Asharq Al-Awsat – Dr Muhammad Habash, a Syrian preacher and deputy member of the People’s Assembly in Syria, is well-known for his advocacy of dialogue with the West, and as an opponent of violence and inciting hatred between members of different religions. However, this did not prevent the US authorities from denying him entry to the United States last year where he planned to participate in a conference concerned with the dialogue of civilizations under the sponsorship of the United Nations.
In the following interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in Damascus, Dr Habash discusses the issue of dialogue with the West, the role of extremists in harming Islam, the decline in Islamic preaching, and his assessment of the Islamic rhetoric and its effectiveness.
Q) Do you agree with the view that the actions of some Islamists have harmed Islam to the extent that every Muslim is now treated as a terrorist?
A) The state of Islamophobia and hatred for Muslims in the West is on the rise. The truth is that the viewpoints of some Muslim radicals were behind the invoking of conflict between Islam and the West. There is no doubt about this. Unfortunately, this coincided with the presence of a hard-line government in the White House. This resulted in what we are seeing now. We should also acknowledge that Westerners mix up the conservative trend with the radical trend. In the Islamic street, there are Islamic trends, 80 percent of which are of the conservatives and 20 percent are of the reformists. The radicals account for less than 1 percent.
The conservatives do not recognize the faith of others. They only recognize Islam and view others as infidels. On the other hand, the reformist trend acknowledges that there is more than one way to believe in Almighty God. However, we should acknowledge that the reformists and conservatives agree on respecting the right of others to life. The difference between these two trends is over the heavenly, and not the earthly scene. As for the radical trend, it rejects others in part and parcel.
Q) But do you not think that some Islamists are correct in arguing that the West’s injustice and oppression against us are the causes of the emergence of extremist radical trends?
A) Islamic radicalism has emerged due to two factors. The first is the erroneous understanding and interpretation of religious texts, and this is done by the radical groups par excellence. The second reason is the existence of injustice. These two factors together have helped in creating radicalism, which is based on violence, in the Islamic world. Personally, I renounce violence and adopt the approach of dialogue and peace because they are more successful in solving problems. Regrettably, the radical trends have contributed to distorting Islam and causing estrangement between Islam and the West, and we blame them (the radical trends) for this.
Q) Many Islamic viewpoints assert that dialogue with the West is deadlocked and the spirit of hostility toward Muslims is growing in the West. Do you support this view?
A) I am against generalizing. In America, there are trends that hate the Islamic presence. According to some US statistics, 23 percent of Americans hate Muslims. In Sweden, this rate is 52 percent, which represents the highest rate of hatred for the Muslim presence in Europe. As I said, I refuse to generalize and we have many sincere friends who support our causes in the West.
Q) Do you think the current Islamic rhetoric is not convincing for others?
A) There is no doubt that the religious rhetoric requires renewal and enlightenment. I feel that there are crises in the Islamic thought. These crises should be resolved. They include the religious rhetoric, which has been continuing at the same pace for several centuries. What was convincing yesterday may not be convincing today. Today’s generations will not be convinced of what previous generations were convinced of in the past. The new generation is at a crossroads and it needs a vision that embraces all the meanings of Islam in justice, fairness, and enlightenment.
Q) As an Islamic preacher, do you support the view that Islamic preaching has declined after the events of 9/11?
A) Of course, this is true. Much of what was said about the number of converts from other religions to Islam were unrealistic and were exaggerated by the media. Personally, I have visited more than 50 Islamic centers in Europe and America. To be honest with you, there has been a major decline in the field of Islamic preaching.
Many of those (non-Muslims) have visited Islamic centers (in Europe and the United States) and pronounced the Al-Shahadatayn (the two attestations that there is no God but Allah and that Mohammad is His messenger). They have also spoken about Islam, saying that it reflects an internal faith within them. However, not all of those people have necessarily embraced Islam and abandoned their previous religion. Take, for example, the well-known French thinker Roger Garaudy, who embraced Islam. He said, frankly, “I don’t understand Islam the way you understand it and I don’t feel that I have disavowed everything that I used to believe in the past. I have gained a great deal through Islam, but I take pride in the past.”
In this sense, we can win over many friends worldwide. This does not mean that they will convert from their religion to Islam. Take another example. Four leaders of the Japanese “Omoto” sect visited Damascus, pronounced the Al-Shahadatayn, and left to perform the pilgrimage. When I visited them in Japan afterward, I found that they did not understand Islam in the same exclusionist way it is understood by our brother preachers who go (to foreign countries) to preach. In my opinion, the conversion of a nation from one religion to another is a complicated issue and is linked to major transformations that take place in the world. It is not as easy as some people think. I say that the Islamic rhetoric, which is based on exclusionism and the cancellation of others, has no future. In my view, the future lies in rational rhetoric, which embraces reconciliation with the world and which is based on dialogue and understanding. Any other rhetoric is a failing one.
Q) We are a nation that is relatively weak. So how can it hold dialogue with strong, advanced nations?
A) Of course, dialogue will be weak because we are a weak nation. The solution is to strengthen ourselves. This is not done by canceling the voice of reason and opting for violence as this would only make us weaker. The leaders of Islamic youth action must understand a fact that is that violence mobilizes others against us and it will justify their confrontation with us with the same violence. Therefore, there is no alternative to dialogue. We have just causes, which we can substantiate. If the other (non-Muslim) does not open up to dialogue, this does not mean that we should surrender to him. The world is not a jungle, nor is it a charitable society. God says, “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power.” (Quranic verse) I think the interpretation of strength in this verse is the strength of science, and not the power of weapons.
Q) Offensive statements against Islam and its symbols are made almost on a daily basis. There is also a lot of interference in our Islamic curricula and there are calls for monitoring sermons at mosques and during academic lessons. Does this not worry you as an Islamic preacher?
A) Certainly, they are worrying. I say that there are people who write in this way, and even in a more provocative way within the Islamic world. There are Arabic websites that are specialized in insulting the Prophet (PBUH) and even insulting Almighty God. These trends are not new, and they have increased dramatically after the events of September 11. A preacher once told me that bookstores in the West had sold out of Islamic books and he was happy. I told him that this is not good news because these books are not ready for addressing the Americans. How can we believe that a terrorist bombing has made thousands of Christians embrace Islam as reported by the Arab media? Regrettably, this is not true.
Q) Finally, how do you characterize the reality of Muslims today and are you optimistic about the future?
A) Certainly, I am optimistic about the future because all meanings of the Holy Quran and the Prophet’s tradition indicate so. We believe that the universe is heading towards a successful conclusion. The end of history in Islam does not correspond to the US vision of the clash of civilizations, which they say will destroy the world. We believe that the correct, reformist, and moderate Islam will spread justice throughout the world. The Islamic rhetoric, which ignores reality and which calls on generations to live in unrealistic worlds still exists. This was helped by the failure of Arab secular and nationalist experiences, which could not offer democratic models, but rather offered despotic models. In fact, this has stirred up the return to Islamic rhetoric.
If the Islamic rhetoric is not ready, the coming stage will be one of estrangement between the generation and religion. We do not want this to happen. We are relying on resisting this through enhancing the reformist trend, which provides answers. Once this happens, Islamic society will feel that when it adheres to Islam, it will not depart from normal life. It will also feel that through its adherence to Islam, it will be able to establish a civilian state that is associated with the modern world.