Interview with Al-Mustaqeem Radhi and Aziz Shakir-Tash

Al-Mustaqeem M. RADHI has translated four volumes of non-fiction from English and Arabic into Malay, and in 2006 edited the treatise ‘Islam and Pluralism.’ An accomplished editor, he has managed political and economic journals at the Open Dialogue Center and the Institute for Policy Research. Currently, he is Executive Director of the Middle Eastern Graduate Centre in Kuala Lumpur. He participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Aziz Nazmi SHAKIR-TASH (poet, fiction writer; translator; Bulgaria) works in Arabic, Turkish, and English both as a scholar and as a writer. He has authored three books of poetry, most recently ‘A Sky at 33’ (2007), and one collection of short stories (‘Rain Apocrypha,’ 2004). An accomplished translator and editor with more than a dozen translations of poetry and prose to his credit, he publishes both in Bulgaria and in Turkey.

Interviewer: Nataša Ďurovičová

ND: I got interested in the idea of this interview because, reading Radhi’s text first and then listening to him read “Letter to My Mother on the Question of Choice” at the Shambaugh house, it seemed to me that here is someone who thinks about Islam along lines completely different from the conventional clash-of-civilization prototype. Then you came in the picture, Aziz, and I thought, if we take Islam as having privileged (cultural) relationship in the Arabic world, you both stand somewhat in its periphery.
Let me start off with a background question, and then feel also free to ask each other questions; I don’t necessarily have the right issues.

Could you tell us a little about your background, your parents, where you grew up, and how you got to where you are now?

SHAKIR: I am from Bulgaria. I was born in a poor family, I can say. We lived in a small city about fifty miles away from [my parents’] native places. They used to work in different places in Bulgaria. They were just changing places once in a while. And they chose this place because in a way it was close to their homes, their villages. Both of them were working all day long, and I spent most of my time in childhood in the kindergarten. In this sense maybe I did not live fully this kind of relationship between a child and the parents.

ND. What did they do?

S. My father was a professional driver and my mother was a cook. I was very strongly related to my grandparents. I was very lucky because we were visiting them every weekend. Actually it was my grandfather—my father’s father—who gave me this type of culture.

ND. How would you describe that? What do you mean by that?

S. I mean when we were going to [my grandparents’] village, I could see all these old books in Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman. And my grandfather taught me to read the Ottoman language when I was nine years old.

ND. What does the Ottoman script look like?

S. It’s the Arabic—it’s the same. But the language is different. The Ottoman is a mixture of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish.

ND. What did he have the books for? Was he a bookish man?

S. Yeah. I guess, long ago when the villagers wanted to buy a book, they were very expensive and they would gather the money from all the villagers. It was my grandfather who preserved these books.

ND. He did not pass [them] on to your mother or father?

S. No. Now we possess them after his death, in our village.

ND. But you’re saying that the intellectual tradition skipped a generation.

S. Yes. Exactly like this. Because the generation of my parents were fitted into the Socialist period. Great damage was done to spheres of life like religion. It was a totally atheist society. Not only Muslim. It’s the same with the Christians in Bulgaria. All my friends’ grandparents were the ones who told us about religion. We didn’t have any books that related to these topics.

ND. Do you feel you’re going forward or backward then?

S. In what sense?

ND. I see a huge generational loop that happens in that part of the world. Actually [a Maltese writer] mentioned the other day that her parents were Socialists and took it for granted that she would be as well. So it’s this projection of modernity forward, which now suddenly comes to a halt. And your generation is rejecting—if not modernity—at least modernism, and attaching itself back to a sort of pre-war situation, I think.

S. I think it happens. Not in the same scale or way, but modernized, in a way. Nowadays this religious attitude is reviving but the form is different, especially for the Muslims. They do not behave like the classical type. It’s not just going to the church or the mosque. It’s something more universal; the feeling that God exists is reviving.

ND: Al Mustaqueem, can you talk a little about your parents and getting to where you are now?

