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Cultural Impact of the Book of Revelation

In his new book A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization, Jonathan Kirsch explores the ways the Book of Revelation has been interpreted since its inception and how the final book of the New Testament has influenced literature, history and popular culture.


Other segments from the episode on September 28, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 28, 2006: Interview with Jonathan Kirsch; Interview with Ingrid Mattson.


DATE September 28, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Author Jonathan Kirsch discusses Revelation, the final
book of the New Testament, and his new book, "A History of the End
of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible
Changed the Course of Western Civilization"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the Seventh Seal, the great Whore of
Babylon, the Mark of the Beast, 666, and the Battle of Armageddon are just
some of the images from the Book of Revelation that continue to resonate, not
just for those who study the Bible but in our popular culture. Revelation is
the final book of the New Testament, and it describes the end of the world,
followed by the creation of a new heaven and earth. Jonathan Kirsch has
written a new book called "A History of the End of the World: How the Most
Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization."
Kirsch has written several books about the Bible, including "The Harlot by the
Side of the Road," "King David," "Moses: A Life" and "God Against the Gods."
He's also a book columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Yesterday Terry
recorded this interview with Kirsch.


Jonathan Kirsch, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe the basic story as
told in Revelation.

Mr. JONATHAN KIRSCH: Well, first, I want to say that the story line has to
be teased out because the book is written in a phantasmagorical frame of mind,
kind of like a fever dream. It's not told from beginning to end, and that's
one of the reasons it's just a crazy-making book. But when you puzzle it out
and parse it out, it's the story of the end of the world as revealed to its
author by Jesus himself. It tells how Jesus will return to earth as a
conquering warrior, do battle with Satan and Satan's armies on earth at the
Battle of Armageddon, establish a 1,000-year kingdom on earth. King Jesus
will reign as an earthly king for 1,000 years. Then Satan, who has been bound
in chains, will break loose, Jesus will fight a second battle and this time he
will destroy the world, judge all who ever lived, raise the dead and judge the
living as well. Those who are granted admission to a new earth and a new
heaven will live forever in paradise and those who fail to make the cut will
suffer forever in a lake of fire and brimstone. The old world will be long

GROSS: Now, there are a lot of images in Revelation that have become a part
of literature, history, popular culture. Let's just run through some of
those. Let's start with 666.

Mr. KIRSCH: Well, 666 is that spooky number, even if you've never read the
Book of Revelation, you know about 666 because it's permeated our popular
culture, and that's one of the arguments I make in my book as well.
Revelation is imprinted on the Western imagination and has been for 20
centuries. It soaks into our very consciousness, and so even readers who have
never opened a Bible and certainly readers who've never gotten to the Book of
Revelation know that 666 is a diabolical number. It's not quite as spooky a
number in Revelation as it has been made out to be. It is the number of the
Beast, but the Beast in the eyes of the author of Revelation was probably the
Roman emperor under whose reign the author lived and who symbolized to the
author the political and cultural oppression of the Roman emperor. So
probably 666 is an alphanumeric code for a Roman emperor, usually made out to
be Nero, possibly Domician but not necessarily the devil.

GROSS: Now I want to ask you about the Rapture. Let's start with a
description of what the Rapture is.

Mr. KIRSCH: Well, the Rapture, simply put, is the idea that good Christians,
Christians worthy of salvation, will be miraculously lifted off of earth into
heaven at precisely the moment when the earth goes into its death throes.
According to Revelation, there will be a period of suffering and persecution
called the Tribulation, depending on how you read that text that might last
three and a half years, more recently it's been taken to last seven years.
But however long it lasts, it's not going to be a happy time on earth. And
according to the Book of Revelation, everyone's going to have to suffer
through it and then at the end of the Tribulation, Jesus will judge the world
and save those whom he deems worthy to save.

