- 27 Oct 06
Egyptian-born Ali Selim, now a resident of Tallaght, is the Secretary General of the Irish Council of Imams, which was formed last month to represent Islamic concerns in Ireland, ranging from theological matters to issues of social integration. In this extensive interview, he attempts to dispel many of the Western myths about the Muslim world, addresses the subject of Islamic extremism, Salman Rushdie and the Pope’s faux pas.
While there has been a long and sometimes bloody history of conflict between Christianity and Islam, with the Crusaders and the Ottoman Empire clashing violently for many centuries, times have become a whole lot more fraught since the turn of this new millennium.
Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, in which the twin towers were demolished, things deteriorated dramatically. A series of ill-judged Middle Eastern military operations followed, which have seen Britain and a number of other European countries line up alongside the US military machine, to inflict utterly indefensible carnage in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a result, Europe has increasingly become a target for Muslim jihadists. We’ve had horrific bombings in London and Madrid, the murder of controversial artist Theo van Gogh in Holland, and – small beer by comparison – a series of riots and controversies.
Last month in France, a secondary school teacher went into hiding after receiving death threats for writing an article that described the Prophet Muhammad as “a merciless warlord, a looter, a mass murderer of Jews and a polygamist.” In Germany, a Mozart opera with a scene featuring Muhammad’s severed head was cancelled because of security risks. An annual festival in Valencia, which traditionally burned effigies of the Prophet (symbolising Moorish invaders), has just stopped doing so for fear of causing offence to Muslims.
More seriously, cartoons of the Prophet published in a Danish magazine earlier this year caused widespread rioting and demonstrations, resulting in numerous deaths. When Pope Benedict XVI gave an academic lecture that included a quotation describing aspects of Islam as “evil and inhuman,” he provoked a furious Muslim response, and received numerous death threats.
It’s a very thin line between public criticism of another group or religion and open bigotry, and many Muslims believe that this line is being crossed more and more frequently. Meanwhile, non-Muslims feel that followers of Islam should be integrating into an increasingly secular Europe, where the concept of freedom of speech is highly cherished, rather than rioting and issuing death threats every time someone offends them.
Although Ireland to date has remained a threat free zone, some fear that it’s only a matter of time before a serious incident occurs (especially given our government’s tacit support of the war in Iraq). It’s estimated that there are currently 40,000 Muslims living here and, with a steady influx of immigrants from Nigeria, Malaysia, Bosnia Hertzegovina, Libya, Pakistan and other Islamic countries, that figure is increasing all the time.
Earlier this year, a Dublin-based cleric named Sheikh Shaheed Satardien caused controversy when he warned that Ireland is fast becoming “a haven for fundamentalism.”
It was against that background that, last month, the Irish Council of Imams (ICI) was formed to represent Islamic concerns in this country – ranging from theological matters to issues of social integration. Imams from mosques in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Limerick, Waterford, Meath and other places have representation on the Council.
Although not an Imam himself, 36-year-old Egyptian Ali Selim is the Secretary General of the ICI. A graduate of Al-Azhar University, where he studied comparative theology and English, he first came to Ireland in 1999. In Dublin, he did an M-Phil in Ecumenical Studies at Trinity, and also completed a degree course in Public Relations. Married with three young children (and another one on the way), he currently lives in Tallaght. “I’m very much a Tallaght man,” he tells me proudly.
Though maybe he said “Allah”...
This interview took place in his office in the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Clonskeagh on October 10 – midway through Ramadan. First opened in 1996, the Centre (which includes an impressive mosque) was built and continues to be funded by the immensely wealthy deputy ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum.
Tall, well-built and bearded, Selim is articulate, softly spoken and friendly. However, he’s also very much on his guard. “I’ll be reading your interview very carefully when it appears,” he warns me, as he shakes my hand at the conclusion of this interview. “Please do not make anybody my enemy. Do not write that I support the suicide bombers. Do not twist my words, as so many journalists do.”
Needless to say, Hot Press hasn’t twisted anything...
OLAF TYARANSEN: Would you describe yourself as a devout Muslim?