RADHI: My parents got married during the earliest period of the emerging Islamic movement in Malaysia. The background is that Islam politically responded to the establishment, and to the racial issues at that time. So the Islamic movement arose as a response to the Westernizing society. The Malays, though they are a Muslim society, were Westernizing, especially in the 1970s. A generation of afro-hair and disco and the revival of Babylon. They drank whiskey. Another thing: during the early ‘70s they were searching for a Malay identity. In this period, we had for example a national-cultural policy emphasizing the supremacy of the Malay culture. Other cultures were required to submit to the supremacy of the Malay culture. But I do not think [my parents] knew at that time what Malay culture was. Living in a northern state, Kedah for example, I never heard of my uncles or my parents going to traditional Malay performances. I never attended any of it, until the last few years when we started to get in materials from the museums.

ND. So it’s the same interrupting—modernity interrupting.

R. Yes. In a way. Modernity—the Western style of living—actually did not come in a total vacuum: we were not living culturally 100% as Malay. What the correct statistic is, I don’t know. And we still don’t see it now. The traditional performances, if you take them as one characteristic, a society living culturally as who they are-- we don’t see that very much. So my father was one of the founding members of one of the first and very influential Islamic movements, called Islamic Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia.

ND. What was his name?

R. Mahamed Radhi. He was one of the founding members, and Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister, was a leader and founder of this organization. It was very influential at that time; 1974 was one of the biggest demonstrations in a northern state. This Islamic organization also had to carry ‘Malay-ness’ along with the socialist ideas. They fought for the poor. It went hand in hand: Islamic Malay and [the] poor-socialist program. If you read the speeches of Anwar Ibrahim in those years, he’s not just very well known in Malaysia but also among the international Islamic movement, the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan, the Muslim brotherhood, all of whom invited him.

ND. I’m now getting away from your biography, but how did socialism and Islam coexist? What was the rhetoric with which they coincided?

R. The rhetoric? This is not a socialism taken as a whole philosophical construct. Some individuals tried very consciously to propagate socialism. They were also fighting for independence. You see their role there. In practice they are businessmen and hold more important positions in the government. They are really rich. People hate them because they are rich. Also at that time, in 1969, there was a big and very blood clash between the Malay and non-Malay. So the Malay wanted to exercise their—not just right—their privilege. Because it is written in the constitution, it’s not just a right.

ND. Maybe we’ll get to the question of Malay and Islam identity and ethnicity merging. But I wanted to make sure to talk about how you grew up intellectually. One of you grew up very conscious and probably in a very bookish family. And in another family, as you were saying, in some ways you become the re-embodiment of…

R. What do you mean by bookish?

ND. Book owning, book reading, intellectually self-conscious…

R. Actually, the people in the Islamic movement didn’t read much. Anwar Ibrahim, for example, at that time tried to introduce (the poet) Iqbal, but the people didn’t read him. They read the texts of the Islamic movement. Maududi, for example. These are the books that they, not necessarily read, but used as texts in the weekly meetings. And this was the problem. I could not find enough books in my house.
Historical novels about the war, about the warriors of Islam. Like Omar al Khattab, and so very heroic in nature.

ND. But books did not exist?

R. That’s what I read as a child. I got some classic Malay texts, but they were not owned by my father. They were owned by my grandfather. So the books that we had in my house were very different. Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and everything. At my parents’ house—Arabic Jawi texts. Mostly Islamic books.

ND. Religious-philosophical texts?

R. Books published by the leaders of the Islamic movement.

ND. Thinking texts, or assignment texts?

R. Yes.

ND. What did you both study? What were your actual undergraduate areas? And where?

S. I started in high school studying languages, and it was preparation for my future studies. At the university it was Arabic language and literature. In high school it was English, Russian, and German. I graduated high school in 1992. The regime changed [in] 1991, but this change continued for maybe three or four years.

ND. Do you read German easily?

S. When it’s needed, it was for me a couple of years [of study].

ND. And Russian—is that a language of reference for you at all?

S. For me, yes. It’s not taught anymore in Bulgaria. There are some schools where students choose this language for certain reasons, but they are only few. It was obligatory for all students at that time.

ND. Is that language still part of your repertoire?

