This is point of inquiry for Tuesday, May 20th, 2014.
I’m Josh Zepps, host of Harpo’s Live, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. We’ve heard a lot in recent weeks about Boko Haram, the Nigerian Islamist terrorist group that kidnaped over 200 young girls. Whenever an event erupts like this, it poses a bit of a problem for progressive, secular, multicultural liberals who don’t necessarily want to offend Muslims by highlighting the fact that the terrorists are Muslim. But does such squeamishness ultimately undermine liberal values? Our guest this week says yes. Farzana Hassan is a Pakistani Canadian political scientist, a Muslim woman and a columnist for The Toronto Sun. She’s written two books on religion, most recently Prophecy and the Fundamentalist Quest, an integrative study of Christian and Muslim apocalyptic religion. And she joins us to discuss Islam, Islamism, terrorism and liberalism. Thanks for being with us.
Thank you very much for having me on, Josh.
So, you know, we hear right wing Christian fascists banging on a lot about the problem of Islam in a bigoted way. But is the secular progressive left sufficiently honest about the problem of Muslim extremists extremism?
Oh, I don’t think so at all. I think that in principle, there is a lack of understanding of what’s going on in the Islamic world and Islam’s interaction with the West. You know, there is this desire to project tolerance. And you know that over time we’re just tolerant about just about everything and whether it’s the burqa, the hijab, or are, you know, even jihadist ideologies. So I don’t think that the liberal left understands exactly what is going on in the Islamic world and Islamic communities or I should say Islamist communities living in the West.
What exactly is going on?
Well, I think that Islamists are, you know, ubiquitous. I think that they are here in the West. They are promoting their agenda through the media. They’re promoting their agenda through books that they’re you know, that they’re doing so through interfaith dialog. And I think that the ultimate agenda, of course, is to spread Islam, to establish Islam everywhere. And that has always been the case with the Islamic supremacist. I think that if you go back and study Islamic history, the precedent is there. And and, you know, the Muslims are Orthodox Muslims believe that that, in fact, is true Islam, that it has to be established. It has to be disseminated, whether it’s by force or persuasion.
And I think that that is what is happening.
There are over a billion Muslims in the world, of course. The vast, vast, vast, vast, vast majority of whom are peace loving people who don’t necessarily support any religious violence. Do you understand the I guess, the squeamishness, the antipathy among people who want to seem progressive and who want to win over the hearts and minds of the good Muslims in feeling that it’s their place to address the problems within Islam?
Well, I think that people are extremely squeamish about this. I think that any criticism of Islam, you know, is labeled Islamophobia. I think that criticism of Islam or Islamism or Islamic culture or Islamic belief and practice anything at all that is remotely linked to Islam. And if you happen to criticize it, I think that all of that is labeled as Islam, Islamophobia, and that’s where the censorship comes in. And, you know, I also believe that a lot of people are just, you know, afraid of being labeled racist or Islamophobic. And so we have a problem and we’ve seen examples of that. For example, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, you know, who’s a very fierce critic of Islam and of course, she’s a professed atheist, but I believe she’s converted to Christianity. Now, I’m not sure about that, but any really, I hadn’t heard that.
But maybe it would be somewhat ironic since she was such an outspoken activist. Certainly is.
Yes, she has been for some time. So, you know, she was recently denied an honor at Brandeis University. And that’s not the only example that we see. I mean, anyone who offers even valid criticism, for example, in criticizing jihad is valid. In my opinion, criticizing polygamy is valid. Criticizing, you know, the marginalization of Muslim women or the segregation of Muslim women is extremely valid. But if you happen to do that, you know, you are immediately labeled racist. You immediately labor Islamophobic, whether you’re a Muslim doing it or a non-Muslim doing it, you know, you’re immediately told that, well, you probably don’t understand anything. Islam, and you don’t know why polygamy is there and you don’t know why. You know, there are these provisions and you’re either speaking out of ignorance or you have sinister motives. So it’s it’s just it’s it’s just a very, very unfortunate situation. It’s it’s a black hole as far as I’m concerned.