ALI SELIM Why not? Yes! [laughs]
You were born and raised in Egypt. Did you have a very religious upbringing?
Well, I’m the kind of person who has studied comparative theology so I can look at what we have in Islam and, at the back of my mind, I can also see what others have in their books. I studied the Bible and maybe some other books of other religions. And this makes me a better Muslim, I think.
Well, there are a lot of contradictions between them.
Of course, of course. If you were to say that all the books are the same, this would be very naïve. You’d either be deceiving yourself or deceiving your audience. But to say that there are commonalities, that would be honest and true. But there are discrepancies that you cannot ignore.
Muslims do accept Jesus as a prophet, don’t you?
Yes. Muslims describe Jesus as a prophet – a prophet with a strong determination. And such a title was attained by certain prophets, but not all the prophets were given the title of being a prophet with a strong determination. Jesus is one of them. In the Koran, Jesus has been mentioned more than the times he has been mentioned in the Bible.
In the Koran, the miracles that Jesus could perform by God’s leave are more than the miracles stated in the Bible. The Muslims respect for Jesus does not start or end at Jesus. In actual fact, Muslims’ respect goes to include his mother, Mary. And in Arabic, if the name Mary is mentioned, then straightway her title follows from that – Mary The Chaste. There is one chapter in the Koran that carries her name. There is another chapter that carries the name of the family of Mary. However, the Koran portrays Jesus as the example of Jesus being just like the example of Adam.
How do you mean?
Jesus was created from a mother, but no father. And Adam was created from no father and no mother.
You say that there are more of Jesus’ miracles in the Koran than in the Bible. One of his first miracles was to turn water into wine, yet alcohol is totally forbidden in Islam...
We don’t believe in that!!
That’s a little bit selective of you, isn’t it?
Yes! Ha, ha! [laughs uproariously]
Tell me why the new Council of Imams has been established.
The Irish Council of Imams has been established because there are so many issues that the Muslim community in Ireland are coming across. It made it necessary to form a body that would be theologically responsible to address Muslim issues. And to theologically represent the Muslim community in Ireland. So it’s one body made of 14 Imams from all over Ireland. They come together and meet and discuss public issues and reach resolutions.
Is an Imam like a bishop?
Imam is just like a priest. One of the differences between Islam and Christianity is we don’t have what you might describe as a hierarchical system. We don’t have a priest with a bishop above him. The Imam’s job is to lead the prayer, give social advice and be in full contact with the community. They answer questions raised by the Muslim community. And sometimes non-Muslim members of the society they live in.
The similarity between the Imam and the priest is that both of them are described as religious leaders. However, we Muslims do not describe people as holy people. Imam does not play the role of mediator because we don’t believe that there is a mediator between you and your creator. Imam leads an ordinary life like any other person is leading, in terms of marrying and having children.
What do you think of the Catholic celibate way of doing things?
Well, if you’re talking about Christmas, for example, I think...
No, I said ‘celibate’ – not ‘celebrate’. As in, priests abstaining from sexual activity.
Ah. Well, this is not my Islamic way. My Islamic way is that God created us. And when he created us, he made us of material aspect and spiritual aspect. And God has set regulations for us in order to satisfy our material aspect, on one hand. On the other hand, God has sent also the divine revelation to satisfy our spiritual aspect. And in this way, man – and definitely woman, of course; it’s just the term we use – can reach his happiness in this life and in the life to come. So you cannot ignore any of the aspects of your being, but you express that, however, in an organised way as stated or as organised in the religion.
What do you think of Jack Straw’s recent call to ban the Muslim veil in England?
To ban the Muslin veil reflects, in my opinion, a deep ignorance. Because it doesn’t work for the benefit of the society, nor does it work for the benefit of the Muslim community. The Islamic veil is not a Muslim symbol, but it is – just like the Muslim prayer, just the like the Muslim fasting – it is one of the Islamic obligations that the Muslims feel they are happy to hold fast to.
