The Image of God

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Bill Moyers focuses on the subject of religious beliefs and practices in the Arab world. A panel of experts converse with Moyers about the basic tenets of the Islamic faith, and how it influences the daily lives of its practitioners.



BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. Sometimes, it seems as that God couldn’t decide whether to bless or punish the Middle East. There, three of the great religions of the world were born — Islam, Judaism and Christianity and there, the faithful have been striving and battling ever since. In this broadcast, the image of God in the Arab world.

Of the 185 million people in the Arab world, most are Muslims, but several million are Christians. And the Muslims themselves, like Christians everywhere, are rife with sectarian divisions. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, God wears many masks and is invoked for many causes.

Here to discuss the image of God in the Arab world are Yvonne Haddad, who was born in Syria and studied in Beirut and the U.S. and teaches history at the University of Massachusetts; Michael Suleiman, professor of political science at Kansas State University, who was born in Palestine and educated in the U.S.; and Afaf Marsot, who was born in Egypt, educated in Cairo and at Oxford and who teaches history at UCLA.

Dr. Haddad, let me ask the first question to you. For a decade now, we Americans have been watching on television Muslims with chanting mobs and terrorist fanatics. Television has brought us images of armed gunmen chanting Muslim slogans, of women in dark robes, of sinister looking clerics. Headlines repeatedly point to a resurgence of Islamic Fundamentalism, and one letter to the editor recently said, ”Islam is giving religion a bad name.” What’s your response to that portrait?

YVONNE HADDAD, Professor of History, University of Massachusetts at Amherst: I think the West is giving Islam a bad name, because, basically, we have decided to demonize Islam. Vice President Quayle made a statement in May in which he said this century, we’ve had three evils, in a sense — Nazism, Communism and Islamic Fundamentalism, which I think is very unfortunate. The images that television can bring are very selective. They do not cover all of Muslims. There are Muslim terrorists. There are terrorists who happen to be Muslim. There are Christian terrorists. They happen to — you know, they are terrorists who happen to be Christian. And you have Jewish terrorists. That doesn’t mean Christianity, Islam and Judaism are terrorist religions. The Ku Klux Klan does not stand for all of Christianity, nor does the Jewish Defense League, nor do the Muslim terrorists.

There are a few, but there is a resurgent Islam in the Middle East and we have to understand it. It is something that is happening worldwide. There is interest in religion worldwide. It is not a uniquely Islamic phenomenon. We know that there is religious revival in India, in Sri Lanka. There is religious revival in the United States. There is religious revival in Israel. We cannot only say that the Muslims are the ones, or that Islam is the one.

BILL MOYERS: But it is true, Dr. Suleiman, that during the recent Iran-Iraq war, Khomeini said that “the purest joy in Islam is to kill and be killed for God.” What’s your response to that? You’re sighing over here.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN, Professor of Political Science, Kansas State University: Well —

AFAF MARSOT, Professor of Near and Middle Eastern History, University of California at Los Angeles: I am so sick of hearing these stereotypes, that-I mean


BILL MOYERS: But Khomeini did say it.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN:Yeah, well, one particular leader, and I may disagree with Khomeini. All right, Khomeini says it is the purest joy, but primarily, it is the same kind of argument that we use when we send soldiers to war, because you’re fighting for your country, you’re fighting for your faith. It doesn’t mean that we’re celebrating death and killing. That is not the message. The message is that you’re out to defend your faith.

I wanted to go back to the remark about Islam giving religion a bad name. I think that this is a distortion of what is happening. I agree fully that, in fact, it is some religious leaders in the West — some individuals in the West — who are giving Islam a bad name. Now, what happens is, to illustrate — what happens is, when you keep saying that these people are bad-and I’ll give you an example of how they are bad. It is similar, as has been said, to someone saying that Socrates, for instance, was short, not very good looking, argumentative, quarreled with his wife, and actually gave Athenians a very hard time. Now, if I told you all these things about Socrates, I would be telling the truth, but it certainly is not the whole truth about Socrates. And if we keep repeating and repeating about Muslims and Islam, only the negative things, only when specific individuals, who happen to come from Islamic backgrounds, do something terrible, then that is the image that is formed, and repeatedly, actually mentioned. Therefore, that’s the problem.

