'Like it or not, Islam has 1.3 billion adherents around the world," says businessman Farid Ghadry, the president of the Reform Party of Syria, a Washington, DC-based organization whose aim is as its name. He is responding to the question of whether reforming the increasingly politicized religion is any more realistic than rejecting it altogether.
Ghadry, a Sunni Muslim who escaped his native Syria and immigrated with his parents and siblings to the United States from Lebanon at the age of 21, knows he's got his work cut out for him. In fact, the 52-year-old father of four says that the "wave of extremism" that has swept across the Arab world "has been going on for 30-40 years, and it will probably take another 30-40 years to reverse it."
But Ghadry and his reform party - established by a core group of five former Syrians a few days into the war in Iraq, and "which has since mushroomed to include people from Europe and the Arab countries" - have a grand plan: to wrest the holy cities of Mecca and Medina from the Saudis and "vaticanize" them under an international council of moderate Muslims.
Plausible? Listening to Ghadry's quietly passionate and openly humorous outline of future Middle East scenarios over cappuccino at a Dupont Circle coffee shop, one is tempted to think so. Or at least hope that he is right in his conviction that many, perhaps even most, Muslims support extreme Islamist organizations for lack of an alternative. And it's an alternative Ghadry says he is working very hard to provide.
During an hour-long interview with the Syrian-American activist - who writes and lectures on the need for Islam to transform itself - one finds it hard to believe that he was raised to hate Jews. He points to an article he wrote in October, 2004, for example, entitled: "Israel Builds for Nobel Prizes, Arabs Destroy with Suicide Bombers."
One is also struck by his take on the current Syrian regime in general, and on President Bashar Assad in particular, whom he calls "untrustworthy," and against whom he warns Israel about signing peace agreements.
Why did your family emigrate from Syria?
We didn't emigrate; we escaped, because of the political turmoil following the [Arab socialist-nationalist] Baathists' gradual taking over of the country. My father became a political refugee in eastern Europe, where he remained until Lebanon - through the Maronite Patriarch Paul Maushi, who at the time was the highest Christian figure in the country - took him in. And then he sent for us. We were in Aleppo, and then went to Damascus to await instructions from him.
So, we went to Lebanon in 1964, when I was 10, and I attended a Christian school. It was an early lesson for me in acceptance - in how Lebanese Christians behaved. It was wonderful of them.
Your family are Sunni Muslims. What pushed your parents to abscond?
My father was a journalist. He was also a Communist and a Nasserite [supporter of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser], and the Baathists opposed him. Then he became adviser to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, and we were given Saudi citizenship.
Where does Saudi Arabia come into the picture?
After the union between Syria and Egypt, which faltered around 1963-4, my father turned against Nasser. This was because he saw that Nasser wasn't actually interested in brotherly rapprochement [with Syria], but rather wanted to swallow it up. During that period, Nasser and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia were at each other's throats. When Faisal heard about my father's shift, he invited him to Saudi Arabia. As a result of that visit, Faisal asked my father to join the palace as one of his advisers - under Dr. Rashad Pharaon, a Syrian who was the king's main adviser. My father accepted and joined the cadre, and commuted between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
Were you devout Muslims?
Our household was secular, but traditionally Muslim. We fasted during Ramadan. We paid the Zakat [charity given on a regular basis]. I did the Umra, the miniature Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca], in 1972. In other words, we did not adhere to the strictest rules of Islam, but we were religious enough to go to Mecca. Those were days when Muslims conducted their social lives openly, and if they wanted to be devout, it was a personal matter, not for public consumption. I upheld tradition as I saw fit, but it was a personal choice. No institution or mosque or imam or other high authority told me to do it. This is what is missing in the Arab countries today.
When did that start changing?
Not while I was there. It began after our family moved to the United States. [His family immigrated in 1975; he has three sisters, the youngest of whom was born in America.]
What caused your family to leave Lebanon, if life was so good, and your father was dong so well?
The civil war that erupted there in April 1975 [which lasted until 1990]. My father wanted to go somewhere he'd never have to leave again. He wanted to live in a totally calm place, void of political turmoil. And Washington was it.
How did you become involved in reforming Syria?
That's a long story that begins with two incidents in my life that changed my perspective. The first occurred when I was 13 and living in Lebanon. My father was tasked by King Faisal to go to the Dachau concentration camp in Germany to find out if rumors he had heard about Egypt's having laid a memorial wreath there were true. And my father took me along on that trip.
