Stereotypes of extremism and militancy surround Islam, especially after the 9/11 attacks. But are those who harbor fear toward Muslims justified? What can organizations do to ease tensions among employees?
DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti addressed these issues directly with an intense and important panel at DiversityInc’s event. His conversation with two experts on Islam, one Muslim and the other a former CIA agent, brought home the perceptions—and fallacies—of common American hyperbole on Islam.
Ambassador Akbar Ahmed, who is Muslim, is the Ibn Khaldun chair of Islamic Studies at American University and was the high commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain. He is the author of “Journey Into America: The Challenge of Islam.”
Dr. Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution is an expert on national security, military affairs and the Persian Gulf. He is the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the author of “A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.”
They affirm that the issue lies not in religion but in cultural misconceptions. Here is what they advised our audience.
For more religious diversity, read “Best Practices on Religiously Inclusive Workplaces,” “Starting Religious Employee-Resource Groups” and the “Laws on Religion, Dress and the Workplace” at BestPractices.DiversityInc.com.
VISCONTI: Why, in your opinion, did 9/11 happen?
DR. AHMED: This is a question that is an urgent and important one, and we really don’t have the answers. It was a combination of several factors.
The initial thrust for 9/11 was coming primarily from the Middle East. It’s coming from certain Arabs. It’s coming directly with links to the Palestinian-Israeli problem of the monarchies of the Middle East. They’re angered with the perception that the United States is supporting those monarchies.
Very shortly after 9/11 is where it gets complicated. The United States is in a state of war with Afghanistan, and that’s a new creator of conflict that has nothing to do with the Middle East or with 9/11. That complicates it.
We need to be very wary about trying to locate simplistic answers to this really complex and urgent question. We’ve spent a decade looking at it. Unless we really understand what caused it, we are not going to be in a better position to face this coming decade.
How is the Pakistan relationship going to end? We really need to step back and begin to answer this question: Where does it all begin?
Bin Laden or Jinnah?
DR. POLLACK: There are lots of different ways to understand what happened on 9/11. I would urge you to see it as a product of two different things. The immediate cause was Osama bin Laden and the most violent extremists. They do not represent the larger Muslim community. They’ve gotten it into their heads that they need to bring about violent, sudden change in the Muslim world.
What they want is to take the Muslim world back to the seventh century, something painfully few in the Muslim world have any interest in whatsoever. They decided the United States was the force blocking them.
It’s just as important to understand that there is a wider set of issues, a backdrop to not just 9/11 but to the entire phenomenon of this extremist terrorism. The Middle East is full of a great many people who are deeply angry and frustrated with their circumstances. The Arab state system is broken, economically, politically, socially. It is absolutely failing to provide its people with what they need for a decent life. They don’t have jobs, incomes, respect.
They feel a sense of siege from globalization, which is very alien to them. They are ruled over by autocratic regimes that are utterly callous. It is this anger and frustration that in decades past has manifested itself at the extreme in support for terrorists like Osama bin Laden.
What bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri really wanted to do was overthrow their own governments. In that sense, they are very much like the young men and women who rallied in Tahrir Square. The Tahrir Square protestors represent much more than the common Arab—the common Muslim who doesn’t want to kill innocent civilians, who simply wants a better life and to change his or her own economic and political circumstances. They took an incredibly courageous and constructive course of action; bin Laden took a very unproductive, very destructive course of action. Ultimately, they do emanate from this common wellspring of anger and frustration that you see is endemic all across the region.
DR. AHMED: In 1999, I was at Cambridge University and I wrote a paper for “History Today.” I drew two models of Muslim society. One extreme is going to be this character Osama bin Laden who represents anger, violence, confrontation and hatred. On the other side of the spectrum is Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah is the founding father of the modern state of Pakistan. He is Washington, Franklin and Jefferson all rolled into one. Jinnah’s vision is a modern Muslim state. He wants women’s rights, minority rights, respect for the constitution and straightforward democracy. One of his heroes is Abraham Lincoln.
