Muslim Leaders Debate Extremism
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, we'll hear what you had to say about this week's news. It's Backtalk, and that's next. But first it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation, and we've invited our Barbershop regular, Arsalan Iftikhar, to tell us about a remarkable program in which he participated earlier this week in Doha, the capital of Qatar.
Arsalan participated in a session of the Doha Debates, where up-and-coming Muslim thought leaders discussed some of the most critical issues confronting the Muslim world. This week's topic - and it really couldn't be any more timely - whether Muslims are failing to combat extremism. Arsalan argued the affirmative.
He's just back from Doha, and he's here with us in the studio. He's a contributing editor for Islamica Magazine and a civil-rights attorney. Well, welcome back.
Mr. ARSALAN IFTIKHAR (Islamica Magazine): It's good to be home at NPR.
MARTIN: What a fascinating experience. Tell me about the debates. How long have they been going on?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well the BBC Doha Debates have been going on since the year 2000, and they are broadcast to over 300 million people in 200 countries around the world on BBC World Service. It's hosted by Tim Sebastian, BBC "Hardtalk" program host, and the stage has been shared with the likes of Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and U.S. President Bill Clinton.
MARTIN: So it's not just issues pertaining to Islam and the Muslim world. It's issues pertaining to important issues globally.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Absolutely. It's sort of the Super Bowl for global debaters, if you will.
MARTIN: The participants were you, who else? They were also global.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yes, absolutely. We had two debaters on each side of the debate, and my partner was Ed Husain, who is a former self-proclaimed Islamist and now author of the new book "Islamist," about how he joined fundamentalist groups at the age of 16 and left at the age of 21. And he's written a book about his experiences.
On the other side of the motion were Daisy Khan, who is the executive director of the ASMA Society in New York; and Moes Massoud(ph), who's a famous up-and-coming Egyptian televangelist.
MARTIN: The topic, as we said, a hot-button issue, particularly this week as we've seen terrorist bombings in Baghdad kill - what, 70 people. There was a terror attack in Jerusalem this week at a Jewish seminary.
You argued the affirmative, that Muslims are failing to combat extremism. This is one of your quotes.
(Soundbite of BBC broadcast)
Mr. IFTIKHAR: What about the virulently anti-Semitic cartoons that regularly appear in Muslim newspapers around the world? So if we are going to condemn racism, we should not only condemn Islamaphobia, we have to condemn racism in all of its forms, especially within our own Muslim home(ph), where they're saying that Arabs are better than non-Arabs. We have to be consistent in our message because otherwise to the rest of the world we're just seen as duplicitous Muslims who only cry foul when something goes wrong with us.
MARTIN: And just to set the context here, Arsalan, you were talking about the debate over the Danish cartoons that were deemed offensive of the prophet - and disrespectful to the prophet Mohammed.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, one of the major points that I made during my argument was the selective moral outrage within the Muslim community.
Islam teaches that we must speak out for justice, regardless of who is the perpetrator, and you know, for many Muslims, unfortunately, I feel as though they have their heads in the sand and are only willing to cry foul when Muslims are the victims and not when Muslims are the perpetrators.
And again, I wanted to bring a level of intellectual honesty back into the global Muslim debate.
MARTIN: The negative - what is argued - as you said, there are two folks on the negative. One of then was Daisy Khan. She works for the American Society for Muslim Advancement. This is one of her comments.
(Soundbite of BBC broadcast)
Ms. DAISY KHAN (American Society for Muslim Advancement): Do not forget the tireless effort of ordinary combatants like myself and others here in this room who are fighting extremism without ever raising a sword, using a stick, a stone, a bullet or a bomb.
This peaceful tactic, led by visionary men and women, leaders, are forming the tidal wave, the wave that will push away all remnants of extremism once and for all.
MARTIN: Was the core of the negative argument not that there is not extremism but that the sort of Muslim response just doesn't get the same level of attention?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right, and you know, Daisy is a friend of mine, and you know, I think all of us as Muslim public intellectuals are trying to raise the level of intellectual honesty, and so obviously what they were saying was that Muslims are condemning terrorism, which we are, because I spend my days, as you know, making the rounds doing that, but that we have not succeeded thus far.
You know, when we have Gallup polls that show 22 percent of Americans do not even want Muslims as their neighbors here in the U.S., when one out of four Americans has such a seething disdain for everything related to Muslims and Islam, it obviously shows that we're not fulfilling our job in helping to educate the public.
MARTIN: But part of it - I have to though - mention though, the positions are assigned, though, aren't they?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: That is correct.
MARTIN: As is often the case. So you could have easily argued the other side. I'm just curious, if you had been assigned to argue the other side, that Muslims are not - the negative, that Muslims are not - what is the negative - are failing...
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Are succeeding.
MARTIN: Are succeeding in combating extremism, I'm just curious what you think you might have said.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well yeah, and being a global debater, that's sort of the nature of the beast, and you know, we can obviously point to many things that the Muslim world has done, the Amman Message, which is a draft declaration by over 200 Islamic scholars around the world, leading scholars, that not only condemned terrorism in all of its forms but, you know, called for end to sectarian violence in Iraq.
But you know, these sorts of initiatives aren't getting publicity. We're not raising it to the level of awareness to show people that Muslims are really having this sort of self-internal enlightenment debate about how Islam is going to be defined for the 21st century.
