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'What Osama is demanding is on the lips of almost every ordinary Muslim'

By Arthur J Pais
Last updated on: February 26, 2007 17:15 IST
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I have a whiplash tongue,' Professor Akeel Bilgrami was quoted by a Columbia University student as saying recently, 'and I won't hesitate to lash you all over with it!'

As the Johnsonian Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University in New York, Bilgrami gets to lash not only students but a large number of fellow academics with his sharp views and unusual perspectives.

Bilgrami is also the director of Columbia's Heyman Center for the Humanities. A Rhodes Scholar, he arrived in America with a degree from Oxford University and earned his PhD from the University of Chicago.

Harvard University Press recently published his book, Self-Knowledge and Resentment. One of the most distinguished philosophy professors in America, he has also written Belief and Meaning.

The Indian-born philosopher spoke to Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais in New York.

I read in one of your essays about an ethical problem you faced when you were about 12. Perhaps the idea of turning to ethical and philosophical questions started working in your mind at that time. What happened on that day?

Before I became a teenager I used to go on long walks on Cuffe Parade in Mumbai with my father in the early mornings. One day, walking on a path alongside a beach, we came across a wallet with some rupees sticking out.

With a certain amount of drama, my father said: 'Akeel, why should we not take that?' Flustered at first, I then said something like: I think we should take it. My father (Taki Bilgrami, a judge first at the high court in Hyderabad, then in Mumbai) looked most irritated, and asked, Why? And I am pretty sure I remember saying: 'Because if we don't take it then I suppose someone else will.'

My father, looking as if he were going to mount great heights of denunciation, suddenly changed his expression, and said magnificently, but without logic (or so it seemed to me then): 'If we don't take it, nobody else will.'

I thought that this was a non sequitur designed to end the conversation. In fact, I had no idea what he meant, and was too nervous to ask him. Only much later, in fact, only while thinking about how to fit together the various elements in Mahatma Gandhi's thought, did I see in his remark the claims for a moral ideal of exemplary action.

I still think of it and wonder how puzzling the idea is. Here is a wallet, abandoned, and we should not take it. There is no one to witness this and yet it would set an example. The romance in this morality is radiant. Somehow goodness and good acts enter this world and affect everyone else. To ask exactly they do is to be vulgar, to spoil the romance.

You are an atheist, but, unlike many other atheists, including the Oxford scientist Richard Dawkins, whose bestselling book, The God Delusion, condemns religion in every aspect, you say we ought to understand the community-oriented dimension of religion. You also feel that Gandhi understood this side of religion. Could you talk more about this?

Let us talk about people like Dawkins, first. He is right when he opposes creationism. Creationism is a false hypothesis about a scientific question about the origins of the universe because the world was not created in just six days a few thousand years ago.

But people like Dawkins and Sam Harris (author of Letter to a Christian Nation) are missing something deep about what religion is about now in countries like America. It is not primarily about belief and doctrine. Even when people avow that they believe in creationism etc, that is more a way of declaring a certain identity, and a commitment to Christian values, family values and so on, which are no doubt highly conservative in the current context.

But the point is these identities and commitments are ways of seeking community and solidarity in a world that is deeply disenchanted. It is foolish and undemocratic of the liberal Left intelligentsia to condemn an entire electorate of half the country (in the so-called 'red states) as vile and stupid.

You can't dismiss the electorate in these ways and claim to believe in democracy. If Gandhi were in their place, he would have tried to understand why the voters were behaving that way, and why they were turning towards religion, what yearnings was their religiosity speaking to?

If Gandhi were to ask you that question what would you have told him?

I think many people, especially in the heartland of America, in places like Kansas and Nebraska, are turning more to religion as a way of seeking a site for solidarity and community because, unlike in Europe, there has not been such a strong tradition of a labour movement which provided such a site.

That explains the difference between Europe and America regarding religion. It is not that they (the Americans) believe so much that the world was created in six days that makes them do so. If I lived in Nebraska and earned $50,000 a year and had a wife and three children, I would go to church. What else am I going to do? I wouldn't read the books I do or go to the opera, as I do here. I would go to the only source of community that my circumstances of education, upbringing, and financial circumstances allow me to find the solidarities needed for an unalienated life.

They join the church because of a world and a life alienated by a nakedly corporate-driven society, even as they participate in such a society. These are the contradictions Gandhi would have tried to analyse. He would never level the kind of criticism and judgement the atheistic writers offer. He would not miss the real point behind the phenomenon of religion today.

But in countries like India there are many communities outside religion. And yet religion plays an important and often pervasive role, does it not?

Let me start first with Muslims, not only in India where they are a minority but in other countries where they are in the majority. In India, many young people (with encouragement from their parents) are joining madrassas for a number of reasons.

Recent studies and newspaper reports have reiterated the fact that a vast number of Muslims continue to live in abject poverty; that, in many cases, they are worse off than the Dalits.

In general, the loss of zamindari, the loss of Urdu, and so on, have made Muslims feel very defensive.

Muslims in the North lament the loss of status for Urdu. Even I, who come from a privileged Muslim family, could not learn to read and write Urdu (even though I can speak and understand it) because the school I went to did not offer the language.

There are not many schools in the country except madrassas that offer Urdu. When you combine this fact with widespread Muslim poverty, you can understand why the madrassa is so attractive: it gives young Muslim males a place to live, without cost and get a free education, in their own language -- and they also instill in them a strict orthodoxy.

The madrassas exploit this kind of mentality -- I call it 'minority mentality' because it is a reaction to a life of helplessness and defeat for them in an increasingly majoritarian form of democratic society seen in the last few decades.

What we then see happening is that some of these young people emerge from these madrassas even more alienated and bitter. The education they get there is too insular and deeply inadequate to cope with a changing world.

But such things are happening in countries where the Muslims are in a majority, too, aren't they?

Certainly. Even in the most affluent of Arab countries. And that is because an average Muslim finds that he and his people have little dignity. They are reacting to not only a long history of colonisation but also to the continued neo-colonisation by the corporate-driven and geo-politically driven policies of Western nations, particularly the United States.

They also resent at the brazen subjugation of the Palestinian people by Israel at the behest of America, which supports Israel as a client State to control that entire region.

I have no problem in saying that Osama bin Laden is a monster and I do not hesitate to say that the jihadists who have used terrorism should not be condoned. But I also say that it is equally morally moronic not to look at bin Laden's political demands as it is to condemn him as a terrorist.

What he has been demanding -- for instance, the right of Muslim countries to their own resources -- is on the lips of almost every ordinary Muslim on the street in those countries. And, thanks to Al Jazeera, which has been exposing the corrupt elites of countries like Saudi Arabia, which have sold themselves to US corporate interests, it is even happening in the populations of those client States.

It is not morally possible to pardon the terrorists but I believe it is equally unpardonable not to take their political demands seriously.

Part II of the interview: 'Gandhi did not oppose science'

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Arthur J Pais