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
MEHDI: There are two answers to that question; [the first]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
And the other reason…
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.
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.
are individuals committing crimes, but the entire population that
subscribes to the same belief system as those individuals is not
Will you speak to the perception that the Qur’an itself and
the teachings of Islam incite this violence?
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.
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.
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
So in addressing these problems, do more moderate Muslims hope for
more education? What do you as a Muslim wish would happen in the
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.
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.
not because Islam says so!
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.
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.
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
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
a while. What is it about that story that you want people to come
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Are you optimistic that these kinds of messages can flower within
our society and this kind of harmony can happen again?
MEHDI: Absolutely. I see it everywhere on the same kind
of small personal scale that the monks endeavored.
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.
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."
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.
I am hopeful.
What do you think is the key to moving forward?
MEHDI: I would say communication. The kind of work that
you at explorefaith.org 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.
I made you of families
Into nations and tribes
So you can know one another.
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
the best among you
[this verse continues]
Is the one who is best in conduct.
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.