MARTIN: Or substantively that even if those efforts are being discussed, they're not succeeding.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Exactly. It's not resonating. Obviously, you know, with 1.3-billion Muslims on the face of the earth, one in five people in the world is a Muslim - you know, and most Muslims live in the most abject poverty. Two-thirds of the refugees on the face of the earth are Muslims, and you know, to give people an audacity of hope, to let Muslims know that, you know, there is hope out there for a better life. You do not need to resort to the politics of rage, you know, in order to have a good and fruitful life.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, and we're having our weekly Faith Matters conversation, and we're talking about a debate by Muslims for Muslims in Doha about the responsibility of Muslims in fighting extremism, and we're joined by our barbershop regular, Arsalan Iftikhar, who was one of the debaters.
An interesting thing is that audience members were allowed to ask questions of the debaters.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah, that was cool.
MARTIN: That was very interesting. Here's a question I wanted to play for you about a young woman who asked - I think she asked you this question. Let's play it.
(Soundbite of BBC broadcast)
Unidentified Woman: Do you want us to apologize for all these statistics because I feel what you're trying to say is that we should apologize for what's going on even though I think that by doing so, it's pretty much us taking the blame for what's going on.
MARTIN: First of all I want to say I felt there was a lot of emotion in her question, and I wanted to ask if that was the atmosphere there. Did it feel like this was something very intense, very heartfelt?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: It was absolutely amazing. I mean, we had - there were 350 people in the audience who voted on the motion, and they all came up to us afterwards, and we just all talked for hours. I mean, this is - you know, this strikes at the heart of the global Muslim debate, and obviously, you know, whether you're from Indonesia or from the Arab world and you're a Muslim, you know, this is something that you hold very dear to your heart.
MARTIN: But what about her question, the substance of it? Is it - in essence is this like collective guilt that people are being held responsible - the many being held responsible for the acts of a few? What do you say?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, what I would say is that there's nobody at the front of this collective guilt more so than myself, and the reason that I had quoted those statistics about anti-Muslim sentiments was that I was trying to show that we still have a long way to go. That even though we are getting the message out there, it's obviously not getting out there enough when 10-second soundbites of Osama bin Laden in a white turban are going to dictate the evening news.
The average American, the average global citizen who knows nothing about Islam is obviously going to get their information about Islam from those soundbites, and we have to make sure that it is us instead of the bobbleheads out there that are getting the message out there.
MARTIN: There were some very strong messages delivered at this debate. At one point, your co-debater on your side, Ed Husain, said that Saudi Arabia has totally demolished, sort of, Islamic heritage. Were you surprised that this kind of sentiment was expressed? Was the audience surprised? I'm curious how they reacted to it.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Not at all. I think that the audience actually reacted with a great deal of warmth because they finally saw people, Muslims, you know, their own co-religionists have the audacity to say that there are people speaking on behalf of Islam who are doing completely un-Islamic things.
For example, when Saudi Arabia doesn't allow women to drive, that is the most absurd thing to any Muslim sensibility all around the world. It is a cultural, tribal tradition, but unfortunately it has been associated with Muslim culture.
And so that's the thing. We want to be able to separate the religion of Islam from certain backwards practices that really have nothing to do with it but just happen to have Muslims who are the ones implementing it.
MARTIN: I notice that Ed Husain, you know, argued that the time of action is now. I mean, he I think was willing to say that as Muslims, we are in fact responsible and need to sort of be ambassadors for our religion and need to take responsibility for those among us in a way that family members sometimes take responsibility for the actions of other family members, even when they don't agree with them. But what kind of action? What?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Well, one of the things that I alluded to again was the Danish cartoon controversy. You know, we have protests and riots around the world, and I want protests and riots around the world every day when Sunni and Shiite Muslims are slaughtering each other in a civil war in Iraq.
But you know unfortunately, we don't see that same sort of moral outrage, again going back to my selective moral outrage. You know, if we want Islam to be a true global player for the next generations, we have to be honest with ourselves and say listen, this is what is right about our religion, and it's not about our religion, it's about our people, the people who are so-called implementing it. And you know, once we have that intellectual honesty, I think that, you know, this alliance of civilizations will be able to move forward.
MARTIN: Well, don't leave us in suspense. I think the audience got to vote. Who won?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: We did. It was - again like I said for a global debater like myself, it was the Super Bowl, and I think most importantly, the motion passed with 70.4 percent of the audience voting in favor that Muslims are failing to combat extremism, and in a conservative Gulf state like Qatar, you know, the BBC folks said that it was historic, and I hope that this is merely the beginning.
MARTIN: And also as you were telling me earlier, you were somewhat surprised by the outcome because you were aware that your position was not a popular one in the room.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Yeah. You know, we went in as the underdogs, but again, you know, we...
MARTIN: How did you know you were the underdogs. I mean, was the applause all on the other side, or what?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: I mean, just by the nature of the motion. Muslims are failing to combat extremism, and the audience is predominate...
MARTIN: It's kind of a self-indictment.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Right, it is a self-indictment.
MARTIN: Airing dirty laundry, as it were.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: It is, and I think what resonated the most was it was Muslims making the argument. It was Muslim public intellectuals who, like us, dedicate ourselves to helping get an accurate message of Islam out to the global public.
MARTIN: Well an odd question, given the weightiness of the topic, but was it fun?
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Like I said, it was the Super Bowl. I'm still a little dizzy from the jet lag and adrenaline. It was the greatest experience and the most wonderful honor of my life.
MARTIN: Well, it's good to have you back.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: Thank you for having me back.
MARTIN: Arsalan Iftikhar is a contributing editor of Islamica Magazine, a civil-rights attorney and a regular contributor to TELL ME MORE. He participated in the latest Doha Debate. It debated whether Muslims around the world are failing to combat extremism.
The Doha Debates will be featured on BBC World this weekend. Arsalan, thank you so much.
Mr. IFTIKHAR: As always, a pleasure, Michel.
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