Mark Coleman

First Sunday


Sunday, June 2, 2002

Local Islam expert Tamara Albertini donned Uzbek attire in 1998 while visiting a madrasa (a Muslim religious school) in Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

Hawaii’s eye on Islam


On the first Sunday of every month, we present a conversation with someone who has had an impact on our community. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

When the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington occurred on Sept. 11, killing more than 3,000 people, much of the world went into shock. Who could have done such a thing, and why?

The "who" turned out to be a small group of Middle Eastern men motivated by their Islamic religious beliefs. Many Americans started examining Islamic philosophy to see if it could help them better understand the "why" behind the attacks.

In Hawaii, many people turned for answers to Tamara Albertini, a leading scholar of Islamic philosophy who has been affiliated with the University of Hawaii's Philosophy Department since 1995. Hoping to help prevent reprisals against Muslims in America because of the attacks, Albertini has participated in numerous forums and lectures to explain how the terrorists did not necessarily represent Islam, the world's second-largest religion after Christianity.

Albertini's own religious background is Catholic. She first learned about Islam while living for 10 years with her parents in Tunisia, a Muslim country in northern Africa wedged between Algeria and Libya. She graduated from high school in her native Switzerland, where she also obtained a master's degree in philosophy from the University of Basel. She earned a doctorate in philosophy from Germany's Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat, then taught the subject for several years in Germany, Switzerland and California before moving to Hawaii.

Albertini has written two books and numerous articles and book chapters, and is assembling a sourcebook on Islamic philosophy for Blackwell Publishers in England.

With her husband, George Vassilev, a film documentarist, Albertini has traveled extensively through Islamic countries, particularly in Central Asia, under grants from the university and the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Albertini also is an expert in Renaissance philosophy, but that's another subject.

Sept. 11, 2001

Mark Coleman: Since the Sept. 11 attacks, a lot of Americans have undertaken crash courses on Islam.

Tamara Albertini: I think that is one of the positive outcomes of Sept. 11, in the sense that the non-Muslims in the United States realized that they didn't know enough about that religion and the culture that goes with it.

M.C.: Critics of American foreign policy say Muslims abroad have some legitimate griev- ances about the United States. But clearly, attacking innocent people ...

T.A.: The majority of Muslims are with us on this. You know, two days after the Sept. 11 events, I had about 35 messages from Muslim friends and acquaintances from around the world, and every message expressed concern as to how those attacks might affect future relations with the United States. Muslims don't want the West to have the wrong picture. They don't want the West to think that all Muslims are like the terrorists.

M.C.: One way that Americans are assessing Islam is the extent to which Muslims are willing to denounce the Sept. 11 hijackers. But you don't hear a lot of that. It's mostly praise.

T.A.: We hear about the praise and not enough about the blame. But in fact, after the Sept. 11 attacks, you had incredibly strong, harsh words against the perpetrators coming from the leaders of the al-Azhar University in Cairo, which is one of the leading religious institutions in the Muslim world. Most of the ayatollahs in Iran found the act outrageous. There may be a sense in Islamic countries of "We fight Western supremacy," but the language of these scholars was very clear: "We don't kill the innocent."

Suicide bombers

M.C.: The Quran doesn't permit suicide, right?

T.A.: Right, just like the other two biblical religions. Still, I would make a difference -- maybe a very fine one for some people -- between the people who blew up the World Trade Center and the individual Palestinians who end up being suicide bombers. If you take that 18-year-old girl (who killed herself and two others in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem last March) and watch that tape where she speaks her last words and you compare that to one of the letters sent out by Mohamed Atta (the leader of the Sept. 11 hijackers), you can see that these are very different individuals. To me, her case was just an expression of despair. That's different to me from someone who has this perverted notion of an evil West and Satan and all of that. These are two very different worlds. We shouldn't conflate them.

Tamara Albertini on China's Great Wall at the end of the SilkRoad, the historic trade route between China and Istanbul.

Islam and women

M.C.: The rhetoric from Muslims in Islamic countries is frequently misogynistic. Atta left a letter saying "don't let any women near my body."

T.A.: That's terrible. I agree. Doctrinally speaking, men and women are supposed to be equal in Islam.

M.C.: I've read that having a boy raises the status of a woman in a Muslim marriage.

T.A.: It does. A mother of many sons has much more power, because if the male is your connection to the outside world, then having strong ties to the male in your family is how you have power as well.

Now, truly, girls can be in very unfortunate situations in the Islamic world. It depends on the family. But I grew up in an Islamic country and I never saw one case of abuse against girls in Tunisia. I was there 10 years in school and I was constantly with girls and I never saw it happen. I never heard of a father hitting his daughter, or not allowing her to go to school, or putting it in her mind that she could not be a professional one day because she's a girl.

