The Middle East: The Absence of Hope – Interview with Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni


This interview was from the May-June 2005 Issue of Homiletics

Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, 45, was born in Al-Najaf, Iraq, into a religious family and began his theological studies in that city when he was very young. As a Shiite Islamic priest, or imam, he emerged as an Iraqi dissident and was imprisoned repeatedly under Saddam Hussein. Fleeing the country in 1974, he says friends and relatives left behind were killed.

He spent the next few years going around the Middle East trying to find a home, and early in 1977 ended up in London, where he went to university.

He has traveled to many countries on lecture tours and currently resides in Denver, where he lives within walking distance of the Islamic Center and where he functions as Imam for the Muslim community. His library and study in his home are full of books, wall to wall, floor to ceiling, most in Arabic.

He is a board member for several local municipal agencies, but it was his appointment as a Muslim cleric to the staff of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral that attracted the attention of Homiletics. He serves at the cathedral as the Director of the Abrahamic Initiative.

He maintains a small office in the cathedral as well, and it is there that we met to discuss his recent appointment, and his views on the struggle in the Middle East.

HOMILETICS: What was the initial reaction following 9/11 toward you personally and others in the Muslim community?

KAZEROONI: It was extremely bad. For many months, the voice message system for the [Islamic] Center was completely knocked out by the number of hate messages that we received on a daily basis. They fell into two groups: Some were pure insults and threats —“We will kill you; you have to leave.” Others were just: “This is Islam. We knew Muslims were terrorists.”

HOMILETICS: Has this changed? Have things calmed down?

KAZEROONI: Yes. The first two to three months were extremely tough. On two occasions we had to call the police to the Center. They were threatening me and whoever comes to the Center because they were veterans of Vietnam and God knows what.

But gradually things began to die down, and we began to notice the compassionate face, not the minority who were practically dishing out hatred to everyone and claiming that all Muslims were the same.

But other people came in, and we began to receive messages of support; even a number of community members came to the Center, and some neighbors and others — total strangers — offered their houses if some members of the community wanted to stay in their house because they did not feel secure. We began to feel a shift in the emotion, particularly when the InterFaith Alliance and a number of other organizations, Jewish as well as Christian community members, got together and circled the Islamic Center on South Parker Road.

And the pictures went all over the place. The media got involved. I wrote an article and people began to react positively; and the message was: “We should not allow these minorities to destroy the relationship that had existed between various churches and community centers and Muslim centers.”

HOMILETICS: You must have ties to friends and family somewhere in the Middle East. What’s their reaction to your becoming an American citizen.

KAZEROONI: I don’t think in these personal issues that I discuss it with them. When I became a British citizen, they never ask me: “Why did you become a British citizen?” However, I have had a more negative reaction from the community to my installation at St. John’s Cathedral as the Director of the Abrahamic Initiative, which I never expected.

HOMILETICS: Were you surprised when they invited you to become the Director?

KAZEROONI: Yes. Although I had worked with St. John’s Cathedral for nearly two years prior to that installation or appointment. I was humbled to be asked to work with the team and the steering committee. They had established this organization as a means of reaching out to various communities and bringing them together.

HOMILETICS: What was the reaction from within your own circles?

KAZEROONI: There was a variety of responses. There were some who did not understand the nature of interfaith work. Their reaction was purely ignorance. There were others who were coming from a negative approach: “Look, we are being used by others as a pawn in their public relations stunt, and you should not have fallen for it.” Others had the point of view that I had sold out, and that I had become a Christian minister [chuckles] or something within the church.

HOMILETICS: Are you aware of any negative feedback that St. John’s has received as a result of your appointment?

KAZEROONI: The night before the appointment, I had a telephone call from an Arab magazine/newspaper in London. They had seen the article that The Denver Post had published a few days before. They asked me, “Do you know, Imam, that this is the first time in the world that a Muslim Imam has actually been installed in a program within a church?” And I said, “Well, I know that it hasn’t happened before, but it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t happen.” Channel 4 came the day of the installation and asked the same question. It took a little time until the news spread around. There might have been a few concerns in the congregation, but the overwhelming majority at St. John’s and other places have been extremely welcoming and supportive of the idea.

