It's been over a month now since I made what can only be described as an "embattled" appearance on Sean Hannity's FOX News program. I was in New York finishing press for a theatrical run of my film, Holy Wars, and my publicist called to ask if I would go on Hannity to discuss the Ground Zero mosque. At that point, the issue was still not a hot button on the national outrage meter, and I guess I got swept up by a mix of naivety and opportunism, convincing myself that the fractious host would give me a chance to make some points. So I agreed to the pre-interview and was then told a car would pick me up later that night.
I'd never been to the News Corp. broadcast center before. It was kind of surreal, walking into the green groom and seeing a handful of Hannity regulars gathered around, watching the boyish pundit slay his dragons. After I got done with hair and make-up, I had the unforgettable experience of watching Karl Rove conduct a straw poll on the hotness of (former Bush press secretary) Dana Perino's red dress.
My slot was approaching, and I started to run through the various points I had been working on throughout the day. They are all now well-known on these pages, and mine included the obvious reference to the First Amendment of the Constitution, the very problematic precedent that blocking one mosque would set for anti-Islamic agitators across the country. And then the one original point I was bringing to the debate, which I learned from spending four years, on and off, with high-level jihadists on three continents: the goal of militant Islamists is to marginalize and radicalize moderate Muslims, and the blocking of this mosque would be a direct contribution to this effort. My former GNN partner Anthony Lappé even suggested that the mosque was perfectly located -- what better place for a bunch of potential terrorists to congregate than in one of the most surveilled neighborhoods in the United States. I took a deep breath and headed to the bathroom for a last-minute mini-meditation. Little did I know, I would never get a chance to articulate any of my well-rehearsed planks.
Hannity was wrapping up his segment as I walked back into the Green Room. I could barely hear it, but I was sure he said, "After the break, new audio from the radical imam who is behind the Ground Zero mosque." A wave of nausea swept through me. They had changed the topic of our segment. The conversation would have nothing to do with the validity of the mosque; the focus was now on the imam and some random quote Hannity's producers had pulled, out of context, from a speech. I would now be positioned as the apologist for a cleric I knew nothing about.
I glimpsed Andrew McCarthy standing up to put on his jacket. McCarthy is the author of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America, and he was set to be my opposition that night. It was all becoming very clear to me now. This is how it's done. Bait and switch, and now you're the human piñata.
I followed McCarthy and the producer into a large, dark studio. Hannity's desk and backdrop were lit up in a far corner like some moonlit oasis. I was positioned between the host and McCarthy, who immediately began passing notes back-and-forth like two old school chums. At one point, Hannity looked at me and said, "You spent all that time with jihadists? How did you do that?"
"I grew a beard," was all I could muster.
And then it was on. Hannity introduced the issue and then cut to a series of audio quotes from Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. The only problem was that they lowered the volume of the audio so that Sean could hear the mid-term election results that were coming in. So I didn't even get a chance to hear what the man was saying. I did know it was something vaguely to do with Hamas.
And then we were off.
Now, I have been doing press for my various books and films for the past 15 years. Granted, I have never been on a major right-wing national TV show like Hannity, but I pride myself on being able to deal with pressure. Not this night. To be honest, I literally cannot remember a single moment of that eight-minute discussion except for the first question that Hannity asked me, which essentially was, "Why should American taxpayers be funding this radical imam to travel around the world promoting Islam?" To this day, I do not remember what I said. Fortunately, we have the good people at Media Matters, who posted a two-minute excerpt of the segment on their website. I'm not sure if that is before or after Hannity started taunting me with accusations of being "brainwashed" by jihadists. But that is essentially what the conversation devolved into. It was all I could do to hold my ground and not lose my cool in the face of so much personal anger, focused directly at me. Once the segment was done, Hannity looked at me and said, "You really piss me off." And that was it. I was dismissed.
As we were walking out of the studio, I felt McCarthy touch my arm. We had had a last-minute wrangle over shariah law and his (ridiculous) assertion that Muslims want to subvert U.S. democracy by making shariah the dominant system. I tried to tell him that I know youth leaders who discount that myth, stating that they believe in religious freedom (from state control) and that that is what they love about America. But I knew from the look in his eyes when I engaged him on-camera that he felt bad for how this had gone and for the sheer velocity of Hannity's temper.
Which was nice. At least he can feel some compassion for the left as we "sabotage" America.
So that was my experience on Hannity. In the ensuing weeks, the Ground Zero mosque became one of the most discussed issues on television and the web. So there was really no reason for me to tell this story. It was actually something I would rather forget. What had initially been conceived as a chance to talk rationally about a very important issue had become an exercise in self-defense. On the upside, a close friend said I had effectively blocked an eight-minute propaganda piece. Kind of like road kill.
But then this week I was given a couple of questions by the Reverend Vern Barnet to answer for his weekly column in the Kansas City Star. Holy Wars is showing down there on October 1, and he wanted some context in light of the Ground Zero mosque and Quran-burning controversies. It offered me a chance to rethink some of the ideas I originally wanted to bring to Hannity, and I thought this would be a good platform to present them.
