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Paul van Zyl

Program Director for the International Center for Transitional Justice, Paul van Zyl. As such he helps emerging democracies to reckon with the human rights abuses in their past. Van Zyl is from South Africa and was the executive secretary of South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The center is now working with the U.N. to design a justice policy for post-Taliban Afghanistan. The International Center for Transitional Justice is located in New York City.


Other segments from the episode on December 3, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 3, 2001: Interview with Paul van Zyl; Interview with Leila Ahmed.


DATE December 3, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Paul van Zyl discusses how a country heals from human
rights violations and forms a democratic government

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

As Afghanistan makes its transition to a post-Taliban government, it will have
to decide how to deal with the atrocities and human rights abuses of the past
few years. My guest Paul van Zyl is helping with that process. He's the
program director of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which
is headquartered in New York. Van Zyl is a lawyer from South Africa. At the
age of 25, he was the executive secretary of South Africa's Truth and
Reconciliation Commission, and was the main witness in the trial against
former President P.W. Botha. His job now is to help emerging democracies
develop ways of dealing with the human rights abuses of past regimes. This
can range from prosecuting individual perpetrators to trading amnesty for
confessions about torture, murder and other state-sponsored violence. Truth
commissions can gather the stories of victims so that victims are heard and
their suffering is acknowledged. Van Zyl thinks this kind of truth telling
would be helpful for those who were victimized by the Taliban.

Mr. PAUL VAN ZYL (Program Director, International Center for Transitional
Justice): Well, I think that one of the ways in which repressive rule is
sustained and atrocious human rights abuse is perpetuated is by hiding from
the public the real human consequences of that abuse. I think many people can
drum up a range of ideological justifications for human rights abuse, but when
they're confronted with an ordinary person telling their story of unspeakable
acts of torture or terrible systemic human rights abuse of the type
experienced by the women in Afghanistan, people begin to find that intolerable
because it's so difficult to defend the level of depravation, the denial of
basic rights.

And I think by placing those stories in the public discourse, we can't help
but be moved by them, we can't help but be reviled and object to that form of
treatment. And I think that that's extraordinarily important. Human rights
abuse thrives when you have a culture of silence which conceals it, and it
becomes much more difficult to conduct abusive policies when it's brought out
into the open.

GROSS: I imagine for a lot of people if they publicly tell their stories,
particularly, like, in an official setting, that then they want some kind of
justice. They want to know that the person responsible for their suffering is
going to be punished for it; that there'll be some justice. Do you think it's
important to have that kind of follow-through afterwards?

Mr. VAN ZYL: I think it certainty--that any process of dealing with mass
atrocity and systemic human rights abuse must attempt to incorporate some
element of justice and prosecution, and that's a cardinal principle and one
that I think we should always try and achieve. I think there are two
important caveats to that.

Firstly, victims are as complex and diverse as any other group of human beings
and, therefore, stemming from my experience at the South African Truth
Commission, I was profoundly moved by the wide range of responses that victims
had to atrocity. Certainly some wanted justice; in fact, some wanted revenge.
They wanted to be able to personally revenge themselves upon those people
responsible for abuse. Other people just wanted the truth. Others wanted an
apology. Others wanted to discover the fate and the whereabout of their loved
ones. Some mothers just wanted the red sweater that their son was wearing the
day he disappeared. And that's all they wanted. So I think that it's
important to listen to victims, because they have a range of different

Having said that, it's also important to look at what your country can
reasonably achieve. Often societies emerging from mass atrocity have weak
judicial systems, and their capacity to prosecute hundreds if not thousands of
perpetrators is often very limited. So we have to tailor our justice policies
in such a way that they are realistic; that they don't raise unrealistic
expectations amongst survivor communities.