Christians in the 19th century, especially in North America, found this idea
to be very off-putting. After all, if they were good Christians, why would
they have to suffer through the Tribulation, and so an Anglo-Irish minister
named John Nelson Darby improvised upon another strand of biblical text, a
stray line from Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, in which the image is
presented that Christians will rise and meet Jesus in the air, and this was
made out to be the phenomenon of the Rapture. In other words, a free pass to
escape the Tribulation. It's not explicitly in the Book of Revelation, but
like so much else, it's come to be attached to the Book of Revelation so that
its most ardent readers today understand that the end-time scenario of
Revelation include this very strange phenomenon called the Rapture.

GROSS: So is the concept of the Rapture, which means that Christian believers
will not have to suffer through the Tribulation but will rather rise up and go
to heaven, is this just a 19th century concept?

Mr. KIRSCH: It's a 19th-century innovation. It has some roots that you can
trace back to earlier eras but it was really articulated as an idea and a very
popular and compelling idea only in the mid-19th century and became really
popular primarily in the United States. And I want to say, if I may, that
everything we've been talking about is based on how human beings, men and
women, like ourselves, have interpreted this strange, troubling text, and one
example of how it has been reinterpreted in recent times is the notion of the
Rapture, but there are other examples as well, including this very strange
idea of the Antichrist. That's another word that doesn't appear in
Revelation. It's been read into Revelation, but becomes useful in the kind of
culture wars that we see being fought in our own time and throughout history.

GROSS: So you say the word Antichrist is not used in the Book of Revelation
but there is a concept that's similar. I mean, there is a Satanic figure in

Mr. KIRSCH: There is a figure in the Book of Revelation that's taken to be
the agent of the devil on earth or if not the devil himself. And that figure
is called the Beast in Revelation, not the Antichrist but has come to be
identified with the figure that is more popularly known as the Antichrist.

GROSS: And how is the Beast physically described?

Mr. KIRSCH: Well, if you ask Jerry Falwell, he was recently quoted as saying
that the Antichrist must be, of necessity, a Jewish male. Now the reason he
comes to that conclusion is based on this very detailed, almost obsessive
reading of Revelation, that is engaged in by many modern readers of the text,
but that goes back a long way as well. There was a belief in the Middle Ages
that the Antichrist would be the spawn of the devil and a Jewish harlot in a
brothel in Babylon, what is now modern Iraq, but he is understood to be a
human agent of the devil on earth who will come to power in the end times, do
battle against Jesus and lose.

GROSS: And Falwell thinks that the Antichrist will be Jewish because of the
Jewish harlot that spawns him according to that line that you just referred

Mr. KIRSCH: Well, if you put together words and phrases and passages from
Revelation, you can cook up an argument for why the Antichrist might be Jewish
but it's very deeply linked with a strain of anti-Semitism of Jewish--of fear
and hatred of Jews that emerged in early Christianity and came to be attached
to the idea of the Antichrist, and that's carried forward 20 centuries into
our own time when Jerry Falwell insists that of necessity the Antichrist must
be Jewish.

GROSS: Would you choose a passage that you find most interesting from
Revelation and a passage that you think epitomizes the writing in Revelation?

Mr. KIRSCH: I'd be happy to do it. Let me point out the passage I'm going
to read shows us a vision of Jesus that we find only in Revelation. Jesus is
a kind and gentle figure in the Gospels and a very relatable, almost human
figure, I mean, literally human in the Gospel narratives. In Revelation, he
becomes the Lamb of God, slaughtered and yet standing upright, and when he
comes back to earth, here is how it's described. `And I saw heaven opened and
behold a white horse and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True,
and in righteousness, he doth judge and make war. His eyes were as a flame of
fire and on his head were many crowns, and he had a name written that no man
knew but he himself, and he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood and his
name was called the Word of God and out of his mouth goes a sharp sword. With
it he should smite the nations, and he should rule them with a rod of iron and
he treadeth the wine press of the fierceness and wrath of almighty God. And I
saw an angel standing in the sun and he cried with a loud voice, saying to all
the fowls that fly in the midst of heaven, "Come and gather yourselves
together for the supper of the great God that ye may eat the flesh of kings."'