The Muslim world is going through a spirit of anger and frustration. The average Muslim within Cairo or Karachi has no hope. He’s either going to follow Osama bin Laden and the revolutions and violence, or he’s going to follow Jinnah and take the path through democracy.
The Muslim world has really decided between these two poles. That is why we have to understand the notion of democracy. The practice of democracy is crucial as much for us here in the United States, who more or less invented these concepts. As for the Muslim world over there, there can be no third part.
‘Nearest Thing to Paradise’
VISCONTI: How much of that struggle do you think is playing out with Muslims here in America?
DR. POLLACK: As I traveled for my project “Journey Into America,” I went to 75 cities. I spent a whole year talking to every kind of American, every kind of Muslim.
Americans would ask me why Muslims hate us, or if a neighbor next door was a potential terrorist. They don’t understand that these very Muslims were here because they were escaping the chaos, the autocracy and the corruption of their own societies.
As far as the Muslims here, this is the nearest thing to paradise. Many Muslims told us privately that this is still the best place in the world to be Muslim.
I am not Muslim. What I see from many of my friends and my colleagues who are Muslims is tremendous pride in what’s going on in the Arab world right now. They feel that they stereotyped themselves because of what happened in their ancestral homelands.
What we’re seeing now is this explosion all across the Arab world. A lot of Muslims in America look at that as being a very positive development for themselves; they see this as what their homelands always could have been.
They love the fact that Americans now see that Muslims in fact do want democracy, and they do want freedom of expression, and they do want all of these wonderful values that we hold dear. Many Muslim Americans tried very hard to make Americans understand that “No, no, no, we’re not backwards. We’re not benighted. We live under oppressive political structures that force us to act in a certain way, but that’s not who we are.”
Where Are the Moderates?
VISCONTI: If you watch certain cable news networks, you’re going to see an extreme perspective of “They hate us. They’re going to attack us.” Americans could reflect and say, “Where are the moderates?” I mean, what you’re saying makes logical sense, but why am I not hearing this?
DR. AHMED: This to me over the last decade is one of the best questions. Where are the moderates and the role of the media? You’re really raising two questions in one.
As far as the moderates are concerned: Who’s leading the revolutions? Young men and women, wearing jeans, carrying cell phones, wanting democracy, wanting participation.
Benazir Bhutto, a personal friend of mine, was a world celebrity. She had been prime minister and the daughter of a prime minister. She decided that democracy and moderation were critical for her country, Pakistan, knowing that she’d be putting her life on the line. When we talk of democracy, we assume that we’re not going to be killed for it. Benazir knew that she could possibly be killed for it. She went back and lost her life.
There’s the urge for democracy in the Muslim world, and there’s the urge to kill it. That dynamic is happening. Let us not fool ourselves. It’s involves us. We’re going to be involved with it, and for the near future.
Now Benazir goes back and sweeps the open elections—that’s a secular party led by a female against the religious parties of Pakistan. What is it telling us? The momentum toward moderation is far stronger than any form of extremism. In our world civilization today, what you’ll see is that a few people can literally drag in civilizations. That’s the danger.
If I go to a synagogue as I did a decade before 9/11, I’ll be attacked by other Muslims. There are a couple of emails, a couple of threatening calls. If I don’t back down, they’ll disappear. That battle is taking place. We are fighting it on every level, every day. If we don’t back out, I’m confident that sooner rather than later moderation and democracy will prevail.
The debate about Islam has now gotten very complicated and involved with American politics, the politics of the Republicans and the Democrats that Islam itself has almost used or distorted or exploited in a way that has nothing to do with Islam.
American Muslims are the classic moderates. They are the guys who should be your bridges and ambassadors to the Muslim world, except that they are being demonized as potential terrorists.
So how is this happening? Perhaps ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice, policy. Attacking a certain position regarding Islam is also attacking a certain liberal understanding of America.
Now, I’m talking of the politics of America, which has little to do with the Muslim world. To the Muslim world, whether it’s a Republican or Democrat president, it’s the American president. He represents the nation, as he should. Here, politics is slightly different. The prism then is Islam and very often used in this way.
