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Mark Hertsgaard
Caryle Murphy
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'Passion for: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience'
With Caryle Murphy
Author and Post Staff Writer
Monday, Nov. 25, 2002; Noon ET

In 'Passion for Islam: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience,' former Washington Post Cairo bureau chief Caryle Murphy examines the complex religion of Islam. Using stories of people she has met in Egypt, Murphy explores why Islam is at "crucial historical crossroads and plays such an influential role in today's Middle East."

Passion for Islam
Passion for: Shaping the Modern Middle East: The Egyptian Experience
What are the roots of religious terrorism? Murphy takes a look at three major historical forces: "Islam's modern reawakening and subsequent internal turmoil, the enduring presence of authoritarian governments in that region, and the failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Reaching back into Egypt's history, Murphy explains how Islam's revival is occurring on four overlapping levels of piousness, politics, culture and new ideological thinking.

Post foreign correspondent Caryle Murphy talks about how Islam has shaped the modern Middle East and her book.

Murphy, winner of the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, has been a Washington Post reporter for more than twenty years. She covered the Middle East during Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, spending a month in the occupied emirate, and she reported from Saudi Arabia for most of the Gulf War. She currently covers religion for the Post.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Caryle Murphy : Hi everyone. Thanks for joining me to discuss this hot topic of Islam. You've asked compelling questions and I'm going to try and answer them as best I can. Many require lengthy answers, but I'll be as succinct as possible.

Alexandria, Va.: What percentage of the Moslems in Egypt are in favor of random killings of Israeli civilians, e.g., suicide bombings?

Is it a majority?

Caryle Murphy : It's hard to say because the Egyptian government doesn't allow public opinion polling in the same free-wheeling way that we are used to here in the US. Also, the polling isn't as exact. But, sadly to say, I think a great many Egyptians feel that the attacks on civilians are justified because they see Israeli soldiers attacking Palestinian civilians on the nightly TV news. Altho' Islam prohibits the killing of innocnent civilians in conflicts, the moral judgement of a lot of Egyptians gets clouded when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Placerville, Calif.: Why do Muslims maintain a monopoly of religion in Middle Eastern countries where they also rule? Not many churches in Saudi Arabia. Not much toleration for other religions in Islamic countries. Reminds me of christianity before the reformation.The Catholic church behaved pretty much like Islam does today (burning at the stake, torture, etc.). A little compitition does wonders, even for religions.

Caryle Murphy : Your comparision between Islam and Chsitianity before the REformation is apt. I want to point out, however, that it is only Saudi Arabia that does not permit churches. All other Arab Muslim countries have churches, though they do ban proselytizing by other faiths. One reason for this attitude is that from the beginning, Muslims saw Islam as a faith that had a political aspect to it. Islam plays a different role in the public arena than say, Christianity does in the West. For example, Egypt's Constitution says that Islam is the official religion of the state. Unlike our Constitution, that separates the two.

Arlington, Va.: Ms. Murphy,
In the mind of the Islamic fundamentalist, how is the need to spread Islam balanced by the need to wage jihad? Do you think most fundamentalists consider the damage the latter (terrorism, violence, etc) does to their efforts in achieving the former? Or do they feel the image of jihad actually provides the best PR in attracting new members to Islam?

Caryle Murphy : Here's a good place to talk about the word 'fundamentalist.' I prefer using the word 'Islamist' and as I point out in my book, there is a broad spectrum of Islamists -- from radical, violent ones to moderate, non-violent ones. Now, having made that clarification, I'd say that the radical, violent Islamists -- who are a minority -- don't consider the damage they cause with their violence. They are blinded by a distorted religious dogma.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What degree of religious fanaticism do you see within the rise of Islam activism? I understand many are taught that Islam is the one true religion. Yet, most teachings not only teach respect of other religions yet find common grounds with Christianity and other religions. Now there are factions being taught the Judiasm and Christianity must be destroyed by Muslims. What are the root causes that influence those who teach new generations of Muslims to hate people of other religions? How do we reach the people who have been taught to hate?