GROSS: Why don't you compare for us that image of Jesus with the image in the

Mr. KIRSCH: The image in the Gospels is Jesus as a human figure, a teacher,
a man who travels from place to place in the company of other men and women
and teaches human beings, mortals, how to live decently and kindly and to
treat each other with love and generosity. Jesus in the Gospels was a remaker
of Judaism, emphasizing the kindness and compassion of Judaism. Here we have
a remaker of Judaism who emphasizes the punishing nature of the Old Testament
God and turns Jesus into a warrior on a charging steed with a sword projecting
from his mouth, bathing the world in blood. According to the text of
Revelation, blood will flow up to the halters of the horses. We will
literally be flooded with blood, and that angry, punishing, vengeance-seeking
image of Jesus is quite at odds with the kind and gentle moral teacher that we
see in the other passages of Scripture.

GROSS: Who wrote Revelation, do we know?

Mr. KIRSCH: Intriguingly, as mysterious a book as it is, we can conjure up
the author of Revelation with a good deal more detail than many of the other
authors of the biblical text. By Christian tradition, the author of
Revelation was supposedly the apostle John, the beloved disciple of Jesus, the
author of the fourth Gospel. Conventional scholarship dismisses that idea and
has for many centuries. Its author was probably Jewish man from Judea, the
Jewish homeland, possibly someone who had witnessed the Jewish war, the war
against the Jewish people by Rome, had witnessed the destruction of the
temple, a war refugee who traveled to Asia Minor and one of those Jews who
embraced the idea that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. The author almost
undoubtedly thought of himself as a good Jew. In fact, he says he is an
authentic Jew in the text itself.

GROSS: If the author of Revelation was Jewish, why are there anti-Semitic
phrases within the book?

Mr. KIRSCH: It goes very much to his idea of his own Jewishness. There's
really only one unambiguously anti-Semitic line in which he refers to his
fellow Jews as members of the synagogue of Satan, and now that's a very
hateful phrase and Jewish readers have been deeply put off by it over the
centuries, but what the author means to say is, `I, the author of Revelation,
am a good Jew and those of you who refuse to embrace the idea that Jesus was
the Jewish Messiah are bad Jews.' So when he refers to other Jews as being
members of the synagogue of Satan, he's simply saying you are insufficiently
Jewish to merit membership in the authentic synagogue.

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Jonathan Kirsch, author of
"A History of the End of the World." It's about the Book of Revelation.

We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Jonathan Kirsch, author of
"A History of the End of the World" about the Book of Revelation.

GROSS: Interpretations of Revelation have changed through the centuries.
What do you find one of the most interesting interpretations of Revelation
today and what do you think it says about our time?

Mr. KIRSCH: Well, the dominant interpretation of Revelation in our time is
the same idea with a different articulation that has been expressed in every
generation, which is that the original author was wrong to believe these
things would happen in his generation. They are all going to happen in our
generation. Again, that's nothing new. Every generation has included readers
of Revelation who ardently believe that. But we are in an era of mass media,
so you can turn on your television or your radio or pick up--or go on the
Internet and you'll find countless people who will, in detail, in--I might
say, in painful detail, explain to you why all of those spooky signs of the
end that are described in Revelation are in fact things that are happening in
the headlines. This was recently argued during the fighting on the northern
border of Israel between Israel and Hezbollah. This was seen yet again as an
augury of the end.

GROSS: Because...

Mr. KIRSCH: But I think there's a more--the fighting between Israel and
Hezbollah was seen the early signs of that final battle between Satan and God
that is predicted in the Book of Revelation. The idea that any particular war
or natural phenomenon or political crisis might be a sign of the end-time is a
very common way to read the Book of Revelation, never more popular than it is
today. There are other ways to read the Book of Revelation, however. There
are so-called advocates of liberation theology who believe that Revelation can
be looked on as a progressive text, a text that calls upon people to fight
against injustice and oppression such that Daniel Berrigan, an activist
priest, most active during the '60s, thought of Revelation as a handbook of
political protest against American capitalism in the military industrial
complex. And there are still readers who will say that Revelation inspires a
book or a text like Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which
was a great progressive manifesto. It's not necessarily a text that's read
and used only by the Christian right.