S. Of course! I was fond of Russian and we studied it for nine years. That did not change with the regime. Why? Because at the university most of the literature we were using—I mean, about Arabic literature, or our dictionaries—the best literature was what was published in the USSR. I’m still using Paranov’s Arabic-Russian dictionary. It’s perhaps the best in the world.

ND. Both the Russian and Czech Orientalists were in fact among the best scholars of philological history in Europe. I think this kind of scholarship was often concentrated between Russia and Prague.

S. They were. There are still schools. I can see the difference now. My colleagues in philology nowadays, they have problems because they don’t study Russian.

ND. Interesting. (To Radhi) What other languages besides Malay do you know?

R. I had Arabic language in high school.

ND. Was that part of the public school as well?

R. No. We call them Arabic schools, not Islamic schools. These Arabic schools are usually under the supervision of the religious authority of the state. They are owned by private individuals or families, and sometimes also by Islamic organizations or counsels. My high school was in a way state-owned. It was managed by a counsel in which the members were appointed by the state. It was one of the best schools in Malaysia.

ND. Was the purpose mainly to read the Qur’an?

R. We used Islamic curriculum, Islamic subjects, Arabic subjects. We used the Al-Azhar curriculum. Books from Al-Azhar in Egypt.

S. That was the first university. Actually it’s a thousand years old.

R. Al-Azhar is not just a university but also a producer textbooks for secondary and primary school. We used texts that were also used by students in Egypt.

ND. So no teaching classes in English?

R. Yes. Unfortunately, yes.

ND. Was that contested?

R. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But now the Malay language nationalists have a good position and do not want to fight the ministers for that, so we just use English. Except for when the Prime Minister decided [for us not to use it].

ND. Do you think it’s wrong to teach classes in English?

R. It’s wrong.

ND. Why do you think it’s wrong?

R. For me, mathematics in English, …I mean, the reason given by the Prime Minister was not ‘because we want the student to be better in mathematics and science,’ but ‘we want to improve the students’ English.’ If you want to improve the students’ English, you teach English! You teach Shakespeare or Mark Twain. You don’t use mathematics and science to teach English.

ND. (to Shakir-Tash) Where did you learn Arabic?

S. At the university, actually. But you can never say, ‘I know [the] Arabic language,’ because it’s too complicated. The official language in more than twenty countries is Arabic. We know the written version, we can read and translate it. But when we have to use it in practice we have problems because of the different dialects.

ND. So where did you go to get your spoken Arabic?

S. The only time I did it with this purpose, I went to Tunisia, in 2001. They have a very nice Arabic course, and I was very happy to do it. I mean, it was useful. But they have some problems in Tunisia. It was okay [speaking Arabic in] the course, but Tunisia uses a different dialect, with a mixture of French and African languages. Studying the history of the Arabic world was like studying parts of French or English history. They really had a great influence in this last period.

ND. You were studying Arabic in Sofia, was it?

S. Yes.

ND. Where did your instructors come from, where was the intellectual source of that transmission?

S. Most of them were Bulgarian who were educated somewhere in the Arab world. We had teachers from Damascus, Beirut, and also from Baghdad. One of my teachers was a Kurd from Syria. A Syrian-Armenian (laughs)! Good mixtures. So we had both Bulgarians who were educated abroad and…

ND. So there’s no particular influence culturally or linguistically from a particular region. There is no particular axis.

S. No. Our [department] in Sofia proved to be one of the best in Europe. Even the Russians were not as good. We were visited by some Russian Arabists; they are very good professionals in terms of translating, but they lacked practice speaking. Our teachers don’t have problems if they try finding a job in Western Europe or in the States. It’s only the English they need. Some of them have emigrated. I have a teacher who is now working in Michigan, some are in Western Europe…

ND. And what department are you in in Istanbul?

S. I work at a couple of universities. I went to Istanbul to get my Ph.D.

ND. What did you write your thesis on?