Caryle Murphy : Surely, Islam is not the first to teach that it is the "one true religion." I, as a Roman Catholic, grew up being taught that my faith was the only one! It is only a minority of Muslims who hate people of other faiths. And it is sad to say that the strain of Islam that dominates in Saudi Arabia, which is called Wahhabism, does teach that people of other faiths are not deserving of the same respect as Muslims. But, it is also true that what many Muslims 'hate' is US foreign policies in the Middle East.
How to reach people taught to hate? My recipe is increased contact across the board: religious, cultural, tourism, student exchanges etc.

Virginia: What role did the Brits and others play in the formation of the fundamentalist movement in Egypt and other parts in the Arab World? I have in mind the assassination attempt against Nasser by the Islamic movement in Egypt in the mid -Fifties. In fact the main shelter of the Islamic movements against Arab Regimes took shelter Europe, mainly Britain which closed the offices of about 20 offices of terrorist movements in the year 2000 from around the world.

Caryle Murphy : It is true that Europe and the US were open to many Islamists who fled their Arab countries because they saw them as political dissidents. Receiving such people is a long, hallowed tradition in the West and I hope it is one that the current war on terrorism will not kill. Yes, some of the Islamist dissidents did abuse the freedoms they were given when living in the West -- Al Qaeda people for example. But, in the final analysis, the radical Islamists are a product of home-grown religious, economic and political causes.

Washington, D.C.: Americans' ignorance of Islam and Middle East history before recent times (i.e. except in terms of Israel vs. Arabs) was bad enough, but now the terrorist attacks and our reacitons to them have made the stereotypes of Muslims even more ingrained. I don't see the media or politicians trying to make the discussion more balanced and objective. Do you think that, at least in the short run, Americans and Muslims in other countries will view each other with increased distrust?

Caryle Murphy : Yes, I'm afraid in the short-run the distrust between Muslims abroad and Americans is going to increase. Muslims here in the US are facing suspicion from their own government. And our policies in the Middle East continue to inspire disapproval and rejection from people there.

Wheaton, Md.: Isn't it true that the arab/Israeli conflict is about the refusal of the arabs to allow Israel to exist as a state and the current status of the West Band, Gaza and even Jerusalem is irrelivant, just as it was prior to 1967?

Caryle Murphy : No. While Arab rejection of Israel per se was dominant in the early years of Israel' existence, Arabs gradually came to accept -- begrudingly, but nevertheless, -- the 'two-state' solution that is the only possible solution. The two state solution was accepted by the PLO formally in the 1980s and it was enshrined in the Oslo Accords of 1993, accepted by both sides. While some Arabs still continue to want to see Israel destroyed, the majority accept its existence, provided the Palestininas have an opportunity to live out their national aspirations in a state as well.

Glenmont, Md.: Is islam really about peace? I've seen several arab/islamic websites which promote very nasty anti-US, anti-Israel and anti-western/christian views while, at the same time, portraying muslims as innocent victims of aggession. Please explain

Caryle Murphy : I can understand your perception. Let me say first, that one thing I've tried to do in my book is show that there really is not one 'Islam.' There are Muslims living out their concept of Islam. They differ. So there certainly are websites run by anti-western, anti-christian Muslims. There are also websites run by liberal Muslims who are not. I've attached a couple for you to visit:


Baltimore, Md.: Ms. Murphy - Thank you for such a timely book. Islam is truly testing my level of tolerance but I am trying to learn more before closing the door on an entire religion.

Two quick questions: (1) During your research did you have any idea that Islam would be used as the spiritual "fuel" to produce the globlal terrorism seen today?

(2) How can Middle Eastern countries realistically expect to move forward technologically, economically, and socially in a truly free society if their government and entire culture is rooted in Islamic law?

Caryle Murphy : To answer your first question, No. While I was doing my research I did not foresee that a distorted, warped version of Islam -- which is the version of Al Qaeda -- would lead to what it has. I also did not foresee the callous disregard for life that these radical Muslims have. However, I did see --and that is why I wrote the book - that Islam is going through a historic, crucial period of growth and that is going to be something that shapes the actions of Muslim countries. Also, we must remember that some of the terrorism has other causes as well: economic, social, political.
Your second question, on Islamic law is perceptive. The short answer is No, they can't move forward if they interpret Islamic law, or shari'a, in the traditional ways that some Islamist activists do. Shari'a can be interpreted in many different ways. Indeed,there are five schools of thought in Islamic law. Now, younger Muslims are beginning to reinterpret shari'a for modern times, with modern interpretations. That's exciting. And that will actually help Muslim countries move forward.