GROSS: Could you compare how Catholics and Protestants who are not
fundamentalists interpret Revelation compared to the more literal reading of

Mr. KIRSCH: From the very beginning of Christian history, there has been an
argument over how to read Revelation. Some people are inclined to read it
literally, but the mainstream of Christianity in antiquity and over the last
2,000 years and in today's world read the Book of Revelation metaphorically.
St. Augustine articulated this idea in the fifth century. It became church
dogma. We are meant to understand Revelation as explaining the world to us in
allegorical terms or what Augustine called spiritual terms. The Catholic
Church, the mainstream Protestant churches and the vast majority of Christians
who read and study Revelation approach it as allegory and not literal truth.

GROSS: In reading it over and over again, which I imagine you did in
preparation for your book "A History of the End of the World," what are some
of the things that you saw in Revelation that you had never seen there before
or new interpretations that you have as a result of multiple reading.

Mr. KIRSCH: The single most compelling discovery that I made in my own
understanding of Revelation is that the author hated above all the idea that a
Christian or, for that matter, Jewish person could live the good life in a
culture like the culture of Roman paganism. The author of Revelation hated
pleasure, he hated opulence, he hated the good things of life, he hated sex,
he hated good food. He believed that the world was going to end imminently
and everybody should get ready for the end by purifying themselves. The mark
of the Beast which we touched on very briefly earlier in our conversation,
that spooky number 666, almost certainly refers to nothing more exotic or
diabolical than a Roman coin, which to him symbolized the medium of exchange
by which you bought the good things of life which he felt a righteous person
should forego. The mark of the Beast is the symbol of the emperor on a Roman
coin just as we have Thomas Jefferson or George Washington on our coinage.

GROSS: You know what I'm wondering after talking to you about this, do you
think that Revelation has led a lot of people to expect that there is not only
an imminent end to the world, but it's inevitable that it's going to be like
bloody and horrible with pestilence and, you know, just things indescribably

Mr. KIRSCH: One of the great uses of Revelation, then and now, is to help us
understand the terrible things that happen in the real world. Throughout
history and in our own times as well, we are aware that there's war, famine,
pestilence, natural disaster, terrible things happen in the world. We need
only open our morning newspaper or turn on NPR, and we'll hear the headlines.
What does all this chaos and terror mean? Revelation and the whole
apocalyptic idea allow us to see it as the working out of God's will, God's
master plan for the end of the world, and that idea has imprinted itself on
the Western imagination. We are taught by our religious traditions--and this
is true in Judaism, Christianity and Islam--that the world will end in fire
and brimstone with a bang and not a whimper, and that's one of the ways
Revelation has changed the course of history. It has inclined us to see in
the events of day-to-day life and especially the most horrible events the hand
of God.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. KIRSCH: Terry, it's been a real pleasure for me, and I thank you for the

DAVIES: Jonathan Kirsch speaking with Terry Gross. His new book about the
Book of Revelation is called "A History of the End of the World."

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


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Interview: Ingrid Mattson, first woman to be elected president of
Islamic Society of North America, talks about her conversion to

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

Last month Ingrid Mattson became the first woman to be elected president of
the Islamic Society of North America. She had served as vice president since
2001. Mattson was raised Roman Catholic in Canada and went to a Catholic high
school but converted to Islam in 1987 when she was in college. Now she's a
professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. The Islamic
Society of North America was established in 1963 and is now the largest group
representing Muslims in North America. It supports Muslim communities and
tries to build bridges to other religions. Terry spoke with Ingrid Mattson


Ingrid Mattson, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Now you are the first woman, the first native North American and the first
convert to be elected president of the Islamic Society of North America.
Which of those firsts have you been getting the most comments about?

