Preaching harmony

Imam Abdullah Anteplie (PhD) was born and raised in Turkey. He completed his basic training and education in his native Turkey and moved to the US in 1996. He is currently an Imam and Chief Representative of Muslim Affairs at Duke University/Adjunct Faculty of Islamic Studies. Sponsored by the US Embassy he was here for a week-long visit. During his visit he met with religious leaders, government officials, scholars and students to discuss his experience and the role of faith-based communities in social change. The Reporter’s Yonas Abiye sat down with the Imam to discuss his visit and a wide range of issues, including the Muslim society in the US, Islamic ideology and globalization, other religions, terrorism and religious-based stereotyping including the recent controversial proposal made by Republican presidential race front-runner, Donald Trump, regarding the banning of Muslims from entering the US. Excerpts:

The Reporter: As an Islamic scholar coming from a Muslim dominated nation have you encountered challenges in a secular nation like the US and is practicing Islam an easy thing in the US especially after 9/11?

Imam Abdullah Anteplie: That’s true. It’s kind of complex but I find American society much more religions friendly than Turkey. I am not alone. Too many Muslims from Turkey and from other Muslim nations in the world practice Islam much more comfortably and freely in the US than in any other parts of the world despite the 9/11 and similar other kinds of challenges has brought on us.

The challenges and anti-Muslim sentiments in the US does not necessarily come from the system. It comes from people who, after 9/11, see Islam under the lens of terrorism and violence. So they develop anti-Muslim bias and stereotypes. But the system in America is really the most religion friendly in the modern developed world.

My wife, for example, couldn’t go to a university in Turkey because she wears a hijab. Turkey understands religion and secularism in a certain way. For instance, religion is confined to the four walls of the mosque and is an individual practice. We cannot take our religious anywhere else. So, secularism in Turkey is pretty much like that of the French. It is very much anti-religious. It is a dichotomy and a paradox at the same time. In the US Muslims are a minority but it is the place where you freely practice Islam and more comfortably.

You are praising the US as being a religious friendly nation; however, if we see the recent attacks in San Bernardino, California, it is reportedly associated with terrorism inspired by Jihadists from the Middle East. So how long do you think the US and its non-Muslim society would keep being religion friendly for the Muslim minority? Some politicians like Donald Trump have reflected it.

If people, like [Donald] Trump win, it will be the end of religious pluralism in America. People like Ben Carson, or Donald Trump or like in the past like Michele Bachmann, or Sarah Palin, represent a somewhat racist ideology. They want to become a dominant force in the American society. If they do, then the American dream and American experiment of creating multi-religious and multi-cultural environment will be finished. However, I trust the American society. What we see now is very painful. Though America is religious friendly it is not easy to be a Muslim in America today.

After 9/11, the American society was traumatized. In fact, I don’t blame them if I was a regular American who knows nothing about Islam, or who never met a Muslim in the last 14 or 15 years since 9/11. Everything I know, see or hear about the religion is deaths, destructions, killings, beheadings and burning people. Inevitably, this is a temporary confusion which the American society has gone through many times in the past. This is not the first time that the American Society is struggling to welcome and integrate a large number of different people. In 18th and late 19th century the Catholics were facing the same problem. A large number of Catholics in America were seen us un-American. They were seen as worshiping the Pope in Rome. They were considered as disloyal because they had a religion whose loyalty is only for foreign governments and its leaders. And the same thing was for the Jewish community, and also the same thing for African-Americans. So, the US has gone through many different struggles in trying to integrate and welcome different ethnic and religious minorities. The relative success, which came after the temporary confusions, is the structure or the ideals that the American society is built upon. The founding fathers wanted to make this country for everyone. And to create a legal and civic culture where people are judged only by what they do and not by who they are.

So what Trump or other people are saying or are doing is pumping hate. It’s very un-American. To say ‘a Muslim cannot be a president’, to say ‘we will only welcome Christian refuges’ or ‘we are not going to welcome Muslim refugees,’ is un-Americans. This is temporary craziness. It’s indeed painful but it will eventually disappear.

The US presidential election is still at its earliest stage with both parties yet to name their nominees. Let's say – for the sake of argument – Trump wins. Would Trump change his view and will the temporary confusion be over? Or is Trump being politically incorrect just for campaign purposes instead of actually tabling a policy alternative.

First of all, he [Trump] will never win. I guarantee you, he will not. If you want, we can bet 100 dollars. But, even if he wins, unlike many other societies, the president does not mean anything and everything. Our system is structured and Trump cannot do 99 percent of what he is promising now because our constitution does not allow that. He has to be a dictator to change the constitution or violate the constitution. We saw very minor changes during the [George W.] Bush and [Dick] Cheney administration for about eight years. There were of course similar pushes from some groups who were trying to influence our government. But they couldn’t do it.  

