Interview with Ziauddin Sardar

11 August 2015, Istanbul

Ziauddin Sardar is Chair of the Muslim Institute and editor of Critical Muslim, an innovative quarterly on contemporary Muslim ideas and
thought. He is also the Director of the Centre of Postnormal Policy and Futures Studies, East West Chicago, and the editor of its journal East West Affairs. He has worked as science
journalist for Nature and New Scientist and
 as a television reporter for London Weekend
Television. He was a columnist on the New
Statesman for a number of years and has
served as a Commissioner for the Equality and
 Human Rights Commission and as a member of 
the Interim National Security Forum. Sardar has published over 50 books. The Future of Muslim Civilisation (1979) and Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come
 (1985) are regarded as classic studies on the future of Islam. Postmodernism and the Other (1998) has
acquired a cultish following and Why Do 
People Hate America? (2002) became an
international bestseller. His most recent book is Future: All That Matters. He was a long-standing columnist
on the New Statements and has contributed to
 the Guardian, the Times, the Independent and
numerous other newspapers and magazines.

Selma Bardakcı: Could you tell us a bit more about the “Critical Muslim” project that you have founded and now lead as an editor? Why have you felt the need to create such a project? What was your main motivating in doing so?

Ziauddin Sardar: I think most problems that Muslims face come from the fact that they do not take a critical approach to things. For example, they have a very pious and literalistic approach to the Qur’an, yet the Qur’an, as far as I can see, is a very argumentative text. The Muslim God loves a good argument and the Qur’an is full of them and other counter arguments. So from my point of view, what we need to do is read the Qur’an critically, rather than passively and actively. Similarly to the life of the Prophet, where they pay attention to his physical self; his beard and how he dressed; instead they need to pay attention to the values and concepts that he brought to bear in his own life. Again, criticism is missing from there.

If you look at Muslim history, we have a very romantic notion of Islam. Everything was wonderful, we were not imperialists, we did not make empires, we did not enslave people, etc. We were just wonderful everywhere we went. For instance, I just finished a book on Mecca, the sacred city, and I had a notion of Mecca as a perfect and beautiful city, but if you actually look at the history of it, it is full of brute violence and strife. So the reality and the image of our perception and romanticism do not often match. And of course, it’s not just that we don’t have an uncritical approach to our own sources and our own history, we have an uncritical approach to the West. So either the West is good or evil, and we embrace everything the West has to offer; so we turn our cities into Western cities where we used to dress like westerners. We embody their ideas and their images. It’s not just that we sometimes buy their image of our past, but we also buy their image of our future. It’s not just that our past was colonized; we also let them colonize our future. We in fact sometimes welcome it.

So criticism is missing in a sense, and the idea of “Critical Muslim” is to bring criticism back to Muslim society and it is my sincere belief that criticism was always centered to Islam and the way the Qur’an always asks you to think, reflect, travel, etc. It was developed as a science so that we could better appreciate it. Criticism was present in the great arguments of the past. We have lost all that criticism; we imitate our historical scholars, the West, and anything we find. The Muslims, as a whole, don’t produce anything, we just consume. We don’t innovate or come up with new ideas. I think we are in pretty bad shape, although not as bad as some parts of the past. So that is the first point.

The second point is that the kind of criticisms we are looking for can only come from the younger generation in a number of ways and for a number of reasons. One reason is that the young remember the contemporary times of society much better than the generation in their fifties or sixties. They know how to use the tools; they have a better understanding of globalization. Many people who are going to university are now studying cultural studies, or critical theory, or a kind of philosophy, and are more interdisciplinary.

The women have a very strong role to play. If you want to change society you have to focus more on women, and not just men, because the women change society, rather than the men. If you want to change the dynamic of a village or empower them, you don’t just give money to the men, you provide it to women and they transform the society. The women play the role of nurturing the children, giving them values, etc. I am not making a feminist argument. I am simply making an argument from research over the last four or five decades, which suggests that if you want to empower a community, you start with the women. Once they are empowered, you can empower the community. Normally if you begin with the men, then it doesn’t calculate into society as a whole. Muslim society says that if you change a woman, you change society, and the prophet said that paradise is under the feet of the mothers. He was not simply saying that your mother is going to go to heaven; he was also saying that the mother has certain powers and understandings and embodies such a nurturing role that can transform you, your family, and your society. There is that kind of lesson there as well.