S. Ottoman history. It was about the formation of the Ottoman cultural and scientific environment before Istanbul was captured. In a way, this was the European period of the Ottoman state. Afterwards I was invited by this same university to teach Arabic language. This is how I started working in Istanbul. The next university, which is very well known—the Bosporus University, ex-Robert College—is one of the first in Istanbul. I’m still also teaching in Sofia. There is a High Islamic Institute there.

ND. And that’s an Islamic Institute, not an Arabic institute.

S. Exactly. There were years when I was teaching the Grand Mufti and the other religious authorities!

ND. So, in some ways you are part of the revival of Arabic language. […] Later I want to get back to this ‘re-Ottomanization’ of the Balkans. But I also want to make sure we get to Radhi’s narrative. So you spoke Arabic by eighteen?

R. No. Although it’s one of the best and oldest Arabic schools in Malaysia, it was a very disorganized school. When I was sixteen maybe I attended five months of the year.

ND. What were you doing otherwise?

R. I just skipped class.

ND. Yes, but what were you doing?

R. I just played around. I had a business, a burger stall. I wanted the money to buy cigarettes. I did not want to use my father’s money to buy cigarettes, so my friend and me had this business. We didn’t like to go to school. There were not enough teachers. Some of them were very old and very boring. There was no point in going to school.

ND. What was your cultural life, besides burgers and cigarettes?

R. I was one of the students in that school who could read and pronounce English so I became the vocalist for a rock band (laughs). I am not a singer but because I knew English, and could pronounce the words, so even though I cannot sing—the point is, they wanted to play the guitar. (laughing)

ND. So that was your cultural life.

R. Yeah. (laughs)

ND. Was there Malay rock n’ roll?

R. Yes. It was very popular even in Indonesia at that time. Everybody listened to Malaysian bands. But I always had an interest in books. I didn’t have any friends interested in books—just a very small group in that school. We were very close. It was like a brotherhood. So we met weekly just to discuss our problems, and in this way I got used to the form of discussion. Although it was about kid problems. But we tried to take society seriously; also inMalaysia we don’t drink alcohol, but we wanted to get high so we drank cough syrup (laughs) for weeks. It was quite dangerous and illegal to get cough syrup. In a way it’s worrying.

ND. That’s what I’m wondering: where does the rebellion come in? Part of it was taking on your grandfather’s legacy, but part is also breaking with a tradition that is as strong as anything. Where does the unruliness and the willingness to break out come in?

R. Yeah. Rock n’ roll.

ND. But also reading, as you say, you insisted on reading. How about you, Aziz, how did you get into trouble?

S. I did not need to rebel like this. We had great problems with our identity. In this process, this was the 1980s when all Muslim names were changed and replaced [them] with Christian names.

ND. That’s the official problem. But unofficial problems—your Islamic interests and the retrieval of your identity, was that a rebellious position? Or was it something that your parents and your grandparents got you into?

S. In a way it was related to fighting for getting back our Turkish identity. In the Balkans, when you say ‘Turk’ it means Muslim. Not the ethnic but the religious element dominates in this term. But actually the Turks in Bulgaria are not good Muslims. They don’t perform the prayers. Most of them don’t fast. And most of them drink alcohol.

R. Oh, those kinds of Muslims! (laughs).

S. It was all these problems. The policy of assimilating the Turks in a way motivated the Turks to be better Muslims because this was part of the Turkish identity. When things started to change, it was with the religious literature that came from across the border. It happened the same with Christianity after the fall of the regime in 1990. The first visitors were the missionaries from different sects and religions. It was exactly the same with some Arabs and Turks coming to Bulgaria. Nowadays they have started to be a problem because they also attack each other. It is not only to reintroduce Islam into Bulgaria, but the way they do it is sometimes aggressive, or is not peacefully coexisting with the type of Islam existing in Bulgaria all these years. I mean, it is not a Sunni type Islam any more because the youngsters who go abroad to study Islamic issues—they go let’s say to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, or Syria—and the types of Islam that are taught there are different from our traditional Islam. And when they come back, we have this problem between our grandfathers…

ND. …of a liberal Islam…..

S. Because the young Muslims are trying to tell them: ‘Your Islam is wrong. We know better now.’ (laughs)

ND. (to Radhi) You sound like you agree with what he’s saying. This idea that the new generation is more radical. The radicalization of Islam.