GROSS: What's your analysis so far about Afghanistan and the ability there to
prosecute the people who are responsible for state-sponsored human rights

Mr. VAN ZYL: I think there are significant challenges in Afghanistan in that
regard. Firstly the process of establishing a broad-based, inclusive,
multi-ethnic government in Afghanistan is going to be complicated by the
almost certain inclusion in that government of some people who have less than
stellar human rights track records. And, therefore, if one is going to call
upon that government to prosecute people responsible for human rights abuse,
one has to recognize that there may be a limited appetite for that amongst
some people in that government.

GROSS: Well, let me see if I understand what you're saying. That some of the
warlords who were in power before the Taliban might be in power again after
the Taliban, and some of their records were pretty bad in terms of human
rights. So these are the people you're talking about who might be in power
after the Taliban, and how can you prosecute the Taliban and let the new
leaders' human rights abuses go unremarked?

Mr. VAN ZYL: Absolutely. I think that there is--people who themselves have
bad human rights track records are often fairly reluctant to embark on either
wide-scale inquiries about human rights abuse, or a robust series of
prosecutions for fear of where they may eventually land up and who they might
point a finger towards. I also think that notwithstanding the very
encouraging developments about the treatment of women and the relative
position of women in Afghanistan, I think there is still a rather powerful
residual bloc of people who are fairly weak on women rights, to say the least.
And, therefore, any attempt to deal with the terrible crimes committed against
women might run into some form of political resistance from the new government
as well.

GROSS: Well, the crimes committed against women range from execution to just
forcing all women to wear burqas and to not work, to have just profoundly
restricted lives. Do you think something like forcing women to wear a burqa
is something that a truth and reconciliation commission should contend with or
would be able to be contend with? It's such a widespread form of
discrimination or abuse.

Mr. VAN ZYL: Well, I think that's why a truth commission would, in fact, be
an interesting idea in Afghanistan, because it will be able to deal with the
real full range and the complexity of the different modes of human rights
abuse which occurred in Afghanistan. You wouldn't be able to prosecute
somebody in a court of law for forcing a woman to wear a burqa, but I suspect
that you may be able to elicit from women their views on that experience. And
there may be a complex set of views about that. I suspect that many people's
instinctual response will be deep resentment at having it--you know, such a
ritual imposed upon them as opposed to them having allowing to embark in such
a ritual based on their own free choice. But I think that that's, you know,
at one end of the scale.

The denial of health care, the denial of education and the denial of ability
to work for a whole category of educated, sophisticated women of Afghanistan,
I think it is a form of abuse and a form of denial which demands airing. And
those stories should be told. And I think their stories will be very useful,
not just for Afghanistan, but for all of Islam, because I think what's at
stake here is a broader question about the role of women in Islam in general.
And by providing articulate, capable women who have suffered this form of
abuse with a platform to tell their stories, that might embolden women
throughout the Islamic world who are fervent believers in Islam, who believe
it should be an important progressive great world religion, but who are firmly
opposed to some of the more patriarchal tendencies within it to be able to
gain a platform, and I think that could truly be transformative.

GROSS: You said that you're opposed to acts of vengeance. Where do you draw
the line between vengeance and justice?

Mr. VAN ZYL: Well, I think that justice is something which occurs within the
framework of the rule of law. It is an instrument where we bring to bear
rules that we as a society have agreed upon. We bring those to bear against
people who have violated those rules. We do so in a fair way, in a
dispassionate way. We build in sufficient due process guarantees so that we
aren't perpetrating an injustice ourselves in seeking to pursue justice. Why
I'm opposed to vengeance is, firstly, because vengeance almost always happens
outside of the framework of the rule of law, and, therefore, very often--or
runs the inherent risk in targeting those people who are innocent.

But secondly, I think it's an unproductive mode of dealing with the past
because it leads often to recriminations and reprisals and increases the cycle
of violence. And what we're seeking in so many of the societies in which we
work is break that cycle of violence and replace it with a new mode of
governance and a new mode of dealing with disagreement; where people can
disagree within a democratic framework as opposed to having to resort to

GROSS: You said that people have come to the realization that unless you
develop sophisticated strategies to deal with the past, it comes back to haunt
you. Have you seen examples of that?

