Tamim Ansary and Farid Esack

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Bill Moyers speaks with Dr. Farid Esack, a South African Muslim theologian and academic and Tamim Ansary, an Afghani-American writer from San Francisco about the tragedies of Sept. 11.


BILL MOYERS: Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. Thanks to Gwen Ifill and her guests in Washington. My first guest tonight is here because of the amazing power of the internet. It was the e-mail heard round the world.

Just days ago, Tamim Ansary wrote a letter to 20 of his friends, he wrote about how he, an American from Afghanistan, felt about last week’s attack on New York and Washington, about how Islam is perceived in America, about the talk of bombing Afghanistan back into the stone age. About the Taliban’s cruel war on its own people and about what Osama bin Laden really wants. His e-mail struck a nerve.

In a few hours it was speeding around cyberspace, I received it from no less than 21 people.

TAMIM ANSARY: When you think Taliban, think Nazis, when you think bin Laden, think Hitler, and when you think the people of Afghanistan think the Jews and the concentration camps, it’s not only that the afghan people have nothing to do with this atrocity, they were the first victims of the perpetrators.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you for joining me. Why did you write that letter?

TAMIM ANSARY: I wrote the letter first of all because like everybody, as soon as this thing happened in New York I was extremely upset, I was filled with
dread. And then I was at home and my wife called me from work and said you got to call this talk show and put your voice in there, because you won’t believe what they’re saying.

BILL MOYERS: What were they saying?

TAMIM ANSARY: So I got in my car and drove around to listen to it, and really in some ways, you can certainly understand the kind of rage that was being expressed there, but I heard phrases like, we should glass it over.


TAMIM ANSARY: Nuke it until it all melts.

BILL MOYERS: Afghanistan.

TAMIM ANSARY: Yeah. And also there was other kinds of talk along the lines of, you know, we should put a barrier around it so they can’t eat or, you know, various kinds of enraged comments. And I realized that most of those people didn’t realize that Afghanistan is in terrible shape, has been for a long time, and is probably in the worst shape it’s ever been in now.

BILL MOYERS: When you wrote the letter, did you know it would speed around the world the way it did?

TAMIM ANSARY: I had no idea, no. And when I came home, I got a chain letter from one of my friends, that had nothing in it to say that was bad. But just felt like a few people are going to call me and say you’re from Afghanistan, what do you think, so I just wanted to give my speech.

BILL MOYERS: If anyone wants to read your letter, where can they go, it’s on the website, salon.com. Who do you think was responsible for the terrorism?

TAMIM ANSARY: Well, before I say anything about that, I have to preface it by saying my opinion on that is more or less worthless. I don’t know. My speculation is like anybody’s speculation.

BILL MOYERS: How long have you lived in this country?

TAMIM ANSARY: 36 years.

BILL MOYERS: So you came from Afghanistan when you were a teenager?

TAMIM ANSARY: Yeah, 16. I’ve kept in touch, and in 1908 the soviets invaded Afghanistan, and up to them things were more or less okay. And from that time on, things have been getting steadily worse there. And from that time on, my friends, my family, various people I knew, have been getting out over the years. So now they’re all out.

BILL MOYERS: What’s happened to the people who have stayed there?

TAMIM ANSARY: I was just until the Taliban came over, there was still some kind of a recognizable country. Just before the Taliban came, there were various factions who had beaten the soviets and were now fighting over the scraps of what they had won. And they were fighting the war had come right into the city of Kabul now, and now there was one fashion held this neighborhood and another faction held that hotel, and it was that kind of thing.

BILL MOYERS: Today it’s ruled by the Taliban?

TAMIM ANSARY: Yeah, but then when the Taliban came, the bombardment was much heavier, and now, I haven’t been there, but I’ve seen videotapes and it’s really shocking to see a place that I live and you can just see nothing but rubble all the way to the, you know, to the distant hills.

BILL MOYERS: So when people talk about bombing Afghanistan back into the stone age, what goes through your mind?

TAMIM ANSARY: One thing that goes through my mind is that a couple of years ago, I became aware that Afghanistan is one of the places, and there’s others, that is most littered with land mines. Along with, I don’t know, perhaps Cambodia and some other places. And that every week at that point, ’98, every week three or four kids were blown up by some little hung of metal that they saw.

And what went through my mind as I imagined, you know, my own daughter and other kids I know, the urge to play, you want to pick up some little shiny thing, and the idea that kids were having their limbs blend off just made me want to cry.

BILL MOYERS: It’s a nation of widows too, isn’t it, two million men lost their lives against the soviets?

