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One World One God

According to Aslan, the world, whether it recognizes it yet or
not, is currently witnessing the long-due response to this
disconnect between Sharia — the Islamic law formulated by
generations of clerics after Muhammad’s death — and the teaching of
Muhammad himself: the first Islamic Reformation. On one side of
this clash are the traditionalists — embodied by much of the
Islamic clerical establishment; on the other side are the
modernists — embodied, Reza believes, by most of the world’s
Muslims. At the center of their conflict is the question of whether
the Koran is the literal word of God, and therefore inerrant and
immutable, as the traditional clerics believe. The modernists
believe not only that the Koran is a fluid, evolving document open
to adaptive interpretation, but that the very notion of Islam as a
static religion is an offense against God. Aslan believes — and
argues convincingly — that the clerics are fighting a losing
battle.

No god but God was chosen best book of the year in its category
by the Financial Times, a “favorite book of the year” in the Los
Angeles Times, and shortlisted for the Guardian (U.K.) First Book
Prize. The acclaim is well deserved. Not only is No god but God an
elegantly written primer on Islam, but it is a persuasive
corrective to a number of biased assumptions about Islam that have
become political orthodoxy in the United States. Aslan, who has
studied at Santa Clara University and Harvard, and holds a Master
of Fine Arts from the writers’ workshop at the University of Iowa,
is currently a doctoral candidate at UCSB. Recently I spoke with
Aslan; the following is an edited version of our conversation.

Many Americans who formed their view of Islam during the last
four years tend to view Islam as fundamentally opposed to
Christianity and Judaism; you argue in your book No god but God
that the core message of Islam  is social justice, that Islam is
akin to Judaism and especially Christianity in this sense. The
greatest misconception about Islam in the West is that this is a
foreign and exotic religion, a religion of “the other,” when
nothing could be further from the truth. Islam is part of the same
sacred narrative history that most Americans are familiar with from
reading the Bible. One thing the Prophet Muhammad said repeatedly
to his followers was: “This is not a new message. … This is the
same message that was given to Abraham and to Moses and to all the
prophets. This is the same message that was given to John the
Baptist and to Jesus — their God is your God, their scripture is
your scripture. …” The Shia see God’s divine revelation as
omnipresent — it is everywhere, it is the air that we breathe, and
prophets are people who, because of God’s will, become attuned to
that revelation and they suck it in. And then translate it, and
expel it to a general population. That revelation is
universal — it’s one communication from God, and it’s the same
communication whether it came out of the mouth of Moses or came out
of the mouth of Jesus or the mouth of Muhammad. In the Koran this
concept is referred to as Umm al-Kitab — the Mother of all Books.
The idea is that all of these scriptures are essentially derived
from one single scripture, the mother book that rests in heaven.
It’s a remarkably pluralistic idea about not just the relationship
between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism as these three faiths of
Abraham, but more importantly what revelation means, what scripture
means — and what is humanity’s relationship to God.

You quote the Koran: “To you, your religion; to me, mine.” That
runs counter to the very prevalent conception of Islam as a
religion that seeks to convert nonbelievers by the sword. It’s a
fallacy to talk about Islam as an evangelizing religion. It has
never been an evangelizing mission. More than anything, for the
last 300 years or so, what missionary work there’s been in Islam
has been directed at other Muslims, to Muslims they feel have
perverted Islam. It’s not like Christianity, whose very foundation
is go and preach the message, go convert the masses — never the
driving force of Islam in any way, either historically or
theologically. … This notion of “the religion of the sword” comes
from 7th- and 8th-century papal propaganda. If you were the Pope,
if you were in charge of Christendom, and you saw [the first]
Muslim empire within the span of a century swallow up half of your
land, you would of course describe them as a religion of warriors,
as a religion of the sword. And that propaganda has filtered into
the very foundation of Western civilization’s idea of what Islam
is.

The Bush administration seems to regard Al Qaeda as emanating
directly from the Koran; it sees Al Qaeda as a theological
movement, not a political movement using its interpretation of the
Koran to justify itself. Like all scriptures the Koran is
essentially a neutral document. … Scripture without interpretation
becomes just words on a page, [so] it’s only natural that people
are going to read the Koran through the lens of their own
political, social, and cultural biases. I remind people all the
time that 150 years ago, American slave owners and abolitionists
not only used the same Bible to justify their arguments, they
quoted the same verses to justify their arguments. That’s why
scripture is so powerful, that is why the Gospels and the Torah and
the Koran have lasted thousands of years, because they are
eminently malleable, they are able to be conformed to a whole host
of ideologies, whether they are political or social or whatever,
and whether they are accepted by someone who lives in a desiccated
African tribe in the middle of the Sahara, or by someone who lives
in a mansion in Montecito. If they were not malleable, they would
have ceased to exist.