And it is just like if you go to any society and deprive them of something that makes them happy, deprive them of something that they perceive as a violation of their right of their freedom, what will happen then? Those people will either accept what you say because you have power, or they will rebel against you. But let’s say it works for you, so they will not rebel against you. But they will hate you. It will be just like if you’re sitting in a swimming pool with a big ball. And you keep pushing that ball underwater. This ball at a certain time will escape your hand. But if it happens, it will bang your face. You see? So suppression is not good.
But surely many Muslim countries are far more oppressive in terms of dress? If I visited certain Muslim countries with my girlfriend, she wouldn’t be allowed wear a short dress or bikini top. It would be a problem.
No, that’s not a problem. Where I come from, Egypt – and Egypt is a Muslim country – we see the tourists in their shorts and short sleeves, and that’s no problem at all. But I just answered your question because hijab in Islam is an Islamic obligation. However, wearing shorts or things like that, this is not a Christian obligation. It doesn’t make a difference if a lady wears shorts or trousers. She doesn’t have an obligation, but it’s something she wants to do. In fact, it’s a part of your identity. And depriving the Muslims from the right of having the choice whether to wear the hijab or not wear the hijab shakes the Muslim identity.
By doing this, you have either turned the people against you or you have destroyed their identity. And if you’ve destroyed the identity, it means you have no space and no room for diversity. And diversity is richness.
But, against that, there’s a totally hysterical Muslim reaction to some cartoons in a Danish magazine.
Well, let me say to you that the Danish cartoons were a major mistake.
Do you mean the Muslim reaction or the cartoons themselves?
The cartoons, of course. A major mistake. Because at this time now, when the world is facing tension and counter-tension in different parts of the world, and especially the Muslim world… There are Muslim countries occupied, there are Muslim rights violated. Everywhere you look around, you’ll find Muslims are suffering severe persecution. All over the world. Now, in this very critical time, if something comes to stir their anger then there will be something unexpected. You see, they’re already angry, their wounds have been bleeding for a long time, and if you just take a knife and press it in one of these wounds...
But if you’re living in a free society then people are allowed to express themselves in whatever way they choose. Have you ever heard the expression ‘I may not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’?
Mmm... [nods sagely].
Obviously Muslims don’t see it that way.
Oh well, Muslims do see it that way. We Muslims are great advocates of freedom of speech. However, we’re advocates of freedom of speech if it’s described as responsible freedom of speech. If I knock at your door in the morning and, when you open the door, I start cursing you and cursing your wife, would you find that good?
Of course not.
But it’s my freedom of speech to say this, because I’m free to say whatever I want. But I’ve expressed it in an irresponsible way, you see. There are limits for everything – even for the best food that you like. If you eat too much of it, you’ll have to go to hospital to be treated. So there are limits to everything in this life. So why is there no limit for our freedom of speech? There are limits, of course.
But surely you’re the ones putting the limits on other people?
We’re not putting limits on other people, but in fact the people need to understand us like we try to understand them. Like, I receive letters here from people who are willing to come and visit us here, and what they’ll do is ask about the etiquette of visiting the mosque. They could simply come in and walk inside the mosque without asking. They’re free to go to any place in Ireland, it’s their country. Fine! But if they do it the wrong way, then they’ll offend the Muslims who are here. And that’s why they ask – because they are keen to have good relations. What common good does it achieve if I do a cartoon like that? It doesn’t do any common good. But in actual fact, we are not the same. And I am not talking about you and Muslims, because we are part of the society, but you and your brother, you and your wife that you’re living with at home. You are not the same, you must disagree on certain issues and agree on others. However, if you want to live with your wife or you want to live with your brother, you must show a level of understanding.
There were Muslim death threats and violent protests in response to Pope Benedict’s speech recently. Is there not something utterly ludicrous about Muslims holding violent protests in response to being described as violent?
Well, let me say to you that I am against all types of violence. However, when the Pope made his statement, the Muslim scholars throughout all the world asked for clarification, and asked for an apology. Because in our reading, and in the reading of most of the people, it was not appropriate to have this quotation in his speech. The Pope is such a towering Catholic figure. If a layman makes a speech and does a mistake like that, it could be tolerated and accepted because he just doesn’t know. But the Pope!
