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Report on Islamic Fundamentalism Symposium

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Report on the Islamic Fundamentalism Symposium
Hosted by Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research (CTR)
September 4-9, 2005

Summary Written by Joe Montville

Esalen’s project on religious fundamentalism paid off handsomely with the workshop on Muslim fundamentalism, September 4-9, 2005. We believe that because of it, new possibilities for peace and reconciliation have been created in the world of Islam, and the broader goal of Muslim-Christian-Jewish reconciliation has been empowered. The outcomes of this workshop are truly in concert with the goals we set.

The workshop, Co-sponsored by Esalen’s Center for Theory and Research and TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy, brought the highest praise from every single participant not only for the quality of the knowledge and insights presented, but also because of the strong personal friendships established. The participants said they felt they had made lifelong alliances with each other. And they intend to build their network among Muslim American moderates to draw in more and more non-Muslim Americans to demonstrate the humanity of the Muslim community and its loyalty to the United States. Furthermore, several of the Muslim participants are very active in defining and promoting a special leadership role for American Muslims in expanding moderation and democracy in the Muslim world beyond the U.S.

There is an interesting indicator to support the very positive view of the workshop’s results. Two of the participants: Lawrence Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and Graham Fuller, and old colleague of mine who retired from the CIA as vice chair of the National Intelligence Council, worked for Rand for eight years and who has published several books on the Muslim world and terrorism, said the workshop had transformed their views from deep pessimism to hopeful, if cautious, optimism. One reason for this is because our Esalen determination to improve the Muslim relationship with the U.S. is rooted in the great success we had in dealing with the U.S.-Soviet relationship. The participants learned that our effort to learn everything we could about the Soviets and their fears and hopes about the U.S. combined with a clear message from us to them that we cared about them as individuals, as human beings, opened them to, in a sense, the contamination of America’s material and democratic successes. This new knowledge the Soviets received through the Esalen U.S.-Soviet Exchange program and the Erikson seminars on the psychology of the U.S.-Soviet relationship sped up the final collapse of the Communist Party and state structures and, indeed, the U.S.S.R. The other reason for Larry Wright’s and Graham Fuller’s change in attitude was the commitment of the American Muslims present to take an aggressive lead in promoting moderation in their communities around the country and the world, and optimism that they will succeed.

The Muslim world is far more complex than one country, the former Soviet Union. And so our challenge is much tougher today. But we know that there are great divisions among Muslims worldwide over the use of suicide bombers, terrorism and violence against innocents. Into these gaps, the Esalen program has inserted itself to send to Muslims the same message we sent to the Soviets. You are valued human beings whose lives and hopes, especially for your children, are very important to us. We listen respectfully to you, and will work with you to make things better.

The Presenters

Brief selected highlights of the workshop include a powerful talk by Scott Appleby who has written, edited and co-edited most of the published books on religious fundamentalism in the world. He laid out the psycho-political nature of fundamentalism as: reactive to perceived challenges from the outside; selective in its ideology, picking from theology or inventing some, to support its ideology; absolutist in rule; Manichean — black and white, no gray in their world view; and millennial, focusing their followers on the End of Time. Believers must take up the sword because at this time, it is either destroy or be destroyed by their enemies.

Larry Wright, whose book on Al-Qaeda is to be published next September, explained to us how Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian executed by the Cairo regime, who is seen as the chief ideologue of violent Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism, came to his position. It was primarily formed by what he witnessed in Egyptian prisons — the murder of Islamist prisoners by guards. He concluded from this that his government had no claim to being Islamic. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Qutb’s disciple, and Osama Bin Ladens’ brain, saw himself as Qutb’s heir. The Egyptian government was the first target for overthrow, but the U.S. came soon into the cross hairs because of our support for brutal and/or repressive regimes that were, nonetheless, our friends, like Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Asma Afsarrudin provided important insight into political attitudes during the Prophet Muhammad’s time to show that the earliest Muslim political philosophy was liberal, democratic, egalitarian and pro-feminine. Unfortunately, after the Prophet and first four Caliphs died, Muslim male chauvinists reversed much of the liberation of women and established non-egalitarian forms of hierarchy and absolutist rule, something they picked up from the Byzantines and Persian emperors. Radwan Masmoudi, founder and president of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington, D.C., on whose board I sit, gave an eye-witness report of the low esteem the U.S. encounters in Arab and Muslim countries. CSID is promoting the idea of democracy as compatible with Islam, and has programs in most of the Middle Eastern countries and Sudan and Nigeria. Shadi Hamid, a young American graduate student at Georgetown University, who had a Fulbright in Jordan last year, wowed the group with his knowledge and advocacy of drawing Islamist parties into democratic competition in Muslim states. It softens them up when they have to compete for votes.