TAMIM ANSARY: Two million men lost their lives, that’s the figure I’ve heard, lost their lives against the soviets. And during the war the adult men were in the country fighting, and those five million or so refugees that were outside the country were the women and children, and old folks of those families. It wasn’t like whole families had become refugees. So I think there is something about that that is, that has an impact on the situation. Because now the people that lived in the camps, that’s a very distorted and weird situation, especially for the kids that are growing up there.

BILL MOYERS: Why did you say in your letter, why did you say when you hear the word Taliban you think Nazi’s, and when you hear the phrase the people of Afghanistan you think Jews and concentration camps, why did you say that?

TAMIM ANSARY: Of course I didn’t mean that afghans are Jewish, they’re not that. But I meant in the sense, with that last thing, I meant in a sense that most of the people in Afghanistan are pretty much trapped there, they’re not going to get out. A quarter of the country, I just read today, something reprinted from the “New York times”, a quarter of the country, about 6 million people, they think, are now just trembling on the edge of dying of starvation. If I think about being inside the middle of Afghanistan and this horror is coming, and I’ve decided I’m going to get out, I know that there’s been so much destruction that there’s not going to be, you’re not going to take your credit card and stay in a hotel along the way, you’re not going to get in a car and go, there’s no busses, you’re going to start walking. And that’s like walking from here to Denver with no money and no place to get food along the way. I don’t think I would make it.

BILL MOYERS: And the Taliban is a totalitarian power, isn’t it, it runs the country with an iron fist, which is why you compared it to the Nazi’s?

TAMIM ANSARY: It runs the country with an iron fist and that’s part of why I compared it with the Nazi’s. But the other part of that that I was thinking about was that the Taliban, unlike the Islam that I grew up with and the Muslims that I know, they have a very narrow and in some ways very particular and concrete ideology that’s drawn from an interpretation of the religion of Islam that is nothing like what I grew up with and what my friends grew up with. But it’s an ideology that I think has political uses and depends in part on having an enemy.

BILL MOYERS: We heard today from some of the, in Washington, question have to be that irrational in our response, blow their capital from under them. But Islam doesn’t have a capital, does it?


BILL MOYERS: Is not a political entity?

TAMIM ANSARY: It’s not a political entity. And I think there is a romance of a political entity amongst some of these Muslim extremists, because there is a mythology of, you know, early Islam when the Islamic empire was the world super power, at least regionally, so I think there has long been a romance of reconstituting that.

BILL MOYERS: Restoring that to that perfect Islam.

TAMIM ANSARY: Right. And of course everybody agrees that Islamic empire was not the perfect Islam, but there is an image of the community that mo hammed constituted in Arabia, that’s the perfect Islam.

BILL MOYERS: What do you think, I know you don’t know first-hand, but what do you think bin Laden wants? What he like to see us start a war with the Muslim world?

TAMIM ANSARY: You know, I said that in my e-mail and I don’t know anything about that, he may or may not, I don’t know. But the reason I said it is because it felt to me, and it feels to me now when I think about it that that would be something that would serve his aims if his aim is, and in this respect I think he’s spoken of it, if his aim is to usher in the age when Islam will, you know, rule the earth, everybody will be Muslims and the society will be constituted upon the earth.

BILL MOYERS: Since the terrorist attack, Mr. Ansary, have you been intimidated dated or harassed in this country? You’re an American citizen for over a quarter century, but you’re from Afghanistan, and everybody is talking about bombing Afghanistan back to the stone age. Have you been harassed?

TAMIM ANSARY: I am not, and I’m proud that nobody has harassed me, and if others have been I’m very sorry for that. But I have to say no I haven’t.

BILL MOYERS: When you pray, you’re not praying to the same god that terrorists are, are you, or are you?

TAMIM ANSARY: You know, if you’re a Muslim, if you’re truly a Muslim you don’t think of praying to a god versus some other god. The religion of Islam says, this is like the, there’s only one God, everybody who prays to God is praying to the same God. That’s all I can say on that. I don’t know what they’re thinking.

BILL MOYERS: How does it feel to be an Afghan American in the last ten days?

TAMIM ANSARY: It feels, you know, there’s a layer of dread there, along with the shock and the fear and the sorrow for people who have lost somebody and the impact of what’s happened here. There’s also the dread that you get from knowing or feeling what’s coming and that it’s going to be perhaps really bad, and I can certainly even now, I can imagine who is going to suffer.

BILL MOYERS: And who are they?