But surely the frenzied Muslim response was a complete overreaction?
No, no. What happened is that Muslim scholars asked for clarification and for an apology, and he hastened to do that afterwards. But actually the tension that you talk about happened in a very limited area, and this very limited area and that type of protesting is due to the political tension in this area. You see.
Have you seen any violent demonstrations in Ireland? No. What did we do? Actually, when the media people came to us we described it as a mistake, but we waited to see what would be his next step. We gave him a chance. And he expressed his apology afterwards. Because we live in Ireland, we enjoy what you can describe as freedom. In Ireland, we enjoy a life at ease. But if you look at a lot of people in Palestine, Lebanon, India, Pakistan and these areas, these are places of tension already. And they have wounds, and these wounds are bleeding. I’m not an advocate of violence, but I’m also a great advocate of respect as the foundation of mutual existence. I don’t think that anyone can say now that this is my country and it belongs to one race. No, the whole world has become a small village that is shared by people of different races, of different creeds and of different colours. Now, taking this fact into consideration, the mutual coexistence has become a necessity. And if we understand this, we have to work on the foundations that enable us to mutually coexist.
Sheikh Shaheed Satardien, a Dublin-based cleric, recently caused some controversy when he said that Ireland has become “a haven for fundamentalism.”
He’s entirely wrong – entirely wrong. Like, for how long have Muslims been here in Ireland? We’ve been here for ages, you see, and nothing has happened. And why now something will happen – why? Muslims have come across many, many problems and atrocities practised against Muslims in different parts of the world, and we’ve seen Muslims revenging in some other countries, but it has never happened in Ireland. So on what basis is he saying that?
Surely he’s talking about the fear that’s out there…
There isn’t fear of Muslims?
No, there isn’t! All over the world, there isn’t a place that you can describe as pure security. In my understanding, security does not mean that you have guns and security forces – no. In my opinion, you can enjoy security when you live on good terms with others. That’s the best security. But if you want to have guns now... People keep talking about American security – the most powerful security. And it has been penetrated like this – [clicks fingers]. You see. So that is not security. Security is good relations with others, showing understanding and respect. I believe that this is the strongest handhold that you can have on security. In Ireland, we’ve been here for ages, and nothing has happened. And I don’t think anything will happen in Ireland.
Sheikh Shaheed Satardien obviously doesn’t agree.
He is entirely wrong. If he is right and if he knows of anything like that, it becomes his obligation as a person living in Ireland, worried about the security of Ireland, to go and report them. Why hasn’t he done so? Well, if he doesn’t do it, why is he talking about issues like that?
There have been no attacks in Ireland, but what about Muslim fundamentalists based here who might be plotting terrorist attacks in the UK?
Based in Ireland? Well, I don’t think that . . . [pauses]. Number one, events that happened in England – I personally haven’t seen compelling proof that that was done by Muslims.
But the 7/7 bombers were Muslims!
In my understanding, I haven’t seen proof that those who did that were Muslims.
Were there not videos that effectively confirmed they carried out the attacks?
Well, I personally don’t trust videos, because I see a video today, and tomorrow somebody will come up and say that this is a fake video, and this is the art of the montage, and he was not the person. That it was a completely different person.
But weren’t they identified by their own families?
Well, actually, my knowledge might be very limited in this regard. But, number one, I personally haven’t seen what I would describe as compelling proof. Point two is I condemn all kinds of violence. I condemn all transgressions of civilians. And in my understanding, if there is a battle, there is a battlefield. And let the battle be limited to the battlefield.
Well, can you assure people that there are no jihadists living in Ireland?
Well, as far as I know. I haven’t seen one single thing that would give me any idea of violence and I haven’t seen . . . [pauses]. Muslims have been in Ireland for many years, and we haven’t seen one single act of violence from the Muslim side. We haven’t! I wouldn’t say that this is because the Muslims are good, but I would say that this is because Ireland managed to create a comfortable atmosphere for the newcomers, where they found a role for themselves that enabled them to feel that they were at home. In my understanding, every person is good provided you provide him with a suitable environment. People become aggressive and people tend to attack, once they feel they’re being oppressed or suppressed. If you remove factors of oppression and suppression from any part of the world, even if it is the hottest area in the world, it will become the best for people to live in.