YVONNE HADDAD: This is a deliberate policy. It’s simply a deliberate policy, designed to give Muslims a bad name, because none of the good things about Islam and the religion of Islam are shown. Nobody mentions the fact that Islam is also a culture as well as being a religion and a civilization, as well as being both, and it is simply the negatives that are highlighted, designed to give Muslims a bad name, to ‘ show that they are fanatics. They are loonies. They’re crazies. They are other than us.

BILL MOYERS: Somebody mentioned to me before this broadcast the example of Terry Waite, who was quoted on television saying-Terry Waite’s the Episcopalian cleric who went to-He said, “Islam is a noble faith that has at its heart an unshakable faith in one God, a God who is full of mercy, compassion and justice.” And this person said to me, ”Yes, Moyers, Terry Waite has disappeared into Lebanon, either a hostage or dead at the hands of militants who call themselves the Army of God.” How do you reconcile the paradox?

AFAF MARSOT: How do you reconcile the Spanish Inquisition with the Christian faith, the love of humanity, the gentleness of the Christian faith? How do you reconcile the· two?

BILL MOYERS: I’ve had even a more difficult-I’ve had a difficult time with that, but I also have a difficult time with James Jones leading his cult into Guyana and having

AFAF MARSOT: Precisely. Precisely. And we have a difficult time with Muslims kidnapping people as hostages. This is against the spirit and the letter of Islam. They are not doing it in the name of Islam. They’re doing it in the name of Lebanese politics.

BILL MOYERS: What is the core belief of Islam? Can you reduce it down?

AFAF MARSOT: Yes. There is no God but God. Mohammed is his prophet. God is the merciful, the compassionate.

BILL MOYERS: The belief in one God.

AFAF MARSOT: The belief in uncompromising monotheism.

BILL MOYERS: Daily prayers, too. Are they not a part —

AFAF MARSOT: Daily prayers, five daily prayers a day and the prayers begin with the — “God, the merciful, the compassionate.”

BILL MOYERS: And, like Jesus —

AFAF MARSOT: — “in the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.”

BILL MOYERS: And, like Jesus, taxes on the rich to help the poor. Isn’t that a —

AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely. This is one of the five pillars of Islam, is taxing the rich to recycle wealth amongst the society.

BILL MOYERS: And then, fasting?

AFAF MARSOT: Fasting, prayer, pilgrimage — once in your lifetime, if you can afford it — and simply recognizing the existence of God.

BILL MOYERS: What about, then, the connotations that come around the jihad, the sense of a holy war, Dr. Haddad?

YVONNE HADDAD: Well, the word jihad, in Arabic, means “struggle” and if you look at the context of the Koran, you will find that most of the references are for the struggle of the soul to-to be — to control the soul from veering toward evil, because the Koran says that the next assault tends towards evil. So the greatest struggle is the struggle of the self, to bring it in obedience to God, to make sure that you are living a holy life according to what God wants. Then, it says the lesser struggle is jihad and jihad as, quote, unquote, ”holy war” is sanctioned in Islam only when the faith is being attacked or when Muslims are not allowed to practice their faith. And in the West, we have switched the two around. Every time we hear the word jihad, it’s as though there is this, you know, mob image, these violent people out to oppress the world. I’ve seen a book that came out of North Dakota, and it has a picture of a Muslim dressed in green, riding a horse. He has the Koran in his left hand, the sword in the right, and it says, you know, “the Muslims are coming.” And this is so unfortunate, because, first of all, it’s an error. Muslims would never carry the Koran in their left hand. But it is the stereotype, and I think that we are deliberately stereotyping them, demonizing them, to make it easy to rule them.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: There was, for very many centuries, a conflict between countries that followed Islam and countries that followed Christianity and that certainly scared many of the Christians in the West and it brought up this threat of Islam as almost a-something that is in the back of Westerners minds, that always comes up to the fore whenever there is a conflict in the area — ”Muslims are a threat to Christianity,” although the threat now is gone. But as part of the attempt to try to get people in Europe, especially in the Middle Ages, to stop fighting among each other and to get them to unite to fight outsiders, then Islam became a useful outside force, the “other” that we are fighting.