This concept is known as abrogation in Islam, the idea that
later verses abrogate earlier verses. … I think the really
important thing to understand about this idea of abrogation is that
it indicates the Koran is a living, breathing, evolving text.
[Muhammad’s message] was revealed in the span of 22 years and it
was in a constant state of evolution during those 22 years. …
[Fundamentalists] believe that with Muhammad’s death the revelation
ceased and that was the end of it. What we have is set in stone.
This is how fundamentalists see the scripture — forever,
unchanging. Just like there are fundamentalist Christians who
believe that about the Bible, there are fundamentalist Muslims who
believe that about the Koran. I think this is grossly offensive in
all religious traditions, because what they are saying is that
somehow God is static, that the community of faith is unchanging,
that somehow the three or four thousand Muslims whom Muhammad left
behind when he died in the 7th century are equivalent to the 1.2
billion Muslims living now — what was good for them 14 centuries
ago is good for us today.

You write that what we’re currently seeing in the Muslim world
is an Islamic Reformation. Where is this Reformation coming
from?
It’s important to remember there are no priests in Islam, there is
no such thing as divine ordination. One’s authority in Islam comes
solely from scholarship, from knowledge. It’s very much like
Judaism — rabbis are scholars, not divinely ordained priests.
Clerics in Islam have achieved their level of authority based on
their education. … It’s the scholars who define Islam, so [Osama]
bin Laden is unqualified. And he has absolutely no authority to
issue a fatwa. Only an Islamic scholar can issue a fatwa. Bin Laden
knows this. He doesn’t have the authority to issue these
declarations — only a cleric has the authority to do this. His
followers know this.

And in that knowledge there is something really fascinating
going on. As in the Christian Reformation, the question becomes:
Who has the authority to define faith — the institution or the
individual? Osama bin Laden is saying it should be the individual,
so he is similar in a sense to the reformation radicals of
16th-century Germany, who took that sense of individualism in
religions to terrifying extremes, leading to revolutions and
uprisings in opposition to the institutional authority of the
Church. Again, Islam doesn’t have a church, but it does have
institutions that reflect this kind of authority. So in a strange
way, what he and I and are doing are the same, but from different
points of view. I am also saying that the clerical institutions
don’t have the authority to define what Islam is for anyone else.
But of course whenever you have a situation in which that kind of
authority passes from institutions to individuals, you are going to
have individuals who are going to define their religion based on
their social agendas and political ideologies, whatever they are.
That’s precisely what’s happening know — it’s at the core of this
conflict in Islam.

Moving to the notion of an Islamic democracy, most people in the
West have a certain conception of democracy as fundamentally rooted
in secularism, or at least the separation of church and state. So
the idea of a religious democracy  would be anathema. Right — the
notion that a democratic state must be founded on secularism. But
this is not the case. Israel is a democracy, and it is
unapologetically founded upon a Jewish moral framework. England has
a national church whose bishops serve in the upper house of
Parliament; their monarch, Queen Elizabeth, is the head of the
church. And then of course there is the United States, which in
some circles prides itself on being founded on secularism. There’s
no such thing! This is not a country founded upon secularism — read
our founding documents. This country is founded upon pluralism. And
what was called pluralism in 1776 was Protestant pluralism … it
certainly didn’t include Catholics, and it most certainly didn’t
include Jews or Muslims. Two hundred and fifty years later,
Americans are still debating the role of religion in the state …
we’re still arguing whether the Ten Commandments should be posted
in a federal courthouse; after 250 years, we have Tom DeLay, the
former Speaker of the House, standing on the floor of Congress and
calling down the wrath of God — literally calling down the wrath of
God — on federal judges he disagrees with. For 250 years we’ve been
working on this. Maybe we ought to give Iraq a day before we start
saying, “Oh goodness. It’s a theocracy.”

In talking about an Islamic democracy, all one is referring to
is a democratic state founded upon the principles that define a
democracy — constitutionalism, rule of law, popular sovereignty,
human rights, pluralism, government accountability — but one that
is founded upon an Islamic moral framework. One in which the mores
and the values of the population itself helps define the mores and
values of the state. And if the population is 96 percent Muslim, as
Iraq is, guess what? Those are the values that are going to define
the state. … As long as the requirements of a democracy are
met — pluralism, both religious and social, human rights, popular
sovereignty, the rule of law — as long as those requirements are
met, who cares what the moral framework is? It’s irrelevant.