Mr. VAN ZYL: Well, in almost every country in which we work, those countries
which have sought to bury the past and not deal with it--take Chile, for
example, where the outgoing Pinochet regime secured for themselves a blanket
amnesty, really threatened the new democratic forces. That the only way to
ensure a return to democratic rule in Chile was to provide General Pinochet
and the armed forces with a fairly broad and comprehensive amnesty. And in
the course of that, they thought that they had bought a social peace and
stability. And 10 years later, 15 years later, the question of Pinochet looms
large over Chile. The arrest in Britain and the subsequent debate that that
caused really did poison relations in Chile. And it's only by, in fact,
confronting that legacy of abuse that I think the Chileans have managed to
move on.

And unless you develop proactive strategies to deal with the past, the past
comes back to haunt you on its own terms; not on terms of your choosing. And
that almost invariably means that the past is dealt with in a less healthy and
a less constructive way, and in a way that's more damaging and destabilizing.

GROSS: My guest is Paul van Zyl, program director for the International
Center for Transitional Justice. We'll talk more after a break. This is

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Paul van Zyl. He is program director for the
International Center for Transitional Justice, which is consulting to many
countries, including Afghanistan. He's a South African lawyer who at the age
of 25 was the executive secretary of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission. The commission began in 1995.

GROSS: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is where
you got your first experience with this kind of transitional justice--that
commission gave amnesty to many perpetrators of crimes in return for their
confessions to those crimes; basically, traded truth for amnesty. Looking
back, do you think that that's been effective in helping to heal the country,
or do you think it's created a lot of resentment that some people who
confessed to terrible human rights abuses are now free and comfortable?

Mr. VAN ZYL: You know, Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the
worst form of all governments, except all others. And I often think that the
South African Truth Commission was one of the worst ways to come to terms with
our past, except all others. And by that I mean at its very core was a series
of very, very difficult and heart-wrenching trade-offs that you had to say,
`Well, in order for this country to move forward to democracy, in order for a
very powerful white regime to be incentivized to relinquish power and hand
over to a democratic government there was going to have to be an amnesty
arrangement.' They insisted upon an amnesty arrangement. And Nelson Mandela
and the leaders of the liberation movement appreciated that it would be very
difficult to secure that transition without amnesty.

And in that context what we could have done is simply said, `All right,
there's an amnesty for human rights abuse in South Africa. That's a political
fact. Let's move on. Let's not--let's think about economic growth. Let's
think about tourism. Let's not look at the human rights abuse that occurred
during apartheid.' And I think there was a wise determination amongst the
political leadership and amongst human rights organizations that that would be
profoundly unproductive for South Africa.

And so coupled with the political reality of an amnesty was a truth-seeking
process which sought to uncover the full extent of human rights abuse that
occurred in South Africa. And I think that we succeeded by and large in
discovering who was responsible for human rights abuse, who were the victims,
who at the highest levels of government gave the orders. We discovered where
victims who had been disappeared, whose bodies had been burned and thrown into
rivers. We discovered the fate of victims. And we prompted over a period of
three years a real deep, introspective soul-searching on behalf of all South
Africans. That truth and that transition to democracy came at a terrible
price. And the terrible price was the granting of amnesty to people
responsible for horrendous crimes.

If we could have had it any other way, I think we should have tried to avoid
the amnesty. I'm not sure in the South African context that that amnesty
could have been avoided, and, therefore, I think the truth commission was a
necessary and important supplement, which gave victims a voice and which
foregrounded human rights abuse.

GROSS: Are most of the people who confessed to human rights abuses at the
South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission--are they now outcasts, or
are many of them still holding important positions?