The second main part I wanted to make is that if you want to change a society you need people that actively engage in self-criticism, debate, and dialogue within society. It can’t be done overnight; it takes place over a generation. This is why the young people of today will become the agent of change. The people who are forty or fifty today are not. We focus on young scholars and young thinkers. The other side of the story is that there is no such thing as a Muslim discourse; so the idea is to create one. This is not to say that “Critical Muslim” is the only group doing it, lots of other groups are doing it as well, but one function is to create a Muslim discourse.

The other thing I will emphasize is that because we do not engage with people critically, we have a very black and white attitude to it. For example, we think that either the West is totally bad or totally good. Our position is that the West is not totally good or totally bad, and that Muslims are not totally good or totally bad. We believe Islam is neither perfect nor imperfect. We emphasize pluralism and we don’t believe that Muslims should and can exist in isolation. We are part of a globalized world. At “Critical Muslim” we also engage in the West. We want to hear what they think of Muslims and we want them to know what we think of them, which sometimes may not be very complimentary. That is what criticism is all about. The idea is to create an open and pluralistic Muslim discourse. Many of our readers are not Muslim and many of our writers are not Muslim either, but we also have some that are native English speakers and Muslim.

SB: You said we shouldn’t transplant western ideals directly, but should be critical. I was wondering in what areas transformation should take place.

ZS: At this point in time, the Muslim’s have no idea. We have very few original ideas and most of our ideas and innovations come from the West. For instance, look at our cars and electronics, they are all from the West. Even the conflicts that we have, they are western creations. Nationalism is a western creation in a sense, so we can’t disengage from the West. We live in a world that is produced by and a product of the West. We have hardly made any contribution in recent times.

SB: What would be a particular case of democracy within the Muslim world? Essentially, what is the bridge between the two?

ZS: I would say that I am not so much for democracy. I am more for participation in governance and what form that government takes may vary from place to place. Let’s take Afghanistan for example. We imposed democracy on it, but it’s a tribal country, so the moment you impose democracy on it, only one tribe becomes the ruler. The other sides become the minority and they are deprived of power and you create an unstable situation and there will always be conflict and strife. Clearly, democracy doesn’t work and hasn’t worked for Afghanistan. But the tribal people themselves have notions of participation in government, which can be quite useful and efficient.
So why can we not imagine a new system where different tribes participate equally and create governance, which is a bit like the West. The basic thing is that the rulers are held accountable. If Saudi Arabia had a constitutional monarchy, then it would be no problem, but an absolutist monarchy is a problem. I don’t buy democracy as an ideology; what we need is an open and pluralistic form of governance, which focuses on two things: Participation of the population and accountability of the rulers. We need these two criteria to be met.

SB: The Arab Spring has been a breaking point for dictatorships in the Middle East that have inspired the hopes of the region’s people. However, there are many pessimistic comments and evaluations of the Arab Spring; claiming that the Arab Spring has turned to winter. In your opinion, did the Arab Spring fail? Are we still experiencing a transformation?

ZS: Well again it’s a simple question, but the answer is very complex. The Arab Spring is a product of contemporary times that I describe as post normal times. The Arabs have always wanted to get rid of their dictators, who wouldn’t want the same? They couldn’t do it twenty years ago, but they can do it now with the emergence of technologies that create complex networks that can move, are dynamic, self-organizing, and don’t need a leader. Technology has played a major part in creating the Arab Spring. Look at someone like Mohamed Bouazizi. Without the rapid media coverage, no one would have witnessed it. That global exposure allowed the Arab Spring to happen.
But complex phenomena does not behave according to norms or normality, you do not create it. If the street can use complex phenomena, the military can do the same, as they did in overturning Morsi. One answer about the Arab Spring, if you are asking the question, do Arab people desire to be free? The answer is yes! If you are asking me, has the Arab Spring as a process collapsed? The answer is yes! If you ask me, can the Arab spring, as a process, reemerge in the future? The answer is yes! See, it’s a very complex thing and that’s how you have to see it. I cannot say whether it has failed or not.