Is there fear amongst the Muslim community of the fundamentalists within?
In actual fact, no. Simply because, how many Muslims do we have all over the world? We have one-fourth of the world’s population. And how many fundamentalists are we talking about? You see, you’re talking about 1.4 billion people. And how many fundamentalists? You’re talking about a drop in the ocean. But this drop has been magnified by media people and by people of prejudice. And by people whose interest is to create unrest. Those three categories have been working together. They might not have the same interests, everybody has different aims and targets, but they’re working in the same direction. Why do people not talk about other fundamentalists? Why only Muslim fundamentalists? There’s a tiny percentage of Muslims here, yet people will make a hustle and bustle about it. For no reason.
You can hardly say that there is no reason.
When the explosions happened in Oklahoma, they originally thought that the perpetrator was a Muslim. Suddenly everybody started talking about Islam and Muslims and terrorism and all these terms that we hear. And then after that when they discovered he [Timothy McVeigh] was not a Muslim, everything was closed. People said ‘Ah, please forgive him – he was mentally unsound’ and blah, blah, blah. A minute ago, you were accusing the whole nation of Muslims, you were accusing the religion of one-fourth of the world’s population. And now because you discover he was not a Muslim, you’ve just turned the whole thing upside down. Isn’t it a double standard? It is a double standard – and that’s what the Muslims feel. They feel that they are ill-treated. I believe that the international community is in dire need, at this moment, to prove to Muslims that they are not dealing with them in double standards. Prove there is justice, prove there is equality. These are very important issues.
Another controversial Muslim cleric – Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawl – has a connection to this mosque, doesn’t he?
Well, slightly. Sheikh Yusuf is the chairman of the European Council for Fatwa and Research [ECFR]. And the ECFR is based here, simply because the secretary general is located here. But actually it was in Manchester before, when the general secretary was in Manchester, and it was in Leeds. And when his time expires, the general secretary will move to a new location, and the ECRF will follow.
Sheikh Yusuf has publicly said that, in certain circumstances, suicide bombers are justified.
Well, he does say this [laughs]. I heard him saying this myself. He explains it like this. He’s saying that the Palestinians – their land has been taken from them, their houses have been destroyed over their heads, they’ve been deprived of everything in their homeland, and moreover they are facing the highly sophisticated American military equipment exported to Israel, in addition to the military equipment made in Israel. And they are armless people. They feel that the whole world is supporting these occupying forces, and they have no other alternative. So, in this very dark area for them, they find that their life is nothing. And they see that those who are depriving them of all these things are enjoying them instead. So they say, ‘I am not taking this. To this extent, you will not enjoy this’. And they go and they kill themselves and they kill the others. This is why this is happening in Palestine.
Would you condemn the 9/11 hijackers or do you see it as the same thing?
Well, no. I’m not condoning any of the violence that’s happening in Palestine or anywhere else, I’m just explaining the philosophy. The 11th of September, we were the first people to condemn that. But I just find it a bit difficult that the perpetrators were only these people. I just think that the perpetrators of this atrocity... em, it was a wider circle than that. But those are the people that have been detected.
What’s your theory?
The events that we have seen are far too complicated to have been organised by only a small group of people. It has to be something bigger. But who are the other people? We don’t know.
When you say there’s a wider circle of conspirators involved in 9/11, are you suggesting there’s an American involvement?
No, I don’t mean the Americans. But history, definitely, will prove to us that those people were not the only ones involved in 9/11. That, in actual fact, there’s a wider circle that’s under the shade so we can’t see it at the moment. It’s such a very complicated issue, you see. So to be convinced that only those people did it is very difficult. They were involved in it – nobody can deny that. But they can’t have been on their own. Who are the others? That’s the question that time will answer.