R. Yes.

ND. So how did you get involved? You’re this Malay rocker with an Arabic education, and then you turn 18 and it’s time to go to college.

R. I went to college in Jordan.

S. You see! More fundamentalist!

R. Yes. So a group of us – 6 or 8 of us – from the same school went to Jordan. At the time we were thinking: ok, what should we do when we get to Jordan? We cannot speak English or Arabic, we speak Malay. But a friend of mine spoke Arabic because he lived in Saudi Arabia as a kid. And I could speak English, so we depended on two persons. If they spoke English, I would go forward; if Arabic, my friend would go forward. Even though we had had six years of formal education in Arabic school, we couldn’t speak it.

ND. But why did you go to study in Jordan and not in Malaysia? Did your parents send you?

R. I wanted to avoid the examination in Malaysia. I had to take an examination to get to University, and I was not very confident. I had been playing all the time, so I wanted to avoid [taking the exam]. I used other exam results to get to Jordan. So we went there. And I wanted to study abroad.

S. It’s an adventure you need at that age.

R. Yes, it was an adventure.

ND. What did you study?

R. I studied Islamic Studies.

ND. Was that a religious choice or a cultural/political choice?

R. Religious. I always followed my father. I always attended the Abim program, a youth movement. I was very active. I loved to go to the lectures in the Mosque and read their publications. And Anwar Ibrahim and the president after [him]-- I liked them. They were intellectuals. (laughs) So I went to Jordan and founded the Muslim Youth Movement of Asia, Jordan Branch.

ND. You finished your studies in four or five years and then you returned?

R. I took longer. Six years.

ND. How was your time in Jordan?

R. I played a lot. I didn’t study. (laughs)

S. It’s the Malay tradition. (laughs)

ND. When you returned to Malaysia, what were you? You were a Shariah expert? Or you just had a BA, as it were, in Islamic Studies? What were you as a young person at that time?

R. The reason I said I played in Jordan [is] because it was not interesting to attend the classes; the nature of the learning environment—there was no discussion. We stuck to certain texts and there was no discussion. For the exam we had to memorize the texts and just answer whatever the question was. There was no thinking process.

ND. Were you surprised by that?

R. No, I was used to that kind of thing from Arabic high school. But I had no interest in that kind of education so I just played.

ND. Why didn’t you change the subject matter and become, for instance, a mathematics student?

R. I had a scholarship, a study-loan for Islam Shariah.

ND. So you couldn’t change. You could have studied political science if you would have had the money to do it. Would you have been more inclined to study something else?

R. Uh…Not in Jordan (laughs).

ND. Your studies were predicated on a loan specifically to [study] Islamic Studies.

R. Yes.

ND. So you were predestined to become an Islamic scholar, and you have been working on it ever since.

R. Yes. And I tried to read whatever books I could find. It is very legalistic in nature. It is not legal in the modern sense. And Jordan is where I got used to that tradition of argumentation. That’s the first encounter. I absorbed the tradition even though it is not that interesting.

ND. Would you say that what marked you was the tradition of the rhetoric of dialogue more than the content of the classes you were studying?

R. Yes. The rhetoric, the intellectual tradition. I think it is a habit to read between the lines, not the facts but—why are they arguing, for example.

ND. So it’s a question of interpretations of classical theological skill and ‘Talmudic’ skill, so to speak: why do you always answer a question with a question? Why not?

R. Yes, yes, yes.

ND. But there is a religious hermeneutic tradition. Looking at your work you must have taken that in the direction of political liberalism as being predicated in dialogue. I see that over and over again in your preoccupations.

R. Yeah?

ND. How did you negotiate a Shariah education into what is in fact a political science?

R. That came out very much later. I didn’t want to become a religious officer. A kadi. We decided with my friends that we wanted to become something else. We didn’t want to be teachers in an Arabic school. I came back, and even at that time, I liked writing. Not as a habit, but I liked to read. And I couldn’t find a job, and I had a wife and children. At that time I had two kids. I wanted to teach in college but during the interview I argued with the interviewer. (laughs)

S. There you are! (laughs)

R. So after that I got the opportunity. I was always thinking—a journalist is very interesting. But there is no way I can get into journalism. I have no formal education in journalism. But I got the opportunity and became a journalist.

