Haroon Moghul, a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, on the revolutionary developments in the Muslim world during the past year, and the frequent disconnect in the ways Muslims in the Middle East and non Muslims in the West view each other, as well as strategies to better that understanding in 2012. He is an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches and a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University.



[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: Welcome back to State of Belief Radio, I’m Welton Gaddy.

Several times in this past year, we’ve been fortunate enough to be able to call on our next guest when his articulate insights were needed to help interpret breaking news impacting the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds. Each time it felt like we were missing out on deeper and more broad understanding, and as the year comes to a close I wanted to invite Haroon Moghul back on the show to share a more comprehensive overview of the places he’s been and the insights he’s gained in the past year.

Haroon, welcome back to State of Belief Radio!

[HAROON MOGHUL, GUEST]: Thanks for having me. How are you doing?

[WG]: I’m deliberately coming at this interview without a list of prepared questions because I don’t want to narrow the scope of the conversation. So I’m going to ask you, if you will, to start by just talking about your work and about the observations that you’ve made in the course of that work.

[HM]: Sure, sure. So, you know, I think, actually, one of the neat things about the timing of this – and I don’t know how deliberate it was, but – December 17th will be the one-year anniversary of the attempted suicide of Mohamed Bouazizi, he was the guy who, in rural Tunisia last year, lit himself on fire after an incident with a police officer and essentially, kind of, sparked the Arab Spring. And everything went from there, entirely unexpectedly catching pretty much everyone, from analysts and academics all the way on up to governments, entirely off guard.

It’s been a year now. Three governments have gone down; one, in Morocco, has seen quite a few reforms to head off going down, and there’s a conflict in Bahrain, there’s a conflict in Yemen, there’s a conflict in Syria… So, really, what he started, and what his self-immolation expressed, I think, has shaken the whole region; and I think, in turn, has actually shaken the rest of the world. The Man of the Year for Time magazine this year, the Person of the Year, I should say, is the protestor. Now we’re seeing similar protests in places like Russia; we’ve seen Occupy Wall Street; so, certainly, he struck something of a nerve not just in the Arab world and the Muslim world but, I would say, internationally too.

[WG]: Haroon, I know what you’ve said is true. My question, I guess, is – because it’s a question I hear a lot of people asking, so – is the Muslim community, in all of those places where these revolutions have taken place, these transformations – is the Muslim community better off, or worse off?

[HM]: I think it’s better off. It’s always difficult to predict what’s going to happen; I mean, we saw a year ago – nobody would have seen this coming; so I’m a little bit hesitant to say what is going to happen in the years to come, but certainly it has opened the door to a lot of positive things, it has opened the door to a lot of conversations that need to happen. Unfortunately, the Middle East, and especially the Arab world, were the least democratic parts of the Muslim world; but sometimes in the United States we tend to confuse the Arab world for the Muslim word. So, insofar, I think, it has changed the impression of Arabs and Muslims in America, it’s a great thing.

It’s also changed conversations inside the Muslim world, and created some breathing room, and now that people aren’t just having abstract conversations but they’re having real debates with real implications for their societies, I think you’re going to start seeing a much healthier, a much more normal, a much more intelligent political discourse. When you’re outside of power and all you can do is, really, articulate things without any chance of putting them into practice, and without any need for accountability, then the discourse you’re going to see is going to be more extreme, it’s going to be more cynical.

[WG]: What is your sense of the manner in which our government has handled what has gone on in these rapidly changing communities?

[HM]: President Obama has done a pretty good job of catching up; I don’t think there’s any other way to put it. He’s done a pretty good job of getting behind popular momentum, although it does need to be said that many of these governments were American allies: so Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen – these were all governments, these were all dictatorships whose regimes were close allies of the United States. Usually primarily in the military sense, but nevertheless we often supplied them with weapons, shared intelligence with them, and had close working security relations with them. So when everything started in Egypt, in the first few weeks, the administration was hesitant to come out on the side of democracy, and that’s unfortunate, because a lot of people in the region, and a lot of people internationally, saw the double standard. But at the same time the administration has, I think, turned around reasonably quickly, and put itself behind democratic movements and behind the democratic process. That’s a good thing, because some people on the right and some of the more intemperate voices were arguing that America shouldn’t allow these things to happen. The problem I have with that argument is, firstly, it’s not our responsibility to determine what happenes over there, and secondly, it doesn’t really have much of a plan for what it means to not allow something to happen. The only thing you could really do, if that was your goal, is to further empower dictators; and then you get back into the cycle of us vs. them, which is certainly not a good thing for the United States, or for that part of the world.

[WG]: I think we would have to agree that, though a lot of progress has been made, there’s still some big disconnects. For example, what do – I guess I want to ask – what false notions of each other mislead Muslims in the Middle East and non-Muslims in the West, and shape what they believe? And what are the dangers of that?

