RJ Spring 2002

What Every Jew Should Know About Islam & Those Who Have Hijacked Its Teachings

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An RJ interview with Children of Abraham author and Muslim historian Professor Khalid Durán on how Islam views Jews, the causes of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world, and what steps must be taken to defeat the threat of the jihadist movement.

Professor Khalid Durán has taught about Islam at universities around the world, including Islamabad University, the Free University of Berlin, Temple University, the University of California-Irvine, and the United Nations University. The author of five books on Islam, he most recently co-authored, with Abdelwahab Hechiche, Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews, which was published last May by KTAV as part of an American Jewish Committee effort designed to foster interreligious understanding between Jews and Muslims. (A companion volume on Judaism for Muslims with the same title was written by HUC-JIR Professor Rabbi Reuven Firestone.) Although many Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders, most notably Prince Hassan of the Kingdom of Jordan, warmly praised the volume, Sheik Abdel Munim Zant, a leader of Jordan's militant Islamic Action Front, branded Durán an apostate and called for his death. An outspoken figure, Durán has been particularly critical of major Muslim organizations in the United States for supporting militant Islamic causes.

Professor Durán was interviewed by RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer.


Is Islam inherently anti-Christian or anti-Jewish?

No. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad's original intent was not to found a new religion. He was driven by the desire to bring the Peoples of the Book (primarily Jews and Christians) back to the original faith of Abraham. He had learned that the various types of Christianity and sects of Judaism all sprang from the same source. Since they had come to differ among themselves, he regarded it as his task to reestablish the original Abrahamic religion. Since Muhammad wanted to make Jews and Christians convert, or rather reconvert, to the religion of Abraham, the prototypical Abrahamic religion then had to be reconstructed. That reconstruction became the religion of islâm, which literally means "submission to the will of God." One who practices islâm is a muslim, that is, a person who surrenders to the will of God.

How does the Qur`ân speak of Jews?

Both negative and positive references appear, with a noteworthy distinction. The negative references speak mostly of Yahûd (Jews), referring to the Jews of Medina, who broke a treaty with Mohammad and aligned themselves with his pagan enemies against the nascent Muslim community. The Qur`ân states: "You will see that the Believers' worst enemies are the Jews and the idolators" (Sûra 5:82). Positive references in the Qur`ân speak of Jews as Banî Isrâ'îl (Children of Israel), such as: "The Believers, the Jews, the Christians, and other monotheists, all who believe in God and the Last Day and do good will be rewarded by their Lord; they need not fear anything nor be despondent" (Sûra 2:62). On balance, negative images of Jews as transgressors are less frequent than positive references to Jews as exemplars of close communion between man and God. In effect, it is possible for Muslims to see a Jew from a double perspective: either as one of those who conspired against Muhammad in Medina, or as an heir to the biblical prophets. The double image of the Jew in the Qur`ân may account for the fluctuations in Muslim attitudes toward Jews, ranging from amicability to hostility.

Is there a singular Muslim point of view toward the Jewish faith?

No--in fact, there is no monolithic Muslim perspective on Islam. Because so much is in dispute, Islam has spawned seventy-three different sects, and no lessthan 85% of Islam's Holy Scripture is open to interpretation. Consider, for example, the two main religious sects within Islam--the Shi`is and the Sunnis--who have fought one another for centuries. The Shi`is believe that Muslim leadership is conditional on the notion of divine grace--an inherent characteristic leadership of the Prophet's family; these followers became known as Shi`is because they constituted the shî`a (party) of `Alî, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. The Sunni Muslims believe in following the practice (sunna) of Islam and generally take pride in being a churchless community, a religion without a clergy where every believer is, in effect, his own priest. The disadvantage of this position is that the community cannot easily unite on questions of detail, and often not even on broad principles. Whatever consensus there is in Muslim communities today is primarily the result of long-lasting feuds during which the upholders of contrary opinions became exhausted or were overpowered.

What, then, constitutes normative Islam?

The essential principles include believing in the One God, His angels and prophets; revelation (the Qur`ân); the Day of Judgment; the hereafter; and the basic ethical principles (justice, love for peace, truthfulness, solidarity, altruism, charity, kindness, etc.).

How does the "common man" in the Muslim world view Jews today?

The "common man" is mostly fearful and suspicious of Jews, an attitude which stems largely from news reports of attempts by Jews to destroy places sacred to Muslims, and to the 1994 massacre at Abraham's shrine in Hebron (the Tomb of the Patriarchs). There is also a widespread belief that the Jews aim to create a Greater Israel stretching as far as Medina in Saudi Arabia. It is a bitter irony that scarcely any Jew is aware of this, yet Islamists use this notion as a propaganda weapon against Israel and Jews in general.

You make a distinction between Muslims and Islamists.