Osama Bin Laden is seen as a Christ-like figure by many Muslims, isn’t he?
Well, Osama Bin Laden like any other person – even like Jesus himself – he has his opponents and he has his advocates. You see. Osama Bin Laden is perceived by some people as a terrorist, and he’s perceived by other people as a man of right and responsibility, as a courageous man, as a man who sacrificed his life for his cause. A very sincere man.
How do you perceive him yourself?
I can’t reach a conclusion about him, because I haven’t seen the man himself. I have just seen him on the screen and I’ve read what a lot of people have written and said about him, but I need to hear from the man in order to judge him. But in fact, even what we see on the screen, we then hear in a month’s time somebody coming up and saying, ‘Oh, that was fake, that was not Osama Bin Laden, that was another person’, blah, blah, blah. But if I see him face to face and speak to him, I’ll be in a better position to judge [laughs].
That’s not very likely to happen – unless there’s something you’re not telling me!
Ha, ha! I don’t think I’ll be likely to meet him!
Have you seen The Da Vinci Code?
Well, I had a quick glance at the book, but I haven’t watched the film. Out of the quick glance I had at the book, I would say that any accuser of any prophet or religious value is condemned by Islam. Because all the prophets and all the religious values should be respected and should be away from any kind of mocking.
What’s your opinion of the Irish media?
The Irish media? To a large extent, it’s fair. But media people are the friend of nobody.
Well, you must have noticed this! [laughs]. But the Irish media, by and large, is fair. You will definitely come across an article every now and then by somebody who just wants to make a problem out of nothing.or who is pro- a certain policy, and against Muslims and Islam. But these are very, very few journalists.
What do you say to the Muslims who are calling for jihad [‘holy war’] against the West?
I don’t think there are Muslims calling for jihad against the West. Well, I’m living in the West. To use such a broad term – ‘the West’ – I would find it very difficult. Because this is stereotyping in Islam. But if you have a problem with a place in the West, you cannot say ‘the West’. This is actually what aggravates me, is that some people when they talk about a few Muslims, they say ‘Muslims and Islam’. It’s also stereotyping. If someone is declaring jihad against the West – as broad as we’ve seen the word, which I have never heard myself until now – but it is not acceptable. Because there’s a lot of good people in the West. And I am one of those good people! [chuckles]
You get a lot of guest Imams speaking here. Would you keep a close eye on who’s preaching what at this mosque?
Yeah. Of course! We’re very keen to have people who are interested in encouraging mutual coexistence and positive integration, people who are famous for establishing peace, and revising the meaning of tolerance and forgiveness in society. We’re very keen to invite those people. Because I believe now that the whole world has reached a point where they realise that there is no point of confrontation. Because if you fight me and I fight you, you will not be happy and I will not be happy either. However, if we both live on a sound basis of equality and justice, we both will be happy. I think that people now have come to realise this.
Are you optimistic for the future? Despite the ‘clash of cultures and civilisations’ happening at the moment.
Well, clash of civilisations has nothing to do with the Muslims. Because even the term ‘clash of civilisations’ is not a Muslim term. It does not exist in Islamic terminology at all.
It certainly exists in the vocabularies of President Bush and Tony Blair!
Well, yes. Their language aggravates Muslims. But they are not the majority. The majority of people, all over the world, want peace. People look at what’s happening in Iraq, for example, and the number of casualties – on both sides. American people who have lost their sons, their brothers or their family members in Iraq, they pause and think, ‘Why are we doing that?’ And all the Iraqi people describe themselves as fighting against the occupation. So they see that they have no other alternative. But the Americans when they look at the family members that they have lost, I believe this is kind of building up inside people, and this will help all people to come to the point where we all want to live in peace. We don’t want to fight. I don’t want to kill your brother. I don’t want you to kill my brother. Because if you do that then we will be enemies – and you will not be at ease, and I will not be at ease either. But if we agree mutually to exist, I think that’s the way. That’s the way.
You speak of tolerance. What about Islam’s stance on homosexuality?