What was King Faisal's purpose in finding this out?
It was a political maneuver on his part. He wanted to highlight the issue of Egypt's mourning of the Jews, in order to portray a negative picture of Nasser to the Arabs.
Was there indeed a wreath from Egypt there?
Yes, and my father took pictures of it to show to King Faisal.
What happened to you on that trip with your father to Dachau?
I had a kind of awakening. Though by that time I was living in Lebanon, I had received my early education in Syria, where I was taught that the Jews were monsters with horns. I had never met a Jew in my life. At Dachau, I saw a discrepancy between what I had been taught and what I saw.
You're referring to learning about the Holocaust?
Yes, the horrors of the camps. I remember walking through a black alleyway. I had never seen streets that color. A cousin of mine who was living in Munich at the time was accompanying us, and I asked him why the alleyways were black. His answer still resonates. He said, "This is because of the ashes of the dead."
Astounded, I kept repeating, "Ashes of the dead! What do you mean, 'ashes of the dead'?"
Then I saw the ovens. It was a life-changing experience for me to discover that there was more than one side to the story - and that just because someone tells you something, it doesn't mean you have to accept it without question.
What was the other experience that changed your life?
When I was 32, in 1985-6, I was in Riyadh. One night, during prayer time, instead of going to a mosque, I was walking around shopping. I was wearing jeans, and my Saudi passport was protruding from my back pocket. All of a sudden, a mutawa [a member of the religious police] started caning me on the back of my legs. I had been an American for several years already. I was married. I had a kid. I'd built a company. And yet, here I was being caned for not being in a mosque during prayers. I realized then that no matter how much you accomplish in life, it can all be taken away from you in seconds.
How did you respond?
I gave him an angry look and ran away. After that, I started thinking that this is who we are. This is the Arab world. That's when I began contemplating what we Arabs have done with ourselves. This eventually resulted in discussions with other people, which led to my involvement in the political arena.
Yet you are now a reformer for Syria, not Saudi Arabia. Why?
Well, the Saudi experience gave me a perspective on where we Arabs are today as a whole.
As Arabs or Muslims?
At that point [I was thinking in terms of] Arabs. Extremism was there, but you couldn't feel it; you couldn't see it. Now, it's so out in the open that you can say "as Muslims" as well. Now we can ask where Islam - not just the Arab world - is going. In any case, that's what got me started. Then, in the early 1990s I helped some Saudi dissidents, because I wanted to see change effected there. But in 1996, the Saudi Embassy in Washington got wind of my activities, and took away my passport and revoked my citizenship.
Were you still a Syrian citizen?
If you're born in Syria, you will always be a Syrian. You don't get stripped of that right.
So, now you have dual American-Syrian citizenship?
Correct. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, some Syrian friends came to me and said that [the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings] were going to change the map of the Middle East - that the US was going to start examining the situation and concluding that the root of this extremism was the oppression taking place within Arab countries. These friends said they wanted to do something about Syria and asked if I would join them in the effort.
Then the issue of Iraq surfaced. A few days after the war began, we announced the establishment of our group - the Reform Party of Syria - which began with five people in Washington, and which has since mushroomed to include people from Europe and the Arab countries.
Do you have people inside Syria working for reform?
Yes. But some of them were caught and have been in prison for the past eight months. Nevertheless, we have students, Kurdish groups and other liberals who support what we're doing.
Are you establishing ties with your supporters inside Syria mainly via the Internet?
No, by phone. We also convene meetings in Europe. There's one coming up in November in Istanbul, in fact.
How do dissidents manage to get away to attend these meetings?
When we have a meeting in Turkey, for example, they can come as "tourists," without anybody knowing what they're really up to. When they return to Syria, it is as though they have been on vacation. We've also had meetings in Amman, which they attend the same way - as "tourists."
At one point, we convened in Lebanon, but then Lebanon became too dangerous, because it was crawling with Syrian infiltrators. So we decided it was no longer safe to meet there.
Are these dissidents predominantly young people?
Many of them are young. In Syria, 60 percent of the population is under 25 and hungry for a way out [of their oppressive conditions]. They watch TV, and see how people live in the rest of the world.
How does the regime allow this?
The regime says that they can see anything they want, as long as they don't emulate it. They obey out of fear. Yet, they wonder why they can't live freely, like other populations of the world.