DR. AHMED: Here we are, over half a century, with the same questions. Is it because we are not understanding, or we deliberately don’t want to understand? The so-called “experts” pump this into the media. The media picks it up and it becomes a very powerful story. The media has its own dynamics. They’re not good or bad, or hate you or love you; they just want a story.
Judea Pearl—the father of Danny Pearl, who was savagely killed in Karachi—he and I traveled around and we used to have tremendous interest in the Jewish-Muslim dialogue. We’d ask the media what we should do to get more attention and get more people to listen to us. They actually wanted us to throw chairs at each other or beat each other up.
There are so many good things happening in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, in terms of the American interaction there. You won’t hear many of those stories.
The media has played a very strong role in the perceptions of Islam here, which are then picked up abroad and fed to all the extremists’ propaganda against America. When they want to show something against America, that is what they’re showing. They are able to say, “Here you are. These people are abusing your religion, abusing your god, abusing your prophet, abusing your culture. You want to be friends with this country? This country is in the war path against Islam.”
It doesn’t help us, the United States. It doesn’t help our allies, and it squeezes the moderates even further into a corner.
When we begin next time to interact and react to something very negative about other peoples and other cultures, we need to be sensitive to what impact they’ll have here. After all, there are 7 million Muslims who live here as Americans, as citizens. Of the African Americans who’ve been here as long as the people who landed with the Mayflower, 40 to 50 percent of them were actually Muslim. They are now reconverting. They say they are not converting to Islam; they are reverting to Islam and have a very deep sense of being Muslim.
What are we doing when we are actually attacking a civilization where we have our own Muslims here and then our own interests abroad? We have a relationship with the civilization of Islam, which has a billion and a half people and is growing. We have 57 countries and we have hundreds of thousands of troops in Muslim countries. Ask yourselves: Is it a wise policy where we are trying to make friends?
On the one hand, all our presidents constantly say, “We must win hearts and minds.” On the other hand, we’re abusing them, their prophet and their god. That’s not going to make them happy. They are a traditional people and still have respect for traditional culture, traditional elders and traditional faith.
DR. POLLACK: The media does many of the worst things. Imagine what it must be like as an Arab watching the news about the United States.
Just think about your local news … If it bleeds, it leads—stories about crime, sexual depravity, our own extremist politicians. What do you think that the Arab and Muslim world makes of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and their more populous views that we as Americans recognize as representing a certain segment of society but not necessarily its entirety? That’s what we get as well.
There are some American stations that play in particular to the sensationalist, that play on the fears of Americans. So too is true in the Arab and Muslim world—different Arabs pick different stations, just as different Americans pick different stations.
Don’t rely on TV for the entirety of your news. There are enormous sources out there. You’ve got to explore them. It will give you a very different view of the world. We have to encourage those in the Muslim world to go beyond what Al Jazeera says as well.
What we find when we actually are able to peer deeply into these different societies is that there are huge numbers of moderates out there. After the United States invaded Iraq, the state department did polls and focus groups with Iraqis right after the fall of Saddam Hussein. What we found was Iraqis overwhelmingly wanted democracy. They wanted all of the same freedoms that we expected.
One of the questions that the State Department asked Iraqis right after the fall of Saddam was “What kind of government do you want? What is your model of what kind of a government you want?” The plurality by far said the United States. The country that got the lowest number on the list? Iran.
We saw the same thing in Egypt, before the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The country that registered as most democratic, with 99 percent of people saying they wanted a democracy, not an autocracy, was Egypt.
When you can actually get at these different issues, when you can actually hear what people have to say, what you find out is that there are lots and lots of models.
For 30 to 40 years, the Arab autocrats and extreme Islamists have had kind of a deal with the devil, where they have pulled society in two different directions. The one thing that they have been united on, the one thing that they have cooperated on, is to absolutely crush the moderate center. The moderate center has always been the greatest threat both to the dictators and to the extreme Islamists. They have both done everything they possibly could to exterminate moderate leaders, to decapitate liberal movements.