SB: It’s a process right?

ZS: Yes and something fast can happen. You only need a trigger in the kind of society that the Middle East is in.

SB: Can we say that rapid change is not very successful and that we need slower change?

ZS: That is the problem with the contemporary times. Time is accelerating and is very sudden. So market collapses are instant, there is no wondering. Sometimes you don’t even know the big trigger. We need to learn to adjust to change quickly, and we have been used to adjusting to change over time. We can adjust to it, and now it is very rapid and we, as a society, have to learn to access it a bit more rapidly.

SB: What is your evaluation of the sectarianism that has arisen after the Arab Spring in the Middle East? Is it possible that there is a clash between sects rather than civilizations? Also, what is your commentary on Iran and Saudi Arabia within the framework of sectarianism?

ZS: It is already happening! I have to say that I think that the evil within Islam is sectarianism; right from the beginning after the death of the Prophet. We had the Sunni and Shia split. This evil has existed in Islam from the beginning and it is becoming worse and worse. The only way to tackle it is to have a pluralist and open notion of Islam.
Again, I think that most of the problems for Muslims in the last twenty or thirty years have been created by Wahhabism and the Saudi’s, which are intolerant of others and are very literalist with a mindless interpretation. They perceive themselves to be the purest of all Muslims. It is misogynistic and treats women with contempt and disrespect. It regards other religions as beyond the pale. Everything about it is obnoxious as an ideology.

SB: What about Iran?

ZS: We should be just as critical of the Shias as we are of the Sunnis. There are some Shias that are just as bad as Wahhabis. It’s all about the interpretation and if you take it to a ridiculous end.

SB: Why do you think that Wahhabism became so influential in the Muslim World?

ZS: Money, it’s all about money. They built mosques and sent Imams abroad, and Turkey is trying to do the exact same thing. Salafism tells what is right and wrong. It says that Muslims are good and all others are not. They have become extremists and are so adamant about interpreting the original text in a very specific way. This is what is creating an authoritarian system.

SB: How could we structure a pluralistic understanding of each other in the Islamic world? What are the priorities that need to be accomplished by the Islamic world in order to achieve this goal?

ZS: First, we learn to need to accept the other, and the first other is the gender other. We are not going to get very far if we don’t accept women as equal human beings. I think it all goes back to rethinking about ourselves, about what is Islam, and what it means to be a Muslim. Ultimately, we have to give up the notion that our interpretation of the Quran is the only understanding possible. You need to accept that there is more than one way to understand Islam and that other people’s interpretations of Islam are just as valuable. But this is not easy for most Muslims to accept.
The bigger issue is that Muslim’s also need to accept that other religions are equally valued. All beliefs are just as ridiculous to other people and we are all constantly doing that. Most Salafist beliefs are very absurd and ridiculous, yet we laugh at other religions. So we need to learn and appreciate that other notions of truth may be as equally valid as our notions of truth and universalism.

SB: Why does the issue of secularism matter? What does it mean for a society to be secular, or for an individual to be secularist?

ZS: I think a great deal of harm has been done by the idea of secularism in the world. One way or another, some of the great injustices of the 20th century have been created by secularism. Stalin, Maoist China, and even the Holocaust were products of secularism. Turkey is secular and has faced issues, including military coups done in the name of secularism.
I think we need to distinguish between secularism as an ideology and being secular. I would argue that a viable Muslim society is secular, it does not accept secularism as an ideology or a grand narrative, but a vibrant Muslim society has to be secular in the sense that it does not give absolute power (political, religious, and judicial) to the clergy; that there is a separation between state and religion. That does not mean that the state does not describe itself as Islamic or whatever. It’s a collective of people, but it’s not the same thing as saying we are an Islamic state ruled by Sharia.
But what is even worse than secularism is liberal secularism because it is essentially secularism disguising itself as open and liberal. You notice that all post-modernist arguments end by saying that liberal secularism provides plurality. What they are saying is that plurality can only function under the meta narratives of secularism. They say that all other meta narratives like Islam, science and reasoning, are meaningless rubbish, but that liberal secularism is the great, all providing umbrella. They have demolished everything that has meaning to you and have given you a new ideology that’s supposed to give you meaning and purpose within society. I think this is a bit more disingenuous.