For most Muslims, the Islamists are a clearly distinct and recognizable species of fundamentalists. Despite their pious rhetoric--they claim to be vanguard Muslims integrating faith and politics--Islamists are more political than religious in outlook; their cardinal concern is the achievement of political power. Coining the slogan "Islam Is Religion and State" (al-islâm dîn wa daula), Islamists refuse to accept a secular state that puts a member of a non-Muslim minority on a par with a member of the Muslim majority, and women on a par with men. Not just an ideological allegiance, Islamism is an organized, all-encompassing force based on well-structured parties with many-tiered systems of members and sympathizers, fronts, and networks; although in Muslim nations with an electoral process, Islamist parties have never won more than 10% of the votes.

It is essential that the Western media learn the distinction between Muslims and Islamists. Widespread ignorance of the Muslim world makes it easy for people in the West to be taken in by Islamists who pretend to speak in the name of Islam. The West also needs to stop taking cues from Islamist propagandists. Americans and Europeans, for example, made much of Islamist demonstrations in Pakistan against U.S. military actions in Afghanistan. By contrast, Muslim commentators were generally surprised that the Islamists failed to organize bigger protests. To quell those disturbances, the Pakistani government only had to arrest the leading four instigators, who are by no means the country's leading clerics or accomplished Islamic scholars; rather, they are rabble-rousing leaders of radical political parties who like to appear as clerics in order to enhance their prestige.

Are you saying that the Islamists speak only for a vocal minority in the Muslim world?

Yes. The Islamists constitute a very articulate minority buttressed by the oil wealth of countries such as Iran, Kuwait,Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The vast majority of Muslims are firmly opposed to the Islamists, but do not have the financial means to broadcast their position.

What incited the Islamist shift toward terror to try to achieve their goals?

The shift began in the 1980s, when a new generation of Islamists came of age for whom jihad (holy war) was not a matter of moral rearmament but purely of armed struggle. After the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1981, most Islamist associations were united by the blind Sheik `Omar `Abdu-r-Rahmân into a single organization--Gamâ`a Islâmîya (Islamic Community). Gamâ`a combatants plotted to assassinate President Hosni Mubârak, murdered petty officials and Christian shopkeepers, and slaughtered fifty-eight European tourists in Luxor in 1996. One Islamist group, Al-Gihâd Al-Islâmî (The Islamic Holy War), remained outside `Abdu-r-Rahmân's alliance, insisting that a handicapped man could only be a spiritual mentor, not the real leader. Gihâd favored assassinating government ministers, but criticized the killing of foreign tourists, which caused economic hardships for tens of thousands of Egyptians.

In 1998, Usâma Bin Lâdin convinced the leaders of Gamâ`a and Gihâd to stop fighting the domestic enemy--the Egyptian government and ruling elite--and concentrate on the "Great Satan" (United States). The exiled leaders of Gamâ`a and Gihâd later merged and joined Al-Qâ`ida (The Base) as well as an umbrella organization founded and commanded by Bin Lâdin called the Global Islamic Front to Fight Jews and Crusaders. The unification resulted in the ascendancy of Gihâd's secretary general, Dr. Aiman Az-Zawâhirî, a medical doctor and Bin Lâdin's favorite among the Egyptian Islamists, over several rival leaders, including the blind sheik, who, by then, had been imprisoned in the U.S. for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

What was Bin Lâdin's influence?

Under the sway of Usâma Bin Lâdin, Gihâd's tactics became more murderous and its targets more ambitious. A widespread restructuring of Islamist terrorist groups, leadership, and tactics ensued, including an agreement to use the most violent means to achieve their ends, even if hundreds of bystanders died in the attacks. This unification resulted in a significant jihâdist radicalization, as well as an increase in the number and scope of terrorist incidents around the world.

Why does Islamist supremacism find its strongest expression in militancy against America?

Jordan's Islamist preacher, Dr. Ahmad Naufal, gave the answer in a speech he delivered in Arabic at a Muslim Arab Youth Association convention in Kansas City in 1989: "We brought one superpower down, we can also bring the remaining one down. Once this last superpower is no more, who shall rule the world except us? Is there any other candidate for world leadership?" I have seen many Khomeinist publications speak of a new world in which the opposite poles are no longer Washington and Moscow, but Washington and Tehran.

In your opinion, what was the objective of Islamist terrorists in attacking the U.S. on September 11?

To demoralize Americans. And to demonstrate that they, the terrorists, are capable of inflicting pain. As Nosair, the assassin of Rabbi Meir Kahane, wrote in his notebook, "We have to bring down their highest buildings, their major tourist attractions, the edifices they are so proud of." He felt that the demoralizing effect was more important than to attack U.S. military installations. In 1993, speaking in the At-Taqwa Mosque in the shadow of the World Trade Center, the chief ideologue of Islamism, Sudan's Hasan Turabi, told the assembled that they were lucky to be like Moses, living in the House of Pharaoh, and like Moses they could bring the House of Pharaoh down, from within!