HOMILETICS: You’re an Imam. Is that designation comparable to the Christian pastor, minister or Jewish rabbi?

KAZEROONI: Close. The term itself indicates a theological qualification or position referring to someone who has done theological work, but at the same time in the context of the Islamic Center, he is the religious minister who is in charge of the Islamic Center. So it is close.

HOMILETICS: So how do you get to be an Imam? Do you go to Imam school? Who says, “Okay, now you’re an Imam”?

KAZEROONI: Like other faiths, you have to go through a process of study. My initial theological school was in Iraq in the holy city of Al-Najaf, the southern part of Iraq with a history of over a thousand years of theological work and studies and seminaries. And then you go through various stages of learning. Those who do not understand or speak Arabic (most theological discussion is in Arabic), they have to start with the language, and Arabic literature, and then gradually you move to logic, and then after logic you move to the foundation of analytical discussion, and then to philosophy and comparative religions. Then to research around the end of your study period. Through a teacher’s recommendation and a grand scholar’s acceptance of your work, once you have finished, you can stay within the theological school and teach, or you can go out and become what they call a “propagator” or minister, who goes to other communities to propagate the faith.

HOMILETICS: So is the theological school the adjudicating authority or licensing body that says, “You are an Imam”?

KAZEROONI: They might not give you the title “Imam,” but they would tell you that because of what you have covered, you have reached a certain level of competence. Then when you take up a particular position within the community or congregation, because of your work, you are given that title.

HOMILETICS: What is the goal of the Abrahamic Initiative?

KAZEROONI: Originally it was started as an educational program for members of the parish. But after 9/11 they decided to expand it to make this a platform on which interaction takes place with the other monotheistic faiths. In the process they organized a number of lecture series, where a Jewish professor, Muslim professor and Christian professor would come together to discuss and debate. And sometimes on various occasions — like when the old mayor was leaving, they needed to organize a reception to thank him for his work, and when the new mayor came in, a reception was organized and I represented the Muslim community in those efforts.

But the steering committee recognized that academic work and discussion has a limitation. After a certain time the numbers began to dwindle in terms of those who were responding to these academic discussions. They found it difficult to absorb what someone called this “abstract discussion.”

A social interaction was organized. For example, there is a program where once a month people of various faiths get together, and if I may borrow some Christian terminology, they break bread together and eat food and generally nurture a social environment which helps to bridge gaps, and so on. Now we are trying to move this forward by inviting community and religious organizational leaders to come together on January 18 at Iliff [School of Theology] so that a kind of cooperation and collaboration will be reached and organized. This brings a degree of harmony and trust between the communities that so far may not have existed.

HOMILETICS: Speaking of reactions — what was the reaction of the Jewish community to this appointment?

KAZEROONI: As far as I know, they have been — in general — favorable. They may not have initially understood the whole role of an Imam within a Christian organization but those who have worked with the Abrahamic Initiative and represented the Jewish community had no problem in accommodating the idea.

HOMILETICS: A few years ago, Rev. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, characterized the Islamic religion in very harsh terms, you may recall. How do you fight the perception — and you have to admit, do you not, that the perception is there in the minds of many — that Islam is a very militaristic and violent religion?

KAZEROONI: Number one, one has to start dealing with the premise that is used for such an argument. If we look around the world from Northern Ireland to Lebanon to the Far East, to South America, conflict exists between various religious communities. This violence is not unique to Islam. In Northern Ireland you have the Catholics and Protestants fighting each other. In the Balkans you had Christians on one side and Muslims on the other. In the Middle East you have Jewish-Muslim conflict, in India and Pakistan you have a Hindu and Muslim conflict.

So if we are trying to make a judgment based on contemporary events, I don’t think it is unique to Islam in particular.