Mr. VAN ZYL: The majority of people who admitted to acts of torture and
murder and other gross violations of human rights abuse have retired from
their positions in government or in the police force or in the security force,
and no longer occupy prominent positions of power and status in South Africa.
The sheer social stigmatization that occurred as a result of having--in the
full glare of television cameras, having to confess having tortured people and
having poisoned people and having committed other horrendous crimes really
reduced people's capacity to play leading and influential roles in our
society. They still live off handsome pensions. They're aren't sitting in
jail as they should be. But I think their capacity to influence present
policy has been significantly, if not totally, diminished.

GROSS: Are you recommending to many countries now that they don't give

Mr. VAN ZYL: I think it's one of our strongest policy prescriptions in the
work that we do around the world, is that amnesties really should be avoided
at almost all costs. Amnesties are profoundly unhealthy. They undermine the
rule of law. They breed cynicism. They're an insult to victims of human
rights abuse. And I think as a real principle, one wants to try and oppose
amnesties at almost any cost. At the same time, there are those societies in
which people responsible for abuse still hold tremendous power and influence.
And one has to then think very carefully about how it is that such persons can
be incentivized to leave office or relinquish power and turn power over to
democratic forces.

And so I think one must be careful not to be too doctrinaire and too rigid in
the real world because one can, firstly, subvert the will of the majority of
people in a particular country if it is their determination--let me give you
an example: Burma. In Burma you have a very powerful regime with one of the
largest per capita militaries in the world--and you have no real prospect--no
realistic prospect that democratic forces will be able to reacquire power
other than through a process of negotiation. And it's going to be very
difficult to get the Burmese regime to leave power without making some painful

Now Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and a woman of great moral
integrity, has recently been arguing that there may have to be some form of
amnesty in Burma in order for the military to be incentivized to leave power.
Would I stand in judgment on Aung San Suu Kyi and say that what she is
suggesting is unprincipled and immoral? I think that would be unprincipled
and immoral. At the same time, I think one can provide people like Aung San
Suu Kyi and the Burmese opposition movement with a rich array of comparative
experience of how other societies have sought to achieve transition without
necessarily giving an amnesty; how they'd sought to balance the real politic
of having to deal with powerful people on the one hand with a range of
creative strategies on the other hand, which preserve the possibility of
accountability at some point.

GROSS: Paul van Zyl is the program director for the International Center for
Transitional Justice, which is headquartered in New York. He'll be back in
the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man and Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)


GROSS: Coming up, Paul van Zyl talks about testifying against former South
African President P.W. Botha, when van Zyl worked on South Africa's Truth and
Reconciliation Commission. And we talk with Leila Ahmed, the author of "Women
and Gender in Islam," and a memoir about growing up in Egypt.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Chorus: (Singing in foreign language)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Paul van Zyl. He's the
program director for the International Center for Transitional Justice, which
helps emerging democracies develop systems for dealing with state-sponsored
violence of the recent past. Van Zyl was the executive secretary of South
Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

When you were the secretary of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission, you were the main state witness in a trial against former
President P.W. Botha. He was on trial for committing atrocities carried out
by government security forces. How did you end up being the main witness?

Mr. VAN ZYL: I was due to question P.W. Botha when he was subpoenaed to
appear before the Truth Commission, and we subpoenaed him to appear before the
Truth Commission, but he declined to appear. So he was prosecuted, and this
is ironic, not for the horrendous crimes that he had alleged to have
committed, but for the rather technical accusation of failing to respond to a
subpoena issued by the Truth Commission.

My role as the chief state witness was to set out the case against P.W. Botha
all the evidence that we had collected during the work of the Truth
Commission, which tended to indicate that he was responsible for gross
violations of human rights. And on that basis to provide the court with the
basis upon which we wished to question him, to say, `Look, here is this
horrendous record of apartheid regime. Here is the man who sat at the
pinnacle of the apartheid regime. We want to question him and he refuses to
be questioned. And that should be rightly condemned as a violation of the

GROSS: What was the outcome?

Mr. VAN ZYL: He was convicted at the first instance. And then, on...

GROSS: Convicted of refusing to show up?

