What inspired you to write A Call for Heresy? What sparked your interest?
The inability of the US government to understand Muslims, and the failure of Muslims to appreciate the history and promise of the United States. I was in a hospital setting witnessing the war in Iraq through the TV screen in my son’s room and the whole thing looked utterly depressing. It’s as if humans had gone totally mad. A tremendous amount of energy and resources, including thousands of human lives, were being wasted, like “flies to wanton boys,” for no good reason at all—unless one considers demagoguery and pecuniary interest a good motive to endanger the fragile bonds that unite us. At first, I wanted to write a book titled Why America Matters, but questions of style and audience eventually led me into questioning both cultures—Islamic and American—by showing how misguided they are, and how imperiled their futures are if they don’t rethink their current course in history.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
Creative work, the work that matters, always happens in the margins—it is from margins that one has a better view of the center. Critical thinking here is of the essence. Orthodoxies can be implacably coercive, demanding total obedience and conformity, even if the status quo they uphold is leading everyone to destruction and perdition. If our goal is a better society for all, then questioning, through unending dialogue and conversations, is absolutely indispensable. Our mainstream educational systems are of very little help in this regard. Universities and colleges are now in the business of selling dorms, experiences, and certificates; not of fostering meaningful debate and reflections about the issues that define our lives and future. Education has become too institutionalized to be of much value. The same is true of the mainstream media: bottom lines and the endless quest for an ever-shrinking pool of revenue. In other words, for those who care about the future and the well-being of the planet, heresy—that is, dissent from the main ideologies that govern our lives—is vital.
Anything you had to leave out?
Not really. Not something that I am aware of.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
I imagine there are quite a few, but I am not sure right now what they might be. I suppose heresy evokes negative feelings. Supporters of my early work on progressive Islam might feel let down by the title and goal of a book like this. But, as I have said in various settings, I am just “pushing the envelope” a bit. It’s good to challenge conservative or patriarchal interpretations of the Qur’an, but how about those who don’t believe at all? Do we push them out from our community? Isn’t disbelief an equally valid form of thought? In the early days of Islam, prominent Muslim thinkers didn’t accept the notion of prophecy. It didn’t make sense to them. Muslims shouldn’t be cringing at such views, or, even worse, punishing their holders. Muslims are quite capable of handling unpopular views; it’s the very essence of freedom. Be and let be.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Muslims and Americans. The whole world, really. Islam and America are the main protagonists in a global drama with many actors. Would the Chinese be interested in my book? I am not sure. I wasn’t thinking of China or Vietnam when I was writing. I was thinking of Muslims and Americans, perhaps Westerners in general.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
Just inform—although I can’t control the last two outcomes. If I had to choose between pissing people off or giving them pleasure, I’d rather do the latter. But someone is still bound to get pissed off. Responses to ideas are as unpredictable as human relationships in general; the fault lines of incomprehension and misunderstanding are quite wide. We are always walking on treacherous ground when we communicate. Human communication, like life in general, is risky business. But it is exciting business. It’s like an unscripted drama, an improvised dance.
What alternate title would you give the book?
Saints in Peril: Islam and America in the Age of Globalization. Fortunately, my publishers, especially the press’ marketing manager, convinced me that their title is more appealing. The best they would allow me is change “heretics” to “heresy.” I am calling for people to try heresy, not those who are already confirmed heretics. But then, again, words have multiple meanings. In any case, I was totally helpless in the hands of my press—and I am quite grateful for that. The University of Minnesota Press played a huge role in giving prominence to this work. Although it is an academic, nonprofit organization, they did their best to give the book a “trade” life. Good university presses are often what’s left standing between infotainment and serious, unpopular scholarly work. Minnesota has bridged the gap between the scholarly and the popular in this case.
How do you feel about the cover?
I like it. I like the Arabic script in it. The cover, like my work, relies on mere text to make its case. It’s all about scripts, as in scripture.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written?
Yes. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. It’s the best love story I’ve read. This may sound totally unrelated to my work on Islam, globalization, heresy, etc., but what more powerful theme in life than love? It is love that we need—real, palpable love, with uncontrollable passions and total surrender to the pull of emotions. This may be the best antidote to the cold passions of war, terrorism, and violence in general. To be in love is to take risks, and I think nothing worthwhile happens without risk. But the violence of war or terrorism is always premeditated, always carefully planned. War and terrorism are forms of cold-blooded murder. Love is unpredictable; it is mysterious, painful, fragile.
What’s your next book?
It’s about how we are all potentially Muslim, or Moorish. In 1609, Spain decreed the expulsion of all Spaniards of Muslim descent, the Moriscos, because (so the thinking went) they constituted a menace to Spanish society. 2009 is the anniversary of this tragic event. So I take this episode and trace its repercussions on modern history and how the Moors and Moriscos have become the template of all minorities: African Americans, Hispanics, Jews, and others. I want to commemorate the 400th anniversary of this tragedy, to remind people that we are closer to the Moors than we think.