But if we are going to make a judgment on the basis of history, Christianity cannot claim that it is the religion of peace when we look at a number of atrocities that were committed under the banner of Christianity —

HOMILETICS: And you can recite the history of the Crusades, and so on. And I’ll grant that point right away. I guess what I’m wondering is that there are strong Christian voices that roundly condemn these atrocities, what happened in the Crusades and so forth. What many people in this country are waiting for are strong and prominent Islamic leaders to broadly condemn the kind of violence that is undertaken under the banner of Islam, and recently there are signs this debate has begun. Wasn’t there a cleric in Cairo who wrote saying, “Look, these children killed in the Russian elementary school were killed by Muslims. What’s going on here?” Wouldn’t it be helpful if there were a louder condemnation of these acts of violence?

KAZEROONI: Number one, condemnation of acts of violence is there by what we call the middle ground theological leadership. We were not given, and are still not given, the platform to air our grievance against those who are under the banner of Islam as they commit the most hideous acts of terrorism.

I remember after 9/11, 99 percent of the Muslim leadership in the United States condemned it. One or two centers that were supported by the Saudi regime were silent, and did not condemn the terrorists’ acts, the tragedy of 9/11. To our astonishment, the media forgot about the 99 percent of the leaders who condemned them. But everybody was against it. Even up to now, very seldom do they give us time to explain ourselves and to condemn those who act hideously under the banner of Islam.

It was due to that fact that I decided to go around and give lectures and make presentations and do workshops. It was for that reason that I contacted The Denver Post and The Rocky Mountain News to see if they would allow me to write the articles. Initially there was some inertia, but gradually they accepted it, and I sent my articles in and they were gracious enough to publish them.

In the United States in particular, and I believe in the United Kingdom, and France and other places — not having a platform to air our point of view has been a hindrance. It gives a false impression that those who are the extremists represent the majority.

It’s the same thing in the United States. This so-called extreme right Christian movement does not represent the majority of the Christian establishment. But because of the influence they have, whether it is political or financial, everyone assumes that the majority of Christians in the United States tend to agree with this extreme point of view.

The same thing happens in Islam. I agree that after 9/11 and particularly after the occupation of Iraq, people began to find a way, whether through local newspapers and radio, to air their point of view and express themselves in the way they wanted to, against this minority who choose to act in a negative way while waving the banner of Islam.

HOMILETICS: But Al-Jazeera certainly is a medium through which strong Muslim leaders can condemn acts of violence whenever they want to.

KAZEROONI: But even Al-Jazeera has its own agenda. It might come across as a platform for commentary, but they do not allow everyone to air their point of view.

HOMILETICS: The grandson of Mahatma Gandhi visited Yasser Arafat just before he died, and the papers reported that he suggested to Arafat that he and the Palestinian National Authority, the Hezbollah, Hamas, whatever, should perhaps adopt a strategy of non-violence as a means of really turning this around, and he said this because he thought that Israel had a self-image of being morally accountable and that the images broadcast around the world of Palestinians stretched out across the ground in front of the bulldozers would be more powerful and effective than a suicide bomber who walks into a restaurant or boards a bus exploding a bomb that kills men, women and children. And even Abbas has condemned the violence. What do you think about a possible change of strategy in the Middle East?

KAZEROONI: Those who claim that one methodology is better than the other, in terms of a public relations standpoint, do not understand the nature of the conflict in the Middle East. Those who explode bombs and act violent, whether Jews or Muslims, it’s not because they’re really concerned about the way this is perceived by the world. So trying to talk to Arafat or anyone else and say, “Look, you have to change your style of doing things for the sake of public relations; it would be better to have all these men and women lying down in front of bulldozers.” Well, the Israeli bulldozers are going over them, because with the killing of Americans and the British and others who were trying to do the same thing, the bulldozers just go over them or they were shot, and their bodies were removed.