Mt. Airy, MD: I would imagine most of us view the Israeli-Palestinian issue as unsolvable. What insights can you provide that might give us some hope that the region won't spend eternity in a cycle of retaliatory violence? Is there a moral high ground, if so, who occupies it?

Caryle Murphy : There is no moral high ground. But it is very dangerous, counter-productive and almost anti-American to think that the I-P conflict is unsolvable.We Americans think there is a solution to every problem. The good news is that there IS a solution to this conflict. And,in January 2001, when the Israelis and Palestinians met in Taba, Egypt, for talks, they came very close - or closer than ever before - to agreed-upon outlines of a settlement. Everyone knows what a just and fair settlement has to look like. The only thing missing is the determination to reach that settlement. It needs leadership. It needs a White House-led international effort comparable to the one that Bush just waged to get teh world behind renewing the inspections in Iraq.

Jerusalem, Israel: I understand that the Egyptian citizens feel that the Palestinians are their Muslim brothers and therfore simpathyze with their cause. I also understand the dissonance between pan-arabism & Nasserism and the fact that Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel after defeat. Still, I fail to understand why so many Egyptians hold violent demonstrations against Israel. I mean, the Israelis have done nothing to them since the peace treaty. In fact the opposite is true. The Sinai area bloomed with Israeli tourists before the Intifada began and injected the local economy with much needed cash. Where I come from cash is king and not blind fanatic religion. Explain please...

Caryle Murphy : Egyptians are obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They see themselves in the Palestinians. For them, the conflict is humiliating and unjust. On top of that, their nightly tv news brings them images of Israelis attacking Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They also see Israelis policies much the same way they see US foreign policies - as arrogant and bullying, rather than as ones that treat Arabs as dignified, equal partners. I'm telling you like they see it. That's my job.

Annandale, Va.: Ms. Murphy:

I have two questions. First, have you found that your ability to report from the Middle East as a woman has been hindered by Islamic views about the proper role of women in society? Second, do you think there is any analogy that can be drawn between Christianity and Islam in evolutionary terms -- about 1300 years into its existence, Christianity had a radical, militant and uncompromising view of the world that seems to parallel some of what we are seeing in Islam today?

Caryle Murphy : I was not hindered in my job as a correspondent by being a woman. It was an irritation not to be able to drive in Saudi Arabia -- woman are not allowed to drive there -- but I usually found being a woman an asset. People were very helpful. Also, because I am Western and Christian, people did not expect me to follow the role of Arab women in the ME.
Yes, I think there is something in your analogy. Many Muslims today see/hope that the period that their faith is going through now, coming to terms with modernity and all that means, will lead to a revitalizing of their faith and a cultural and political renaissance for Islamic socitiees. I talk about this in my book, I find that it's the most interesting part of Islam's reawakening. But it's important to remember that this is a decades long effort that Muslims are currently engaged in. I know that the radical, hate-filled Muslims will eventually lose out in this intramural battle. But I just hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Ocean City, Md.: Is it right to assume that the Islamic fundamentalists will never be at peace with the US since the US isn't under Islamic rule?

Caryle Murphy : There are millions of Muslims living in the US, most as citizens. They are content living under a secular government. It may be that a radical minority will also feel that it has to be at war with the US, but they are a minority.

Laytonsville, Md.: If Islam is tolerant, why is Mecca closed to non-muslims?

Caryle Murphy : This is a good question. I don't know if I can answer it authoritatively. I'll have to do some homework. Perhaps it has to do with the conservative, traditionalist strain of Islam in Saudi Arabia that is very xenophobic. I am not sure when that tradition of barring non-Muslims began.

Derwood, MD: Here is a follow-up question for this one:

Caryle Murphy : I can understand your perception. Let me say first, that one thing I've tried to do in my book is show that there really is not one 'Islam.' There are Muslims living out their concept of Islam. They differ. So there certainly are websites run by anti-western, anti-christian Muslims. There are also websites run by liberal Muslims who are not. I've attached a couple for you to visit:

Comment: What do the majority of Islam(s) promote?

Caryle Murphy : I'd say the majority of Muslims are tolerant and respectful of people of other faiths. If I didn't believe that, I'd have had to write a different kind of book

Falls Church, VA: Do you think that U.S. foreign policy has in fact been harder on Muslims than on people of other faiths, or is this Islamist propaganda?