SB: Do we need reform in Islam for the contemporary societal challenges?

ZS: To be quite honest, I think we need to rethink Islam from the beginning, from the first principles. It’s not so much reform. We are talking about creating a discourse that gives meaning and purpose to being a Muslim in the 21st century. We are not reforming Islam itself. Is what we mean by Islam that there are seven articles of faith and this is how you pray, etc. or do we mean by reforming what the Islamic state looks like? What are we reforming? Clearly, we are not reforming the basic principles and the values. We regard these values as eternal and universal, so we do not think that values of Islam are unique to Islam. For example, in Islam it says that there are no differences between men and women. Another key value is that you should not accumulate more wealth than you need and you should be more equal. We derive all these values from the Quran and the life of the Prophet, but that does not mean that other cultures, religions, and societies don’t share those same principles and values. They have their own resources, which were derived from other sacred and non-sacred sources.
The question is how we operationalize these values in society. When we are talking about reforming Islam, it’s a very complex question and the answer cannot be simple. Clearly we have to reform Sharia, which is useless in contemporary times. So we need to come up with a new ideology for understanding and rethinking about what Sharia should look like in contemporary times. We have to look at Sharia as a human construction. We are talking about reforming Sharia, and the values of Islam that we cherish in society. How do we make a society into a dynamic culture that embraces those values and internalizes them? Reforming Islam involves reforming Muslims, another part is changing our outlook, and yet another part understands Islam and the Quran in contemporary times. We also need to reform our tradition; it is killing us. Tradition does not remain a tradition unless it reinvents itself. If it does not reinvent itself, it becomes a custom. It becomes a tool for oppression, which is exactly what we have. It’s not a liberating force. Most people who experience traditions know that it is oppressing them.

SB: How are we to counter the rising radical movements within the Islamic world? What does the Islamic world need to do in order to produce such policies against radicalism?

ZS: Our history shows that you cannot really negotiate with radicals. In fact they are killing Muslims in the most brutal ways; including what they have done in certain cities and what the Taliban has done; going to a school and killing children point blank. They said that you are a woman who is teaching girls, so they burn her first in front of the students. How can you negotiate with these people? I don’t think you can. There are different forms of radicals though, they are not all the same and do not have equal clout. We have to differentiate though, and some cannot be negotiated with. We need to stand up to them to fight and subdue them.
But there are other radicals that we can talk to and persuade and open up their minds. So it depends on the radicals. If they are ISIS, it can be hard to negotiate with them. If you allow them to grow they will bite you one day. You need to address them from the beginning. The Algerian radicals in Algeria, called the Islamic Front, brutally killed women and children to such an extent that the Muslims themselves supported the secularist military taking over the reins of governance. Libya was encouraging them as well, as we later discovered.
I think that the best way to tackle radicalism is to tackle it when it’s a seed. I think the best way forward is to make sure that the younger generation is not radicalized. We need to pay attention and address it. We call it the “black elephant.” We need to move forward from that. Once it acquires a shape like Boko Haram, where they are enslaving and raping girls, you cannot negotiate with that kind of radical evil.

SB: Do you think that the Islamic world needs to stand up against this radicalization?

ZS: Absolutely! We need to campaign for policies that bring people together against global organizations like Boko Haram. It is not just a problem for Nigeria, but for Islam as a whole. It’s the same with ISIS, the Taliban, and al-Qaeda. We need the Muslim world to stand up and do something. If there has to be a jihad, it needs to be against radicalism. Education is so important for fighting radicalism.

SB: How do you see the rise and fall of ex-president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? How do you see Egypt in the near future?

ZS: I think the Muslim Brotherhood can be a critical force. Basically, when they came to power, they showed their true colors. They are narrow minded and not very pluralistic. Had they been open minded and pluralistic, I don’t think that the counter-revolution could have been possible. I think that the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force needs to follow the example of people in Indonesia and regroup as a civic force, which makes civil society the location for political activism. That demands representative and accountable leaders.
But on the other side earlier on, a military dictator might feel safe but many things can happen that can bring him down and transform the situation. So change can happen in Egypt just as quickly as it has happened in the past.