ND. You never thought about going to graduate school to be a historian or a social scientist or a political scientist. That was not a possibility.

R. At the time, I did not know much about the academic…

ND. You were not an academic by temperament.

R. Yes.

ND. I was wondering how you became close to the Tahtawi journals, the texts that you’d sent to the IWP. It was such an interesting text. And it seems again to suggest a kind of political and historical preoccupation. So, it looks to me like you’re doing the work of an intellectual, very much like in the Western academic world. That is, you pursue historical sources. You seem to be editing texts that are very much about the question of public policy, public discourse—and yet, you seem to be doing this not as a paid academic. So if we don’t have time for this question, it’s at least something I want to type up for you.
[To Shakir-Tash] So, from your perspective, do you think of yourself as a representative of the western-most Muslim tradition? Of a certain Islamic—the Ottoman tradition—more westward? Or do you think you are just as much rotating toward the Middle East and turning your back against Europe? What makes you more excited?

S. (laughs) Writing! I don’t know. I think both of the directions—they are changing from time to time. I feel like turning my face to both directions.

ND. What do you read at night?

S. At night? All sorts of literature.

ND. What is on your nightstand right now, in Iowa?

S. In Iowa, it is actually something that is related to religious issues. The lost Gospels. The apocrypha which was recently translated. It dates back to the first century AD.

ND. And what do you read for fun? For pleasure?

S. For fun? (laughs)

ND. As American undergraduates say: ‘fun reading?’

S. It should be fun all of the time. When I say I read these scriptures, it’s not just an academic pursuit. I need it for my mentality. I also read The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. What else? I got some books from my colleagues in the IWP. I have some novels-- Khaled Khalifa’s novel.

ND. In Arabic.

S. And Black Magic,also in Arabic, by Hamdy El Gazzar. I have also three poetry collections given to me by Salman Masalha. What else? I have Kei [Miller’s] Caribbean poets collection, and his own There is an Anger That Moves. So many books here to read! A couple days ago we were in Chicago and I bought fifteen books there. I bought them not to read them. Most of them are picture albums, so they are more for the eyes. (laughs) I need also to see things, not only to read! There is one great album called Cosmos. It is just pictures of deep space. One of my great loves is astronomy. I use it in some of my fiction: I write about the universe, about creation, how it works. Of course, Stephen Hawking’s books are among my favorites.

ND. I’ll ask Radhi the same question about what you are reading: rumor has it it is a long list.

S. I am trying to compete [with] him but…(laughs)

R. Mostly non-fiction, and introductions, actually. Because I started very late. When I went to the interview for this application, this editor—he was the former press-secretary for Anwar Ibrahim--asked me: ‘What do you like?’ I like reading. ‘Oh really?’ ‘What books have you read?’ and I can’t list more than five. I look in his room, the whole wall and on the table—he did not have enough shelves to put the books! I had to reevaluate myself! (laughs) Maybe this is not my hobby-- it’s a kind of panic. Impatience. I want to read this and that so I go from book to book. From political science to Bob Dylan. So, all over.

ND. You’re building a library in a way.

R. I’m building a library in a way. I try to read as much as I can. But always nonfiction. I don’t enjoy fiction. I tried to read Philip Roth, for example…and others. No fiction, or the classics. Here I bought [a] second-hand Moby Dick—I wanted to try again. But I always enjoy reading poetry in whatever language.

ND. So poetry and nonfiction, but not fiction.

R. Not short stories or novels. I don’t have the patience for novels.

ND. So you have been here in part to do that: building up an intellectual structure for yourself.