Ms. INGRID MATTSON: Certainly being the first woman has generated the most
interest among people. I had expected that. I was frankly a little bit
surprised at the amount of interest in the fact that I am a native-born North
American. In particular, that I'm a white North American was something that I
didn't expect to generate quite so much interest.

GROSS: What has been the nature of the reaction to that, to you being native
North American and white?

Ms. MATTSON: To some extent, I've found it a little bit troubling because
there's some underlying almost racist implications to me in that Muslims
really should not be white people, they should be people of color. Of course,
there's nothing wrong with being a person of color, and the reality is that in
North America most Muslims are people of color, but it's almost a kind of
unease that someone who is maybe from the privileged race would decide to join
the Muslim community.

GROSS: Now, you grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school. You later
converted to Islam. When you were Catholic, were you deeply involved in
Catholicism and did you ever even think of becoming a nun?

Ms. MATTSON: I think the only time it ever occurred to me to become a nun
was--or the only reason I would have thought of becoming a nun was that the
convent was just so peaceful and I grew up in a family of seven kids, four
brothers and two sisters, so my house was always in motion, you know, this
constant chaos. And I used to go to the convent and think, `This is so nice
and peaceful.' But on the other hand, I also used to go to the library, which
was at the other end of the street and think the same thing. So perhaps
that's why both scholarship and a religious life appealed to me as I got

GROSS: How were you introduced to Islam?

Ms. MATTSON: Well, I was--you know, I left the church when I was perhaps 15
years old. I lost my faith around that time and stopped attending church. I
spent perhaps six years as an agnostic or an atheist. I really don't even
know now what I believed at that time. I went on, studied philosophy, and
pretty much left religion behind, not thought of it as an option for my life,
but then I went to Paris for a summer where I was studying film with my fine
arts program and made very good friends with some West African students who
happened to be Muslim, and they weren't particularly observant Muslims but

there was something in them that was so lovely, so attractive, their
generosity, humility and kindness that I wanted to know more about them and
their life and their culture and found out that Islam was part of it and
started reading more about it and found myself, to my surprise, drawn into
this faith.

GROSS: And when did you convert?

Ms. MATTSON: I was in my last year of university, a senior, in college when
I became a Muslim.

GROSS: What was your parents' reaction?

Ms. MATTSON: Well, my father died when I was young, so I was living with my
mother at the time, and I was very concerned about her reaction because, like
all teenagers, I hadn't always given my mother the easiest time and she'd had
a rough time since my father had died, raising seven kids on her own. So I
didn't want to give her something that would be upsetting, and I knew this
would be difficult for her to understand. And it was. We didn't know any
Muslims, so it was more a question of a vague unease about what this was all
about, so it took some time and, more than anything, I think it just took her
seeing what this meant in my life to make her feel comfortable.

GROSS: One of the things you did after you converted to Islam was go to
Pakistan where you worked in a refugee camp for Afghan women. What year was

Ms. MATTSON: This was in 1987 when I went to Pakistan.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So it was a long time ago. This was--the Soviets were still
in Afghanistan then?

Ms. MATTSON: That's right. There was still active fighting in

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MATTSON: ...and I--so I went to Pakistan, lived in Peshawar and was
working in refugee camps outside of the city.

GROSS: And what kind of interactions did you have with the Taliban?

Ms. MATTSON: Well, they weren't really known as Taliban, but at that
time--it was only some years later that they became more constituted as a kind
of force. At that time there were all sorts of groups operating and working
among the Afghans, political parties, as well as religious organizations. And
the Taliban-type person I knew--I mean, I ran into some of those people in the
refugee camp. There were some areas in the camp that I worked in. It was a
camp of 100,000 people where the leaders really were not interested in having
women's or girls' education but, in fact, what was interesting was that that
was a very small segment of the population of the camp. The vast majority of
Afghans, men and women, wanted us in there, wanted, you know, us to offer
programs, health and education, reading and writing, for girls as well as for
boys, but it was only in some small areas where there were men who could keep
us out.

