A faithful Muslim, Muqtedar Khan fears only God. Perhaps that’s why he wrote a widely read memo to Osama bin Laden in which Khan called the Islamic militant a “murderous punk.”
Khan, 40, is an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware, where he directs the Islamic Studies Program.
He left behind a “five-star quality lifestyle” as a 23-year-old marketing consultant in Bombay, India, to come to the United States, earn his doctorate and find his “divine purpose” in life.
“One day I realized that at the end of my life, if someone asked me what I did, my answer would have been, ‘Well, I think I sold a few tons of beauty cream and assorted shampoos,’” he says. “I didn’t like that my measurement of my life would be that I basically talked people into buying stuff.”
Khan soon discovered that as an academic in the United States, he could make a decent living doing what he loved—thinking, speaking and writing.
Major media, including the BBC, CNN and NPR, frequently ask Khan to comment on world issues. His political commentaries appear in newspapers in more than 20 countries. His academic books are in hundreds of libraries worldwide. His website averages more than 500,000 unique visitors from 80 countries per year. Khan has advised various American government agencies on foreign policy issues, domestic security issues and Islamic concepts.
“I love to engage with the issues that deal with world peace, global affairs and about Islam,” he says. “And I get paid to do that.”
Khan dined on the Olive Garden’s shrimp Alfredo and sipped pineapple juice during his interview.
DT: A number of years ago, Newsday wrote: “…Khan, 36, is one of a growing number of young, moderate Muslim thinkers who believe themselves engaged in a battle for the soul of Islam.” Is that accurate?
MK: I see myself in a struggle of defining what Islamic values are. We are not just struggling against those specific parts of the Muslim world or in the U.S. who interpret Islam differently. But I’m also struggling against the historical construction of Islam by following the past on issues of gender equality, on issues of Muslims’ attitudes toward non-Muslims, particularly on issues of governance and social justice, the place of Islam in the political arena.
But struggle doesn’t necessarily mean disagreement. It means also me trying to understand and learn from the past.
DT: This is pretty strong language—“battle for the soul of Islam.” You make it sound more like a discussion than a battle.
MK:: It is more than a battle. It is much more serious, because every disagreement impacts the other’s identity.
I had this argument with a student of mine. He believed that you have to believe in predestination to be a Muslim. If I do not believe that (Khan does), it’s not a disagreement of one tiny issue. It’s very serious. It has much more serious implications in a Muslim majority society, where some people believe that Islam requires us to kill imposters.
So if you want to argue that I am an imposter, then you are saying that I should be killed. So I’m not just fighting for my interpretation of Islam. I’m also fighting for my life, if you will. I have to challenge the other interpretation.
To give you an example, al-Qaida claims jihad is an individual obligation, that all Muslims individually have to engage in jihad. The traditional understanding is, no, it is not an individual obligation.
On this issue, al-Qaida are the ones who are reforming Islam, moving away from tradition. I am in the defense of tradition on this issue, saying no, you don’t have the right to individually take matters into your hands. So it’s not that I’m just trying to reform or challenge. I am sometimes defending tradition because I think it is the right thing.
My disagreement makes the people who think they are sacrificing their lives for Islam question their sacrifice. I’m saying no, you’re not sacrificing your life. You’re committing a crime. So it’s not just an ordinary decision in its interpretation.
DT: What, ultimately, are you trying to accomplish?
MK: It pains me when I see the misery in the Muslim world. I think of all the people who are dying in Darfur, people who are living without human rights, who are suffering for no reason.
One of the reasons why is because of misunderstanding of Islam by not just Muslims, but others. And also, because people have their priorities wrong. Islamic society should give women every opportunity to progress in life, to get education. Educated mothers are better than uneducated mothers. The families are better. They’re happier. The children grow up to be better.
So when you fight for a woman’s right to self-actualize, it’s not just about the fact that women should be allowed to do this or that. That is so condescending. Women should be allowed to dream about the kind of life they want, and they should have the freedom to act on those dreams. And when you have a society where women have the opportunity to do what they like, you will have a very different society.
This became very personal after I became the father of a daughter. She is extraordinarily talented and a brilliant girl. She’s very articulate.
