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28 January 2007

Interesting discussion of Islam on NPR

Without being religious, there can be little denying that people in the United States have a very twisted and mostly incorrect image of most of the Muslim world. Today, on National Public Radio (NPR), the program "Speaking of Faith" (http://speakingoffaith.publicradio.org/) had a very interesting interview with Douglas Johnston, president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy. He's the co-editor of Religion, the Missing Dimension of Statecraft.

Due to the U.S. policy of promoting its foreign policy - and even overthrowing legitimate governments - using NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) as proxies, the Washington-based "International Center for Religion and Diplomacy" (http://www.icrd.org/) is automatically suspect. Further, the fact that it is led by a former military man with close ties to the U.S. intelligence community (http://www.icrd.org/Officers/johnston.html) makes it even more so.

Nevertheless, the interview was quite interesting and I believe that at least portions of it deserve wider circulation. The following excerpts come from the transcript of the interview that can be found online HERE.

About Islamic madrassas: "And what most people don't understand is the history of these madrassas. Back in the Middle Ages, these were the absolute peaks of learning excellence in the world, and then it was only European exposure to them that led to the creation of our university system. But you take little things like, you know, funding a chair in a given discipline or the mortar boards and tassels you wear on your head at graduation, all of that came out of madrassas. ... And then over the years, under the impact of colonialism and the like, they just regressed to where, today, they're really about rote memorization of the Qur'an and the study of Islamic principles."

On the exploitation of Islam by reactionary elements: "And the problem with this is, for example, in Pakistan you'll find youngsters as young as the age of 12 who have memorized the Qur'an from cover to cover and haven't a clue as to what it means because their first language is Urdu and they're not given enough Arabic to be able to… And then what happens is a local militant comes along and misappropriates pieces of scripture — which all religions are prone to do from time to time — to recruit them to his cause, and these kids are just easy prey. They're totally without any ability to challenge or question."

On the Government of Sudan: "I'm no apologist for the government of Sudan, but they've done some things that deserve recognition and to be applauded, and never get any credit for it, but… Another ingredient in the faith-based diplomacy there was that when I would have my conversations with the foreign minister of Sudan or the first vice president who ran the country, these were realpolitik kinds of discussions, you know, trying to persuade them that what we were suggesting was in their own best interest to do, but looking for that convenient opportunity to make a helpful reference to the Qur'an or how the Prophet Mohammed dealt with this or what Jesus might have to say about it. They opened up. They opened up. It was — because you find that many Muslims are almost resentful of having to deal with secular constructs, because that's not what they're about. But when you reach out in this faith-based way, they really respond, and they respect that and they like it a lot. ... I came back from one trip to Sudan to see a statement by the Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an official body that relates with the State Department and Congress and what have you. And they had labeled Sudan as the most violent oppressor of religious liberty in the world today. And I had just been over there, and at the time I was there a German evangelist had been invited in to conduct a crusade right in the heart of Khartoum. And over 300,000 people came out, the majority of whom were Muslims because this was a healing ministry, lasted five days and, among other things, it sort of froze the transportation grid. But some Muslims got upset about it, not only those inconveniences but, you know, the impropriety of having this Christian crusade in the heart of this Islamic capital. And so they went to visit with the president to air their grievances, and the president said this — and I got this from the Pentecostal pastor who invited Bonnke in to do this crusade, he was present. He said, ‘The president said, well, you know, the Christians were here before we and they have every right to celebrate Easter.' So getting no satisfaction there, they go over to Hassan al-Turabi, who's the Speaker of the Parliament and thought to be the archvillain of the spread of militant Islam across Africa and beyond. He said to them, he says, ‘You know, I've been watching this very closely. They're not attacking Islam. They're merely celebrating their religion.' He says, ‘Why don't you celebrate your religion and see how many Christians complain?' OK. So I contrast that with how Christians get treated in Saudi Arabia, you know, give me a break. It's just amazing.

On visiting Iran: "My first exposure to Iran came in 2003 when I was privileged to be part of a nine-member Abrahamic delegation that was led by Cardinal Ted McCarrick over to Iran. It was Abrahamic in that it included Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant, and Catholic representation. And I was just simply amazed. Iran is an incredible country, just amazing. The legacy of the Persian Empire and all the cultural manifestations are just awesome. But we're over there, you know, and the drumbeat of the Great Satan continues, you know. Even while we were there, the Friday prayers at Tehran University, Rafsanjani, you know, tees off on the United States and it's just sort of standard fare for the last 25 years. And when you drive downtown Tehran, you see the sides of buildings with these huge murals on them with bombs dropping on silhouettes of the United States. And so you get the feeling, you know, this may not be the friendliest country in the world, but at a personal level, one thing they do is they clearly distinguish between the policies of the U.S. government and Americans. And from top to bottom, all we experienced was, you know, the fact that Iranians love Americans. There was genuine warmth in their feelings and conduct during our time there."

On the Iranian Government: "Yeah, we met with the president, leaders of Parliament, all the grand ayatollahs, and had numerous conversations, very fruitful stuff. Well, we invite this delegation over here, and it included the head of their Academy of Sciences and people at that level. It was a very prestigious group, also nine in number, also Abrahamic in that it included the one Jewish member of Parliament from there and also one of the Orthodox bishops. So we took them through — it was about 10 days here, and one of the highlights was we set the nine of them with eight what I would say were very well-versed congressmen and they sat down and hit all the hot-button issues. And at one point — I'll never forget it — one of the congressmen pointed at the ayatollah who was leading the group. He says, ‘Tell me' — pointed his finger at him and he says, ‘Do you think Israel has a right to exist?' And the ayatollah sort of smiled and gave a small laugh and he says, ‘Of course, Israel as a right to exist, just as we have a right not to recognize it.' And this is kind of the level of repartee, you know, and if I had to grade that debate, so to speak, I would probably have to give the higher marks to the Iranians in the sense that we always get caught up on sort of the perceived double standard. You know, we're on their case for treatment of minority religions, when the situation's far worse in Saudi Arabia and we're not doing much about that. We're all over them on the nuclear issue and sort of turn a blind eye to Israel, you know, and for understandable reasons. But these are the things that make it difficult to hold a debate like that and come out on top.

The interview really highlighted the differences between the image of countries like Sudan and Iran presented by the U.S. government and right-wing war-mongers as opposed to the actual reality. This Johnson fellow hardly seems like a member of of the radical progressive Left and yet, by actually visiting the countries in question, he has come away with a much better understanding than is generally allowed to most Americans. There is a reason the U.S. forbids its subjects to visit such countries, as - as is often the case - if the American people actually had any idea whatsoever what was going on in the world, they wouldn't subscribe to the Neo-Liberal/Neo-Conservative imperialism that drives our policy today.

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