These days religious fundamentalism and radicalization are becoming major concerns for governments in the world. Would you care to reflect on that?

I think there is so much unfair trashing of religions in the world today. 150 year ago [Friedrich] Nietzsche and secular non-religious intellectuals of Europe thought that ‘now we are enlightened in a postindustrial world. So religion is going to disappear from the world’. But they were wrong. Nietzsche famously said 'God is dead’. Well, Nietzsche is dead now but religions are still very much alive. Religion is the very important force in our society. I don't think religion is the reason for all the violence, death and destruction. Rather, it’s the human phenomena, it’s absolutely a human phenomena. Violence is inherently innate and is spread all over the world by secular ideologies. For instance, [Adolf] Hitler was not a church going Christian. [Joseph] Stalin was not a saint. [Vladimir] Lenin and others like Pol Pot of Cambodia, [Augusto] Pinochet of Chile and all the dictators and people who are responsible of hundreds of genocide, wars and holocausts in the 20th century were not religious. And they despised religion. So, I think that, naively and simplistically, in a shallow fashion a lot of people are assigning all the problems of death and destruction of the world to religions. This is absolutely not true. Still, religions can actually play a role in bringing out that innate human violence. It can add fuel to the fire. It can turn human beings into monsters. It all depends on the societal makeup. For me it is the Quran and the Prophet Mohammed who give me inspiration and hope every morning I wake up. What gets me out of my bed is my love for my religion. It’s a beautiful religion. What ISIS [Islamic State in Iraq and Syria] is doing reveals a shattered society and they use religion to advance their political economic and cultural agenda. If a society is completely and deeply broken it reveals the worst of itself including in the religion they follow.

Still there are some crises and destruction in different parts of the world which are inspired by religion. The Middle East, Burma and in Central Africa could be taken as examples. So you still insist religion has no part at all in such crises?

Of course we can say that a religion can be a cause for chaos. But are these crazy people barbarically killing their own people due to religion? Is Islam producing ISIS, or is Buddhism producing the violence in Burma, and is it Christianity that is producing the barbaric mass killings in Central African Republic (CRA)? I don’t think so. That’s what I’m arguing. Religion, itself, doesn’t become violent. Religion doesn't become evil by itself.

Religion becomes a force of bloodshed and destruction if it merges or mixes with certain political, cultural, historical and economic realities. You cannot make bomb under the guise of religion unless you mix it with political or economic elements.

If you stretch the surface of these violent organizations such as Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram, all these evil people and their evil businesses in the name of Islam, their motivations and trainings, are more political than religious. It’s so simplistic to say religion is the only causes of these evil people. I don't think words from the Quran or from the Bible is causing that problem. If that was the problem, we would have erased those words. But that is not the case and the issue is much more complicated. Therefore, the solution should be much more complicated as well. It is like a cancer.

So are you saying that religion is indirectly the root cause of the existing problems our world suffers from?

Let me explain it more differently. With all these terrorisms and blood shadings, there are two wrong and extremely inaccurate situations. People say all these terrorism and violence is because of religion. Or equally wrong, there are some people who say religion has nothing to do with it. They say ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. They also say the kind of terrorism you see in Rakhine State, in Burma, has nothing to do with Buddhism and many of similar violence in other parts of the world happening now in the name of Christianity have nothing to do with Christianity. We just have to say it's the partial role of religions. We have to admit that and save religions from becoming sources of violence. Rather, they should become sources of reconciliations, coexistence and harmony. In fact, I’m not one of those people who deny that the religion has no role to play. I again believe that religion is a vehicle or a tool. It depends on how to use it. Religion is what you make out of it. If a society is healthy, has a good immune system and is strong, it makes religions like what we see in the US. So it can play an active role in shaping the society. But if a society is messed up and deeply broken, then religions can play a very distractive role.

Some argue that in the 21st century the clash of civilization will be because of religious ideologies. While the world is becoming more unified isn't it going to be difficult to have a more liberal society and religious conservatives living in harmony? I would like you to answer that from a religious perspective.

There is a very interesting organization called World Parliament of Religions. Let’s imagine for one second: are they going to serve anything? In Chicago, in 1893, 150 religious leaders gathered to deliberate on the initial impacts and effects of globalization for about a week. They saw how the global realities are bringing everybody together with the kind of rapid improvement on communications, transportations and other opportunities. They saw the world was going to shrink. Then they declared, which was  basically SOS emergency and an urgent call, saying ‘This rapid globalization and industrialization should incorporate different cultures and religions. People should get to know one another. If not these people who come together so close with no sense of understanding the similarities and differences with one another, would end in blood shade.' It’s so incredible, of course, but back then nobody listened to that. Everybody was busy with the European industrialization and colonization. Then we had the 20th century which is one of the bloodiest centuries in history. In the Medieval period, we made some incredible progresses in technology and science. But in so many other ways it was the bloodiest in human history. The number of people who were killed or have died in 20th century was nineteen times more than that of the 19th century or thirty five times more than that of the 18th century.

