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Anisa Mehdi

on terrorism, politics and the chance for peace

Anisa MehdiEXPLOREFAITH: Faced with recurring reports of terrorist attacks and images of Muslims inciting violence against the West, many non-Muslims perceive Islam as a religion of violence and aggression. What do non-Muslims need to understand when they hear about Muslim terrorists and clerics calling for war?

ANISA MEHDI: There are two answers to that question; [the first] is -
it’s politics. What people are angry about is what human beings have been angry about forever. Political inequity, economic inequity, dictators who are keeping all the money for the upper classes and leaving their nations impoverished. The aggression of a more-powerful nation upon a less-powerful nation. It’s all politics. It really has nothing to do with religion.

It’s so interesting, because, as Americans, we consider ourselves victims, but we are considered aggressors by the people who we are victimizing. We look at it as self-defense, and they’re looking at it, to some degree, as self-defense.

I don’t agree with, and Islam does not condone, the tactics of using or perpetrating war crimes on civilians. That’s not permitted in Islam. You cannot take innocent life. But if we look at the history of war, innocent life has been taken for centuries. Look at the Crusades. When the Crusaders reached Jerusalem, they went in and killed every Christian, Muslim, and Jew who was living in the city.

We all wonder, when are we gonna learn. We’re not gonna learn. We are human, and so the ugly things humans do, unfortunately, perpetuate in time eternally…they seem to just keep going on. But, it’s political questions that are inciting people to violence. It is not religion. They may claim it’s religion, but if you really deconstruct the arguments, you’ll see that it’s politics. And religion may be used to rally the troops.

I hate to use such an ancient example, but it was [the same motivations] in the Crusades as well. There was a whole lot of economic gain to be had in controlling the crossroads to Asia. You could say, "We’ve got to get the infidels out of Jerusalem," but if you really deconstruct what was going on there, it was not about religion. There might have been some people for whom it was about religion, but principally these are questions of power and money.

EXPLOREFAITH: And the other reason…

ANISA MEHDI: The other part is this: What we often see in our country is that people tend to generalize or extrapolate. If one Muslim did something wrong, then they’ve all done it wrong. They’ve all been bad. It’s a human way to look at things; it’s the same as, if one African-American did something bad, then all our African-American brothers and sisters are bad. It’s prejudice; it’s bigotry.

God has given many opportunities since September 11th for me to use analogy in this regard. For example, the scandal within the Catholic Church about some priests involved in pedophilia. Now none of us would extrapolate to the entire priesthood that they are all pedophiles. That’s ridiculous. You wouldn’t extrapolate that all Catholic men are now pedophiles just because a few priests have been accused, and some found guilty, of these crimes.

There are individuals committing crimes, but the entire population that subscribes to the same belief system as those individuals is not therefore guilty.

EXPLOREFAITH: Will you speak to the perception that the Qur’an itself and the teachings of Islam incite this violence?

ANISA MEHDI: You can justify all kinds of things by taking religious stories and religious text out of their proper context. We’ve had many, many instances in the Bible. I’m going to use analogy again: It’s okay to beat your wife. Spare the rod, spoil the child. You can even justify slavery. It has been done in the American past. And the same applies with the Qur’an.

We still take the Bible out of context, and we, as a society, know far less about the Qur’an than we do about the Bible.

The Saudis who were on those planes on September 11th, or some of these schools we hear about, the Madrassas in Pakistan, these are situations where people grow up inside a culture. They don’t study their religions. They just know they are Muslim because that’s how they were raised. So there’s less of an opportunity, often in terms of education, for them to really know what their religion says.

EXPLOREFAITH: So in addressing these problems, do more moderate Muslims hope for more education? What do you as a Muslim wish would happen in the Islamic world?

ANISA MEHDI: Let me preface that with what I see happening in America, because this is where American Muslims can actually make a difference and are, at last, rallying the troops to stand up and say, "This does not represent us." There have been public condemnations of terrorism. [CAIR, the Council on American-Islamic Relations] hosted a a candlelight vigil on September 9 at the Capitol, aimed at stopping the violence in the name of Islam.

We’re finally getting some louder voices here. I’m one of the voices, but I’m not the only voice, I’m very happy to say. What needs to happen in the developing world (and I can include South America and the countries with mostly Muslim populations) is certainly a move toward better education, more economic opportunity for people, better rights for women. You know, it’s half of a population that’s not being allowed to contribute to society in many countries that are now Muslim-majority countries.