Can you give me an example of an everyday manifestation of
Islamic morality in an Islamic democracy? I just say it right away:
One of the hardest issues would be things that are just absolutely
forbidden in the Koran, like drinking or gambling. Those are things
that the Koran is pretty black-and-white about. So quite likely, in
an Islamic democracy these are things that would be legally
prohibited or at the very least severely frowned upon. We in
America could say, “That’s not a free democracy. If you’re not
allowed to drink and gamble, that’s not a free democracy.”

That is not how the Arab world considers society. This is a
world that is steeped in the tribalism in which it was originally
founded. And that sense of community over individual is still very
much a part of the consciousness of the Arab world. And it is quite
likely that any kind of democratic government that comes out of
that society is going to be deeply influenced by this notion that
there will be instances in which the interests of the community
will trump the interests of the individual. Again, we can look at
that and say, well, that’s not right, or that’s not good, or that’s
not admirable. But you know what? Our opinion is utterly irrelevant
about what kind of society they should have. It makes no difference
at all.

The other thing too is that a democracy is an experiment, and it
is essentially defined by the values of the people themselves, and
as those values change, so will the democracy. In the United
States, around 200 of our 250 years, blacks were not considered
equal citizens, they could not vote. Women were not considered
equal citizens, they could not vote. Those were the values that
Americans had, and as those values changed, our democracy changed.
I think that’s exactly what would happen in an Islamic democracy. I
think that realistically speaking, if you look at a country like
Iraq, yeah I think the first experiment with democracy will be much
more religious than we would like it to be, than I think it should
be. I think that’s natural. It’s going to be a response to decades
upon decades of religious persecution. But the key is: How will
that democracy evolve?

How should we view this Islamic reformation in the context of
Iraq? If modernization is underway, how will it reconcile the
different faiths within Islam? In Iraq we are seeing, or are about
to see, a civil war between the Sunni and the Shia, who the Sunni
view as apostates. The Sunni-Shia conflict taking place in Iraq is
less an issue of religion than one of politics. The Sunnis feel
they are now the persecuted minority and that idea is frightening
enough that they have lashed out against the Shia majority. Also
there are outside influences in Iraq — the members of Al
Qaeda — these fanatics and extremists who have a theological beef
with the Shia and with all Muslims who don’t agree with their
puritanical viewpoints. They are deliberately trying to create a
civil war, a religious civil war, between these two sects. And
they’re being quite successful in doing so, there’s no question
about that.

In order to speak so optimist-ically of Iraq, I separate the
issues. … There is the insurgency, the lack of security … the
reconstruction has been going incredibly poorly for a number of
reasons — there have been ridiculously executed plans in that
country by this [Bush] administration. But on the other side of it
is the actual political and civil order that the Iraqis themselves
are trying to create — an indigenous Islamic democratic society.
Quite frankly, they have done a marvelous job of doing that. I
think sometimes it’s hard to see that because it’s hard to see past
the issue of security, which is abominable. And really the
political experiment doesn’t have a chance in hell of getting off
the ground if the issue of security isn’t taken care of. But if
this experiment is given a chance to come to fruition, if given a
chance to become a modern, sophisticated experiment in democracy,
then yeah, ironically despite the Bush administration, and despite
the neoconservative agenda, it really could become the shining
example of an Arab democracy.

How should we view reports that much of southern Iraq is now
ruled by fundamentalists, that not only have religious minorities
been marginalized, but women are being forced to wear the veil?
Southern Iraq is unquestionably a very conservative region,
dominated by conservative Shia. They have very traditionalist
values, and a very conservative conception of religion and of the
role of women in society. And there have already been a number of
reports of violations of human rights of minorities and certainly
of women’s rights. And these are obviously in violation of the
constitution, and what we need to do is make sure that the
principles embedded in the constitution — freedom of religion,
freedom of conscience, and the equality of men and women under the
law — are observed regardless of where an Iraqi lives. But we also
need to understand that like the United States, Iraq has certain
geographical circles that have different values, different ways of
dealing with social issues. We need to allow Iraqis themselves to
decide what kind of society they want to live in, and as long as
those values do not violate the principles of the constitution,
then I think we’ll do okay. But we also need to understand that
this will be an evolutionary process, and that it will take a long
time for Iraq to become the modern, democratic state that people
are hoping for it to become. It is good to know, for instance, that
in Iraq’s Parliament — the first parliament in Iraq’s
history — there are more women than there are women in both houses
of U.S. Congress combined.