[HM]: Certainly. That’s a great question, and I would say, generally speaking, Muslims in the Muslim world, in the Arab world, know more about the United States than vice versa. That’s only because we’re culturally dominant. You can’t run a news show anywhere in the world without talking about the United States. You can’t watch TV without encountering American culture, American movies and themes and ideas, so in that sense, America is probably better known. But there are a lot of misconceptions.

When you talk to a lot of people in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, one thing that surprises them is religiosity, for example, because if your only engagement with United States is through media, media tends to be pretty anodyne: pop media, entertainment, movies, music, deliberately don’t talk about religion because that’s not going to sell. You want to do something that’s not going to offend or potentially enflame your audience, so people do tend to get a little bit surprised that America has a very healthy, vigorous religious life while also having a secular state. And I think for a lot of people that’s pretty surprising.

I think from the American side of things, one of the biggest problems is this tendency to lump everyone into one category: all Arabs are one thing; all Muslims are one thing. And alongside that, to see Islam as immediately dangerous or problematic, so if there’s any kind of Islamic party of movement, the assumption is that these guys are dangerous. And there are very different types of Islamic parties and movements, but when we kind of get them all lumped in together, we have this general sense of alarm about Islam which doesn’t do us, anything, really, in the long run.

[WG]: I’m really interested, also, in what kind of counsel you would give to media representatives in our country. I think it’s, without question, that the way many Americans view Muslims generally, and certainly Muslims in the international community, depends on what newscasts they watch, and how that newscast covers that subject. I think that people who watch Fox News, for example, come out feeling more negative about the Muslim community than people who watch, say, CNN. What kind of counsel would you give to better more egalitarian reporting on the Muslim community?

[HM]: Your point on the networks is totally on, and it’s a problem for us in this country too. Advice I would give to journalists covering Muslim world is actually the advice I’d give to most journalists covering the domestic scene. We tend to look at things through binaries, and we tend to over-simplify. That really bothers me, because I think that we assume, sometimes, in media or in conversations that our audience just can’t get it, they’re not going to understand, it’s too hard for people to follow. It’s not exciting, it’s not interesting. People stop watching after 10 seconds.

I think people are a lot more intelligent than the media sometimes give them credit for, and what we need is an attempt on the part of journalists – or really, actually their bosses, their employers, their sponsors, the ones who are paying their salaries – to emphasize nuance and depth.

In the United States, for example, we see that the political conversation is really narrow. If anyone goes a little bit too far to the left or too far to the right – they’re not engaged with; they’re immediately dismissed. You don’t have to agree with them, but there is some common sense of engagement and dialogue that doesn’t take place. You could look at what’s happened to Ron Paul, for example: I mean, every poll, he’s always in the top three; and yet people will go from Herman Cain to Newt Gingrich to Michele Bachmann – and Ron Paul never gets mentioned. And I think with the Muslim world, it’s the same thing. There is a tendency to just look at things through binaries: the Islamists vs. the secularists; the good Muslims vs. the bad Muslims; the safe Arabs vs. the dangerous Arabs – and to not really introduce the kind of nuance that we need to understand what’s happening.

[WG]: You know, Haroon, it’s interesting that – I think I would, if you would been asking me the question I asked you, I think I would have answered pretty much the same way you did about the big problem being: assuming a homogeneity that’s not there. But right up there beside that, for me, is this continuing myth that moderate Muslims don’t speak out. I am so tired of hearing that, because I know it’s not true. How can that be dealt with?

[HM]: I think there is a number of things that have to be done within the Muslim community. For example, in the United States, there are more and more people who are representative, who are informed and who are accessible, who are starting to get into media conversations. As those persons become more capable and more popular and more skilled at what they do, they’ll increasingly supplant some of the negative voices, many of whom don’t have any sort of engagement with Muslim communities. That’s one side of the coin; the other side of the coin, I think, is only really going to emerge as these societies in the Arab world and the Muslim world become themselves more sophisticated in terms of how they engage. And I think people would be surprised to see the level of nuance and awareness that exists across many parties, for example, in a place like Egypt. Egyptian political parties and activists know very well what kind of stereotypes exist about Arabs and Muslims in the West, and especially in the United States. Many of their actions and symbolic gestures and statements are designed to advance certain agendas, while at the same time respecting the fears and concerns of different actors in the region and internationally. So I think it’s going to be a two-track process. It’s going to be people here who know what they’re talking about, who are getting the word out – and that takes time. The American Muslim community is kind of young, doesn’t have that many folks, it hasn’t really emphasized those kinds of skills or talents. And it’s also going to come from parts of the Muslim majority world, where you’re going to start seeing better advocates and better representatives than the kind of people who usually get presented.

[WG]: Would most Muslims not in the United States view most Americans in a way that would surprise most Americans?