Well, Islam, just like Christianity, forbids it. It’s in all the divine revelations, and it’s forbidden in all religions. And this is not a lack of tolerance. Because in Ireland here, for example, you have a law. And this law says that you are allowed to do this, and you’re not allowed to do that. That doesn’t mean a lack of tolerance. It doesn’t. But there are regulations. And these are the regulations. I think, with something like that, it is agreed upon by all religions. Even for those who cannot, who are an advocate of homosexuality...[pauses] Well, I don’t know, but if all religions agree on something, it is not a lack of tolerance. There must be a reason for that.
To what extent are Muslim marriages arranged?
There is a big difference between the arranged marriage and the forced marriage. I personally don’t see any problem with arranged marriage as long as it is run on the basis of the consent of both the bridegroom and the bride. But according to Islam, forced marriage is not a sound marriage. It’s not marriage at all. However, in the current circumstances, men and women – they work together and they are educated together, so there is a better chance for men and women to get to know about each other. And that has diminished – or maybe even entirely deleted – the so-called arranged marriage.
In regions of countries like Pakistan, where Sharia law is practised, adulterous women are stoned to death and thieves have their hands chopped off. Do you agree with the imposition of religious law over secular law?
Well, the decision of taking one law over another always comes down to the choice of the majority. There are people living in a certain location and they are happy to choose one thing over another. And as long as they are in the majority then what they say goes. And that is democracy. If you deprive the majority of what they want, like what we see in some parts of the world. . . [pauses] If the majority vote for something, and then find that this is not accepted, this is, in my opinion, a dictatorship. And that is definitely to the contrary of all of our international laws at the moment.
Did you agree with the fatwa on Salman Rushdie?
Well, this fatwa was issued only by one country – Iran. How many Muslim countries do we have over the world? It was only one country. And I have to say, honestly, Salman Rushdie was a very unknown writer. And this fatwa saved him. He became all of a sudden famous. And when this fatwa disappeared, all of a sudden he also disappeared. He’s not a good writer, you see. No, not at all.
That’s not true. He won the Booker Prize.
Only because of all the hassle he made!
No, he’d won it quite a few years before The Satanic Verses was ever published.
I don’t think he’s a good writer, to be honest with you. Maybe he won the prize, but in my feeling, he’s not a good writer. Like, how many books do we know for Salman Rushdie, other than this book that caused the problem?
Well, quite a few – Midnight’s Children, Shame, Fury, The Ground Beneath Her Feet...
You must be more educated about his books than I am. I honestly only know that one book. Other than that, I haven’t heard of any of his books.
On a personal level, does your own faith ever get tested? Do you ever think to yourself, ‘maybe there is no Allah?’ or ‘maybe there is no God?’
Never! Never. Never. There is God, all the time. I find it really very strange if someone believes – or even thinks – that there is no Allah or there is no God. If I go to my office in the morning and when I open the door I find somebody’s jacket on my chair. What does it mean for me? Somebody was sitting on my chair. And this is just a simple jacket on my chair. Then what about the stars, the galaxies, the Earth, the moon, the heavens, the oceans, the mountains? Who made all that? Who made me? Who made my heart? Who made my eyes? Yeah? There must be a maker of all of that. And that maker must be God. I find it very difficult to see how that can be denied.
Do you think that Allah is very different from the Christian God?
We don’t have a special God for Muslims. There is one God for everybody, but we might have a Muslim way of reaching God. Someone else could choose a different way to reach God. And that’s why it’s individual accountability. You choose a way, and I choose a way. But I’m happy that my way to reach God is my Muslim way. And I won’t be happy if anybody imposed another way on me. I realise I can’t impose my way on others. But I’m really happy in following this way, and I love this way to reach God.
Living in Ireland, you must be aware of the huge numbers of scandals involving Catholic priests. Is there a Muslim equivalent? You know, do you have Imams who raped children?
No. Isn’t is strange? [laughs] We don’t have this problem. Why haven’t we had these problems? As I said to you before, Imams are living the same lives that the other persons are leading. Maybe that’s the reason. You see. But, in fact, we really haven’t ever had any problems like that.