I mean, on the one hand, what you say is true, which is that sometimes you’ll hear pushback along the lines of you don’t understand Islam, you understand why these provisions exist, you understand why polygamy exists or why we have the attitude towards women that we have. The other problem that I’d run into is often a complete denial of the claims that one is making, even if they seem to be prima facie pretty obvious. In other words, there’ll be the claim that, no, you just don’t understand Islam. Islam respects women and treats women very well at all Islamic societies or jihad. This has nothing to do with jihad because jihad is only a peaceful struggle for purity or some kind of mental in a in a state. Do you? How do you respond when there are claims that are made about the way that Islam is put into practice? That just seems to flagrantly contradict the way that it sometimes is put into practice.
Well, as far as I’m concerned, all of that falls within, you know, the apologetics about Islam as far as jihad is concerned. You know, there are verses in the Koran and which which exhort Muslims to go out and fight infidels to subjugate them. All of these verses are there, whether you call it jihad or whether you call it guitar, which is the term used in the Koran for warfare. The fact of the matter is that there are constrictions there that that say to Islam that you are supposed to go out and fight in the name of Allah now. Now, you know, Muslims can say that jihad is an inner struggle or it’s a peaceful struggle. And, yes, there. There is one meaning of jihad that that, you know, that provides evidence for that sort of a claim. But the point is that as long as there are there is also there’s other definitions as well, which which is actually accepted by generality.
It’s something that most Muslims subscribe to, at least in theory. They don’t actually go out and, you know, engage in jihad themselves, but they do believe that it has a tenet of Islam. And I don’t see how denying that is going to help.
What tell us about your childhood and your education in Pakistan. What was it? Was it like where were you born? By the way?
Oh, I was born in Lahore. I was in the 60s. And, you know, things were very peaceful at that time. You know, there was this never let of policy. I think that it was also a legacy of colonial rule because I think people at that time were not as religious as they have become now. Now they’ve become extremely religious. Well, I would say that there is a polarization going on in Pakistan. You know, some people have become extremely religious. Other people have rebelled. So, you know, there are these sort of parallel forces going on.
To what do you attribute that rise in religiosity?
I think that in Saudi Arabia, you know, exporting its brand of Islamism is is rife in many parts of the Islamic world now because, again, that is seen as, you know, that the true interpretation of Islam and anything that is linked to the time of the prophet or anything that is linked to, you know, that that the sort of the religious texts and the orthodox interpretations is obviously seen as, you know, the more sort of authentic version of Islam.
So Salafism, in my opinion, is gaining ground. So I I’m very I’m very dismayed about that.
So you do see geo political causes, though.
We often hear, you know, if the United States weren’t intervening in South Asia the way that it was, that is that it has if it hadn’t gone to war and in Central Asia and the Middle East, then perhaps there would be less fuel on the fire.
I think that the jihadist genie has has been let loose.
And I don’t think that America withdrawing its forces or the Western world deciding not to, you know, intervene in Muslim affairs is going to help because I think that Salafism and Jihadism and Islamism, you know, has taken on a life of its own. And I don’t think that anything is is going to be sort of quelled in that sense. I think that, you know, the jihadist movements there are the you know, the the terrorist movements in Pakistan or in other parts of the Islamic world. I think that, you know, they have an agenda.
They have an apocalyptic agenda. And and they’re not going to give up until then unless they see it materialize.
So let’s get back to your childhood. So I kind of what I’m standing there in Lahore. It was a peaceful place. It was a secular place back then.
I would say it was secular. I think that. There was religious observance, but I also think that there was a live and let live policy there as well. You know, because I went to a Catholic school. I’m Muslim. But, you know, I went to a convent school and we we had Christian friends. We had Passey friends. Parsis are zero zero street Ontarians.
They’re not as Parsis. So, you know, we had this healthy sort of sort of interaction between various faith communities. My own grandmother happens to be Christian. So, you know, there was there was this acceptance, you know, of diversity at that time. But as I said, you know, people are becoming very much more, I should say, grounded in faith and much more fundamentalist in their outlook. And even though they don’t engage in jihad themselves, they they they subscribe to the ideology. And I’m telling unless they Muslims across the world, you know, repudiate jihad and say that we have to view this whole doctrine of jihad as something contextual. I don’t think they’re going to solve this problem because it’s pervasive. And the more ubiquitous it is, the more there is a chance of people actually, you know, deciding to engage in it. And there’s always that risk of people, you know, tipping over to the to the dark side because of it.