So the fundamental problem we have in the Middle East, particularly in the Israeli-Arab conflict, is the absence of hope. When you see an 18-year-old girl videotaping herself and then sticking dynamite around her waist only a few months before her graduation from school and then saying that “I see no future whatsoever, there is no hope, this is the only way to take revenge against the enemy who has killed my brother, my sister, and destroyed my house,” you can see how little they care about public relations.

The situation in the Middle East is like taking the whole congregation into a theater and then closing all the doors and exits and turning off the lights, and then standing in the middle yelling “Fire!” And then expecting everyone to fall into a single lane and follow a line to the exit, ladies first — it’s not going to happen!

HOMILETICS: But isn’t Gandhi’s point though — okay I see your point about suicide bombers not caring about the public relations angle — that maybe the Palestinian National Authority ought to think about the public perception of what’s going on, that if the world community saw Palestinian men and women lying prone before the bulldozers, and if they saw those Israeli bulldozers running over them, that the outrage would be so pervasive that there would be within a short period of time a dramatic change in policy?

KAZEROONI: I tend to disagree with the conclusion, because the Israeli government, particularly early on, had committed acts of terror and violence against Arab communities, and when you see these pictures your hair stands on end, but nothing happens. Yes, it might create an image to the world, but what we have is an intransigent regime that really doesn’t care, and so long as they have the total and absolute support of the United States, they don’t care about what the rest of the world thinks.

HOMILETICS: But with those kinds of images on television they wouldn’t have the total support of the United States.

KAZEROONI: That’s debatable. When a young American girl was killed in front of the bulldozers — she was shot. A British couple was shot. Initially there was outrage.

HOMILETICS: The Presbyterian church recently fired two of its top-level leaders because of the incident in which a Presbyterian delegation met with the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and things were said that they wish they hadn’t said, and there’s an initiative in the Presbyterian church to divest itself of any financial interest in companies who are doing business with Israel.

KAZEROONI: I cannot comment about the policies within this church. As far as investments, no one knew that these churches or academic establishments were investing in the state of Israel for so long and for such huge amounts. You have Harvard, is it $50 or $500 million in investments?

At the end of the day when you come out of a church or religious establishment, it comes down to a moral argument. What is our responsibility toward the injustice that is happening in the Middle East? Should we continue as before as though nothing is happening? Or should we try to influence the event and control the agenda? Everyone tried to express their outrage when 150 houses were destroyed, when mosques were demolished, olive groves were destroyed, lands were confiscated, even when the wall started to be built by the current Israeli government that takes nearly a third of the water from Palestinian land into the land of Israel — the wall is not on the green line which is between the West Bank and Israel as a border, it actually takes more land — so the revulsion was there before. This [divestment] is the last thing they could do. They’ve tried to do other things. But all their criticisms and demands fell on deaf ears. They had to do something. These investments were practically the last thing they could do.

As far as what happened with their representatives and the Hezbollah — this is again one of those critical issues that we have in the United States. Within international politics we make the assumption that our friends never do bad things, and our enemies never do good things. With that premise, Hezbollah is considered to be a terrorist organization. But when we look at it, what did they do? The only acts of terror were against the occupation. When the Israelis left, the Hezbollah never participated in any work outside of Lebanon. They may justify their position by saying, “This was the last resort we had.” Whether we agree with them or not, that’s a different issue.

Those Presbyterians who talked to the Hezbollah, I don’t know whether they were aware their own organization considered them to be terrorists, or whether it was a lapse of judgment —

HOMILETICS: It upset the Jewish community, that’s for sure.

KAZEROONI: That’s another issue. We are in a difficult situation that even divestment in Israel was criticized as anti-Semitic. But again, each organization has to make these decisions. It’s universally acknowledged that the Israeli economy is in bad shape because of the conflict. Some financial managers might decide that it is no longer suitable to invest. This is something about which, as a minister, I can’t make a judgment.

HOMILETICS: In 1995, in the wake of the Oslo accords, some of the cities on the West Bank were being turned over to the PNA. Jenin. Bethlehem, two days before Christmas. Others. I was there. There was a great deal of hope. What happened?