S. I did this in the first years of my University. It was 1990 when all prohibited books started to be published in Bulgaria, and we only knew the names and knew that it was good. But we never saw the books. I spent all my money to buy books. I bought maybe two thousand volumes during my University studies! My parents kept saying: ‘Don’t buy any more books!’ (laughs)

R. Yeah. I don’t think it’s in our culture, I mean, books—it’s not the culture. My friends and family, when they come to my house and see these books, they cannot understand it. Very, very strange. I started to really buy books in 2002 when I became a journalist. [I] befriended this former secretary of Anwar Ibrahim who was crazy about books. He was here for IWP and he bought more books then me. He’s crazy. I started as a journalist and—to your question about my political interest—it started there. That was at the peak of our reformasi movement. Two years after that, we started to question what ‘reformasi’ was-- was it like the Reformation of Luther, or something else? What is reformasi actually? Is it just about Anwar Ibrahim? These questions, we keep on raising them. We see more interest. With the Reformation, we went back to Luther, and then to Enlightenment. We started a debate about Enlightenment. Is it an on-going process or is it a finished product? We took Habermas’ view that it is an on-going process.

ND. I was curious about the German axis because I saw its recurrence in your work. You have been to Germany and you have Hans Küng in one of your collections. I was wondering if whether literally this was a Reformation, this was an attempt to apply the lessons of the Lutheran Reformation on the Islamic movement, consciously, or whether this just so happened somehow?

R. I think that we applied the tradition, not the content itself. For example, the Reformation in Islamic history, that was propagated by the Egyptians, it’s a kind of Reformation that brings back the Puritan elements. We became more Puritan. So we tried to be careful about that. Even with regard to Luther—we tried to understand both Lutheranism and Catholicism. The tradition, actually. The culture. It’s not the answers, but the questions.

ND. So it just happens to be that there are a strong set of national institutions that support, or are in dialogue with, the idea of Reformation.

R. Nobody can avoid Germany. (laughs)

ND. Why’s that.

R. Any political science, religious…it always first happened in Germany. Socialism, Marxism.

ND. So the Western tradition comes to you not as an Anglo-Saxon tradition but through the German philosophical tradition.

R. Yes. But because I was interested in liberalism, I got to America. Those philosophers who ran from Europe and came to America because there’s more freedom here.

ND. So in that sense, America is only the endpoint of the philosophical material you identify originally with European nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophers.

R. Yes. In a way.

ND. I have a question about how you would like Islam to be perceived, let’s say, by your intellectual colleagues in the West. What is it that we need to be aware of, what is it we need to think about in order to not fall into clichés and not lapse into 9/11 iconography, the basest, the stupidest [point of view], but where is the exchange path possible, what is it we are missing about Islam that might be apparent by people like yourselves who are conversant in the two cultures? So that’s my—it’s not a question, it’s an assignment.

R. I don’t know. Discussing religion for me—I’d like to mark the beginning of a new era. For religion to stop playing an important role in society, and that’s the way it should be. This [is an] age of reason.

ND. 1789.

R. That marks the beginning. No more religion, [but] reason.

ND. Well let’s hear from the guy who just came from reason back into religion.

S. (laughs) I am not back in religion. I’m universal, I think. I think that the biggest problem nowadays with Islam is its political context. I mean, nobody reads the Scriptures, and nobody uses the Scriptures when arguing or addressing the other. They are using all sorts of secondary results or deeds or something that are the products of this society of course. But they are not religious products. It is the product of those who misread or don’t read (laughs) the Scriptures.

ND. But you’re saying that in some ways the purer reading of the Ur-text is really where you would like to see it go.

S. Yes. I’m a fundamentalist in this sense. (laughs) This fundamentalism is much better than just following a school or following a leader, following a policy. It should be between you and God. Not between you and the others.

ND. And the Department of Theology.

R. For me, maybe, entering into it at the age of reason, [could become] the tyranny of reason. So for me it is not a question about reason or religion. The question is about tyranny. We are talking about tyranny. Human nature. That is the role of religion for me.

S. Religion should be individualized.

R. Not nationalized religion, take religion out of [the state] to overcome the problem of tyranny. We need to use reason to govern.

S. Religion should be really between the man and God.

ND. And woman. (laughs) Alright, and on this note, thank you.

S. Thank you.