Do you remember any occasion when it struck you, when you were first affronted by radical Islam, by extremism, where you thought, oh, this is a version of the of the religion that I don’t particularly recognize extremism?
Well, you know, I you know, a lot of people say, well, this is this is not true Islam. You know, the terrorists are not really Muslim and, you know, don’t even call them Muslim. People like, you know, Boko Haram or, you know, other terrorist supporters or terrorist sympathizers returns themselves.
They’re not really Muslim, you know. So we shouldn’t we shouldn’t we shouldn’t sort of dangling, you know, the two. And I don’t particularly agree with that because I think that it’s definitely an interpretation of Islam. It’s a brand of Islam. And, you know, there are different expressions of Islam and this happens to be one of them. And one of the problems is that Muslims so far have not been able to own up to it. And there is always this view. You know, I liken it to the to the no true Scotsman fallacy here.
I mean, do you wanna just explain that to people who didn’t do philosophy, what I want?
Do you know that that, you know, no true Muslim can ever do something like this? This is the philosophy that they have. But, you know, jihad is very much an Islamic tenet. You know, fighting in the name of Allah is Islamic. Subjugating infidels is Islamic. All of that is Islamic. And now jihad is also being equated with terror. And the reason for that is that in the Koran, there is something called the retributive law of equality, which says that, you know, if someone inflicts injury on you, you are entitled to inflict injury in a similar manner. Now, the terrorists say that because our children are being killed by Western bombs, by by carpet bombing and so on and so forth, you know, we have the right to go and kill innocent children in Europe. Are the United States or other Western lands are in infidel hands, as they put it. So, you know, this is how they are equating jihad with terror.
And, you know, I I find that very problematic.
But I do think that there is a basis for it. And until and unless we confront it, we’re not going to be able to solve this problem, at least at the ideological level. And everything begins with ideology. We have to nip it in the bud at the ideological level.
Yeah. It’s interesting that you say everything begins with ideology that also comes back to the the No true Scotsman argument, I suppose. There was an article recently, Sam Harris did an interview with Hirsi Ali in which they were making the point that if a if a member of the KKK goes out and kills four Jews, as one recently did, I believe earlier this year, and then says that they’ve been spending their lives spouting anti-Semitic nonsense and then says they did it for because of their beliefs.
Nobody doubts that the reason why they did it was because of their beliefs. But if an Islamist does the same thing and screams Allahu Akbar instead of Heil Hitler while he’s doing it, we start to wonder, well, was he really motivated by his beliefs? Was it really the religious beliefs that drove him to do that? Or there must be some underlying geopolitical circumstance? Or let’s find the real race in Ireland saying we simply say, well, he just told you the reason it’s quite. Simple. It’s an ideology.
Exactly. Well, you know, as I was saying earlier, I think that, you know, this is a brand of Islam. It’s an interpretation of Islam. And there is basis for it in Islamic literature. So I think that, you know, that in itself is problematic.
So you do think of yourself as a Muslim still?
Oh, I do. I mean, I think that, you know, you can approach religion in a rational way.
I think you can say that all of these provisions were contextual. And, you know, you can still subscribe to what is good within Islam, you know, which is, you know, give charity, be good to people, be tolerant.
I think that those prescriptions are also part of Islam. You know, in my opinion, Islam is a mixed bag. I choose to take what’s good. I choose to take what’s eclectic, I should say. And I and I think that if you approach Islam in that sense, that that that means you can you can remain within its fold.
I consider myself a secular Muslim, but if you’re asking me, have I renounced Islam?
No, I haven’t. Well, I guess I’m I guess I’m asking, do you believe that the creator of the universe is a is a is a Muslim in a sense, you know? Do you believe in the in the in the unique truthfulness of Islam versus other faiths?
No, actually, I don’t. I think that there are many paths to God. And Islam happens to be one of them. I think other parts are just as valid. I don’t think that, you know, the God of Islam or God and God is a racist, are an elitist. So I no, I don’t believe in the nature of Islam.
And what is God to you is God. He’s got a personal God consciousness with whom you can communicate and who can intervene in worldly affairs.
