He Who Cleans the Street, Gets the Vote

This interview took place before the outbreak of protests against the publishing in Europe of cartoons depicting Mohammed.

Following the electoral victory of Hamas in Palestine, I was struck again by how many lives are devoted to beliefs, agendas and passions about which so many of us remain recklessly ill-informed. Reza Aslan, in his book “No god But God: The Origins, Evolution and Future of Islam” (now out in paperback), and in his commentaries, offers insight informed by an understanding of history. Aslan, who was born in Iran, has dedicated himself to developing an alternative to the widely accepted “clash of civilization” theory that pits East against West in an apocalyptic struggle.

TERRENCE McNALLY: The Hamas victory in the Palestinian election may be huge news in terms of its potential repercussions, but it is not a surprise, is it?

REZA ASLAN: I don’t think it’s a surprise that Hamas won the elections. Everyone assumed that they were going to do well. The surprise is in how soundly they trounced Fatah.

When talking about these elections, it’s important to recognize that the victory of Hamas, as hard as it is to swallow in the United States and in Israel, had nothing to do with either America or Israel. Rather, it had everything to do with the situation in the Palestinian territories and, in particular, the 40 years of ineptitude and corruption of the ruling party, Fatah.

If Israel cannot have a peace process until they have a stable democratic partner, you could look at the election of Hamas as a good thing. For the first time, some of the very fundamental issues of Palestinian society may begin to be dealt with. I’m talking about domestic issues, not issues of foreign policy and certainly not issues with regard to Israel.

TM: One of the things I hear underneath your words — and it’s funny to refer to Tip O’Neil when talking about Palestine — but as O’Neil famously said, “All politics is local.”

RA: That’s absolutely right, and the fundamental truth of democracy is that he who cleans the street, gets the vote — and Hamas cleaned the streets. Fatah, despite tens of millions of dollars in foreign aid over the last decade or so, has really done almost nothing for the Palestinian people. Yet some are shocked that they were removed from power.

This is not unique to Palestine. This same situation is taking place in Lebanon with the rise of Hezbollah. It’s taking place in Egypt with the rise of the Islamic Brotherhood as a political force. I think we’re starting to see that for the first time politics in the Arab world is starting to matter. These stagnant political elites, these autocrats, these presidents-for-life who’ve been running Arab politics for the past four or five decades are going to have to do something that they’ve never done before. They are going to have to actually earn their people’s votes.

TM: I think it’s interesting that in the Bush administration’s urgency to bring democracy to the Middle East, so far only the weakest countries have acceded — Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq.

I have two questions for you. First, when the leaders of countries like Syria, Egypt, or Saudi Arabia see these kinds of results, isn’t it likely to harden them against democracy? Or at least, bring home to them the realization that before they allow democracy to take place, they had better do their homework?

Secondly, might the United States realize that the recent elections of a hardliner in Iran and of Hamas in Palestine are more than anything else votes against corruption?

RA: I think that’s true across the board. We’re talking about the push to democratize this region. For most of the last half-century, our foreign policy has been the exact opposite — stability over democracy — and it’s much easier, of course, to control one autocrat than it is to control a democratic population. That’s why all of our allies in the region are monarchies or autocracies of some sort or another. One can talk about Egypt, but Egypt is a fake republic. Mubarak has been president for more than 30 years, and there’s no reason to think that he’s going to step down any time soon.

TM: Egypt’s recent election only reinforced that, didn’t it?

RA: It did, although for the first time other people were actually allowed to run. As one would expect, the best-organized group was a religious opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. This isn’t surprising. In a society with no room whatsoever for any kind of democratic opposition, where the only free space in society is the mosque, it is only natural for the opposition to the state to form within the religious groups.

This, of course, is not unique to Islam. In all societies in which populations feel marginalized or dispossessed or oppressed by their leaders, they are going to find, within religion, not just solace but the language with which to strike back. This is true whether you’re a Catholic in Latin America or a Muslim in Upper Egypt.