At the same time, however, Syrian TV is virulently anti-American, anti-Jewish and pro-Arab nationalism - which also has an effect.
Are most of the people who support your ideas secular?
Yes, but recently we've made some headway with [religious] Muslims. The reason we need to reach them as well is because we feel that the liberal Muslim movement within the Arab countries has been marginalized. The message of the Islamic extremists has been firmly implanted in the minds of young and old alike. But the only way to reach such people is to reassure them that they do not have to forsake being devout Muslims, but that it is not in their interest to incorporate Islam into their government.
This message is beginning to resonate, because the majority of Syrians don't want to achieve things through violence. The problem, as they see it, is that there is no alternative.
Take the extremist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example. We have been contacted by many of its ranks, who tell us that they don't approve of the way the Muslim Brotherhood behaves, but that there is no other organization that is both Muslim and moderate. These people claim that if they had such an organization, they would join it.
We thus decided to form one. We already have six sheikhs in and outside Syria running it. The Web site is being completed as we speak, and will be available online within a couple of weeks. The idea behind it is to convey the message to Muslims in Syria that they can be devout and peaceful at the same time; that they can go to the mosque without bringing the mosque into politics; and that they can be conservative without imposing [their conservatism] on others.
I believe that this organization is going to attract a lot of the Muslim Brotherhood people, and provide them with the alternative they've been seeking.
What will be the fate of an imam who gets up in a mosque in Syria and preaches tolerance over jihad [holy war]?
I know one sheikh who has a mosque - and followers - whose message is one of peace, not resistance. He started out with 60 people and today he has 200. We're trying to get him a bigger mosque. Right now he's in Tripoli, Lebanon. But he's a Syrian, and he's connected to other sheikhs inside Syria.
In that case, I have to repeat my question. Are such sheikhs not going to be targeted by the regime?
The Syrian regime will target moderates who become increasingly influential. A good example of this is the Syrian-Kurdish cleric, Sheikh Muhammad al-Khaznawi, who was kidnapped and killed last year. We don't want to endanger such clerics by making them famous. We want to plant the seeds of reform quietly and extensively. Moderate Muslims need a home, and we can provide it for them by stripping Islam of extremism. Doing so would also endanger [Syrian President Bashar] Assad and his regime.
Why would stripping Islam of extremism endanger Assad?
Assad sees himself as the last bastion of pan-Arab nationalism. If he turns against the extremists - such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and its ilk - they will have no place else to go. Lebanon is not a haven; nor is Jordan; certainly not Iraq today; nor Egypt; Yemen is not going to accept them; [Libyan President Muammar] Gadaffi has turned around. All that's left for them is Assad and Syria. If he were to revoke his backing - as Israel is demanding - it would mean the end of pan-Arabism. Furthermore, unlike his father [the late Hafez al-Assad], Bashar Assad has proven to be untrustworthy. I've been told by many reliable sources that when [Hafez] made a commitment, he stood by it. Assad junior doesn't do that. He tells you one thing and then does something else. He lies and he cheats.
When you combine these two elements, you can see why there's no way to make a deal with this guy. Anything he relinquishes will be too much for him. And anyway, what's in it for him? He realizes that his minority rule can only survive through chaos and playing people against each other.
Divide and conquer?
Exactly. Which he has done successfully both inside and outside Syria. Nothing Assad is doing - none of the promises he's making - are conducive to any form of peace down the line. Israel needs to forget about making peace with Syria for the time being. Israelis deserve better than striking a deal that involves the withdrawal from strategic territory with a dictatorship. Assad would only use such an agreement to get further concessions from Israel in the future or to threaten Israel militarily. And, even if he doesn't threaten Israel militarily, he'll still be spreading the message of non-acceptance and hatred of the Jews and the Jewish state. Look at the experience with Egypt. In spite of the peace treaty with Israel, the Egyptians are still teaching their people to hate the Jews.
Peace is not achieved through the signing of a piece of paper which allows politicians to go to bed feeling satisfied that they're not going to be attacked militarily. Israelis deserve better than that. They deserve to be accepted the way they accept others.