SB: Also, Tunisia was the best success example, but still there is no political stability. What do you think about the Tunisian case?

ZS: I am hopeful about the Tunisian case. They are much more pluralistic and the Islamic forces dropped many of their demands, and the secularists came in. It became a government of “Islamists” and secularists, so there is a balance and counter balance. So I think this is one reason for the success of Tunisia. If only the Islamists were there, they probably would have gone down a similar route like the Muslim Brotherhood did.

SB: As a result of surveys and research, it is now a known fact that there are strong anti-sentiments against Muslims and immigrants in Europe. Many experts have voiced their concerns in regards to Islamophobia. Could you share your evaluations on the subject, and tell us about what precautions need to be taken by the governments and the circumstances of Islamophobia in Britain?

ZS: First of all, I think that Islamophobia is probably not as strong in England as it is in certain European countries like France, Austria, or even the United States. There are two or three important steps that the governments have taken. One is that we have a new equality legislation that came into effect in 2010, which makes it an offense to preach hatred against a religion. I think this is quite unique and doesn’t exist in other countries and the Muslims have played an important part in creating this legislation. I was a member of the Equality and Human Rights Commission; we were one of the first commissions that helped frame the legislation, so that is unique.
Here we have the classic post normal dilemma. One a whole, the British are much more reserved people. They are more welcoming and have a very good record of looking after refugees. Traditionally, it has been a place that has welcomed victims of war and conflict from other countries. On the one hand, there is that tradition, and on the other hand we have the popular press, which believes in an absolutist notion of freedom of press that demonizes immigrants and Muslims; so you have this contradiction. You have a historical viewing of it on one hand and then a contemporary view of this on the other hand. This is not new to England, as they experienced a lot of xenophobia in the early 20th century.

SB: Can you say anti-Islamism instead of Islamophobia?

ZS: That is a very interesting point. Islamophobia is not accepted as a term. It’s a phobia of Islam and also Muslims. Many people are clearly reacting to the extremist manifestations of Islam, like 9/11 or the train bombings in England and Madrid. The Muslims themselves are responsible for creating the bad image of them.
At the same time, there is also a historic internalization that has always feared Islam, particularly Turkey and the Ottoman Empire. They were the dark side of the West; the original “other.” Islamophobia is complex and consists of many different layers. There is a historic tradition of demonizing outside immigrants, yet at the same time, there is also a tradition of welcoming newcomers and victims of conflict. The one thing we had in Britain that does not exist in the rest of Europe is the equalities of legislation that make hate speech a criminal offense. Interestingly enough, the law was designed to stop newspapers and right wing organizations that are demonizing Muslims.

SB: You have stated a criticism of the West through the example of the United States in your book, “Why Do People Hate America?” This is a criticism towards the sanctity of Western values and the conviction that the Western world knows everything best. Accordingly, what are your thoughts on the Western policies towards the Middle East before and after the Arab Spring?

ZS: I think that the western policies towards the Middle East before and after the Arab Spring are exactly the same. That is to promote dictators or remove a troublesome dictator that does not follow instructions from Washington, London, or Paris, and replace it with a so-called democratic government that follows these instructions.
Notice that not a single Western government has said anything about Sisi’s government in Egypt, which is more brutal and nasty than Mubarak ever was. The courts have sentenced 200-300 people to death in one sentence. The ex-president, whose only real crime was that we have incompetent and an Islamist, has been sentenced to death, and not a single voice has been raised from Western nations against this brutal regime.

SB: So you don’t see any differences between Bush and Obama?

ZS: Well, there are very big differences. I think Obama is more intelligent and a more humane individual, but American foreign policy is not just the product of a single president. There is Congress and the lobbies behind it, and Obama has spread as much havoc in the Middle East and Pakistan as Bush has. The drone attacks in Pakistan are an Obama policy, and they have killed thousands of innocent people. The drones have driven people in the region towards extremism.