And what really struck me when the Taliban took over was that I knew that the
only way they could do that was through the force of those tanks and the arms
that they had because the Afghan people generally were not convinced of their
ideas or supportive of the kind of lifestyle that they were advocating despite
the fact that Afghans, by and large, are very religious people and they
consider themselves good Muslims, but not at all in the way that the Taliban
interpret Islam.

GROSS: Now I understand you have a sister who converted to Judaism.

Ms. MATTSON: Yes, that's right.

GROSS: I think that's because she was marrying someone who was Jewish.

Ms. MATTSON: That's right.

GROSS: So, it seems not typical to have a family in which two of the children
converted to different religions.

Ms. MATTSON: Well, I guess it isn't, perhaps it's becoming more typical as
society continues to globalize...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MATTSON: ...and we interact with more and more people. But in a family
of seven kids, yes, two of us chose another path, and I learned a lot from my
sister. You know, I'm glad that she--I had her to talk to and as an example,
although we made our choice for very different reasons, but I've watched her
over the years balance her lifestyle and beliefs with still being a part of
our family. So that was a good example for me. And also, my sister is a
number of years older than I am, so what was good about that was I had a long
experience with the Jewish community before I was Muslim. I went to--I've
gone to Jewish weddings and my nephew's brith and bar mitzvah and my niece's
bat mitzvah. So I'm very comfortable in Jewish religious settings and with
Jewish people. I think that helps me as a Muslim leader bring some balance to
our community or perspective to our community that often finds itself in some
kind of tension with the Jewish community.

GROSS: Yeah, so how do you deal with this like anti-Semitic strain within
parts of the Islamic community?

Ms. MATTSON: Well, it needs to be dealt with first, theologically, it's not
permissible for a Muslim to hate a person because they're Jewish or to tell
ridiculous lies about Jews or to make absurd claims like the Holocaust is not
real or was exaggerated. I mean, it's a question of knocking those things
down very quickly, but then also, on the other side, working with the Jewish
community to dispel their misconceptions because I believe there is as many
misconceptions on the part of the Jewish community about Muslims as there are
on the other side. And there are--there is anti-Muslim rhetoric as well.
Certainly, there are differences and there are some tensions but there doesn't
have to be hostility and conflict.

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Ingrid Mattson, the new
president of the Islamic Society of North America.

We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Ingrid Mattson. Last month
she became the first woman elected as president of the Islamic Society of
North America.

GROSS: This week an organization of 56 Islamic nations urged the pope to
apologize for his comments about Islam. The pope had quoted a 14th century
Byzantine Christian emperor who said, `Show me just what Muhammad brought that
was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his
command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.' What's your
understanding of what the pope was intending to communicate when he quoted

Ms. MATTSON: Well, I read a translation of the whole speech, from beginning
to end, and his main point was that--that he was making was that Christianity
has come to terms with reason and because Christianity has come to terms with
reason and rationality is the basis of European civilization, that
Christianity can form the cultural base for European civilization. But Islam,
on the other hand, is a religion that is irrational, that does not believe in
a rational god or a rational order, divine order, and therefore the
implication being and an implication that he's spelled out in other speeches,
that Islam will always remain, to some extent, foreign to the European
continent and civilization, and that to me is the most troubling aspect of his

GROSS: Now, you grew up Roman Catholic, you went to a Catholic high school,
and then in college converted to Islam. Now you teach among other things
Muslim-Christian relations. So what are some of the things that you feel like
Muslims and Christians don't get about each other but need to comprehend?