That’s not because Islam says so! But because the pre-existing cultures of those areas had those kinds of tribal systems in place, which then became codified. They find ways to say, “This is what Islam says,” because you can take things out of context. There are certainly all kinds of inequities there - political inequities because of military dictatorships, economic inequities, particularly with regard to opportunities for women and the lack of education. We could have a whole graduate course on that subject very easily.

EXPLOREFAITH: What about the Muslim populations in countries such as England, where there is more equity, there are more rights, but they are separating themselves and then perpetrating acts of violence against the society.

ANISA MEHDI: I read an extremely interesting article about that in the New York Times ...the writer is someone I have a great deal of confidence in. He was up in Leeds reporting among the population there, and found poverty, drug abuse, dysfunctional families, inter-generational conflict, dissatisfied youth, parents who had immigrated.

His reporting indicated that these were the issues that raised the level of malcontent among these young people more than religion. But where do they turn for some kind of solace, some kind of guidance, some kind of way to take vengeance on their own abysmal conditions? They’ve turned to religion, and an uninformed version of this particular religion.

EXPLOREFAITH: You have a documentary in the works about some Christian monks who lived in peaceful co-existence with Muslims in Algeria. Ultimately these monks died violent deaths, but they lived in harmony with their neighbors there for a while. What is it about that story that you want people to come away with?

ANISA MEHDI: There are three things I’d like people to take from this story. One is just that it’s a very interesting narrative. It’s a good story. But more important is the ease with which Muslims and Christians - in this story at least - can get along and flourish together.

That’s important for me on a personal level because I’m the product of Muslim/Christian love. And it was very heartening to me to see that kind of thing on a platonic level and on a community-wide level in Algeria. What they found there was how much they had in common in terms of the principles that their prophets had taught them…what God wanted from them.

[They found a] commonality of purpose: give charity; attend to the poor, the sick and the imprisoned; respect one another; love your neighbor; respect your parents. All those kinds of things…wow, we share all of it! You may pray differently than I do. Let’s see how you pray….Well that’s interesting. We chant, too. You know, the monks chant and there’s recitation of the Qur’an.

They found similarities in worship, but the most important [similarities] were in the principles. So the ease with which Muslims and Christians can flower together is very important.

Another important element is that violence in the name of Islam is unacceptable. It isn’t exactly certain who attacked and murdered these monks. The setting in which they were murdered was the Algerian civil war, where people were using Islam as an excuse, as their flag and their rallying cry to overturn a government.

EXPLOREFAITH: Are you optimistic that these kinds of messages can flower within our society and this kind of harmony can happen again?

ANISA MEHDI: Absolutely. I see it everywhere on the same kind of small personal scale that the monks endeavored.

I get to speak to people frequently in the New York metropolitan area where I live, and occasionally around the country, and people really want things to work out. We all really want peace and harmony. Most of us. There will be those who are instigators. But most of us really want things to work out.

I have found tremendous good will in the audiences with whom I’ve spoken. Even those who ask really provocative and even nasty questions. Once we’ve engaged, there’s a disarming that goes on, particularly in the Q&A sessions after a presentation. It’s like, "Oh yeah. I can get that."

There’s a real hunger in this country for knowledge among many, many people. Now there may be many, many more who are not hungry for knowledge. I’m lucky enough to meet those who have that hunger, and I can sometimes give them some food, metaphorically speaking.

But I am hopeful.

EXPLOREFAITH: What do you think is the key to moving forward?

ANISA MEHDI: I would say communication. The kind of work that you at and other internet organizations are involved in. It’s communicating with one another. And in fact that brings me to my favorite verse in the Qur’an. It says:

O humankind
I made you of families
Into nations and tribes
So you can know one another.

So you can communicate together. God didn’t make us all the same. God made us different. God could have made us all the same. God could do anything! God made us different…Why? So we could know and grow and learn from one another.

But the best among you
[this verse continues]
Is the one who is best in conduct.

Not the best Muslim! This does not say the best Muslim. The best human being is he or she who behaves the best.

I just keep holding that one in front of me, and then it’s just…well, we’ll see what happens.