TM: Here’s a more speculative question. Hamas has been both a violent revolutionary party and a social service network, offering education, medical care, these sorts of things. As democracy begins to emerge and as these religious parties become governing parties, might the populace move them more toward the latter now that they’re in power.

RA: The wonderful thing about democracy is that you are beholden to your constituency, and your constituency can just as easily throw you out of power as they brought you in. Hamas is going to realize this very quickly.

While we can talk about the differences between Hamas and Fatah, between a secular as opposed to a religious idea of Palestine, there’s one thing that cannot be ignored — the overwhelming majority of Palestinians, 78-79 percent in most polls, are absolutely fed up with the cycle of violence and resoundingly support a two-state solution. More importantly, they want a secular, democratic Palestine, not a theocratic state.

Now, a lot of these things go directly against Hamas’ traditional ideological stance. But if you listened as they were campaigning, they not only de-emphasized those issues that most Palestinians disagree with, but in many cases, actually made it clear that they were very open to a whole host of compromises.

Let’s not forget that during the year in which Hamas was allowed, for the first time, to become a political force, they did not launch a single attack against Israel.

If we look at the example of the IRA in Northern Ireland — one of the most bloodthirsty, ruthless, and savage terrorist organizations in modern history — the moment they were given a political voice, we finally saw that the IRA was a not a monolithic entity. A host of political ideologies began to emerge once they were given political access, and there was a separation between the political wing and the military wing. Sinn Fein took center stage and was forced to moderate its behavior in order to hold on to power. Hamas is doing very much the same thing, distancing itself from its military wing, the Qassam brigades.

Hamas has a choice. They can spend the next couple of years focusing on the infrastructure issues that brought them to power in the first place — the building of hospitals, the feeding of the poor, the cleaning of the streets — or they can allow their ideology, their stance against Israel and their vision for a theocratic state to trump the pragmatic reasons that they were elected. And if they do that, we’ll see the end of Hamas as a political force.

TM: Are you saying that it was clear that their pragmatic domestic wing led to their election?

RA: There was no question about that at all. Every single poll, regardless of its source, has shown that a vote for Hamas was, more than anything else, a vote against Fatah.

TM: Yet I heard on the radio a representative of Hamas from Gaza making defiant, aggressively independent statements like, “We can create a successful Palestine without the aid of those who would place conditions on us.”

RA: You’re going to see both sides once the new Parliament is formed and Hamas is allowed for the first time to actually express their political ideology.

The great thing about being in the opposition is that you can just provide a counterweight to the ruling party. When you’re suddenly in charge, you must move beyond press releases and begin to frame what you believe in and what your agenda is. When the real debate and discussion over domestic laws and the future of a Palestinian state starts to be hashed out on the floor of Parliament, I think we’re going to be shocked at the sects and schisms and the fractures that we’ll see in Hamas. This is not a monolithic organization by any means.

TM: One reason that it isn’t monolithic is that it was the only alternative. Whether you were alternative in wanting health care in your community or you were alternative in wanting to do away with Israel, Hamas was the only place to go. You say that they will be voted out if they don’t deliver, but what other alternative is there to turn to?

RA: I think Fatah — particularly the younger generation of Fatah — has learned a valuable lesson. Fatah is also split into various factions. We sometimes talk about the old and the young guards of Fatah — the Yassir Arafat cronies mired in corruption and ineptitude, and the younger ones like Marwan Barghouti. These younger people are absolutely enraged at what Fatah has done to the party, and the fact that it has led to this loss of power. We’re going to see a restructuring of Fatah as an opposition group.

I think this is the whole point of democracy.

TM: Both the opposition and those who thought they owned power forever now have to learn to deliver.

Let’s shift to the larger context of Islam. When I spoke with [Washington Post correspondent] Robin Wright a couple of years ago, she pointed out that the neocons were attempting to force democracy on Muslim states and cultures that, in some sense, had yet to experience an enlightenment or a reformation. She has also written about the stirrings of reformation within Islam.

You wrote an op-ed recently in which you compare Osama bin Laden to Martin Luther. Speak to that rather provocative assessment.