KAZEROONI: Very good question. Edward Said has a book called From Oslo to Iraq. It was one of his last books. He looks at the failure of a number of attempts since 1990 actually. A fundamental factor that led to the failure was financial.

Europeans and Americans and others, Japanese, promised somewhere close to — I could be wrong — between 5 and 10 billion dollars to be used in reconstruction. There is a lawyer here who used to be a part of the discussion and negotiations, and we were discussing this issue some time ago, and he said about $50 million was delivered. I believe Arafat found himself — if I may use an old English cliché — between a hard rock and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, he had made commitments, and he wanted to convince the hard-liners within his community that there is a prospect of peace if they lay down their weapons, but the longer it took for the money to come, and once it was clear that the money was not coming, it became nothing but a hollow promise which consolidated the position of the extremists. “All this is just a waste of time. Arafat failed to deliver.”

If you go back to that period, everything practically quieted down for more than a year. It was after, when Yasser Arafat wasn’t able to deliver, that the whole thing began to flare up again, and the tit for tat, bombings and assassinations started. I personally believe that was a major factor. He promised so much. And he was unable to deliver what he promised.

HOMILETICS: When Arafat took his last breath, did the prospects for peace brighten in the Middle East?

KAZEROONI: I think you have to look at it from two different angles. The Israeli government, as well as the American government, tended to look at Arafat as the main obstacle to peace. His failure was the main obstacle to peace. He could not influence the hard-liners, the Hamas and others. And to a degree, the intransigence of the Sharon administration kind of compounded the problem. So for those who saw Arafat as the problem, now they are saying that his absence has created a new environment. You hear it again and again, from former Secretary of State Powell, for example.

On the other hand, when you look at it from a Palestinian point of view, for them, nothing has changed. Oslo started with the West Bank and Gaza under the control of the Israelis and Arafat is dead. They are still under the control of the Israelis.

Oslo started, there was no wall. Now there is a wall.

Oslo started and immediately afterward a kind of fresh air, where there was the possibility of hope. Those hopes have been dashed repeatedly.

Now the positions are hardening. Abbas will not be able to do anything. The problem lies deeper than just pure personalities. It’s the fundamental problem that there are two possibilities: We either go ahead with a two-state solution where the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in their totalities are given to the Palestinians, or, as Menachem Begin said in 1977, “We create one state — Israel — and everyone lives with equal rights.”

At the moment, the reality on the ground is that it will be very difficult to remove the settlements, and they are not prepared to move. So this is a problem for Sharon, particularly in Gaza. If we want to create a two-state solution, just block out the West Bank and Gaza as a state. If that cannot be done, then they have to be given some kind of recognition as citizens of Israel. The Israelis and the Jewish communities would not be prepared to accept that because they say it would affect the demography of the state of Israel.

But ultimately, if not now, 25 or 30 years from now, Arabs will outnumber Jews in the state of Israel. Then what? Should we endure another 30 years of mayhem, killing, assassination, tit for tat, until they reach a stage where they say, “I can’t do anything about it, I have to accept it.” The sooner we stop this madness, the better. Look at the possibilities where Arabs and Jews can work together, with the potential that exists in Lebanon.

HOMILETICS: Turkey, which is Islamic, is home to Jews and Christians as well. And they live in peace. By and large, Ataturk’s vision of a country that is firmly secular, even though overwhelmingly Islamic, seems to work.

KAZEROONI: If you go back before the state of Israel and before the British Mandate — and even during the Mandate — people worked together, lived together, and married from each other’s community —

HOMILETICS: People forget that Jerusalem, prior to the First Crusade in the late 11th century, was a city that had its Jewish, Muslim and Christian quarters and they all lived in peace together.

KAZEROONI: Even in Spain during the Moorish period.

HOMILETICS: It shouldn’t be surprising that this is possible since we all three share Abraham, and perhaps Islam and Christianity have a higher reverence for Jesus than the Jewish community.