And it was at that time, I think, that the image of Islam as people who basically conquered with the sword-Yes, of course, any conqueror would have to use force, including the sword and the gun and so on, but, really, more often it is the case that the Arabs and Muslims primarily conquered by appealing to the people of the area to join them because there are benefits to join and because the countries and the civilizations that were dominant at the time, including the Byzantine Empire, were already crumbling. So you go in and say, those people that you have suppressed who are willing to accommodate and have them become, say, protected under Islam, people of the book, and that was more useful than actually killing them.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Haddad, you are a Christian, are you not?


BILL MOYERS: What do you admire about Islam?

YVONNE HADDAD: Well, there are lots of things that I admire. It’s very close to Christianity and it honors-you know, Jesus as a prophet — I know a lot of Muslims who are very devout people, and they’re as devout as my mother, who was a reformed Presbyterian. Basically, they believe the same things we do. They have — they share a lot of our values and there is-you know, the devout people have no interest in the wealth and all this all other trappings of society and it is a religion that is very democratic. It has very little distinction between colors-color, you know, language differences are ignored and you will see, if you go to mosque in the United States today, you know, and there are some mosques that may have up to-people from 60 different countries and they’re all there together as one group.

AFAF MARSOT: What-what you have to-to-Perhaps what people don’t know is that it took centuries for the conquered countries to Arabize and Islamize. It didn’t happen overnight, because they said, “We offer you religion or the sword,” as many people think. That’s not true. Egypt became Arabized and Islamized five to six centuries later and much of the religion was spread simply by merchants. The religion, as spread outside the Arab world, was spread by merchants who simply went and established themselves and converted the people of the place. Therefore, the idea that you go out on jihad and you force people and bash them into conversion is totally erroneous. In the first place, they didn’t want that many people to convert because they were paying a poll tax. It’s true the Muslims paid a tax which is much higher because it’s a tax on the capital, not simply a. fixed amount. But, nonetheless, people don’t realize — listen, they don’t realize that whether you’re Christian or Muslim or Jewish, if you live in the Arab world, you’re part of the past history, which is what Islamic civilization or Arab civilization is all about.

BILL MOYERS: Dr. Marsot, how do you explain the fact that Saddam Hussein is, as I understand it, a secularist. I don’t think he’s a —

AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: — a devout Islam and yet, he uses the appeal to Islam, to-to —

AFAF MARSOT: Because all rulers use religion as part of their political baggage, and even the most secular of countries, on its dollar bill, is written “In God We Trust.” It doesn’t say, ”We trust in the Bank of America,” or “in the Federal Reserve.”

BILL MOYERS: I remember from my own study of history at the University of Edinburgh, an engraving of Pope Urban sending off the Crusades with his knights armed and the spears and the swords all flashing in the sun and he’s saying, in Latin, “God wills it.” I mean, there you have this tendency —

AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely.

YVONNE HADDAD: That’s right.

BILL MOYERS: — and, yet, so many governments in the Arab world today make this appeal to Islam, even on the part of leaders like Saddam who do not exercise — who are not devout.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Well, what is —

AFAF MARSOT: No, they will manipulate religion and, to go back to the Crusades, everybody thinks the Crusades were a religious war. The Crusades were for younger sons of Europe who had no land to go and conquer themselves a piece of territory somewhere else. It was a purely economic series of wars which had nothing to do with religion, except using religion.

BILL MOYERS: But what are the practical effects of the absence of a secular-You know, we talk about the separation of church and state and, as a Baptist, that’s been a very important principle to me, what about in the-in the Arab —

YVONNE HADDAD: We talk about it, but look at what George Bush did-On January 15th, when he announced the war, he walked out of the White House with Billy Graham at his side, who had spent the night there. The image that was, you know, telecast to the Arab world was, “Here is a Christian war,” because he said, “It’s a just war,” which he used Christian values to justify it and he cast Saddam Hussein as an evil thing and we were the forces of righteousness. Now, seen from the Muslim perspective, it was George Bush as a crusader. In fact, one of the names that was given to him was Saint George, because Saint George was always killing the dragon and, you know, Saddam Hussein was demonized. But, also, he was Saint George on the 11th Crusade and it was all tagged together.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: I wanted to say that the appeal to Islam and Muslims is done by the various leaders, primarily because they recognize that, obviously, most of the people in the area, as you indicated, are Muslim, most people in the area actually identify, not only as Arabs, but even, in some cases, more so as Muslims. So it is a very good, legitimizing force and so, whether you are actually, yourself, a religious leader or not, whether you are, in fact, a practicing Muslim or not, you use religion. And this has been used by all the different leaders in the area, including, for instance, Sadat. Sadat was viewed to be, supposedly — in the West, anyway — as very religious, when, in fact, he was not as religious as he made out to the outside world. Primarily, he was using religion and when it suited his purposes, he turned against the Muslim Fundamentalists within Egypt. So, Islam is a good legitimizing force, and that’s why it is used.