Mr. VAN ZYL: Correct. And then he was acquitted on a very narrow technical
point before a court of appeal. But I think as Archbishop Tutu said, the
process of having him prosecuted was, `he got his comeuppance,' as the
archbishop said. Firstly because he appeared before a black magistrate, which
was exquisitely ironic that here was the leader of the apartheid regime having
to appear in the dock before a black magistrate, a man who he had previously
denied some of the most fundamental rights.

And secondly, we were provided, the Truth Commission was provided, with an
opportunity, and I testified for over two and a half days, to set out the case
against him. And that case was reported extensively in the media, and that
case essentially went unanswered because had he appeared before the Truth
Commission, he would have had an opportunity to respond to our questions, but
since he was being prosecuted in a court of law, he had no opportunity to do
so. So I think it was very damaging for his reputation. And I think it
reveals the real price of the arrogance of undemocratic leaders who believe
that they should never have to answer any questions about their conduct,
regardless of the consequences of their conduct.

GROSS: What was like for you at the age of 25 to be the main witness against
the former president of your country, a president who ruled over the country
during apartheid?

Mr. VAN ZYL: It was fairly nerve-wracking, to tell you the truth. The day
before the trial started I went bungee jumping because I thought that I should
try and submit myself to the most terrifying experience I could possibly
subject myself to, and after that it would be a piece of cake. Strangely
enough, I prepared harder for those two days of testimony than I had for
almost anything else prior to that. And so when I finally took the stand, I
felt very calm and very confident. And I also was cognizant of the enormous
responsibility in presenting a case in a calm way, in a way that was unbiased,
that didn't seem as though we were out to get him, but to really let the facts
speak for themselves.

And it was interesting. On the first day that he arrived in court, as he
walked into court, even though he was the accused, the entire court rose and
got to their feet, which tells you something--including black people who were
in the court--which tells you something about the psychology of power. But by
the end of the trial, he wandered in and out like a really almost
insignificant old man. I think his reputation had been very severely
tarnished, and he had been unmasked for what he was and for what his regime
was, and I consider that to be extraordinarily important.

GROSS: Did he stare at you while you were giving your testimony?

Mr. VAN ZYL: He stared fairly ferociously, and I think he was particularly
angry that I was somebody who had an Afrikaans last name and seemed to come
from the Afrikaans community, which was a community that he regarded as
unflinchingly loyal to the apartheid regime. And so I think he was doubly
angry and regarded it as an act of betrayal that somebody who was both white
and had an Afrikaans last name would testify against him.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to not get emotional while you were making your

Mr. VAN ZYL: I obviously wanted to get emotional because--given my
experience. I have colleagues who I worked with in the student movement who
were assassinated. I have a professor at my university who was a friend of
the family--was assassinated. I've seen firsthand the real consequences of
human rights abuse in South Africa. And therefore when you're testifying
about the conduct of the former head of that government, it's not just about a
narrow assembling of technical facts. It's about blood and guts. It's about
people's lives. And so there was a very strong impulse to be emotional.

Before I testified, Archbishop Tutu's press secretary, a man by the name of
John Allen, who I respect enormously, I think stressed the importance of not
allowing this to appear as though the Truth Commission was a body staffed by
emotional hotheads who had preconceived ideas; that we were sober-minded, that
we were serious, that we took our responsibility enormously importantly. And
so I think that that caused me, on many occasions, not to rise to the bait and
not to become angry, especially in the face of some rather searing cross
examination where I might have done otherwise if I was in a conversation in a
bar or at a party.

GROSS: My guest is Paul van Zyl, program director for the International
Center for Transitional Justice. He was the executive secretary of South
Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Paul van Zyl, program director for the International
Center for Transitional Justice. He was the executive secretary of South
Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

What are some of the mistakes that you've learned from the South African Truth
and Reconciliation Commission, or from other truth commissions that you've
worked with in other countries, mistakes that you're applying now to the
countries that you're working with? The mistakes you're learning from is what
I meant to say.

