Question: Are moderate Muslims vocal enough?
Barrett: I’m not sure what “enough” would ever be. You know my view of it is, as my view of most of these things, that it is very complicated. Muslims in this country are not responsible for what Muslims in the streets of Cairo or Damascus say, or Baghdad say or do. At the same time it would be reasonable for them as people who have some connections, even if only through shared belief systems, to have something to say about it. So you know to what degree should Muslims live in good, honest, mainstream lives in this country? They might be secular Muslims. They might be devout Muslims who go to the mosque every single Friday for Juma prayer. But what should they be saying or doing about horrible events elsewhere? What should they be saying or doing about the rare occasions when horrible events are visited upon this country – say 9/11? Well I mean there’s no one clear answer. I mean certainly they should be addressing that. They should be asking questions about whether there are sub movements within their religion that are troubling. They should be asking questions about whether those movements are present in this country – probably more as an intellectual matter than as a source of action and immediate danger, but they need to be aware of it. They need to discuss it. They need to debate it. They need to answer people’s questions from the outside in a way that’s not reflexively defensive, and sort of like, “How dare you ask a question that has any critical edge to it about my religion?” Because at a time when people are fighting over religion, such questions are going to be asked. At the same time, as I say, it’s critical for non-Muslims not to assume that a doctor in Cleveland, or a business man in Los Angeles who happens to be Muslim is gonna have all the answers for, you know, the chaos in the Middle East or in the, you know . . . or in South Asia. I mean because people are blowing themselves up in Islamabad, what do you want the guy, you know, who’s selling cars in Los Angeles to do about that? He’s being an American who happens to be Muslim. So it’s very complicated, and the stories that I tell in my book are designed to bring some of those tensions to the surface and explain them. So you have an African-American preacher who . . . in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, who preaches about kind of the old time religion – about why it’s a good thing that Islam punishes certain infractions with very extreme, ancient sounding punishments – cutting off of hands, stoning, that kind of thing – who preaches against Israel; who talks about conspiracies against Islam and Muslims and so forth. And I try to explain why is this man doing this? Where did he get these ideas? And is he . . . Because he preaches these very unsettling, troubling ideas, is he an entirely good guy? An entirely bad guy? Where did the ideas come from? How did his experience in the Nation of Islam shape this? How did his experiences in Saudi Arabia where he went for training give him some of this vocabulary? And I try to show you that this is a unique American mixture of ideas; that the guy, when pressed, will actually . . . This imam will back off and say, “Well I don’t mean a lot of that literally. When I talk about Islamic values and Islamic law coming to rule in this country, I mean it the same way my Christian brothers do when they preach about the coming of the kingdom of God.” Oh okay. So suddenly it sounds very different. Still you have the question, “Imam, why are you preaching that way on Friday? And does it really help your poor and not very sophisticated inner city congregation to hear you preaching that way?” But the answer is not so simple.
Recorded on: 12/4/07