Arguing for a good deal of pluralism
Islam, terrorism and the West
January 10, 2003
Interview with Ali Akbar Mahdi,
professor at the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Ohio Wesleyan University.
Published in The Civic Arts Review, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer-Fall 2002.
When did you come to America?
In 1976. I had planned to go back after my graduate work and teach. But in 1979 Iran
went through a revolution that changed all Iranians' life plan. Though opposed to
the Shah and supportive of the revolution, soon I found myself critical of current
regime's approach to human rights, political opposition, and women. That ended my
plans to go back to Iran.
Have you gone back?
Twice, in 1995 and 1997.
As we talk student protests are making some headway in Iran.
Students are often in the vanguard of liberation movements. This protest
is particularly significant in Iran because its objectives go beyond educational
concerns. It represents a protest against the political policies of the regime.
There was recently a report about a professor of Islamic jurisprudence at UCLA
being attacked by the Muslim community in this country. Are you familiar with
That's the case of Kaled Abou El Fadl. I would have to say that when someone's
activism harms the interests of militant Muslims it could happen. Moreover, El Fadl
went out of his way to be provocative with op-ed pieces he wrote. I do not know El
Fadl personally but it is hard for me to believe that the issue is simply philosophical.
There is a political motif in activists' repudiation. And this is not the first time
Islamists have acted this way. Salman Rushdi still has to live an underground life.
Could that happen to you?
I hope not. I do not see any reason for it. I define myself as a critical sociologist.
As a secularist, I respect all religions. However, this does not mean that I am not
critical of religious establishments and their policies. I have been critical of
religious views as I have been critical of other things. From a sociological perspective,
religious beliefs of people are not in dispute. However, religious impact on public
policy and instrumental use of religion for political goals are legitimate subjects
for critical examination by social scientists.
And terrorism is an example of religion becoming a public issue.
If religion is employed to justify violence, yes it is. I denounce any kind of
terrorist act under any circumstances, whether by individual, group, or the state.
We should not forget that states also engage in terrorizing people and communities.
Are you a Muslim?
I was born in a Muslim family and was highly active in the religious club during
my high school years. I have been divorced from that kind of devotion since my college
Would you say that terrorism is atypical of Islam?
I don't think the issue is peculiar to Islam. When you study communities that
are oppressed or feel victimized, you will inevitably find the instrumental use of
religion to justify violence in one form or another. This can be found in communities
of all faiths. It is not limited to Islamic communities.
Benazir Bhutto has recently said that Islam is committed to tolerance, equality
the principles of democracy. Is that true?
There is a tradition is Islam and enough verses in the Koran to support that
claim. But then there are in Islam texts and contexts that point in the opposite
direction. I view religious texts through an Iranian analogy. In Iran, many stores
have more than one front. What goods you see from one front are not what you see
from another front. I think of religions, including Islam, as multi-fronted stores.
For example, there is a very explicit text in the Koran that says: Kill your enemy.
A literalist would say that applies in all circumstances. But there is a liberal
tradition that believes that the Koran is to be interpreted in concrete circumstances,
thus compatible with democracy. Unfortunately, Muslims' historical record on democracy
does not contain too many pages. Liberal Muslims have to work harder to offer a convincing
case for feasibility of their views. I feel that they do not have much more time.
They repeated those liberal experiments several times, but in all instances, the
outcome has been autocracy, theocracy, and dictatorship.
Where are the liberal voices in Islam today?
They are out there and, unfortunately, invisible to American public.
We don't seem to hear them.
That is partly because the media in the West has not done a good job of identifying
them. Moreover, it is the nature of liberalism to be moderate, rational, open, and
anti-violent. The extremist and sensational rhetoric of the radical conservatives
Between liberals and non-liberals pushing for change, the latter often win precisely
because they use illiberal means and do not mind to spill some blood for their cause.
The liberal voices in Islam are found among the millions of ordinary Muslims who
live their lives, who have no quarrel with anybody and disdain the attention getting
tactics of radical conservatives.
What role do the Muslim intellectuals play?
A strong role, although they may not be heard in the midst of sensational wars
of image, words, and the spectacles. You mentioned El Fadl in the United State earlier.
We also have Akbar Ahmed of American University, Muhammad Arkoun in France, Ali Mazrui
of Kenya, Ulil Abshar Abdalla in Indonesia, Asghar Ali and Shabana Azmi in India,
Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari and Abdolkarim Soroush in Iran, Rachid Ghannouchi in
Tunisia, Mahathir Mohamad and Chandra Muzaffar in Malaysia, Farid Esack in South
Africa, Abdullahi An-Na`im in Sudan, Muhammad Shahrour in Syria.