M.C.: The Quran commands a man to beat his wife as soon as she shows any signs of disobedience to his orders.

T.A.: Well, that is a good example of what sound scholarship can do and how important a function it has. Saudi Arabia and most of the Arabian Peninsula has a brand of Islam called Wahhabism.

It came up in the 18th century. It did entirely away with scholarship. The assumption was that everybody can read and make sense of the Quran. So many individuals took passages like that and said, "Well, the Quran says I may beat up on my wife."

But if you keep the scholarship in place -- all the commentaries, all the debates, all the disputes -- things are very different. You'll have a lot of materials saying, "Hey, wait a moment, the Quran truly mentions that, but I'm cautioning you, don't do it." Why? Because it doesn't please God.

The Quran has five categories of acts. The first one includes acts that are mandatory; the fifth, acts that are forbidden. In between, there's a lot of margin for interpretation. Good Islam makes much of the second category: acts that are strongly recommended but not mandatory. God doesn't say that you have to do them, but if you do them, it's really good for you. So good scholarship will say that if you don't beat your wife, if you're generally not an abuser, it will please God.

That is a prime example of how people who are trained as theologians can do wonders. They take away much of the harshness that the Quran has.

Converting to Islam

M.C.: Why would a woman want to convert to Islam?

T.A.: Well, you are in charge of your own finances, assuming you have some wealth. That's attractive. And you are cared for. The law in Islam is very clear: The man is the provider. The woman doesn't have to do anything to add to the income of the family. She is in the home. Now, we may think of it as the woman being relegated to the private sphere, and she's not allowed to do anything in the public domain. In many Islamic countries that is the case. But we don't see what happens inside the homes. Inside the home the woman is the dominant figure. Nothing happens without her assent.

M.C.: Do the men feel henpecked, and perhaps this accounts for the misogyny?

T.A.: I don't know. (Laughter) Psychiatrists may come in and say that Muslim men have too strong a relationship with the mother, or whatever. It's hard to tell. But girls get equally oppressed by their mothers, maybe sometimes more than by their fathers.

M.C.: What about American women who have converted?

T.A.: What I have learned from American women who have converted to Islam is how much peace of mind they were able to acquire once they didn't have to be attractive according to the Western standard of beauty, because their husbands would appreciate them anyway. That's not the kind of answer you would expect, but I heard it every time.


M.C.: OK, I'll bring up another horror story: Most of the clitoridectomies in the world are on Islamic women.

T.A.: Yes, but that has nothing to do with Islam. It's an African practice. It occurs typically in areas in Africa into which Islam moved in the last centuries, which then preserved the practice of circumcising girls (excising the clitoris).

Circumcision is a Semitic practice. The Jews have it, the Muslims have it, but it is clearly performed on men only. Every Islamic scholar you talk to about female circumcision will be outraged, and not just because Islam doesn't say you have to do that, but because Islam insists that women ought to have sexual pleasure, which you don't have when a woman is circumcised.

Islam and homosexuality

M.C.: There's concern about whether Muslims can blend into America's culture of tolerance and respect for the individual, especially regarding women, (but) they also are very strongly anti-homosexual.

T.A.: I think Islam will be dealing with (homosexuality) for a very long time in a way that is not appropriate.

M.C.: I've read that because of the misogynistic attitude of Muslim males, that they are willing to have sex with younger men, younger boys ... They don't see it as having homosexual sex because these guys are so young?

T.A.: Yes. Homosexuality practiced by heterosexuals -- that's the construct. ... But it's not acceptable to the religion. You talk to any scholar of Islam and he will be equally disgusted with those people as he is with people who are homosexuals only. So Islamic scholarship is consistent in that respect.

Islam and trade

M.C.: To what extent does the Quran condone private property and merchant trade?

T.A.: Muhammad (the found-er of Islam) was a successful merchant for most of his life, so there's absolutely nothing in Islam against trade. Islam would never have been as powerful as it was during the Middle Ages without engaging in trade, and once you trade with non-Muslims, you have to compromise.

M.C.: I think one of the major problems of the Islamic world today is that the reigning philosophy economically of the last century everywhere was socialism. Like you have the socialists running Iraq.

T.A.: Well, it's a phony version (of socialism).

M.C.: The point is, there's a lot of state interference in the economies of those countries, and that's why they're hurting so bad. But now, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, everyone realizes, no, it's really capitalism. That's the path to prosperity. But in those countries that are closed societies, they haven't gotten it yet -- or they're only just starting to, especially now with the Information Age.