There has been this terrible deal between these two to destroy that center, but that center exists and it is very powerful. You’re finally seeing its expression in places like Tahrir Square.
A Definition of Jihad
VISCONTI: When you hear the word “Crusade” or “Jihad,” how would you ask people in the audience to relate to that? How should people think about them?
DR. AHMED: A Jihad literally is the word for “struggle.” Every one of us—whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu—is constantly struggling to make ourselves a better human being. It’s a struggle to elevate yourself spiritually. To make us be a better neighbor, husband, father, wife, whatever; that is the definition of Jihad.
In the popular interpretation, particularly in the media, it’s been picked up as a kind of catch phrase for war, violence, specifically with Muslims. The paradox is that Muslims have not picked it up. Jihad has been corrupted, and we need to be sensitive to where it’s coming from.
The Crusades are something entirely different. The Crusades are to be seen in a historical context. It’s in the context of when European Christian armies came in to the Middle East. We want to make it very clear that while their target was to take back the Holy Lands from the Muslims, Jewish communities and other Christians who were not of their persuasion were also targets.
I’m not sure whether it’s the East and the West or simply marauding armies, but the concept of Crusade has a very negative connotation for the Middle East. When you say Crusade, it really means hordes of people with religious fervor prepared to be very violent. We see how much it is part of our vocabulary when President George W. Bush unwittingly used the term after 9/11.
DR. POLLACK: We need to recognize that certain words have outsized meanings. “Jihad” and “Crusade” have actually become problematic on both sides. I would like to see both societies retire both words.
Crusades start out as religious holy wars. That is the original definition of the word, but it evolves over time. Dwight Eisenhower famously describes the second World War as the Crusade in Europe. Jihad just means struggle. It doesn’t mean holy war. Unfortunately, to westerners, it has come to mean that.
Both sides need to recognize that words that started out as something very different have evolved into something that is very problematic for the other side.
VISCONTI: Should Americans be afraid of Muslims? How would you help our audience mitigate that if it comes up in their workplace?
DR. AHMED: We have to understand that those 19 who did that terrible deed had nothing to do with American Muslims. The Muslim world is not a monolith. It’s divided into nations and sects and histories that are totally different. Moroccan history is completely different from Indonesian history, and their interpretation of Islam is completely different.
When we have fear, we’re really reflecting something in ourselves. We are reflecting our own insecurities, and that communicates itself to the whole world.
Think of the trauma of 9/11 and the impact. Therefore, you have the need to overcome that. Fear, in the end, is just something that you, in the end, poison your own system with.
I may be idealistic, but America—and I’m talking about America in the clearest, most positive sense going back to the vision and example of the founding fathers, Washington and Jefferson and Franklin, those extraordinary figures—to me really represents something very different. Something that is almost transcendental—people who are on this different level, almost, of human society.
Were they fearful? I don’t get a hint of fear. They’re in the middle of the birth of the nation. When Washington’s soldiers capture British soldiers who’ve tortured Americans and they brought these British soldiers to Washington and said, “We are going to do the same thing that they did to us,” Washington said, “Absolutely not. We cannot behave like the enemy because we must maintain a higher moral standing, a moral posture.” That is American.
If we are going to behave like neurotic people, and if someone sits and you don’t like his face or his color or the way they are behaving with the rosary, what are we saying about ourselves? Are we the super power that has a role to play on the world stage? Or are we all going to retreat into our fears and to our prejudices and express them, causing hurt to our own people?
If you recall the “Wizard of Oz,” one of the characters didn’t have a heart and the other one didn’t have courage. Are we going to be like those characters? Or are we going to be like Dorothy, much more confident with her little Toto, facing the wicked witch?
Should Americans Fear Sharia?
VISCONTI: Should Americans be afraid of sharia law? How does it fit in with American jurisprudence and governance?
DR. AHMED: Many Americans believe that the sharia is about to be imposed. I ask you, even if all the American Muslims, 2 percent of the population, said “We want the sharia,” can they impose their will on 98 percent in a democracy? It is such an absurd idea and debate and only reflects our fears and our prejudices.