I don’t know, I guess as far as the nature of God is concerned, I would I would still consider myself an agnostic and I often say, well, you know, maybe I’m I’m an agnostic Muslim. And I think that agnosticism can be framed within a religious tradition. You know, you might find that I oxymoronic. But I think that if you take the example of Doubting Thomas, you know, he was he was a disciple of Jesus, and yet he doubted. But, you know, you can you can frame down or you can frame agnosticism within within within a religious tradition.
So I’m not sure, you know, how how I view God. I mean, you know, as a forces, as as a forest causes force that propels life. I’m not sure about that.
I’m not sure how to answer that. John Shook. No, that’s fine. I mean, the criticism I ask partly because the criticism from the new atheists of moderate, reasonable religious people is that they sort of give succor to extremists. They they they provide cover for extremists by making I guess, by by siding with an ideology and a non-factual ideology that’s and siding with the traditions that the extremists deploy in nefarious ways. Do you feel any conflict about being part of the group that you so vocally critical of?
Oh, you know, I have been ostracized.
I’m not sure if I’m part of that group because I get a larger sort of mean that the general ontological subset of humans who call themselves Muslims.
You know, I would definitely be considered myself or actually I am being considered a tyrannical Muslim in many, many ways. As I was saying, you know, Muslims themselves don’t think that I’m Muslim. Right.
I mean, I definitely I haven’t denounced Islam or anything, but I am part of the group.
I do have a sense of community. I think that Muslims will not make progress until then unless they renounce jihadism and they renounce other.
Now, I would say Koranic Islamic prescriptions. So I do have that sense of community. But I also believe that moderate Muslims do provide a smoke screen for many, many ills that plague the Islamic world. And I, for one, do not participate in that. So I would say that I’m very much on the periphery of that community.
If you want to put it that way and if I took one step further, I would probably be out of it.
That’s the very, very edge. The very, very edge.
Do you do you get frustrated then with colleagues who, you know, a good and decent people, but who don’t speak out as much as you might like them to or who try to give to provide a smokescreen for Muslim extremists on the grounds that look. Yes. We don’t agree with what they do. But let’s also not be overly critical of our own.
Yes, I do. I definitely feel that more Muslims need to step out and speak against these these evils. But, you know, they’re scared. Muslims are very much afraid of the repercussions because, you know, let’s face it, you know, blasphemy laws, whether it’s in Pakistan or even in North America, if you’re here, you know, it takes one crazy person to decide that such and such a person needs to be eliminated. And they are they’re just destroying Islam from within.
So, you know, there are these issues that many, many Muslims grapple with.
But I do hope that they do step up to the challenge and they come out in public because, you know, there is strength in numbers and we need to have that narrative where Muslims are able to come out and be able to express these things more openly without repercussions, repercussions from friends and family.
And what about non-Muslims? I mean, are you empathetic towards moderate liberals who feel like, you know, there’s a good line that I like, which is that it’s not us against them. It’s some of us and some of them against some of them and some of us. Right. That there are extremists everywhere.
And you you need to make as many alliances as you can to, I guess, shore up the the moderate center. Is there a risk? I mean, there’s clearly a perceived risk from the left that if you talk honestly and frankly and openly about the problem with extremist Islam as a non-Muslim, then you alienate the moderates and you make it more difficult to create that big, broad, moderate coalition because it seems like you’re blaming the religion.
Yes, I do get that sense.
I think I mean, I guess what I’m asking is, how does one overcome that? As a non-Muslim moderate where you don’t want to alienate the Muslim moderates, but you also want to speak frankly about the extremists?
Yes. Well, I think, first of all, moderate Muslims, if they’re truly moderate, I think that they should be able to withstand criticism of Islam and Islamic practice and belief and practice. I think, first of all, that’s a starting point. But we’ve seen that a lot of so-called moderates also don’t want to tolerate any criticism of Islam. So I think that was the first step that needs to be taken, is for moderates to become truly moderate about that and accept that criticism and be able to look candidly about the problems that are faced by them as well that the Muslim world faces these days. So I think that that needs to happen for us. And I think that the sort of left in the West needs to accept that, you know, this multiculturalism or pluralism or these notions are the West’s Achilles heel because, you know, within the West, there are so many ideologies that can actually kill Western culture and Islamism, in my opinion, as one of those ideologies, because Islamism, you know, one of the assaults of Islamism is on free speech where we’re seeing that happening everywhere in the West. And, you know, we’re slowly, surely people are being silenced. And I feel that first and foremost, it’s tolerance from moderate Muslims that needs to happen.