Ms. MATTSON: I think that Christians first of all need to have more facts
about the reality of the interaction between Christians and Muslims over the
centuries and Christians and Muslims and maybe even Jews over the centuries.
People often say things like, `Well, people in the Middle East have been
fighting for thousands of years' or `They've always been in conflict,' but
historically that's just not accurate. There are all sorts of great
historical studies that show wonderful examples of cooperation, of synthesis,
of intermarriage or communal harmony, of trade, mutual support. At the same
time, there are cases of conflict, and I think Christians need to be more
aware of the role Christianity really in that and the fact that for many
centuries the Catholic Church especially was a very oppressive force against
not only Muslims but Jews as well. And with respect to Muslims, Muslims need
to understand why Christians embraced a secular civilization, that that was a
rational decision in the wake of so many centuries of religious conflict in
which religious identity in Europe was conflated with citizenship, and that's
why European countries moved to a secular society. It wasn't because they
were trying to get rid of religion or because they were being irreligious but
because they wanted to not allow religion to be used for the purpose of
oppression or political manipulation anymore. So Muslims really need to come
to understand that so they can understand their place and role in these

GROSS: This week a German opera house canceled performances of a Mozart opera
because of a scene that was added to the opera and in this scene the king of
Crete carries the heads of Muhammad, Jesus and Buddha, and those heads are
placed on a stool. Now police warned that because Muslims would find this
scene inflammatory, that there was an incalculable risk to the performers and
to the audience and I think they were already getting death threats. Now the
opera company is being criticized in Germany for not standing up for artistic
freedom. What do you make of this latest conflict between, you know, a
secular art performance and Muslims who are offended by it.

Ms. MATTSON: Mm. Well, it doesn't bother me if Muslims are offended by it.
I would be offended by it as well, not only by the way Muhammad would be
portrayed by it but other prophets as well just as I've been offended by some
art that has, you know, used Christian icons in a disrespectful way. I
understand artists have a right to express themselves and to try to bring
people into their world and understand what they're trying to do. At the same
time, religious people and others have a right to be offended, to voice their
offense. The line, of course, is drawn at threats of violence. At that
point, then those people need to be found by the police and questioned and
charged if they actually made a threat of violence.

I do think that sometimes--and I don't want to diminish the risk obviously,
the police have assessed the risk--but at the same time, you know, sometimes I
just wonder if these things aren't a little bit overblown in the media, and
the reason I saw that is, in a country like Germany where there are racists
attacks on Muslims all the time. I mean, not just threats but real beatings,
very violent attacks, and those aren't things that end up getting global
attention, so I think it's an important issue. It's more of a local issue. I
really don't think it's something that necessarily needs to attract
international attention when we look at all the other things that are going

GROSS: I guess here's one of the things I'm wondering. A lot of people feel
that extremists are hijacking the Islamic religion. Extremists are
interpreting the religion as justifying suicide bombing and attacks on
perceived enemies, and I guess I wonder if you think that people such as you
who don't interpret Islam that way are being effective in countering a more
extremist point of view, or if you even see that as your job.

Ms. MATTSON: Well, I can only, and people like me can only use the means
that are in our control. I don't have an army. I don't have an intelligence
service at my command. I have my voice and my words, and so I use those in
speech and writing. But the problem here is that there seems to be some--a
feeling of group guilt or collective guilt. You know, the Muslim community is
a worldwide community of over a billion people. There's no hierarchy. Even
within any country, there's no one leadership that can control all of the
people, that can give orders or commands to all the people or guide them.
There's no ordination in Islam, so religious leadership is diffuse, and
there's not someone who can stand up and kind of rally Muslims or direct them
to do one action or another. So you'll find people acting out of all sorts of
interests and all sorts of motivations, whether it's emotional, political,
whatever kind of dynamics they have, and each Muslim individual and group can
only, you know, do what is within their power. But one thing we have to look
at is the reality is that the primary victims of Muslims who commit acts of
terrorism are other Muslims. So if you look at the Taliban, for example, I
mean, who have been their victims? They've been other Muslims. And who are
the people primarily who are in the front lines stopping them? They're other
Muslims who are Afghani Muslims in the police force, in the military, in the
government. So this is something very important for us to recognize that here
in America we often see this as a story of Muslims against the West or Muslims
against America, Muslim extremists, but in fact Muslims have suffered more
from these kinds of extremism and are doing more to try to stop them, very
bravely, if you look in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where men and women
are going out every day to try to teach and work in hospitals and are often
losing their lives for serving their people.