RA: My point was that a crucial issue of all reformations — not just the Christian Reformation, but also the Jewish Reformation which took place in first century Palestine — is the question of who has the authority to define faith. Is it the institution or the individual?

The most famous of the Jewish reformers was Jesus Christ, who said that religious authority rests with the person and not with the institutions of the Jewish faith, the Pharisees or the Sadducees. The same argument was later made by Martin Luther and the numerous Protestant and radical reformers of the 15th and 16th centuries who challenged papal authority.

This question of who has the authority to define faith is now being argued within the Muslim world. For 14 centuries that authority has rested solely in the hands of the clerical institutions, and now over the last century a sense of individualism is infusing this once quintessentially communal faith.

TM: When Osama bin Laden or any of the other militant Islamists issues a fatwa, that’s more radical to other Muslims than it is to us.

RA: Very much so, because according to Islamic law, they don’t have the right to issue a fatwa or to declare jihad. They know this. The world’s Muslims know this. Every time that bin Laden issues a fatwa, it is a direct challenge to the authority of reigning clerical institutions.

Bin Laden, like many reformation radicals of the past, has taken this sense of religious individualism to its ultimate extreme. What he has done, as a religious innovator, is in many ways the same kind of thing that Luther did. He has set himself up in direct opposition to the institutional authority of his religion. He is saying, “You no longer have the right to declare what our faith means.”

The interesting thing is that there are many, many other Muslims who are doing the same thing, but we call them Muslim modernists and reformists. I, myself, am working on the same exact project, this idea of authority resting in the individual — that it is our right to decide for ourselves what the Koran means, what Islamic law means.

In many ways bin Laden is not a counter to this Islamic Reformation that is taking place, he is the product of this Islamic Reformation. He is, in many ways, the poster child of Islamic Reformation.

TM: Let me see if we can slice this a little finer. He stands for reformation in terms of who has the authority

RA: Right.

TM: But his individual authority declares a pre-modernist, anti-modernist interpretation.

RA: Right.

TM: Now, there is — and we don’t hear nearly as much about it — a broader reformation going on which also says that the clerics don’t have all authority, but which begins to accommodate or integrate with modernism.

RA: That, I would say, is the majority view of those who are a part of this reformation. Of course, this happens whenever you take authority out of the hands of institutions and put it into the hands of individuals. You are going to have widely divergent ideas of what religion is, and those ideas are going to be necessarily colored by one’s own political or social biases and prejudices.

So, two people are saying authority rests in the individual. One can say Islam is an enlightened and modern religion that can perfectly reconcile its values and traditions with the realities of the modern world and particularly with democratic values. Another person who also says that religion rests in the hands of the individual can say, “No, Islam is a militant and extremist religion, and the primary function of an individual Muslim is to declare an individual jihad.”

In Islam, there is no centralized religious [authority]. There is no Pope. There is no Vatican. There are just these scattered institutions that have managed to maintain an iron grip on the meaning and message of Islam for 14 centuries. Over the last century, for the first time, that iron grip has been loosened, and so it’s only natural that you’re going to have a wide array of different interpretations.

Let’s not forget, the same thing happened in the Christian Reformation. Once Luther’s 95 theses were tacked to the door of the church, it was fair game, and anyone who joined the Protestant movement could come up with any kind of interpretation. Anyone familiar with Christian history and Reformation history knows what baffling and sometimes repellant and ridiculous interpretations of Christianity came out of that period.

TM: To wrap this up, can you offer a brief description of what people will find if they pick up your book, “No god But God”?

RA: “No god But God” provides not just a history of Islam — where it came from, how it evolved, its many different forms and where it may be going in the future — but it talks about religion as a story.

I think the most important thing is that I’m telling the story of Islam and placing Islam in the larger context of world religions. My field is comparative religion, not just Islam, and I want to tell the story of religion, not just the story of Islam. I ask where specifically does Islam fit in this long and intimately connected and still developing history of the world.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles (streaming at kpfk.org).