The list goes on. All these individuals are considered Muslim intellectuals who oppose
the Islamists' views and actions. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that though
these intellectuals oppose militants' views and tactics, they do not necessarily
approve of Western policies in the Muslim world either.
We are told that Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia are financing mosques all over the
world. Is there a party line that goes with the financing?
Let me say two things. First, the power of the Wahhabis is greatly exaggerated
after 9/11. Since that tragedy, there is a tendency in the West to associate everything
bad about Islam with them. That is not true. Secondly, the financing has always been
there. Like any religion, Islam seeks to get the message across through all means.
As I observed in Africa this past summer, there is a great competition between different
religions, as well as different sects within the same religion, to win hearts and
minds of people. Each wants to attract followers to its brand of Islam or Christianity.
I wouldn't want to say the Wahhabis are the largest or most influential of these
Does Saudi Arabia provide most of the funding?
It has contributed a lot. But I doubt they have been successful in attracting
too many converts. There aren't, for example, many Wahhabis in the United States.
They are most successful among the least educated populations in poor countries like
Yemen. It also should be noted that different groups use Saudi money to do their
own thing like the Chechens.
Ironically most of the Saudi money is probably American money.
In a sense it is true. And before September 11, the United States was comfortable
with that arrangement. Bin Laden was after all an American recruit against the Soviets.
The same money also finances Middle Eastern Studies programs in leading American
Universities. Doesn't that tend to muzzle critical voices?
All countries do that, including the United States which sponsors a university
in Yemen. I don't buy the view that such funding is part of an Islamic conspiracy.
Each case is different and there are many reasons for such funding. Many US universities
have rushed to oil producing countries to ask for money in return for endowed chairs,
programs, and scholarships.
It's at least a form of propaganda.
I agree with that. Nevertheless, propaganda is a legitimate expression of opinion,
perhaps no more than a form of cultural exchange.
You seem to be arguing for a good deal of pluralism in the Islamic world.
I am. Unfortunately, since September 11, a completely new industry of media consultants
has grown up and they tend to feed American hysteria by presenting a sensationalist
picture of Islam. In the end, they are damaging relations between Islam and the West.
They have created an atmosphere of total distrust in which Islam, all of a sudden,
looks like a monster.
Who are these people?
They are mostly paid consultants and apologists for the Bush administration.
Some are affiliated with conservative think tanks and some are part of the Israeli
Do you think there is a new McCarthyism afoot?
I do, though it does not operate the way it did in the past. In my view, we are
reacting to events in a somewhat obsessive fashion. We are now so linearly fixated
on the war against terrorism that we don't see other aspects of the problem.
Do you think Americans over reacted to September 11?
Yes, with the qualification that our overreaction to the tragedy is both justifiable
and natural but to Islam and Muslims is highly unconstructive.
Would you say that Osama bin Laden is a minority voice in Islam?
Definitely. But of course he speaks to the pain and grievances of large numbers.
He manipulates these emotions for his own political gain and most Muslims know that.
Can he muster the political and economic support to prevail?
No he cannot.
Do you think there are terrorist cells in this country?
You can't rule out the possibility. But I can't imagine they have the kind of
base that would enable them to inflict great harm again. I also have more trust in
law enforcement agencies in the US.
Could the mosques be sheltering such cells?
Given the policies of the present administration that would be very difficult.
We have to bear in mind that most these mosques are frequented by American Muslim
citizens. I can't believe that they would be en masse involved in or tolerant of
Does the Palestinian-Israeli problem have to be solved before we solve the
That's a very big part of it. Any analyst who underestimates this issue is not
serving the interests of the United States. And I say that as an American citizen.
The US should remain more neutral to the issue than it currently is. It is very hard
to imagine the US gaining any credibility in the Muslim world with its unconditional
support for Israel.
What is the solution?
It is the two-state solution proposed by the United Nations. But Israel, particularly
its conservative elements, does not want a Palestinian state. Ironically, when the
idea was proposed half-a-century ago, Israel accepted it but the Arabs rejected it.
Bush seems to support that idea.
He told the United Nations he did. But he has done nothing since then to prove
he meant it.
say the modernizing movement in Muslim countries will be lead by the feminists. What
do you think about that?
Women are making tremendous progress in the Middle East. However, I have to say
this prospect is exaggerated. When Donald Rumsfeld said women would topple the regime
in Iran, he was being very naive. No specific group has ever toppled any regime in
that part of the world. Women have been an important bastion of resistance to the
Islamic Republic but at the same time, they have been most victimized by the regime.
In your article you seem to suggest that globalization will be a good part
of the solution to the terrorist problem.
Only if human rights, cultural exchanges, and social justice are also globalized.
Commerce by itself won't do it. Capitalism has its own negative sides.
Does this article have spelling or other mistakes? Tell
me to fix it.