KAZEROONI: From the Islamic point of view, we have reverence for all the prophets, and it is part of our belief that we have respect for the prophets before the prophet Muhammad. So we give equal reverence to Jesus as we give to Moses as we give to Abraham and so on. What’s interesting is that, historically — and I have discussed this with many in the Jewish community — whenever Jews have been attacked by Christians, it is the Muslim environment to which they have fled to protect themselves. As soon as the 1492 Inquisition started in Spain, the Jewish community — where did they go? They either went south into northern Africa, which was Muslim, or they went to the Ottomans which were, of course, Muslims.

HOMILETICS: Well, even Muhammad himself was influenced, or trained, by the Jewish community.

KAZEROONI: Not training. In Medina, he used to live with the Jewish community. When he moved into Medina, the first agreement that was signed between all the Jewish tribes stipulated that we should live side by side as brothers and sisters.

However, over the years, conflict developed. Always politics has divided the community, not religion. I don’t believe the Arab-Israeli crisis is a religious issue. Yes, religion has come back to dominate the agenda today, and religion is being used, whether by the terrorists of 9/11 or by those who attacked the Federal Building in Oklahoma. They profess allegiance to a flag or religion because it suits their agenda.

I have constantly asked community members whether we believe that Almighty God created us with a sense of rationality. If there is a rationality and diversity in creation, God must have intended for us not to fight each other but to allow the diversity to become a source of convergence. You have something that I don’t have; I have something that others don’t have. The only way that everyone benefits is for us to cooperate.

HOMILETICS: What can Christian ministers do to promote better understanding between the faith communities?

KAZEROONI: Some people make the mistake of jumping into a debate of what I call banana skin issues. You need to establish trust. I believe trust can be established. One of the most effective ways to establish trust is for community members to come together and do something positive. It’s only through doing things together. You decide tomorrow, for example, we are going to collectively visit the poor and needy, or collectively we visit the sick in the hospital, or paint a house. It is through this collective social action that understanding and trust are achieved.

Then, you can come and debate these more sensitive political issues. At the moment, so long as there is no trust, no matter how hard I try to explain to my Jewish rabbis or friends and others that this is my understanding of the situation, because it is us and them, they automatically misinterpret my words, believe I have a hidden motive, that I am really not genuine or serious about it.

So we need to establish trust. I don’t think there is a prescriptive way in the sense that one could copy from one community to another. But there are issues that we have in common. For example, as parents how do we deal with our children growing up in a secular society? The issue of drugs. And so on. How do we explain this to our children as people of faith? We can bring community members to debate these kinds of issues, rather than — for argument’s sake — whether Abraham tried to kill his first son, Ishmael, or Isaac. Let us assume that we went through this debate and at the end of the day we agreed to disagree, what practical, concrete benefit does this kind of argument have for us today? I go to peace seders within the Jewish community and they are as dear to me as my brothers or anyone else because we have established trust between us. They know what I stand for, I respect their point of view. I can always call upon them and talk to them.

HOMILETICS: So are you hopeful?

KAZEROONI: As a human being, yes. I cannot give up. Once I throw in the towel, then that is the end of it. As long as I have not thrown in the towel, there is always hope. I start with this premise that I should not stop or refrain from doing good works until we’re certain of success, because you rely on the Almighty God, and we do our part and leave the rest to him. I believe that it is time that each one of us do something. It’s through this coming together that we can achieve something. If we all give up, then we have left the agenda to be controlled by those extremists who turn religion into the most obscene concept on earth.

HOMILETICS: Do you have a favorite text from the Koran that you like to preach from?

KAZEROONI: A verse that constantly comes to my mind that was revealed in Medina during the latter’s part of the Prophet’s life, which calls on the people of the Book: It says, “Let us work together on issues that we have in common, rather than on issues on which we differ.” And the fundamental issue that we have in common is the basic belief in Almighty God and that he is supreme, and we must submit to him.

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