An Interfaith Discussion On War and Fundamentalism

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As we broadcast from Denver, Colorado Democracy Now speaks to Ibrahim Kazerooni, a Muslim imam who fled Iraq in the 1970s, and Robert Prince, a Jewish professor and community leader. Both guests have been working for peace from within their communities. [includes rush transcript]

President Bush is again on the defensive over the war in Iraq. On Tuesday, the President was forced to release parts of an explosive classified National Intelligence Estimate that had been leaked to the media. The report says the invasion of Iraq has increased the overall terrorist threat by spawning a new generation of Islamic radicalism. The Intelligence Estimate represents the consensus view of the sixteen spy services inside the US government.

But despite that consensus, the President is refusing to give any ground. On Tuesday, Bush said anti-war critics are “naïve” for thinking the invasion of Iraq has made the US more vulnerable to attack. It is not clear whether he included the spy agencies in that assessment.

We’re going to look at this issue of war and fundamentalism now from an interfaith perspective. Joining me here in Denver are two guests who have been working for peace from within their communities.

  • Ibrahim Kazerooni, Muslim Imam and Director of the Abrahamic Initiative at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral here in Denver. He was a dissident in his native Iraq and fled at the age of fifteen after being repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by the Baathist regime for his beliefs.
  • Robert Prince, a Senior Lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He’s Publisher of Colorado Progressive Jewish News and member of Colorado Jews for a Just Peace.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining me here in Denver are two guests who have been working for peace within their communities. Ibrahim Kazerooni is a Muslim Imam and Director of the Abrahamic Initiative at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral here in Denver. He was a dissident in his native Iraq, fled at the age of 15, after being repeatedly imprisoned and tortured by the Baathist regime for his beliefs. Robert Prince also joins us. He is a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He’s publisher of Colorado Progressive Jewish News and a member of the Colorado Jews for a Just Peace. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Pleasure to be here, Amy.

ROBERT PRINCE: A pleasure.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with you, Ibrahim Kazerooni. When we spoke — I think it was a few years ago in Boulder — we were really talking about the conclusion of this intelligence estimate that has come out now, not knowing about the National Intelligence Estimate, but about the Iraq war increasing terror.

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Yes, I do remember that, Amy. I mean, it’s an irony that after two-and-a-half years or so the 16 spy agencies conclude in the same manner that myself and a few others concluded at the time that the occupation of Iraq is going to create the opposite of what this administration wants, create the ideal situation for the terrorist organizations to recruit. And events later on after our interview actually showed that. People in Saudi Arabia were — terrorists in Saudi Arabia were captured in Kuwait and other Gulf states, and through interrogation they actually indicated that they were trained in Iraq. So Iraq has become a hub now of terrorism in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel there’s more of an opening now to talk about this, to criticize what is going on, the policy?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: I mean, the regime, particularly George Bush and his assistants, I mean, Cheney and Rumsfeld, are not prepared to admit or, as you indicated, give ground at all. So they are not prepared to even accept that the failure of their policy in Iraq has created this. But at least outside the administration, people are beginning to turn around and look at this issue seriously and come to the conclusion that it is a classic example of blowback.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Prince, you’re with Colorado Jews for a Just Peace. As you look at the Middle East right now, sometimes you and the Imam travel to talk about the situation. Can you talk about what’s happening in Iraq and how you feel the bombing of Lebanon fits into this story?

ROBERT PRINCE: Well, you know, the pieces are connected. So the war in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian situation are all part of an attempt at the moment of the United States and the Bush administration to reshape the Middle East according to its own liking. The key element in it is really — has to do with oil, has to do with using the Middle East as a region to put pressure on China, so that the plan should be looked at in its entirety.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “put pressure on China”?

ROBERT PRINCE: Well, control of Middle East oil at this point in time puts pressure on China, puts pressure on Western Europe, and the United — at a time when oil resources — we’re facing impending oil crisis, to control the oil of the Middle East in the way the United States wants to do it and basically to turn back what has been 30, 40 years of nationalization of oil resources. This is not only about oil, but it’s about basically retaining hegemony over the long run. So that’s the policy, and it’s being implemented in a military fashion. And one can say that this policy is a failure in every aspect, so there’s that part of it.

In terms of where Lebanon fits in, the war in Lebanon, you know, during the war we heard the leader, Nasrallah, say that there was a plan, that there was part of a U.S. plan in the region. Later, Seymour Hersh said more or less the same thing, that a plan had had been unfolded, that before attacking either Syria or Iran, that the United States was encouraging Israel to, quote, “take out Hezbollah and Hamas,” and that plan, not only did it not work, but it led to a debacle, a great human tragedy in Lebanon and a stalling, if you like, of this initiative right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Ibrahim Kazerooni, the United Nations has determined up to a million cluster bombs were dropped by Israel and remain unexploded in southern Lebanon. Cluster bombs have killed at least 14 people in Lebanon since the war ended. Your wife is from southern Lebanon?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Yes, she is, and not only I had to follow the events, the tragic events in Iraq during that period, I had to follow the events in southern Lebanon. Particularly in the case of my wife, it was deja-vu, because they ran away from Lebanon after the occupation of 1982, '83, where they lost family members, etc. And this is not new, by the way. _Ha'aretz_ said 1.2 million unexploded bombs in their article.