1. What is there about your film that will help folks put controversies like the ones over the so-called Ground Zero mosque and the church's plan to burn the Quran Sept. 11 (a plan condemned by General Petraeus) in some sort of perspective, especially for Christians and Muslims?
Happy you asked this question. It was actually the initial (stated) reason I was invited to appear on Hannity during our week-long screening in New York. I think the most important thing to understand is that on a purely theological level, it is a tenet of Christianity that those people who do not accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior are doomed to Hell. This is not a light sentence. And while a great majority of Christians would probably say it's a metaphorical statement, those fundamentalists who believe the Bible is the word of God literally believe Muslims are doomed. And thus, less than -- tools of the devil, even. And we cannot forget that at one point, America was a "good," fundamentalist nation. And these ideas, which are typically identified as triumphalist (my way or the highway), still govern much of the ideological framework of the national identity.
In this context, it's perfectly justifiable to burn Qurans and to oppose mosques. Not just at/near Ground Zero, but anywhere in "Christian" land. And that extends to bombing civilians in Muslim countries. It's an either/or situation. It's dualism. And it's precisely the kind of world paradigm we entered after the 9/11 attacks when the president of the United States declared, you are either with us or against us.
This is the worldview I experienced when I first met the characters whom I followed in Holy Wars. This is the paradigm of fundamentalism, and it is something that will remain with us as long as Christians (and Muslims) refuse to seriously undertake the hard work of questioning the validity and functionality of passages that negate the humanity and spiritual value of the other side.
Now, of course, there is a widespread feeling of anger and pain in secular Americans around the issue of the Ground Zero mosque. But this is also a result of a poorly formed understanding of Islam. And even of 9/11. These emotions are those of a society still traumatized by the catastrophic experience of the attacks. They cannot separate Islam from the attackers. They cannot deal with nuance. Worse, they cannot see the damage it will do to their constitutional legacy. Nothing else matters but the opposition of the mosque. And in this sense, they have become fundamentalists themselves. They are victims. But they are now victimizing others. And it has a bit of the flavor of the pre-Nazi society in Germany.
In Holy Wars, Aaron Taylor (a Christian missionary) is able to look this fundamentalism in the eye (in this case, the eye of his opponent, Khalid Kelly, an Irish convert to radical Islam) and then do the thing that most humans have great difficulty doing: he objectively questions his own extremism. He removes himself from the cockpit of his ego, and he challenges himself. I wish more people would have the kind of humbling experience that Aaron had and find the courage to transform themselves. It's really the only way that people authentically change.
2. Without spoiling the ending, can you say what you learned about the opportunities and dangers of interfaith dialogue? Promises and disappointments? Methods and individual personalities involved?
Well, I think it needs to be said that given what I discussed above, interfaith dialogue is going to be crucial going forward. We live in a paradigm of scarcity. There is less arable land, less clean water, less oil. Increasingly less of everything. And humans are being driven back into very tribal identities, led primarily by nationalism, but closely followed by religion -- especially in the case of Islam, which makes religion primary over nationalism. With three billion-plus people identified as either Muslim or Christian -- that's half the planet -- there needs to be a modern understanding, a kind of treaty, between the two. And this isn't for the moderates of both sides; it's for the extremists. Because if just three percent of both sides regard themselves as holy warriors, willing to die for their faith, that's 90 million people. That's a huge problem.
So we need leaders of both religions to make some very clear demarcations between the old books and our modern world -- at the very least. At the most, we need a new governing framework for the two religions and their relationships both to each other and the world.
As for my experience, one of the major challenges to this dialogue is that if you get two highly confident, masterfully articulate theologians in a room together, the chances are neither will budge. Neither will learn from the other. Neither will come away with new understanding. That's the problem with interfaith dialogue. It so often turns into interfaith monologue. But that doesn't mean we should not push for it. We may have to include a third party, someone trusted by both, who understands each side implicitly, but who also has the skill and moxie to force concessions when one side is making ill-formed or irrational points. But this is a digression.
What I learned from my experience in Holy Wars was that unless a person comes into the dialogue with a shard of doubt, the talks will most likely fail. This was demonstrated in Khalid, who (till this day) sees no value in his meeting with Aaron except the opportunity to pummel a Christian. I'm always amazed when people tell me they thought Khalid was going to be the one who would change. It actually gives me hope. They must have seen something I missed. But the result was still the same. And that was a disappointment. It's never a positive experience to see someone move closer to extremism and self-destruction. Except when their anger and fundamentalism provides a cathartic experience for the other person. And that, of course, was the beautiful irony of Khalid's presence in the film. Without him, Aaron could not have changed.
And that is the essence of holism, the antithesis of dualism. And here we've come full circle. I pray that our world can find a path to this state of being.