL MOYERS: A subversive heresy comes by osmosis, right?

ANOUAR MAJID: Contact. And, by the way, Morocco if I may add this-- I always mention this as a bit of trivia. The first country to recognize independence of the United States-- you know that probably. The first country to recognize independence of the United States--





BILL MOYERS: I did not know that. I'll be darned. You said elsewhere that Iraq is a symbol of our dangerous orthodoxies. Explain that.

ANOUAR MAJID: In my estimation the intervention has failed primarily because they focused on the political process, on changing the political process but, not encouraging cultural and intellectual freedoms in Iraqi society. For example, the Iraqi Constitution-- the one they are operating under right now proclaims Islam as a state religion. I mean, all politicians have to be Muslim to serve in the Iraqi government. The president has to be Muslim--

BILL MOYERS: This government nurtured by American occupations--

ANOUAR MAJID: Yes. So, that's what struck me is that it almost doesn't surprise me that-- you know that that was not a problem at all for the US authorities in Iraq. Much more important to them was just the process of elections-- establishing the process whereut, what's lacking in the Islamic world is not the political process. What's lacking is a culture of freedom, a culture where people can be very radically different from each other and still coexist nicely-- so, if I may identify one deficit in the Islamic world, is the ability of Muslims to live comfortably with people who are not Muslim.

BILL MOYERS: You are saying that an election is not necessarily the measure of democracy or freedom. That it is the extent to which the society permits, if I may, heresy, dissent?

ANOUAR MAJID: Yes. People who cannot live comfortably with differences always have a tendency to slide into tyranny. That's why we have to maintain robust differences within any-- every society-- any society to continue to prevent those practices from ever taking root. Or at least of becoming dominant in those particular societies. Differences are crucial to the emancipation of the mind. And as Adam Smith and other of his contemporary said-- "To a happy life." I mean, there's nothing better than a conversation.

BILL MOYERS: A CALL FOR HERESY: WHY DISSENT IS VITAL TO ISLAM AND AMERICA. I hope a lot of people read it. Anouar Majid, thank you for joining me on THE JOURNAL.

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