Islamists aspire to bring the West to its knees, and they have been more successful in this attempt than most Western decision-makers realize--or are ready to admit.

Do you think the U.S. response of waging a war in Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and capture Bin Lâdin will help to root out terrorism?

It is certainly a necessary step, but insufficient. We must not lose sight of other states playing a role similar to that of Afghanistan, especially Sudan. Malaysian support to Islamist terrorism has been absolutely crucial, but this is scarcely mentioned.

Most important, America must clean up its own house. The strongest base of Islamism is neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan--it is the United States. Islamists are firmly entrenched here--in the political system, in the economy, in academe, even in the military--and they count on support from a huge network of Muslim institutions and organizations in America. During an anti-U.S. demonstration in front of the White House on October 28, 2000, Imam Muzammil Siddiqi of the Garden Grove Mosque in California's Orange County shouted: "We warn you America! The wrath of God will be upon you!"

What other steps do you believe the West must take to defeat the Islamists?

The U.S. needs to assist in rebuilding the educational systems of Muslim countries. Shortly after independence, a B.A. or an M.A. from a Pakistani university enjoyed high respect in the West. Today it is the opposite. This deplorable breakdown was caused by excessive spending by governments on the military as well as by an overemphasis on ideology. To reverse this decline, Islamist schools must be closed--a huge task, but absolutely crucial for humanity at large because these schools impart little useful knowledge and indoctrinate students with hatred of others. The result is a disaster like Taliban-run Afghanistan. Let us not forget that the regime in Iran, too, uses the educational system to inculcate Islamic supremacism and hatred of the West--and Sudan is even worse.

What are the chances of a united, moderate Muslim voice emerging to oppose Islamist terrorism?

I believe that eventually a moderate voice will emerge and openly oppose Islamist terrorism. But most Muslims are intimidated, as Islamists have killed tens of thousands of their Muslim opponents in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Pakistan, and elsewhere--and the general impression remains that the U.S. supports the Islamists by backing repressive regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. If this view, which is so widely held in the Muslim world, can be changed, half the battle will be won.

In weighing the causes of Islamist rage against the West, how much would you attribute to American policies in the Middle East?

The issue is not so much U.S. "policies" as it is the enormous disparity in living standards between the rich and the poor in this world, with the U.S. topping the list of the rich. The resentment would not be so acute if the media did not constantly carry the images of American wealth into every hut around the globe. For the millions of starving people throughout the Muslim world, it is offensive to witness Western affluence all the time.

What about the billions of dollars in aid the U.S. has given to Egypt?

The government of Hosni Mubârak squanders the money, leaving the Egyptian masses as miserable as ever. A small section of the population--the pillars of the regime--live in utmost luxury, whereas the large masses are more or less famine-stricken. Americans are hated by the Egyptian populace because the U.S. has been propping Mubârak up without placing any restrictions on his repressive regime.

Do you agree that in its campaign against the Islamists the U.S. should be seeking alliances with Iran and other nations that sponsorterrorist organizations?

The U.S. should not be courting Tehran. Iran has not changed one bit. All this talk about Khatami and his group of reformers is nothing but theater. I personally know President Mohammad Khatami very well. He is one of the architects of this inhuman regime, and he ought to be tried for crimes against humanity. He is no different from his master, Ayatollah Khamenei. Under no circumstances should the U.S. improve relations with this moribund "mullacracy" in Tehran. The Iranian people are rising in revolt; America should support the uprising rather than the regime.

Do you believe Islam and the West are on a collision course, or will calmer heads prevail?

I am optimistic that calmer heads will prevail, but it depends, of course, on Western attitudes and actions. If another Bosnia is allowed to happen, relations may become irreparable. The first step to remedy the situation is to dismantle that most obscene of all political creations, the so-called Serbian Republic, which the aggressors carved out of Bosnian territory in 1995. Serb massacres of Muslims in Bosnia, massacres carried out with Christian symbolism, had a devastating effect on Muslims all around the world. In Cairo a young man opened fire on a group of European tourists. It turned out that he was not even one of the "religious fanatics" but acted merely out of fury over the genocide against the Bosnians.

Do you believe the West has been insensitive or indifferent to Muslim concerns? If so, do you think that interreligious dialogue is the best remedy available to people of conscience?

In some ways yes. People in the West tend to behave as if the age of colonialism were distant history; for Muslims it came to an end only yesterday, and in some places it continues still. Much of what is now called Russia is in fact colonial territory. Among Muslims in France more than a million are the children of colonial soldiers (harkis), who live in a state of limbo. There is so much Muslim suffering around the world, but Muslims find themselves treated as aggressors most of the time. This creates enormous bitterness.

Interreligious dialogue is a crucial means of overcoming such tensions, but it alone will not solve the problem. Interreligious dialogue will be decisive only if accompanied by a massive educational program, in the East as well as the West, for ignorance of one another is the wellspring of war.


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