Caryle Murphy : I don't think US foreign policy has been harder on Muslims or targeted them in any way. We were in Somalia to help a Muslim society get a hold on a famine problem. We helped wrest mainly Muslim Kosovo from the grip of Christian Serbia. But unfortunately, many of the global hotspots today involve Muslims-Israel/Palestine; Kashmir; Chechnya-and the US has to do a better job of handling those conflicts so that its policies are not seen as anti-Muslim.

Arlington, VA: It seems Christian fundamentalists in the US have chosen largely to work within existing political systems to acheive their goals, while Islamic fundamentalists frequently work to destabilize/overthrow their incumbent political systems. To what extent do you think that is because:
(a) the rigidity/authoritanism of today's Arab regimes;
(b) something intrinsically more radical/uncompromising about Islamic fundamentalism

Caryle Murphy : Very interesting question. First of all, Christian fundamentalists have plenty of political, media space/freedoms, to promote their ideas. They can even form PACS. Those kinds of freedoms are not available to even many moderate Islamists in the ARab world. So, authoritarianism is part of the answer.
In addition, most Christian fundamentalists have accepted the secular idea. That politics and religion are separated in the US. But most Islamist politicians (radical or moderate) haven't accepted this idea. They see it all as a seamless garment. The moderates are working to refine their ideas on that, but so far haven't come up with a good solution. I talk about this in my book, if you want more.

Vienna, VA: Short, medium, and long term, which Islam do you think will win out for the majority of Muslims? The extremely conservative, anti-Western branch or some sort of more moderate, middle of the road brand?

Caryle Murphy : Easy question. Moderates will rule the day in the long-term. But even in the short-term, moderates are the majority already. Their voices, however, are just not as loud as the terrorists' voices are.

Washington, DC: Since September 11, a number of articles have been published by various specialists on Islam or even religious figures stating that Islam means peace, Islam has democratic elements inherent in it, etc. Given such seemingly small 'l' liberal values that we in the West can appreciate, what then accounts for the seemingly widespread interpretations used in Friday sermons in the Middle East that validate violence, martyrdom, etc.? Is it because Islam has never had a "reformation" as Christianity has, for example?

Caryle Murphy : You go to the heart of the theological problem in Islam today. And Muslims are working on it. They need to do more, but they are working on it. What are they working on? Reintepreting their faith for modern times. This is their Reformation work. Now, as far as the content of Friday sermons in the MEast, I'm not sure that a majority validate violence or martyrdom, but you're right, some do. And I would submit that the main reaons for that are: frustration with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict; frustration with the authoritarianism of Arab governments; poor theological work by establishment-connected religious authorities. Remember, if you're a Muslim born in the Arab world and never having traveled, you've had a very different life experience from a Muslim born in the US. Experience provides content for sermons.

Falls Church, VA: Based on your observations and research, how far do you feel Muslims women in the Middle East can hope to advance as far as equality goes?

Caryle Murphy : There's a lot of misperceptions about women in the Middle East. First, just because a woman wears a headscarf of veil doesn't mean she's repressed. Anyone who's been to Cairo and had a talk with an Eygptian woman knows that they are not used to being bossed around.
Still, there are many many legal and cultural and social inequities in Arab countries against women. Most of them are not 'Islamic' in any way. Men have claimed that to justify these policies. Arab women can advance a long way. But they are the ones who have to do it themselves. Outsiders can only be marginally helpful.

a concerned muslim, washington dc: To the caller from Baltimore and all the others who are questioning whether they should close the door on an entire religion: Please don't let the distorted views of a few fanatics characterize an entire religion. All of the Muslims I know are very peaceful and teach tolerance. We were horribly shaken by the terrorist attacks just as everyone else. I even know an elderly Muslim woman from Iran here visiting family who died on one of the planes that crashed into the WTC. We're just as much affected by terrorism as everyone else, and we want to stop it too. But the only way to do that is for there to be discussion and learning. To simply dismiss any group of people based on their religion would be to fall to the same level as the terrorists.

Caryle Murphy : Your feelings are shared by many US Muslims I've spoken to in the course of my reporting.

Caryle Murphy : Thank you for your thoughtful questions. I've got to sign off now and get back to work on a story about Christian sermons!

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company