Are you saying that religions are not totally to blame for becoming violent?

It is not because we became more violent but we became more global. We were not culturally and socially ready to face the consequences. So in 1993, after 100 years, a group religious leaders came together and said, ‘We missed that train, we missed the boat’. But as technology advanced and globalization is in full speed, I say it’s never too late. We have to do something about this progress where the world is becoming a small village. We should have cross religious and cross faith conversations. They established the World Parliament of Religions to bring thousands of religions together every four years. It symbolizes thousands of other similar initiatives. They are saying religions or religious ideologies are not going anywhere. But we have to re-integrate the religious ideologies, religions, their doctrine and the world view in line with the global realities. Nobody today can say, ‘I like Chinese food but I don’t want to see Chinese as my neighbors'. Those days are gone. Nobody can continue to live in their homogeneous bubbles. Everybody is like them – ethnically and racially. Those days are gone. Everybody has to come closer to one another. Hence the old ways of religion and the old ways of thinking and those old frameworks is no longer in place. That’s why for religious communities and religious people, like myself, it is important to sing the songs from the Psalms; which is also a holy text for Muslims as well. God says to the children of Israel in Psalms 96: ‘O sing unto the lord a new song: sing unto the lord, all the earth’ or ‘Shyurv lyhvh shyur chdsh shyurv lyhvh kl-h'aurtsh’ in Hebrew It’s a wonderful commandment. It’s an incredible wisdom. It is a message to all religious communities and religions in this modern global world. They can no longer sing the old songs the way they were singing them. They have to come up with new songs and they have to learn how to sing the old songs in different melodies as well as different tones.

How about today’s politicians like Donald Trump and others whom you accused of spreading hate speech against Muslims or other religions? Do you think they should sing the new song?

Yes and even more. What I’m saying is some religious communities are not able to adapt to the world view and religious framework of today's modern world. They are struggling. Similarly, others like Trump and corrupt politicians are corrupting religions. They are misusing this ignorance. They try to scare people. They appeal to the fear of the people. They just want to remain in power or score political points.

Tell us a little bit about your visit to Ethiopia.

I came here just to share my experience. I didn’t come for American propaganda purposes. America has a lot of problems of its own. But its religion friendliness should be an inspiration to many people including Muslims. The fact that the American Embassy invited an American Muslim Imam to this country to talk about religious pluralism, religious peacemaking and harmony in itself shows that the country is religion friendly. I have been called here to share an American experience on how faith plays a major role in the American society and how different faiths and traditions come together to be part of social change. Christians, Jews, Buddhist, Hindus and Muslim not only learn how to live peacefully with one another but also play an active role for social change. I also came here to learn form Ethiopia as well.

What experiences did you get?

There is an incredibly ancient wisdom the Ethiopian society represents. From the beginning, people here have been multi-cultural and multi-religious. And for the most part – in its own cultural and historical contexts – you developed a very sophisticated system to live side-by-side in harmony and in peace. I think that structure is no longer viable in the modern world. This is because whatever exists in written or non-written laws, which were enabling the Ethiopian society to live peacefully, will now be challenged because of globalization.

So is there any lesson Ethiopia should learn from American and vice versa?

For me, I will try to learn that ancient wisdom. What does it mean for Christians and Muslims to live side-by-side harmoniously? Which global forces were and are challenging the peaceful co-existence? We can learn a lot from one another. Basically, as this country is developing and is being integrated with the global economy, many of the challenges the world is facing today will also challenge Ethiopia's social, cultural and religious fabric. I and many other intellectuals would like to be part of the conversation. But I’m not here to comment or for American propaganda. Neither am I here to preach that Americans are doing well or others are not. No society is doing well. Hate speech and exclusion forces are further dividing and polarizing many societies as we see Trump and others do today. This is not solving the world’s problem. It’s becoming part of the global problem. So it should be solved globally.

You have met with religious leaders, scholars and students here. How was your interaction with them?

It was wonderful. If I am honest, I have sensed some nervousness here. I don’t know, it may be the language or the culture but when having a discussion about religion people get nervous. I have yet to understand where that nervousness is coming from.

Did you find them to be reserved and less interactive?

No, it was very interactive. I have observed that Ethiopians are humble and religious. They have to be confident and be good examples for the rest of the world. In today's world, we have to learn how to live with one another peacefully. In addition, there needs to be a little bit more space for civil society to operate. In general, the interaction we have had was eye-opening.