These Muslims are coming from countries that are 90 to 95 percent Muslim. They don’t have the sharia. They can impose sharia through the constitution. Why should they escape their countries, escape the chaos of Islamic laws, to come here and impose it on Americans? This really is to me something so breathtakingly stupid because I just don’t know how to answer it.
Sharia means Islamic jurisprudence. That’s all it means. Like Jewish law, like Christian law, it is a form of interpretation of how we govern our lives, and that is it. I don’t think we should be that frightened of it. We really need to talk about it, work it out and hopefully work it out of our system. What Muslim wants to give that up and bring the religious figures from Iran and Saudi Arabia to rule over us? It doesn’t make sense, and yet there was a concern.
DR. POLLACK: We tend to have in mind a notion that the sharia is a very clear, well-established set of principles, which is also unbelievably harsh and tolerates no interpretation. That is not the case. There were certainly things in the Quran, which are applied literally in Saudi Arabia, about what constitutes an offense and what the punishment for that offense is.
In other aspects, it is unbelievably vague. In terms of how women should dress, the Quran simply states that women should dress modestly. It doesn’t say what percentage of the body needs to be covered, and different Muslim societies have interpreted that injunction very differently.
The sharia is actually much more flexible than most think, and what we often do is substitute the very extreme, inflexible interpretations of certain countries that do not necessarily reflect the larger concept of sharia for this notion.
To go back to Ambassador Ahmed, his example of the “Wizard of Oz,” with lions and tigers and sharia: They’re coming to get us? It’s not that definitive. It is not that rigid. It is an idea and it is a set of ideas that get interpreted by different societies.
When you speak to Muslims, you find that many of them do believe that sharia ought to be part of their legal system. Overwhelmingly, Americans believe that our foreign policy ought to be informed by our common Judeo-Christian values. Yet when we hear Muslims saying that they would like their foreign policy to be informed by their Muslim values, we panic. We are terrified.
It is stunning to me that a nation as religious as the United States sees the same thing in the Muslim world as being unbelievably threatening as a sign of backwardness and oppression.
DR. AHMED: The sharia is not a rigid, ossified block of laws. They’re laws that we can relate to. For example, women under Islamic law must inherit exactly like the men. In tribal societies today, men don’t follow that. The man who’s going to inherit the political power of his father will just keep the land and properties, not giving anything to his sisters.
Here we have a conflict where women say, “We want Islamic law because under Islamic law, I’m entitled to this.” Under Islamic law now, this is the sharia. Under Islamic law, a man must confirm marriage with the wife. The wife must say, “I’m prepared to marry this guy.” Then the marriage is valid in front of witnesses. Today in rural areas, tribal areas, the man will have three, four wives, and he’ll just go and marry a young girl who is not going to be asked because she’s being intimidated.
A woman in Islam in the seventh century had the right to divorce, the right to be in public life, to be a scholar, to be a poet. Now a lot of women in the Muslim world are conscious that their societies don’t give them these privileges and rights. For them, using this part of the sharia becomes a very strong position to start bargaining from.
We must remember that the body of Islamic jurisprudence is huge, and to treat it as one clear-cut block is a mistake.
The Role of Women
VISCONTI: What about the role of women in Islam and in corporate America? How would our audience, if they’re confronted with situations or questions, respond?
DR. AHMED: The role of women in Islam is a fascinating one because it reflects the interplay between the genders, the sexes, culture and history. This is where everything intersects.
Islam began in the seventh century in a tribal society. That is what Muslims constantly go back to. The prophet’s wife Khadija is 15 years older than him. She’s a widow, a very successful business woman. She proposes to him. This challenges all your stereotypes about Muslim wives and husbands. Early Islam establishes the rights I mentioned—rights to inherit property defined by Islamic law, to lead armies. Aisha led armies. The scholarship of Islam, the sayings of the Prophet, all the books of Islam come from Aisha. These women are right out there. Some of the greatest Sufi names are Muslim women, like Rabia.