AFAF MARSOT: As good as any religion.

YVONNE HADDAD: No, but there is —

BILL MOYERS: All right, so tell me a little bit about-excuse me.

YVONNE HADDAD: Yes, there is something very important and that is all Arab countries — most Arab countries don’t have a democracy and, therefore, the only opposition there is politically is from the religious groups, the Islamic movements that are demanding democratization and free speech and, therefore, in order to deal with the opposition, all the leaders are tapping into religion. If you go to Morocco, you will see pictures of King Hassan praying. If you go to Tunisia, you’ll see Ben Ali’s pictures dressed in the ihram, you know, going to the hajj, and so did Saddam, and this is, in a sense, an effort to coopt the opposition. It’s a political move.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, but I’m — I am puzzled by part of that, because I know some people who will argue that Islam is not calling, in many of these states, even though they’re calling for a change in the regime, they’re not calling for democratization —


AFAF MARSOT: They are.

BILL MOYERS: — you’ll find — the American soldiers in Saudi Arabia had to be careful not to offend the Saudis, to the point where the freedoms of Jewish and female personnel were seriously repressed. Now, that —

YVONNE HADDAD: Yes, but Saudi Arabia is not the rest of the Muslim world.

BILL MOYERS: But it’s part of the Muslim world.

YVONNE HADDAD: It’s different than the rest.

AFAF MARSOT: When you say “Fundamentalists,” if we summarize what they want to say, what their demands are, you can point to three things. The first thing is they’re asking for a rule of law, except they put it in the Muslim idiom, which is sharia. They want sharia, because —

BILL MOYERS: That’s a holy law, divine law?

AFAF MARSOT: It’s partly divine, partly interpretation of divine and, therefore, they mean by that they don’t want rule of whimsy or caprice of rulers. They want the rulers to be under the law, as well as the rest of the population.

BILL MOYERS: Under Islamic law?

AFAF MARSOT: Under the law, the Islamic law. The second thing they’re asking for a return to zacat, which means a redistribution of wealth, because you pay 2-1/2 percent of everything every year. The third thing they’re asking, is they’re asking for social justice, because it doesn’t exist in the Arab world with totalitarian governments.

BILL MOYERS: But will they extend that to non-Muslims


AFAF MARSOT: Of course.

BILL MOYERS: — to women?


AFAF MARSOT: Of course. That is the assumption. Whether they, in fact, if they ever seize power, they will do that, is moot.

BILL MOYERS: Why, Dr. Marsot, do so many Muslims rage against the West?

AFAF MARSOT: Because the West has done so many things, has abused the Muslim world, the Arab world, so frequently. The very fact that people can say things about “Islam is giving religion a bad name” — How would Christians feel if Muslims said “Christianity gives religion a bad name’,? Would you feel very friendly towards people like that? Would you feel friendly towards people who’ve occupied you, colonized you, exploited you economically, and then ended by dropping bombs on your head, as they’ve have in Iraq? How would you feel about these people?

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: The rage comes-has different roots. It depends on which community, which individuals we’re talking about. Of course, if, indeed, the individuals or the groups are, say, what has been termed as Muslim Fundamentalists, their main concern is that Islam itself and Muslims have been defeated, have been put in a position of being dominated by non-Muslims — basically, the Christian West — and it is that response, then, that animates them. But there are others who, for instance, are educated, who want, in fact, to be like the West, who want liberal democracy, but have been disappointed in the West, primarily because of the West actually having betrayed their trust.

BILL MOYERS: Betrayed their trust in regard to —?

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Especially after World War I and the promises that at least they thought were made as to them helping the West fight the war and then, after the war, getting independence, and not getting that independence.