So, yeah, it’s been said, of course, that, you know, you can do a Book of Mormon on Broadway. If it was Book of Islam, then Trey Parker and Matt Stone would not be leading the lives that they currently lead. That’s come down to the free speech question. And I guess part of the problem for for secular liberals in responding to Islamism is that I think there’s a sense that they feel that they’re sticking up. There’s a sense that you want to stand up for the for the oppressed and for the underdog. And the way that that occurs for a lot of people in the way in Western countries is that Muslims are the underdog. Muslims are sidelined in our culture. So you want to stand up for them. The problem is that all you end up doing is standing up for the people who have the loudest voice in Islam, for the thugs and the and the bullies and not standing up for the liberal values that should be upheld in terms of women’s rights and gay rights and whatever other minority rights you want to look at within the Muslim community. I wonder if you have any ideas about how we go about reconnecting liberals with the actual liberal values, which occasionally means standing up to thuggish people, even if they represent minorities?
Well, I don’t think that one should tolerate intolerance, for one thing. You know, that’s what’s happening now. For example, I’ll just give you an example. You know, in Canada recently, I supported banning of the burqa. And a lot of these liberal feminists said, well, you know, you know, you claim to be feminist, but look what you’re doing. You are denying these women the right to choose what to wear and so forth. And I said, no, this is this is not the. These women have not decided to choose what to wear. They have, you know, basically embraced interpretations by men. No, but that’s that’s basically just one of the examples.
The point is that if we don’t speak up, Islamism is going to win by default because the moderate Muslims don’t care enough about their Muslim Muslim ness to to do enough about promoting their moderate brand of Islam. The Islamists, do they care enough about it? So they are the ones who are active. They are the ones who are the fighting force among Muslims. So we have to speak up. We no matter what. Otherwise, they will win. And we are seeing seeing that happen. And they are not the downtrodden. You know, they have a lot of privileges in schools and colleges and universities. They’ve got prayer places. They love food stores. They’ve got hello food cafes and so on and so forth. So there is no systemic discrimination against Muslims in the West.
And I don’t think that the left needs to believe that at all.
I’ve interviewed a Muslim spokespeople who have flat out denied that there’s really a problem in Islam.
They just say that there are crazy people in every religion. There are extremists in every religion. And of course, you’re going to get those those extremes. But fundamentally, there there is no issue here. What do you think that they actually think? I wonder I wonder if you ever kind of go to bed at night and think, what do they actually think? Because if you look at I mean, look at the countries that have the strictest about interpreting Islam, the honor killings, the denial of education for girls, denying women the right to sometimes leave their homes without getting a male relative’s permission, you know, performing marriages on young girls, genital mutilation, the stoning of homosexuals. Copy. They can’t believe that all of these things are a coincidence that these things happen in Muslim societies. So are they being dishonest or are they having some kind of cognitive dissonance where they think that the bigger fight that they’re they’re up to is is worth a little bit of a little bit of lies around the edges?
I think it’s a bit bit of both. I think that people who call themselves moderate Muslims don’t necessarily understand what Islam is all about. I don’t think that they understand what what their religion expects of them, because what their religion expects of them is jihad. It is. It is polygamy. It is all these things. So I don’t think that people who call themselves moderate Muslims actually understand that. Now, as far as the other radical Muslims, yes, some of them are being dishonest. I think that some some are living in the West and actually saying something and believing something. Quite different. There is a bit of both. But, you know, I honestly feel that there is some honest soul searching involved here and they need to go back to the sources. They need to understand historical Islamic precedents to truly understand what Islam is all about and then make intelligent conclusions from it. And I don’t think that that’s happening yet. I think that there is an unwillingness to talk about certain issues, whether it’s on honor killings or whether it’s Boko Haram or whether it’s the concept of dhimmitude, you know, that nonbelievers and anti-Muslim land have to be taxed. I’m sure you’re familiar with that. But all of these things are very, very problematic in Islamic practice. And I I don’t think that denial is going to help. And unfortunately, there is that culture of denial. There is lack of understanding and a culture of denial, denial. So I think there’s a bit of both.