My thesis studying Muslim history was that wherever Muslim society is a flourishing civilization, Muslim women are out there and contributing with their men, and they have all their rights.
Where Muslim societies are threatened, for example, under colonization in the last two or three centuries in Africa and Asia, Muslim men (and you can put yourselves in their position) are threatened; their wives are locked up. Muslim women find it very uncomfortable to go to the bazaar to do shopping. A soldier may pick them up or insult them, rape them, whatever. The balances in society are then affected.
I gave you the example of Jinnah. When Jinnah creates Pakistan as the governor general, he’s invited to Baluchistan, which is the most tribal of societies in Pakistan. It’s on the border with Afghanistan.
The Baluch are thrilled to see him come. But they are told that he is bringing his sister and his sister walks shoulder-to-shoulder with him. She gave up her career to work with him as a modern woman in the 1930s. He said, “I will not come unless she’s welcomed exactly as I’m welcomed. She will be there representing Pakistan. You either accept us or I’m not coming.”
Jinnah showed the modern Muslim woman for the 1940s in a leadership role. This is what people like Benazir Bhutto are out there fighting for, giving their lives for.
My daughter’s generation is very aware of this and of the fight for their own position in society, and they’re not giving up. It really is very exciting for me as a male to see that lead coming from Muslim women—modern, educated and out there, not prepared to see themselves as in any way second-class citizens.
We have to give women a lot of confidence, a lot of support, and express our gratitude. Post-9/11 is a world dominated mostly by men. The post-9/11 world is Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld over here. In our part of the world, there’s Mubarak in Egypt, Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan. Men dominate the agenda, and unfortunately, we see with that a drive toward confrontation
Mothers, by definition, are the founders of families. They create human life and therefore they care about human life. I really think women have to play a much stronger role—forget the Muslim world—over here in the United States.
It’s Not Really About Religion
DR. POLLACK: One of the biggest mistakes that we make is we tend to look across the world and see differences that we ascribe to religion. Typically, it isn’t religion at all. Islam, like all the world’s religions, is infinitely malleable. Different people can interpret religion in completely different ways. What the scholars who work on religion are increasingly finding is that culture is far more powerful.
One of the greatest social anthropologists of the 20th century was Clifford Geertz. One of his most important works was a book called “Islam Observed.” He looked at Islam in Morocco and compared that to Islam in Indonesia, and then compared them both to Islam in Saudi Arabia. What he found was that Islam in Morocco looked almost nothing like Islam in Indonesia.
How people act is typically determined by their culture much more than some kind of rigid notion of what the religion prescribes. The same is true with the treatment of women all across the Muslim world. It varies from place to place.
When we polled women in the Muslim world, one of the things that’s very striking is that they have the same set of grievances as the men. Their highest concern? Jobs, unemployment, income. It is still a traditional society where the husband is the first expected to work. Then it gets to “Do I have a job? What kind of lives will we lead?”
What they will say is, “You Americans cannot be projecting your own values and your own concerns on us. We have our own hierarchy of needs. Listen to what we are saying. Stop telling us what our needs should be.”
That’s not to say that the emancipation of women is unimportant. It’s just a way of saying that we do need to listen to what they are saying themselves, rather than coming in with our own agendas.
The last point that I would make bears repeating: Muslim women are just people. They are women like other women. What I see so often is the culture much more than the religion itself.
I can point to one woman, a phenomenal employee of mine, Pakistani-American Muslim, who came to me and said, “I really hate to bring this to you. I just want you to be aware that this is going on, and could you help me?” And I said, “Oh, my god! How long has this been going on?” She had been dealing with this unbelievably problematic work situation for nine months.
I have another Muslim woman who I’ll compare her to, also a Pakistani-American Muslim. My god, is she in my face! Someone staples something the wrong way and she comes banging her fist on my desk.
Is the difference between these two women where their ancestors grew up or is it just that these are two very different people with two very different approaches to the world?
It reinforces that central point that we all always have to remember, which is not to stereotype, that people are very different. Societies may behave broadly in this way or that way but the individuals need to be treated as individuals.