Imam Hassan al-Qazwini, leader of the Islamic Center in Detroit, accepted, but dropped out at the last minute because he needed to tend to his wife who is having a complicated pregnancy. Imam Hassan then nominated his brother, Imam Ali Ghazvini, director of the Islamic Center in Fresno. (The family name is the same in Arabic but each chose different transliterations). Ali could come for only one day, but he was delighted with the invitation and he made a strong impression on the group presenting the Iraqi Shiite perspective. He loved Esalen, and Dulce and Michael plan to visit him and his Center in Fresno.

Media Outreach

Several of the participants were heavy hitters in the media. Larry Wright, an old friend of mine, is a veteran New Yorker writer where he won the Overseas Press Club’s award for best magazine reporting in 2002. He also was a contributing editor to Rolling Stone where he published a three part series called, “Peace,” in 1989. He visited Esalen and reported on the U.S.-Soviet Exchange Programs successes in this series. We know that he is revising his book draft on Al-Qaeda based on some of what he learned at Esalen this month. I have a feeling that the experience will influence future writings.

Anisa Mehdi is an Emmy Award winning documentary producer and regular commentator on NPR. She and I are working closely on a new film on the Monks of Tibhirine, seven French Trappists who were killed by Algerian terrorists in 1996. Their Christian devotion to their Muslim neighbors and employees made them heroes and martyrs in Algeria.. They received what amounted to a state funeral in Algiers. Anisa fell in love with Esalen, and we have invited her to cover the Christian and Jewish fundamentalism workshops next April and September respectively.

Claire Hoffman is a twenty-eight year old journalist who worked at the New York Times and is a staffer now on the LA Times. She has written a story on the workshop which she is working now to publish.

Shadi Hamid, the brilliant Egyptian American Georgetown graduate student, has published several op-ed pieces on Islamic democracy, the most recent in the Christian Science Monitor. He is emerging as a leading American Muslim public intellectual. We are really happy to give him a platform.

Action Programs

Shamil Idriss, a veteran of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution NGO based in Washington, DC and Brussels that was inspired at Esalen in 1980, proposed collaborative dialogue programs that bring together business people, security specialists, journalists, and public figures each in their own groups to promote the agenda of moderate Islam and Muslim democracy Shamil now works for the Committee of 100 of the World Economic Forum which selects projects for funding that promote reconciliation between Islam and the West.

Radwan Masmoudi, founder of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) and a man of action pressed hard for reaching out with our message to the 150 thousand Muslim students in U.S. universities. He also pushed for a similar effort for the media. He wants to have a full time media person at CSID. He also proposed US government and other source funding for exchange programs and debates among religious scholars. The US has been afraid to engage them up to now, but this must be done to advance the Islamic democracy and non-violence bandwagon. Finally, he called for a radio and TV station that would broadcast debates and dialogues to the Muslim world.

Michael Murphy outlined a broad action program for Esalen as a result of the workshop and in anticipation of the sessions on Christian and Jewish fundamentalism next April and September:

  1. Esalen needs an Islamic presence on its board and has already taken action to remedy this. Anisa Mehdi was elected to Esalen’s Board of Trustees on September 23, 2005.
  2. The current series of three workshops on fundamentalism in each of the three Abrahamic faiths must be expanded with a fourth. This would combine four to five participants from each of the first workshops to come up with a combined Muslim-Christian-Jewish action program that reinforces the efforts toward what I have called the Abrahamic family reunion.
  3. Expanding the Esalen public seminars by drawing on the CTR private workshops. Do niche marketing to specialists of potential participants. For example, Donald Shriver, president emeritus of the Union Theological Seminary in New York city, and his wife Peggy Shriver, who has published on liberal and fundamentalist Christianity will do a weekend open workshop before the April 2-9, private workshop on Christian fundamentalism. And Joe Montville will do an open weekend workshop starting April 9, on Organizing the Abrahamic Family Reunion.
  4. Establish Bay Area Muslim-Christian-Jewish dialogue groups. Farid Senzai who lives near Berkeley agreed to be the point man for such an effort. He is tied into several liberal Muslim outreach initiatives in the Bay Area, LA and across the country including Detroit and New York City.
  5. Continue the CTR collaboration on outreach and network building with TRACK TWO: An Institute for Citizen Diplomacy, directed by Dulce Murphy and whose board chair is Joe Montville.

For the record, Michael Murphy sees the religious fundamentalism project and the broad goal of contributing to Muslim-Christian-Jewish reconciliation as Esalen’s “moon shot” of the twenty-first century, on a par with the U.S.-Soviet Exchange Program. He is passionate about this. Dulce Murphy made a very practical proposal to the participants to design a list of scholarly books, novels, movies, documentaries and other forms of education that will be a concrete contribution to the CTR/TRACK TWO effort. Michael said Esalen could organize a Muslim-Christian-Jewish music festival on the grounds for two weeks. The well-known Spirit of Fez festival could be a model.