TAMIM ANSARY: You know, even though my family and relatives are gone now, I picture my grandmother in Kabul, there’s old women there and I can picture my grandmother being somebody like that and I can picture my aunts and middle determine uncle, and afghans and family that I know. And when I think about people getting blown up or the Violence that’s going to come, I sort of have an image of particular people, heave even though I don’t know those particular people, but it’s not strange to me somehow.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you for joining us. We’ll see you later here on Channel 13. Yesterday President Bush went straight from the Pentagon to the Islamic Center of Washington to speak of reconciliation and tolerance. He denounced revenge, a tax upon American Muslims. Here’s some of what he had to say.

GEORGE BUSH JR: The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens. And Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military. Entrepreneurs, shop keepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect.

BILL MOYERS: My guest now is a Muslim theologian, Dr. Farid Esack grew up in South Africa where there’s been a Muslim community for over 300 years. Clutching the Koran, the holy book of Islam to his breast, he marched against apartheid and went to over a thousand protest meetings to end white domination of South Africa. He studied in Pakistan and Great Britain and is considered one of the world’s leading interpreters of Islam. I recommend to you his book, being a Muslim. He’s a visiting professor at auburn theological seminary here in New York. Thank you very much for joining us.

FARID ESACK: Thanks for having me over.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the most important thing that we Americans can understand today about Islam?

FARID ESACK: That at its core, Islam is a religion of peace. And despite the many violent manifestations in many parts of the world, that Islam is a cry, a cry of the marginalized, a cry of the unjust, but not a blind rage. It has at its core the yearning for peace, the oneness of people with themselves and with god.

BILL MOYERS: But the terrorists last week, they don’t fit that description. What can you say about their idea of Islam?

FARID ESACK: I think that Islam, like any other religion, is also open to manipulation, it’s also open to abuse. It is open to different interpretations. I think that it is a fundamental distinction between the Protestantism of say a bishop, and David Koresh on the other hand or Timothy McVeigh on the other hand.

BILL MOYERS: Koresh led the cult that was wiped out in Waco.

FARID ESACK: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: And they did what he did, with some religious motive.

FARID ESACK: Absolutely. But the regime was one that was motivated by quote, deeply Christian principles. But Tutu and Mandela, these are also Christians. Islam like any other religion also lends itself in some ways to being distorted. Often when people feel, and I don’t say that they do so justly, but that all other avenues have been closed for them, people use religion to justify their own angers, their own vengeance, and it is regrettable that in this particular case Islam is a tool in the hands of people who are very, very angry, who are often, in some ways it’s, there has been far more anti-Muslim or anti-Arab stuff in other parts of the country rather than New York. People compensate for the absence of the real thing. So for the absence of religion of Islam in their lives, people resort to violence as a compensation for the fact that their lives are broken.

BILL MOYERS: But these young men, apparently, according to the early reports in the press, were well educated, they were many of them from a, like bin Laden comes from a very wealthy family. They’re not marginalized. They seem to be different from the other terrorists. What is there in their idea of Islam that justifies declaring war on the west and killing innocent people?

FARID ESACK: It’s also a sense of being on the edges. Not only on the edges of their personal lives, because I think people need to understand that very often it’s not a sense of personal loss, but a sense of being on the edges, a sense of these countries where, in Afghanistan under the soviets or in Saudi Arabia under monarchy or Egypt under a totalitarian regime, the complete absence of civil liberties, the criminalization of political dissent. And so when there is an absence of any means to articulate your aspirations, people often resort to extremism.

The regrettable thing of course is that we only see the things that people resort to,
Rather than seeing how our own countries aid and abet those governments that engage in these kind of repression against their own populations.

BILL MOYERS: But given the repression against their own populations as you say, the lack of political freedom in their own states, why do they need a foreign enemy?

FARID ESACK: I’m not so sure. If one can speak about a foreign enemy. The reality is that the cultures of these people have been overrun, whether it is in the forms of McDonald’s taking over local cuisines or the monetary systems of these countries, the sense of social dysfunction, of a lack of at oneness with your own culture and your own community. There is nothing foreign. In a world where in we drive Japanese cars and our cuisine is Italian and our language is a combination of all sorts of other influence, there is nothing other in the world any more.

BILL MOYERS: I know, but there are McDonald’s in London and the British aren’t bombing the world trade center. There are McDonald’s in Greece and the Greeks aren’t bombing the world trade center. Help me understand what is there about this particular, as you say, minority of Muslims who are carrying what is a holy war?

FARID ESACK: I think it is two things. The one is, we need to come to terms with and begin to understand it. When your neighbors rejoice in the burning down of your house, somebody must ask what is the nature of my relationship with my neighbors.

BILL MOYERS: Give me an example.