Mr. VAN ZYL: Right. The first mistake is not to presume that a truth
commission is appropriate in every context. And I think there are a range of
settings where a truth commission is not appropriate and not helpful.

GROSS: An example?

Mr. VAN ZYL: Well, for example, there is some debate right now, for example,
in Mexico about whether it would be useful to have a commission, partly
because I think many people believe that prosecution should take precedence.
I happen to believe in the Mexican context it would be incredibly important to
have a commission, but one has to listen carefully to those who say, `We
shouldn't allow a truth commission to be established as a substitute for some
form of criminal prosecution for those people responsible for torture or those
people responsible, for example, for the recent death of Digna Ochoa, a very
prominent Mexican human rights lawyer and activist.

So I think the first thing is to say that truth commissions should never be
introduced into a country as a sop for justice, to say, `Here. We're
introducing a truth commission because truth commissions are the soft option.
They're appealing, they're telegenic, and they avoid the very hard questions
that prosecutions might.' These things ought to be run together and they
ought to be complementary.

GROSS: Other mistakes you've learned from?

Mr. VAN ZYL: I think sometimes you have to be cognizant of questions of
culture, that it's interesting that in many of the countries where truth
commissions have been most successful there have been strong elements of a
Christian underpinning. And what some people have argued is that the mode of
inquiry and public disclosure and confession and repentance len...

GROSS: Bearing witness.

Mr. VAN ZYL: Bearing witness. Exactly--lends itself to a cultural or
religious context that is primarily Christian. Now I'm very wary of those
kinds of generalizations, and I think that you get yourself into all sorts of
trouble when you make those kinds of sweeping statements. I think there are a
range of primarily Christian countries which have been appalling at looking at
their past. But I use that example because I think it's important to be very,
very sensitive to local cultural practices, local cultural traditions and to
formulate your strategies for dealing with the past in a way that doesn't
impose a blueprint taken from one society and simply impose it on another

GROSS: You have participated in truth and reconciliation commissions in
several countries, very actively in South Africa. How do you prevent yourself
by being totally overwhelmed by the inhumanity that people are capable of?
And how do you prevent yourself from just being incredibly pessimistic and
cynical about human beings?

Mr. VAN ZYL: Well, actually I think that most of the truth commission
experiences that I've witnessed or participated in have actually made me
profoundly optimistic about human beings in a paradoxical kind of way.
Firstly, because they've illustrated our enormous power to transcend
adversity. People who have suffered unspeakable suffering have been able to
emerge stronger, have been able to testify with a great sense of dignity and
composure, and who have been able to survive. And so I constantly marvel at
the sheer strength of people and their capacity to carry on.

I also think that truth commissions have a capacity to be profoundly
transformative, that when a nation engages in a deep and genuine and profound
act of soul-searching, it has a capacity to change that nation, to change its
cultural practices, to change its institutions, to change the way the police
do business, the way the intelligence organizations collect information, the
way the legal profession is practiced. And that capacity for transformation,
I think, is incredibly inspiring because you can do one of two things when you
confront mass atrocity. You can wash your hands and shrug your shoulders and
say, `This country is desperate and hopeless,' or you can say, `Step by step,
inch by inch, we are going to try and rebuild the society and assist in the
rebuilding of the society.' And that's about optimism. That's not about

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

Mr. VAN ZYL: Great pleasure.

GROSS: Paul van Zyl is the program director for the International Center for
Transitional Justice, which is based in New York.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Professor Leila Ahmed discusses memories of living in

My guest Leila Ahmed is the first professor of women's studies in religion at
Harvard Divinity School. She's also the author of the book "Women and Gender
in Islam." In her memoir "A Border Passage: From Cairo to America," she
writes about being a Muslim and feminist. She was born in Cairo in 1940 and
grew up in an educated, prosperous family. Her parents sent her to
English-speaking schools in Egypt and to college in England. Her father
chaired the Nile border control board.