How does all of this dovetail with Iran? We’re hearing that the
leaders of the Shia majority in Iraq are in close contact with the
Shia leaders of Iran, and that what’s going to result is a
theocratic Islamic state modeled after Iran, not a democracy.
Bullshit. For two reasons. One, the only thing the Iraqi Shia have
in common with Iran is that they are Shia. And they don’t even
follow the same kind of Shi’ism. The Khomenist idea in Iran is not
a very popular idea in Iraq, primarily because they can look at the
country next door and see what a horrific failure it has been in
every sense of the term. No Iraqi wants to become another Iranian.
Quite the opposite. Even SCIRI, the Supreme Council of Islamic
Revolution in Iraq, has over and over again made it clear, publicly
so, that this is not what they want for Iraq.

That aside, is Iran exerting an enormous amount of influence in
Iraq? Of course! I find it amazing that anyone in this
administration is surprised by that fact. I mean, never mind the
fact that Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, all these countries
are exerting influence in Iraq much the same way that the United
States is. Of course they’re trying to exert influence — they want
an Iraq that is friendly to their economies and their political
systems. But as for Iran, there is a difference between exerting
influence in Iraq and creating a new Iran. I don’t think there’s
any real evidence of that happening at all. There is very little
taste for clerical rule in Iraq. The Grand Ayatollahs in Iraq have
no interest in that kind of Islamic theocracy that Iran has. The
only cleric that seriously pursues that kind of agenda is Moqtada
al-Sadr, and Moqtada al-Sadr is the lowest of mid-level clerics. He
has no senior influence whatsoever. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t
have any influence, he certainly does. But [this notion about Iran]
is a paranoid fantasy.

What policy changes should the U.S. make toward Iraq? The only
role the U.S. has in Iraq is to create enough stability for the
Iraqis to put this political experiment into action. Allow it to
actually have an opportunity to really take hold in that country.
Thus far, we haven’t done a very good job of that. Probably the
simplest thing that would make the largest impact on the security
situation in Iraq is bringing Iraq’s neighbors to the negotiating
table — bring Syria and Iran to the table. And recognize that while
we all may have different interests in Iraq, and we may all have
different ideas of what we want to see in the region, we all have
one thing in common: It’s terrible for all of us if Iraq tumbles
into chaos and disorder. In fact it’s much worse for Syria and Iran
than it is for the U.S., and that’s precisely why they have been
fiddling with Iraqi affairs. They want to make sure that their
interests are taken care of, and that they have some stake in the
future of Iraq. If we can give them that opportunity, we can enlist
their help in closing the borders [of Iraq] and making sure that we
don’t have any more foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq. Once that
is done, we can deal with insurgency in Iraq in a political way.
But there is no dealing with the jihadists, the foreign insurgents,
in a political way. … There’s only a military solution to that.

After the London bombings, Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York
Times, “Muslims need to wake up to the fact that they have a
jihadist death cult in their midst.” As you talk about the clash
between Muslim modernists and Muslim fundamentalists, you must come
up a lot against the question: Where are the modernists? Thomas
Friedman has no excuse for the ignorance that he shows repeatedly
in stating that there have been no condemnations of bin Laden at
all. Just do a Google search: Type in “Fatwa against bin Laden,”
and you will see hundreds upon hundreds of fatwas written against
bin Laden from the Muslim Affairs Council, the Fiqh Council of
North America, the British Muslim Council, the Grand Ayatollah of
Germany, the Grand Ayatollah of Iraq, the Grand Mufti of Russia,
the Islamic Society of North America; I mean the list goes on, and
on, and on. The institutions that have the right to issues fatwas
have all issued fatwas denouncing bin Laden, denouncing September
11. Most recently, in Amman, Jordan in July, 170 of the world’s
leading Muslim scholars came together from every school and sect in
Islam — this was a gathering the likes of which had never occurred
in Islamic history — to issue one final declaration that said that
violence and extremism in the name of Islam is not only forbidden,
but any kind of spiritual support — not physical, but any kind of
emotional or mental support — for terrorism or extremism is a sin
against Islam. But we don’t here about these things….It was in all
the Arab newspapers, but it was in none of the Western
newspapers….I get asked this question every single place I go.
Where is the voice of Muslim condemnation? Open your ears. It’s
everywhere.

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