BILL MOYERS: Isn’t there also something else, Dr. Suleiman? I saw a recent documentary done about Islam in which there was a powerful interview with an Islamic woman who was saying that, in her judgment and the judgment of many of her peers, Western culture is corrupt, sinful, obsessed with sex, that she actually preferred wearing the-the habit that is so common in that part of the world.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: There is that, and I was coming to it. Yes, indeed, there is the element that the Western culture has become too obsessed, say, with sex, if you wish, has become too free, if you will and, therefore, there is no control over people’s actions and so on. But this-this is one particular group emphasizing one particular element. They see that, but they do not see the democracy in action. I mean, all of us have, to some extent, some tunnel vision and I think that this particular group, for instance, yes, emphasizes that particular element —

YVONNE HADDAD: But there is something else at stake that we don’t talk about — our image, in the United States, of the Muslims is from television. You know, it’s conditioned by the movies we see, by television programs we’re see, where we see Muslims depicted as-covered as violent and in the movies, they have three or four wives. They’re lascivious. They’ve everything else. But their image of who we are as Christians, as Americans, comes from television. It comes from Dallas and Love Boat and it comes from any of the other films —

BILL MOYERS: And what do they conclude from that about the rest of society?

YVONNE HADDAD: That our women are loose. They’re ready to hop into bed at the earliest thing and they think that we hit our-you know, men abuse women, woman are used for sex. They don’t want to emulate the women of the West because that is —

AFAF MARSOT: And that we are a very materialistic culture, which they can’t afford, and a highly consumer culture, which they can’t afford either.

BILL MOYERS: What is the notion of morality-and I know this is a general question, but give me a general answer. What’s the notion of morality in basic Islam?

AFAF MARSOT: It’s the very same notion that we get in basic Christianity — an upright life, thinking good, behaving in as honorable and decent a — a method as we can, not lying, not cheating, not abusing or exploiting anybody else, trying to remain faithful to your vows, faithful to your word, fidelity in marriage, virginity for both male and female until marriage. That is the ideal.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain the fact that, say, take Saudi Arabia — which is one of the most Fundamentalist countries, in terms of the practices that are enforced socially within the country — whose leaders seem to adore and purchase the amenities of the West, the luxuries of the West, the habits of the West while trying to protect their own people from exposure to these influences from the West. How do you explain that?

AFAF MARSOT: Well, the basic contradiction of all societies and what the rulers say and do. It’s a question of “Do as I say, not what I do,” because their moral lives are questioned by their own people.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: They live in the 20th century. They’re part of this world. They need to interact with the outside world. They-of course, they have the oil and they have to sell it to the outside world. The question is how much interaction and what do you borrow from the West? And this is the subject of much discussion among intellectuals in the area. Basically, some — especially among more Fundamentalist Muslims — all they want is technology and science, and they say everything else should be Muslim.

BILL MOYERS: No manners, no mores, no —

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: Right. But, of course, it’s not very easy to
just take science and technology.

BILL MOYERS: Well, that’s it, isn’t it? I mean, Muslims-Islam is up against the same human and democratic — with a small force that every other religion in the world is facing —



BILL MOYERS: — that is, the ideals are confronted at the base operation of human behavior in a way that corrupt the ideals.

YVONNE HADDAD: Absolutely.

AFAF MARSOT: Absolutely.

MICHAEL SULEIMAN: And often, we forget the ideals and we look at some practices of specific individuals and say, ”This is Islam.”

YVONNE HADDAD: But, see, in the situation of Saudi Arabia, which you raised, the political structure in Saudi Arabia is very interesting. The legitimacy of the Saudi family is held out by Benbas and the religious structure and the Saudis and the Wahhabis, which is the religious teachings of the Saudi state, are together in a coalition as government, so that the Saudis rule, in a sense, with the religious orders, and that is different than any other Muslim state.

BILL MOYERS: Thirty seconds, Dr. Marsot, last word. What would you most want the West to understand about this vast Islamic religion?

AFAF MARSOT: That the-If I had to summarize Islam in one sentence, it would be a passage out of the Koran that enjoins as the duty of every Muslim to do good and to set aside evil.

BILL MOYERS: Love thy neighbor as thyself, in a way.

AFAF MARSOT: By the hand and by the heart and by the mouth.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you, Dr. Marsot, Dr. Haddad, Dr. Suleiman. In our next broadcast, we’re going to talk about language, family life, women and politics and humor. I’m’ Bill Moyers.

This transcript was entered on May 13, 2015.

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