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Rooting out the hatred
In an interview with the JP2Love editors

Conversation with Arsalan Iftikhar, the author of the book 'Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era', an international human rights lawyer and global media commentator of Pakistani descent. He is one of the top columnists in America and is regarded as one of the leading representatives of the modern image of Islam among the young generation.

How is the perception of the Muslims evolving in the West?

It is important to keep in mind that the global Muslim community is very diverse between different races, ethnicities and nationalities. It is important not to view Muslims as amonolithic entity, but instead, as a demographic group that has as much diversity of opinion as Christian and Jewish communities represent today.

What may explain the rumors claiming that President Obama is a Muslim?

The political whisper campaigns of President Obama being a Muslim are a sinister attempt at portraying him as 'The Other'. Since racism is still alive today, this tactic has been used to disparage President Obama by falsely associating him with a religious group that has an overall negative image in America today.

How can be the escalation of extremism stopped?

Extremism of any kind can be stopped by humanizing the 'different one '. Once we look to see that all human beings are all creations of God, I do believe that we will demonize each other a little bit less every day.

Should freedom of speech be limited when it threatens an intercultural conflict?

As an international lawyer, it is my belief that freedom of speech is an integral part of our modern foundations of international law. As long as speech is not used to incite violence, I am a very strong proponent for 'free speech' even if I do not agree with what is being said by another person.

Can an open and honest dialogue between the different world views reduce the hatred between peoples of different cultures, faiths?

Of course. It is very important for people to sit face to face and listen to one another and try to understand different world perspectives. I firmly believe that humanizing other people's perspectives will help us understand our own even better.

How world's religions should react to the civilizational progress?

In our 21st century millennial generation, we should all aspire to live in a world where religion will only be used for good from now onwards.

Can the economic growth be a motor of change in intercultural relations?

Absolutely. As our global village continues to shrink on a daily basis, we must understand and appreciate that we are all inter-connected. Once we open economic and diplomatic channels with one another, I truly believe that this will help our global economy as well.

What is the cause of hostility between the Christians and the Muslims?

Like most other diplomatic rifts that have occurred in the past, I believe that the Christian-Muslim division is exacerbated by our collective inability to understand each other.

The image of a Muslim is being constantly deformed. How can we counteract it?

Iftikhar: We have to continue to humanize ourselves to each other and highlight our similarities rather than our differences.

Is the image of a Christian similarly negative in the Muslim world?

Since Jesus is loved and revered as an Abrahamic prophet within Islam, you will never find anyone defaming Christianity as a religion since we believe in the Abrahamic teachings of both Judaism and Christianity.

How grave is the Islamophobia problem in your opinion?

Iftikhar: The problem of Islamophobia is growing around the world. Many right-wing politicians around the Western world use anti-Muslim political platforms to pander to xenophobic elements within their own societies.

What are the greatest obstacles to the East-West reconcilement?

The lack of public diplomacy is probably the greatest challenge to East-West relations. We must continue to share cultural exchanges with each other in order to better understand each other.

Do you think that John Paul II's efforts towards interreligious dialogue have been wasted by the likes of Osama Bin Laden?

The ecumenical legacy of John Paul II was wonderful. He was quite beloved to both Jews and Muslims since he was the first Pope ever to visit both a synagogue and mosque during his papal tenure. Especially after Pope Benedict XVI's controversial speech about Islam at Regensburg University in September 2006, I hope that he will remember the wonderful ecumenical legacy of John Paul II as he moves forward in his own papal tenure.

Why do both religions evoke mutually so hostile emotions, even though they both actually call for peace?

I always say that it is not the religions that are the problems; it is the followers who are the problem. It is the fallible insecurities that we all share which is leading to much of the hostility that we are seeing today.

What future do you predict for religion in the times when the secularization process is progressing?

I honestly believe that we are also seeing a rise in the level of religiosity around the world today. Again, we have to make sure that we nurture a future where religion is only used for good for our future generations.

If you had such an opportunity, what question would you ask John Paul II?

I wish that I had the opportunity to meet John Paul II during his lifetime. If I had the opportunity, I would ask him what he learned during his visits to a synagogue and mosque and how he believes we can improve interfaith relations around the world.

Does the XXI century announce domination of pragmatism over ethics?

I believe that ethics will always play an important role in our human experiment. Granted, the definition of 'ethics' might evolve (or devolve) over time, but I do not believe that ethics and pragmatism are mutually exclusive from one another.

What's your opinion on the so-called 'Arab Spring'?

I think that the Arab Spring is a monumental event in the recent history of the Middle East and North Africa. If you told any Middle East observer 10 years ago that both Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi would fall in the same calendar year, we would have laughed at you. Let us hope that these pro-democracy movements continue throughout the Muslim world in a peaceful manner.

What prompted you to write the book 'Islamic Pacifism'?

I wrote my book 'Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era' to help shift the global narrative on Islam and Muslims. Since many people wrongly believe that Islam and Muslims are violent or prone to extremism, I am trying to show people that there are proud Muslim pacifists as well.

How would you respond to the opinions calling you 'the Muslim Gandhi'?

Just like Gandhi and Martin Luther King promoted their versions of Hindu and Christian pacifism, it is important to show people that pacifism can be applied to any religion today.

Do you think that your critically acclaimed book will lead to a change in perception of Muslims in the United States?

I hope that 'Islamic Pacifism' will give people another perspective on the Muslim community in America and beyond. Since many people are under-educated or ignorant about Islam and Muslims, I want to give people another perspective about how to think Islam and Muslims, one that is outside the paradigm of extremism and violence.

What are the threats of the tense situation in Syria and around Iran? Where is the world going?

With the Arab Spring, I believe that dictators around the world know that their time is coming. With peaceful pro-democracy movements around the world, I am hopeful for a better tomorrow around the Middle East and across the Muslim world.

How do you rate the outcome of the Egyptian parliamentary elections and the victory of the Party Freedom and Justice created by the Muslim Brotherhood?

For the first time in half a century, the people of Egypt control their own destiny for once. Even though Westerners might not agree with their choice of political parties, we must support their democratic aspirations and hope that they choose political leaders that will protect the rights of all Egyptians, regardless of religion, gender or political affiliation.

What is your opinion on their support for the re-introduction of sharia which is a crucial part of Islam?

The concept of 'sharia' is quite misunderstood by the Western world. As an international human rights lawyer, I believe it is essential for any modern society to help ensure that every person's rights are protected, especially women, religious minorities and other disenfranchised communities.

What do you think about the 'Occupy Wall Street' movement? Is the society still capable of influencing great powers' policy?

I think movements like 'Occupy Wall Street' help to remind our societies that there is still a great deal of economic inequality around the world today. Although it might not have any overnight effect, I believe that these movements can help spark grassroots support around the world.

Do you foresee a peaceful democratization of Syria? Will 'the Libyan scenario' be avoided?

I think every country in the Middle East is different and I just pray that the Syrian regime will stop killing its own people and transition to a more peaceful democratic society.

Could you point out a man whose attitude would be an example for all people regardless of their faith?

Nelson Mandela is probably the one living person that is respected by people of all religions around the world. He was a man who wrongfully spent 27 years in prison for his people and has now dedicated the rest of his life to the betterment of our global community.

December 11, 2011
New book 'Islamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era'


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