After the revolution in 1952, when Nasser assumed power, her family's status
changed. Nasser decided to go forward with the Aswan Dam, which her father
opposed for environmental reasons. As a result, he lost his job and was
censored. Soon after, her family's values were no longer considered in sync
with Egypt, which had begun to turn against the West. Ahmed says her Western
education began to be considered suspect. She became embarrassed to speak
English. I asked her about the early expressions of extremism she saw in
Egypt in the 1950s.

Professor LEILA AHMED (Harvard Divinity School): It was mostly in the form of
Arab nationalism. We began to be kind of bludgeoned by the notion that we
were Arab. And this came as a bit of a surprise. Well, retrospectively I
know it was a surprise to me, but I didn't quite understand it then because I
had grown up understanding that we were Egyptian. And now to be Arab was
somehow more true and more important. And by reading history I came to
understand that to be Egyptian meant to be multi-religious and multi-ethnic.
That was the kind of country they were trying to construct at that point in
history. So the insistence was that Cops and Muslims and Jews and the people
who made up the population of Egypt, in fact, at that point, were all

And so the pluralism in Egypt was enormously emphasized, whereas once we
became Arab, which happened in '52 with Nasser's revolution, being tied to the
Arab nation became paramount. Our identity as Arabs, implicitly, but not
explicitly as Muslims, was paramount. And so people who were not Arab or
Muslim, in some sense, in other words the Cops of Egypt and the Jews of Egypt,
were not quite part of the identity. And I think it's not coincidence that
this followed the war with Israel in '48, and it was a redefining of the
identity of Egyptians to fit an anti-Israeli stance and a pro-Arab,
pro-Palestinian stance.

GROSS: Did you have friends who were changing, friends who were starting to
practice a more radical form of Islam or friends who were becoming Arab

Prof. AHMED: No, I didn't actually. Much later I would have friends who
would join who--relatives and friends, actually, who would not--I wouldn't say
would join fundamentalism, but, for instance, they started wearing the hijab,
you know, the head scarf, the Muslim head scarf. I don't think they became
fundamentalists in any sense of violent people, or even extremists, but they
came to believe that is what Islam required of them.

GROSS: And were you able to understand that? That's obviously something that
you did not believe.

Prof. AHMED: No. Well, I mean, that's what I study, you know. So, no, I do
have to understand it and thank goodness I think I am able to understand it.
I mean, I hear it now from many of my students who might wear scarf or hijab
and they do so, obviously, essentially because they believe that the Koran or
Islam requires that, but also because among the critiques is that people of my
generation accepted the Western notion of the veil as oppressive and that, in
fact, Western dress, mini skirts, corsets, high heels, all of those things are
actually much more damaging and at least sexist. So I do understand that I
think that critique sometimes makes sense.

GROSS: What kind of Islam were you brought up with?

Prof. AHMED: How do I speak of this? I guess, the easiest way to speak of
it, it was a very kind of mystical, personal sense of Islam, a very pacifist
kind of Islam. It really was based on--I mean, I use the term in my memoir
that it is a women's Islam, but women is in quotes because I think it's the
Islam of the non-highly literate people. It's an Islam that's based not on
studying books and text but on just listening to the Koran. And, of course,
there is a huge tradition, it's a very old tradition of the Koran being above
all an oral text, a text that you listen to, listen to the recitation and the
recitation can be very beautiful. And if you listen to it, what remains at
the end is really its recurring themes, and these are inescapably its emphasis
on peace and justice and mercy and compassion and those kinds of things. And
I think that's what ordinary people take away from it, and feel that these are
the qualities that should be pervading their lives. So I think that is the
Islam that I grew up believing to be Islam.

GROSS: My guest is Leila Ahmed, author of the memoir "A Border Passage: From
Cairo to America: A Woman's Journey." We'll talk more after a break. This

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Leila Ahmed, the first professor of women's studies in
religion at Harvard Divinity School. She writes about growing up in Egypt and
being a Muslim and feminist in her memoir "A Border Passage."