FARID ESACK: For example there is the rejoicing, however limited, at the bombing of the Twin Towers or the Pentagon and there has been limited though it may be and isolated though it may be, but there has been. During the last gulf war, 93% of the African… What is wrong with a country like the United States of America when 93% of the African listenership of the B.B.C. sees Saddam Hussein as a hero? So I think that fundamental questions need to be asked about the nature of the dealings of a super power like this with the rest of the world. When you’re living in a country like the United States that has 4% of the world’s population and utilizes 44% of the world’s resources, that is bound to engender considerable amount of anger and resentment on the part of many other people in the world.

BILL MOYERS: But what is it that brings this particular group of bin Laden if he’s involved, followers to plunge the planes into the world trade center, killing themselves, and I don’t understand that. Thousands of people?

FARID ESACK: In some ways, I’ll be honest about this, there is also something that they find justification in religiosity and Islam. The notion of martyrdom, the notion that my own life is of no consequence in the words of one of the people that’s alleged to have written this, my life and my death, my sacrifice, it is for the sake of god. That is the one thing and the fact that god may reward me in a year after I destroy the enemies of god in this life. There is a sense of martyrdom, a sense of the insignificance of this life.

BILL MOYERS: So they could be susceptible to the manipulation of a charismatic leader who promises that paradise in exchange for this political act.

FARID ESACK: Absolutely, but in this case I think it is problematic to focus on the whole notion of the Osama bin Laden as if he is the figure driving all of this.

You know, the notion of there was a good king once upon a time, then a bad king came, and after that a good king came and everybody lived happily ever after. So at one time Qaddafi was the bad king, then Saddam became the bad king, and now Osama is the bad king. I think things are far more complex. The remedy may aggravate the disease.

BILL MOYERS: So what do you think they want, what do you think bin Laden, or the complex group of people around him, what do you think they want from last week?

FARID ESACK: The recognition that we are here and we are an important force and this is revenge, also for what the united states has done in whether it is in Iraq or the repression of the Egyptian Islamists. But it can easily turn into a mythical state that we will hate a mythical and ideal state any way in which to reach that state is through the means of jihad, through an armed struggle.

Of course it is simplistic, of course it is barbaric, it is mythical to think that we can recreate a 6th century straight in our country. But that kind of fundamentalism feeds on other angers and the fact that it reflects itself in fundamentalism should not allow us to defect from the fact that there is other angers that may have legitimate causes.

BILL MOYERS: How should we respond then, if knowing what you know about the Muslim world and about the united states, and I know that you are a distinct minority because you believe in equality for women, you believe in religious diversity, you’re a liberal in politics, you marched against apartheid. Knowing what you know what should the west and the United States do in response to this?

FARID ESACK: One, to respond to what happened now, the other is to respond to the universal phenomenon of fundamentalism, and I dare say that there is fundamentalism and Hinduism, Christianity and Judaism, and these are every bit as malicious as Muslim fundamentalism. So what is needed for people of conscience and people committed to justice ranging from environmental justice, gender justice, is for these people to get together and talk to each other in order to remove the kinds of issues, the underlying causes that gives rise to these things or that creates the issues that these demons, and that is really what they are, exploit in our lives.

BILL MOYERS: Were you ever attracted to fundamentalism when you were a young man in South Africa?

FARID ESACK: Absolutely, I lived for 8 years in a seminary that bred the Taliban in Pakistan. I lived there, and let me be honest with you. There were times in South Africa where only black kings die on the streets and the white media was oblivious to it, and we thought how do we…

Yes, I do come from such a background. Nelson Mandela comes from such a background. Nelson Mandela did not go to jail because he was a pacifist. Of course we have grown out of that, we know that people aren’t like taps that you can just spur onto violence and then the revolution is over and then you turn the taps off. We’ve grown up now, we’ve understood a bit of that.

But I must say there are times that we have yearned for the death that we experience on our streets every day that we were desperate for those deaths or an awareness of it to reach whites in South Africa. Now we know that violence breeds violence that simplistic solutions and that is why we are desperate that the kind of rage that people in the United States are experiencing, that that rage should not lead to further violence, because Osama’s violence has led to violence for many people in Afghanistan. And now if we are going to respond, I mean, one doesn’t rape rapists. One doesn’t murder murderers. We respond in a more humane way.

BILL MOYERS: I hope that you’re right about that. Thank you very much for joining me this evening. I hope you’ll join Gwen Ifill and myself in Washington and New York for another special report and conversation tomorrow night. I’m Bill Moyers. Thank you and good night.

This transcript was entered on May 1, 2015.

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