Since its inception, Israel has been opening its arms to the Arab countries, and the Arab countries have been backing away. There's got to be a democracy in Syria before Israel can make peace with it. Because whomever you make peace with in a democracy is accountable to his own people. Like Israel. The leadership in Israel is accountable. You don't have that in Syria. If Israel makes a deal with the dictatorship in Syria, the culture of hate will continue, and Israel will never really have peace. What would prevent Assad from signing a treaty that grants him the Golan Heights and continuing to support Hizbullah?
You said your organization is mushrooming. Do you have contacts in Israel?
We have contact with journalists and Americans living in Israel, but not with the Israeli government.
No contacts with Syrian Jews?
In the US, but not in Israel. I hope one day, when Syria becomes democratic, we'll have true peace with the Israelis and open borders. There's a lot for us to learn from Israel, and I hope that Israel has something to learn from our tradition and history.
Speaking of open borders, did you know that there is an Israeli folk song whose lyrics are: "When peace comes, we'll ride the train to Damascus"?
That's wonderful. Since I hope one day to play a role in Syrian politics, I promise to lay the first track on the railroad to Israel.
Now let's talk about Islam. Unlike some Arab moderates, who claim that violence is inherent in the Koran and the hadith, you are of the school of thought that the religion has been abused by extremists. Can you elaborate on that?
The answer to extremist Islam is not a departure from the religion. Like it or not, Islam has 1.3 billion adherents around the world.
To illustrate that the problem is in the interpretation of Islam, not in the religion itself, I'll give you two examples.
The Koran says, "You shall protect your woman."
Wahabbis [fundamentalist Muslims, currently dominating Islam in Saudi Arabia] have turned this into meaning that you should imprison your woman. I interpret it to mean that I have to make sure my wife has new tires on her car.
The more dynamic example relates to jihad. When Islam was a rising, nascent, embryonic religion, the tenet of jihad - according to which, if Islam is in danger, you have the right to kill to protect it - had a purpose. We didn't want to see Islam eliminated in its womb. Today, Islam isn't going anywhere. It's a strong religion. What would it take for an imam to say that that interpretation of jihad no longer applies in today's modern world? There's a way to get around these issues. Just as Christianity did.
Look, why is democracy in Syria so important for Israel? Because Syria is the stronghold from where Sunni Islam emanated. Today, our biggest problems come from having the Wahabbi-Sunni extremists on one side and Iran on the other.
If you were to bring democracy to a country where Sunni Islam rules - and build a moderate university that teaches the Koran in a different light to counter [such institutions as] the Azhar University in Egypt and King Abdel Aziz University in Saudi Arabia - you would create an environment conducive to moderate Islam, which would attract moderate Muslims from other Arab countries.
Isn't university age a little too late? Look at Palestinian children, whose text-books are filled with violence and hatred.
No, because it is from the universities that the next generation of imams will emerge. And from them will come new education and new ideas through which you reach the children. The wave of extremism has been going on for 30-40 years, and it will probably take another 30-40 years to reverse it. Meanwhile, it's up to us Muslims to fight extremism. The best way to do that is to "vaticanize" Mecca and Medina - to separate them from the Wahabbis - under an international council of moderate Muslims.
How can Mecca and Medina be "vaticanized"? Surely the Saudis won't allow that to happen.
Well, how the Saudis got control of them in the first place was kind of coincidental. First of all, under the Sykes-Picot Agreement [forged between France and Britain in 1916 to divide up the Middle East], the British took Mecca and Medina away from the Hashemites and delivered them to Saudi Arabia. And though it's true that the Saudis will fight tooth and nail to keep them, if there's enough critical mass behind the idea, ultimately they won't be able to withstand it. Eventually it will happen, because Muslims cannot go on like this. It's impossible to compete in today's world when you don't have the most basic technology or advancement.
But the Saudis are richer than everybody else without competing in the market.
Yes, but you cannot buy Nobel minds. You have to create them. That's how a nation survives. Look at Israel. It's an amazing country - and we're trying to eliminate it? Look at where we are. Look at who we are. Look at how dark. And instead of learning from Israel - which is a blessing to have in our midst - we try to wipe it out. This is where we are so dumb. This is what makes me, as an Arab and as a Muslim, very angry. Our rejection of Israel is our demise, and Arabs don't see it, because they are smothered by their oppressive regimes. We have to give them the opportunity to see things clearly. This is why reformists like me have to come to the surface.
As for Israel, Israel's survival needs to be built around the idea that it's not enough to have peace; you have to have acceptance - and peace of mind.