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Ingrid Mattson, the new
president of the Islamic Society of North America. Terry spoke to Mattson

German government officials and Muslims leaders in Germany have begun a
two-year dialogue on Muslims relations. At their first meeting Wednesday, the
group recommended that the Berlin Opera reinstate the Mozart opera. At the
time of this broadcast, a final decision had not yet been made.

We'll hear more from Ingrid Mattson after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Ingrid Mattson. Last month
she became the first woman elected as president of the Islamic Society of
North America.

GROSS: We recently had on Pastor John Hagee who's the head of a megachurch in
Texas and the founder of a Christian Zionist group, and he said in our recent
interview that those who live by the Quran have a scriptural mandate to kill
Christians and Jews. And I'd like to hear your reaction to that.

Ms. MATTSON: Well, that's incorrect. If that were true, there would not be
any Jews or Christians left in Muslim lands and, in fact, the oldest Christian
communities and the oldest Jewish communities are found in the world lived
under Muslim sovereignty for over a thousand years. The Quran does not say
that, and what's interesting to me is, you know, if people like this want to
be scriptural literalists in their own traditions and take verses out of
context and, you know, apply their own interpretations to them, that's fine,
but they can leave my scripture alone. We have enough problems dealing with
our own scriptural literalists. I don't need a Christian fundamentalist,
Islamic literalist, if I may say.

GROSS: So do you think one of the big splits now within the Christian
community is whether the Bible should be read as literal truth or as more, you
know, parable metaphor. Do you think there's the same kind of split now in
Islam about whether the Quran should be read literally?

Ms. MATTSON: I think the biggest problem is that our traditional schools,
our seminaries, our traditions of interpretation were dismantled to a large
extent under colonialism, and what happened is a very literalistic,
decontextualized approach to scripture emerged in the 19th century, and we're
still trying to come out of it. Classical Islamic exegesis, in fact, gives a
lot of room for context, for harmonizing different verses, for bringing
perspective from outside the text, and so much of that has disappeared and
what we're trying to do is to bring that back in, that approach to the text
back in, and perhaps to bring in some other kinds of context or meaning that
weren't always emphasized in traditional interpretation.

GROSS: Do you ever feel that, you know, you converted to Islam, for deeply
personal and spiritual reasons, and now, as the leader of an Islamic group,
you're kind of at the center of a storm, in a way, because relations have
become so stormy, and I think that there is--there must be a riff inside Islam
now between more moderate and extreme interpretations of the Quran.

Ms. MATTSON: Yeah. I mean, I find my life surprising. I guess, it's not
exactly what I expected it to be. I did become a Muslim, as you say, for
deeply personal and spiritual reasons, but what I believe as a Muslim is that
if your faith is sincere that you are willing to put yourself in God's hands
and whatever he feels is your purpose, you have to take that up. As I say,
I'm the kind of person who would normally be happier in the library with a
book, and I find myself in a very public position now. But this is my
responsibility. It's one that I--it's also very much a privilege because I do
get to see, not only the bad things but I get to see everyday kindness, people
reaching out trying to overcome their fears and their anxieties and their
prejudices to be better themselves. So life is surprising and I just consider
myself to be in this time doing what I was destined to do.

GROSS: Well, Ingrid Mattson, I want to thank you very much for talking with
us. Thank you.

Ms. MATTSON: Thanks for the opportunity, Terry. It's been great speaking
with you.

DAVIES: Ingrid Mattson is president of the Islamic Society of North America.
Her interview with Terry was recorded yesterday.

(Soundbite of music)


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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