What do you make of that? I know that you’re in Canada, not the United States, where the conversation around religion is pretty different. What do you make of the conversation about religion in North America? Do you think secular society is healthy? Are you baffled by the evangelical right?
What do you think?
I think that the evangelical right is also problematic as far as secularism is concerned. I mean, I’m I’m I’m not concerned about, you know, the sort of the southern Bible Belt as well. And, yes, you know, we don’t have that sort of conversation in Canada. We’re somewhat removed from that. But here, you know, we do want to uphold secular principles. And here, you know, there there is this ongoing debate, for example, about allowing prayers in schools. And there are people who oppose it vociferously. So I’m happy that that sort of thing is happening. I think we do need to maintain that distinction between religion and politics. And I you know, I do sometimes feel that those lines get bigger in the United States and sometimes in Canada as well and in the West. But I think we have to have safeguards against that.
How should we respond to Boko Haram, to al-Qaeda, to any group? I mean, it seems like every few months or every certainly several times a year, some horrendous outrage takes place. And we all kind of struggle to to offer anything more than platitudes and hashtags about how awful it all is.
What would you have us do? Well, I think, you know, that these people we cannot we cannot engage them in dialog.
I don’t think that a dialog with the Taliban or Boko Haram, you know, these people are ideologues. You don’t you don’t have dialog with people who are very set in their ideological beliefs. So I think that these people need to be wiped out. I’m not going to mince words.
I think that there has to be a political solution where the nations of the world come together and they think of a strategy where Boko Haram and the Taliban and al-Qaida types are basically just wiped out from the face of the earth. I don’t think that there is another way, because even if they appear to be engaging in dialog, they will continue to believe in whatever it is that they believe in and they will pretend as if they have reached a compromise with you. But really, deep down, they haven’t. These people are extremely rigid. They’re extremely doctrinaire, and there is absolutely no way that you can have a dialog with them.
Coming back to the question of trying to carve out a space for moderates and ensure that you don’t actually push the moderates onto over the side over to the side of the extremists by lumping them all together. What do you mean by wiped out? And, you know, is there a risk that a George W. Bush style foreign policy where you try to go and get the violence or smoke them out of their caves ends up alienating some of the people who are on the edges who would have been winnable over who weren’t yet Taliban, who weren’t yet extremists, but who lose their family because there’s some collateral damage from some particular strike. And then all of a sudden you’ve got this hydra headed monster where you end up playing a game of whack a mole and you end up with a larger you know, I you there was that famous Donald Rumsfeld memo. Are we creating more terrorists than the ones that we’re actually managing to kill?
Well, yes. I mean, I just recently, in fact, read an article about, you know, Nigeria and how the Boko Haram can be defeated. I think it’s a question of also creating opportunities in the Islamic world, because, as you know, many parts of these countries are economically very, very depressed. And I think many of these men, young men, are disenfranchized. So I think that, you know, there is an economic approach.
And I frankly wouldn’t rule out the military option as well because. As I said, you know, you can’t really engage with these people, but yes, there is that risk, that risk can be minimized. I think that, you know, there is there there is some hope of eventually wiping these people out.
The most nightmare scenario, of course, that President Obama alluded to it at a conference in Europe last month is that terrorists might get their hands on a nuclear weapon. For example, he said that’s what keeps him up it up at night. What are you optimistic or pessimistic about the long game? What’s the what’s the end game here for dealing with these groups?
Well, you know, I know for sure that these people are governed by an apocalyptic agenda. You know, they’re being governed by end type scenarios and they think that, you know, Islam will prevail and it has to prevail. And if it doesn’t prevail, then, you know, it has to be done militarily. So you cannot deal with people who are jihadis, you know, who have a militant agenda with this soft speech or with, you know, with with hashtags. And as you said, you cannot you cannot respond with that. So you have to, in my opinion, respond in like manner.
And unfortunately, I think that, you know, it has to be dealt with militarily. I think I’m optimistic because eventually I think that the forces of sanity will prevail. But it has to be a carefully defined strategy, both political, economic and monetary. And the combination of that, I suppose.
Father Lasn, thank you so much for being on point of inquiry.
Thank you very much.