But one of the problems that we have between Israelis and Lebanese is what they left in Lebanon during their occupation between 1982 and 2000. Part of the agreement was that the Israeli government would provide Lebanese government with a full plan of where they have planted bombs, mines and other explosives that up to now the Israeli government has refused to do so. So people are being killed, just ordinary shepherds going around being killed by the unexploded bombs that were left in Lebanon before. Now we have 1.2 million unexploded cluster bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Prince.

ROBERT PRINCE: You know, these — most of these cluster bombs were dropped in the last three days of the war. They were dropped at a time when it was clear that some kind of ceasefire was going to come into effect. So the military value of dropping these bombs was quite negligible, and it’s been defined by a number of human rights organizations as a war crime, and I agree with that — unconscionable.

AMY GOODMAN: These are the high holy days for Jews around the world. These are the holy days of Ramadan for Muslims around the world. Can you talk about how religion, Ibrahim Kazerooni, fits into this picture?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Some people try to kind of ground the dispute or the conflict between the Muslims or Arabs or Palestinians and Israelis on kind of biblical scripture. I personally disagree, because biblical scriptures or text are neutral, in a sense, by themselves. It’s the way you interpret them that they become — that one could use it to justify violence or one could use it to justify peace. The rabbis that go and stand in front of a tractor that is destroying or demolishing a Palestinian home, they ground their action on the same scripture that another rabbi would use to justify violence and see no innocence in, say, the Palestinians or others.

Likewise with the Muslim community, the Koran will be used by extremists in one way or interpreted in one way, and those who, like myself, would like to use the text to support our peaceful actions and nonviolence action, is interpreted differently. I totally disagree that religion has a role to play in —- as far as defining it. Yes, religion and religious rulings and text will be used by people to justify their position. We had a meeting just over a month ago at D.U., where myself -—

AMY GOODMAN: At Denver University?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Yes, a Christian minister and Rabbi Wasco, we were discussing the same issue that — I tried to explain that it is contemporary politics that shapes the conflict, and then religion is brought into it to legitimize or justify one thing or the other.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the significance of Ramadan?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Well, it’s the month for soul searching, reflection and contemplation, decisions for one’s life, and generally speaking, it’s a month of spirituality and reflecting on that dimension of it, although it has what we call social aspects and other aspects. But it’s purely a month that we have a number of traditions that says the person that goes into the month has to be totally different from the person that comes out.

AMY GOODMAN: You fast every day?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Well, I normally fast a couple of months before the month of fasting, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And Robert Prince, these are the high holy days, Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish High Holy Day, the ten days in between, and then Yom Kippur, which will be Sunday to Monday. The significance of this period for the Jews?

ROBERT PRINCE: Well, Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the New Year, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, also a day to reflect upon problems that we’ve created for ourselves and what can be done about it.

AMY GOODMAN: What about this issue of religion and politics? Did you feel pressure around the time of the bombing of Lebanon to hold back criticism?

ROBERT PRINCE: I think that it was a time that for groups like the Colorado Jews for a Just Peace and for myself to show a bit of courage and for Jews to do that, in general. Of course, what happens when these wars take place in the Jewish community is that there’s a strong reaction to support Israel, and that certainly happened here in Colorado, and it happened in many places across the country. I’m really pleased that in the middle of all this, Colorado Jews for a Just Peace put out a leaflet, and we distributed it on the mall in Boulder, wrote about it.

Basically our position was — is quite clear and simple. Number one, that this war would not make Israel more secure; it would make it less secure, that the notion of, quote, “taking out” your adversaries is counterproductive. It wasn’t going to happen. We predicted that it wouldn’t happen, and it didn’t. And that in the end, that this whole line of thinking that somehow Israel is going to solve its security problems through military might is a terrible mistake, and to try to redirect its energies towards making peace with its neighbors and making peace with the Palestinians.

Within Israel, needless to say, the same reaction took place, that there was a kind of coming together in support of the war. But there were significant voices in Israel, who, during the whole course of the war, pointed out that this war was a dead end, that Israel was being used to implement U.S. plans in the region, and calling for pretty much the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Last question to the imam. Just 30 seconds we have left, but on Gaza, a UN official has accused Israel of “turning the Gaza Strip into a prison for Palestinians, where life is intolerable, appalling and tragic.” So said John Dugard, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in the Palestinian Territory, charging violations of international law. Your response?

IBRAHIM KAZEROONI: Well, it was clear when Israelis withdrew, when Sharon decided to withdraw from Gaza, he did not do so out of the goodness of his heart. It was — Gaza was becoming practically impossible to control. You had 8,000 settlers vis-à-vis 1.4 million people around them in a small space. So it was tactical withdrawal, but if you read the small print of their withdrawal, the Israelis would control the air, give themselves the right to enter the territory at any time that they wanted, control the shore, etc., etc. I mean, and as well as the borders, it literally turned Gaza into a prison, and Palestinians were saying the same thing right from the beginning, that Gaza has been turned into a prison, where before, at least the Israelis had to show some kind of discretion with 8,000 settlers in there. Now, they don’t. They just simply have the free hand to do what they like.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you both for being with us. Ibrahim Kazerooni, Muslim Imam, director of the Abrahamic Initiative at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral here in Denver, a dissident in his native Iraq who left in his teens. Robert Prince is a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News and a member of Colorado Jews for a Just Peace.

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