DT: Does she have a blog yet?
MK: No. But she’s been browsing the web. She goes to nickjr.com and plays her games on her own. She turns the computer on. So I don’t want her future to be limited. And I don’t want it to be said that, oh, she had to leave Islam to achieve, because I don’t think she has to.
I am positive and hopeful. There are a lot of wonderful things that are happening, especially in the American Muslim community.
It would be such a tragedy. What if you got it wrong about the meaning of life and lead a meaningless life? And then after that you found out that, oh my god, I am going where I don’t want to go in your life and your life after, too.
I fear that Muslims with the wrong interpretations of Islam are living a life that will bring nothing but misery to them more than anybody else. I do not want them to diminish the potentiality of their existence under the impression that they are doing so for God and then discover that they have done violence to God himself by misrepresenting his message and so get punished for it later on.
DT: Did you feel this way about women’s rights before your daughter was born?
MK: Before having my daughter, it was more of an intellectual problem for me. But once I had my daughter, it became much more personal. Every time I would see these things, I imagined my daughter as a potential victim. And it gets me angry. There’s a double standard in the Muslim community on the gender issue.
DT: You wrote the day after the 9-11 attacks that, “This event will eventually strengthen the U.S. both internally and externally.” What do you think now?
MK:: All facts are to the contrary. The U.S. is probably the most disliked country in the world today. Internally we are the most divided as we have ever been before.
I did not anticipate what George Bush became. I actually campaigned for the guy in 2000. What 9-11 did to him, or Cheney did to him, whichever way you want to put it, was not something that I anticipated.
I think the U.S. will ultimately come out a much more stronger country, but it is going to take a much longer time. Because of the fear and opportunity that has arisen as a result of 9-11, some people are using it as an opportunity to press various agendas. And the fear in the public has stunted America’s learning capacity.
The Americans are not learning. When the learning begins, I think, then America will once again become a stronger nation.
DT: What is that going to take? What is it we’re supposed to be learning?
MK: One of the things that Americans have not understood is that we need to listen to other people, overseas particularly. We cannot procure security for America by threatening the security of other people. We cannot make the world safe for America and simultaneously unsafe for others. That is what President Bush has done with this preemptive strike strategy, by starting a global war on this and that.
The second thing is that people at home have to realize that, unfortunately, our first reaction to 9-11 was to compromise our most important values, and this will hurt us. We need to reverse the domestic and foreign momentums that we have gained since 9-11—the Patriot Act, for example, the changes we have made on habeas corpus issues and stuff like that. We are much less a democratic country than we were.
And unfortunately, we are going to be forced to learn the lesson the hard way by the failures in Iraq, plus the costs—a $3 trillion war. The decline of the dollar is symbolic of American decline. And people still don’t get it. When are they going to get it?
DT: I think the people are getting it. But they have to wait until November to do something about it, right?
MK: No. There is an entrenched segment in America. For example, the time that President Bush has approval ratings consistently at 29 is very disturbing. That means there are about 30 percent of people in this country to whom facts do not matter. That’s frightening. That one out of three people in this country will not allow the reality of the world to change their ideological positions. That is not open-mindedness. That is very scary to me that one out of three Americans refuse to get up and smell the coffee. It’s not about being Republican or Democrat. It’s about, really, what is good for all of us.
DT: Can the new president realistically pull the troops out within a year?
MK: I’m not really sure. For example, I’m not sure that everybody on the Democratic side is capable of providing the change that is necessary.
When America gets a new president, especially a Democratic president, regardless of who it is, I think the rest of the world, for a moment, will suspend their hostility and their animosities towards America and give the new president a chance. People will put it all aside and wait.
No matter how badly you hate America, you cannot do without America. Everybody needs America in the world. But they need a better America. And so they all will put aside their anger and resentment against the U.S. and give this new person a chance. And if this new person takes the chance, America will be forgiven.
DT: Is this wishful thinking on your part, or is this what you think will happen?
MK: This is the way it is. For example, imagine that you have a very rich and powerful dad, but you don’t have any relationship. But then suddenly, the dad promises that, I’m changing. You would want that change to happen. You would give the guy an opportunity. That’s how America is.