In your memoir you write that there was a period when you were craving
religious faith and you were considering converting from Islam to
Christianity. Why were you considering conversion?

Prof. AHMED: Yeah. Well, it was a time of enormous both loss and difficulty
for me, and I didn't know quite where to turn. You know, I grew up in a place
where--I don't know how to describe it exactly. Faith wasn't something that
you practiced. It was just there in the air, you know, so that if some
tragedy befell people, everyone around you would be thinking about it in what
now I would call religious terms in that they would think about it. I think
the basic issue is that their attitude was that life was meaningful and
somehow this had something to do with God. So when things happened, then you
reflected on what happened and it was within a context which gave meaning to
all of life. And when I was in England, I was without this community, of
course, and it was also very secular world in which the assumption was that
anyone who believed in God was really not quite as smart as people who didn't.
And then when I went through--well, I lost both my parents and my own health
was uncertain, I really felt at a total loss and felt I deeply needed
something that acknowledged meaning was actually central to life. So I think
that is what it was about.

GROSS: Yet, you didn't convert.

Prof. AHMED: I didn't convert, no.

GROSS: What did you think would change for you if you did convert from Islam
to Christianity? What did you, at that time in your life, think you might
find in Christianity that you weren't finding in Islam?

Prof. AHMED: A feeling of total faith, and I guess at that point, it must
mean that I wasn't able to find it. And I thought perhaps--but, you know, I'm
hesitating as I'm answering you because what I understand now is also that I
was living in a country where there were very few people who were Muslim or
anything else other than Christian actually. And, of course, I'd grown up in
a colonial situation in which what white people did and what perhaps
Christians did was implicitly superior. So maybe that was an element of why I
went through that crisis.

GROSS: Do you consider yourself observant of the Islamic faith? I'm asking
that because I've met many religion scholars over the years who are deeply
committed to spending their lives immersed in religion but more immersed in
studying its history than in actually practicing it, because they've had
problems with organized religion and problems with the way the religion has
been interpreted, but they want to spend their lives immersed in thinking
about religion if not in actually observing and practicing it.

Prof. AHMED: Part of what I do when I hear things, sometimes I translate them
in my mind and imagine myself asking my mother this or my grandmother. And
neither of them would even understand the question because to be Muslim, what
that meant was a way of being. It didn't mean I necessarily mean in this or
that exactly, but it means I live in this way, and I have these values. So
it's not exactly translatable as observant or practicing. It's about
something much more diffuse and much more embodied than a belief, which is a
very intellectual thing.

GROSS: You read in your memoir that there large numbers of Muslims who have
never lived in a land in which freedom of thought and religion were the
accepted norm. And the way in which that's changed now, you say, is that tens
of thousands of Muslims are living in Europe and in the United States where
there is freedom of thought and religion. I'm wondering if you could talk a
little bit more about that and what impact you think it's had on Islam to have
so many Islamic countries run by dictators.

Prof. AHMED: Well, it's had a huge impact, but not only by dictators, because
dictators are a modern term. But, I mean, throughout history, what religion
means, what Islam means has been constructed in a particular way and it's
connected with state power and the power to dictate what people are supposed
to believe. And if you don't, you are in very serious trouble. So it goes
all the way back and its course runs throughout into the present day. Many of
the sophi thinkers, for example, were considered heretical. Some were
executed. So it's a very fundamental thing that people have done without.
And I guess that partly relates the whole issue of practice in a way because
practicing or being observant implies somehow some public demonstration or
public way of being religious, whereas, I think for many Muslims, how you feel
about your religion is a very private matter because the state has been so
tyrannical. So to finally be able to actually write and speak about what you
believe is a huge, huge thing which you actually haven't entirely--a line we
haven't entirely crossed yet because we know of Muslim writers who get
threatened for saying what they think, you know.

GROSS: Leila Ahmed is the author of "A Border Passage: From Cairo to
America: A Woman's Journey." She's a professor of women's studies in
religion at Harvard Divinity School.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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