[HM]: I think so. I think, you know, there are certainly strong criticisms of American foreign policy, there are strong disagreements, and the injection of religion into American politics has, in turn, poisoned the discourse in ways that didn’t exist, for example, before the Bush administration. So Chris Hedges’ books, for example, are widely translated into Arabic, people talk about the issue of theocracy in the United States, and it’s kind of funny, because when you watch some of these analysts and reporters and commentators in the Arab world talk about evangelical Christianity in the United States, they’re a little bit disbelieving, because many of them tend to be liberal or simply would have never assumed that they would see this kind of religious politics coming out of a western nation. So that definitely exists; I think, at the same time, something I’ve heard very often from the vast majority of Muslims that I’ve looked at – you know, again, outside of the West, outside of our country – tend to be able to differentiate between government policy and popular opinion and action and reality. So, we like Americans but we disagree with your foreign policy; we like Americans but we don’t like this aspect of your government. And that’s a very sophisticated way of approaching the world, and I think it’s something we can also get more of as we get more intelligent analysis of what’s going on in other parts of the world.

[WG]: Yeah, absolutely. Looking at your productivity, listening to what you say, watching what you write, this may seem like a strange question to you, but Haroon, what do you think about most?

[HM]: What do I think about most?

[WG]: Yeah, what would you spend your time thinking about in this regard?

[HM]: Oh, about in this regard. You know, it’s interesting. I was in Houston about two weeks ago – never actually been to Houston for any amount of time – and it wasn’t what I expected, by the way, I had a different Houston in mind than the Houston that actually existed. I had a great time, I met some really cool people, and someone said to me something really interesting. He said: “You know a lot about Muslim history, it must be kind of a blessing and a curse.” So I said, “What do you mean by that?” And he said, “Well, on the one hand, it’s great that you know these things and you can share these things, but it must be tough if you know all these things that are happening in the world, because it’s got to be overwhelming.” and I was speaking to a friend of mine, who’s a Muslim columnist and author, and he once described what he did as being something of a fireman. Every time something happened involving Muslims he felt like he had to, you know, run out of whatever he was doing and go take care of that emergency. So there is an element, I think, in this of not only analyzing and reporting on something that I find interesting, but something of actual deep personal relevance, because what people think about Islam and Muslims is not just an abstract question for me. It’s obviously and clearly of personal interest and personal relevance, so I think it’s a bit of a blessing and a curse, I guess, in terms of how I relate to all of this.

[WG]: Sure. In light of all that we’ve talked about, since we’re coming toward the end of a year, what would be the most important step forward that we could take this next year related to a greater mutual understanding and support between these worlds?

[HM]: I actually would like to see people outside of the normal circles starting to come together. So you mentioned Fox News, for example. I’d like to see more Muslims attempting to engage people on the right; and I would love to see more people on the right attempting to engage Muslims. I think what’s really needed is crossing those boundaries and getting outside of those boxes. It’s really hard, if your universe is shaped by certain types of media, to really know what’s happening outside of that media. We have all this access – I mean, you can get your news on your phone, on your tablet, on your laptop, in your TV and all these different sources – but still, nevertheless, we’re restricted to whatever we choose to watch and listen to. In light of that fact, I think we need to make more of an effort. People who are aware of what’s going on in different parts of the world, or who have specializations in certain fields, to really jump into other boxes and to try to engage other audiences. It’s not going to be easy, it is going to be a long-term thing; but I think, in the year to come, it’s going to be really important, especially considering that this is going to be an election year, and there’s certainly a lot on the line.

[WG]: So, do you go into a new year hopeful or otherwise?

[HM]: I’m definitely hopeful. I know it’s going to be a long process, but to me, that’s actually not too bad of a thing. There’s usually two types of revolutions: there’s the revolutions that start off boldly and then move incrementally, and those tend to be more successful; the revolutions that tend to be total revolutions have a tendency to go a little bit like France, and then you get the reign of terror, and then you get Napoleon, and it takes decades to work itself out.

So what has been accomplished in the last year is tremendous, it’s by no means done – not in countries like Syria and Bahrain, where there are still ongoing struggles for democracy; but even in places where the regime has been removed it’s a long road ahead – but it’s one I’m looking at with optimism, because people have proven themselves to be capable of some pretty amazing things. They’re young people, they’ve got a lot of energy, they’ve got a lot of optimism, and hopefully they can continue to show that in the more difficult and bitter political conversations that are going to take place.

[WG]: Well, for goodness sake – and I literally mean that, for the sake of goodness – keep thinking, and keep writing, and keep talking.

Haroon Moghul is an Associate Editor at Religion Dispatches, a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and a PhD candidate at Columbia University. And additional step towards understanding that, I would suggest, is to read his writing on a regular basis. And Haroon, I am, as I’ve said, grateful that you were able to take time to be with us again today on State of Belief Radio. Thank you, and we’ll look forward to seeing you again.

[HM]: I appreciate it. Thank you.

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