T.A.: The Information Age may change it all. Like in Iran, they tried to censor, but things are moving so fast. Saudi Arabia has Internet cafes, and I know they hire a lot of Western engineers to do the censoring, but it's hard to do.

Islam's future

M.C.: In a broader sense, where do you think this is going to go? There are books out like "A Clash of Civilizations" (Samuel P. Huntington) and "What Went Wrong?" (Bernard Lewis) that question the long-term viability of Islam.

T.A.: Yes, but it's not just Islam. This includes China, Orthodox Christianity -- basically everybody who's not in the West. One of the best answers to Huntington's book came from Iran. The present president, Mohammed Khat-ami, who's a moderate, answered it with "A Dialogue of Civilizations." His point is, yes, Islam needs to change. Reforms are necessary at various levels -- economically, religiously, legally, socially -- and he's not the only person in the Islamic world who understands that.

But don't destroy the culture. It's a terrible vacuum that you would have. Think of what the Spaniards did to the New World. There was never a recovery of what used to be the Aztec culture.

M.C.: That might be a good thing because they had human sacrifice and absolute dictatorship.

T.A.: Yes, but the Greeks had that, too, and the Greeks got over it.

M.C.: But that's because they had the classical ideals of individuality and such. I mean, even in the West you didn't get rid of slavery until 150 years ago or so, so it has been evolutionary. But there's no history of words like "freedom" in Muslim language.

T.A.: There is a word. Freedom has become an ideal as long as you have wars of independence against colonial powers. Hurriyya, the Arabic word, was a very important word.

M.C.: Right, but it was a nationalist sense of freedom, not an individualist sense.

T.A.: I don't think we want to have a world where Islam will be purged of its Islamicity. I think that would be dangerous to do. We all are voices on this planet and it's a failure also on our side if we think Islam is a threat.

If we think right now that there are problems with the Islamic world, the problem is also with us. It means we haven't found the right level at which to communicate well.

Hawaii could be ideal site for Islamic studies center

Mark Coleman: How big is the Muslim community in Hawaii?

Tamara Albertini: It's very small. But it's very open and active.

M.C.: How many mosques are there?

T.A.: There's just one, at the Islamic Center in Manoa.

M.C.: Do they have sermons like a typical Christian church?

T.A.: It's similar. There are two imams, and they alternate in giving the khutba -- Arabic for sermon -- which is very open. It has to do with whatever piece of the Quran is in the center on that day, and it can include actual events, such as Sept. 11.

In the beginning after Sept. 11, there were concerns about whether Muslims in Hawaii would in any way be affected, maybe assaulted, but it didn't happen, so that really speaks in favor of Hawaii. Then they talked about how Muslims here could help redress the image of Islam, and I think they did a very good job.

M.C.: Do Muslims in Hawaii accept America's secular culture?

T.A.: I think so.

M.C.: Do they wish it for themselves back in their homelands?

T.A.: I think the answer would be different according to which individual you talk to. Most Iranians in Hawaii have no wish to go back to Iran so long as the ayatollahs are in charge. These are Muslims who don't agree with the way that religion is politicized in their country.

M.C.: Would it be good to have a school of Islamic studies here?

T.A.: At the graduate level, I think you could create a lot of interest, then Hawaii could design itself as a place with a special approach because it understands that when it comes to Asia, Islam is just one more component.

M.C.: Are we in a good location for that, considering Indonesia, Malaysia and the Pacific Rim?

T.A.: I think we are. Asia is so dominant in Hawaii. But the perception, I'm afraid, is still that Asia is either Confucian, or Buddhist, or Hindu, not Muslim.

M.C.: They keep talking about Hawaii being the "Geneva of the Pacific," for peace studies or trade, but in terms of religious study, that would seem to make a lot of sense because of our diverse culture.

T.A.: Right. There has been some concern about how the Islamic community is going to change American culture, but it will always be the other way around. Every community that has come to the states went through transformations. The country is so large and so powerful that it just absorbs other communities.

M.C.: That's the ideal.

T.A.: It takes two or three generations, naturally. But I think it will happen.


>> Islam is a monotheistic religion founded in 622 AD by the prophet Muhammad.

>> Muslims believe that God had previously revealed himself to the earlier prophets of the Jews and Christians, such as Abraham, Moses and Jesus. However, they believe that Islam is the perfection of the religion revealed first to Abraham (who is considered the first Muslim) and later to the other prophets. Muslims believe that Jews and Christians have strayed from God's true faith.

>> The two foundations of Islam are God's revelations to Muhammad, known as the Quran, or "recitation," and the reports about Muhammad's life and deeds, which are known as the hadith, from the Arabic word for "report."

>> Believers worship God directly, without the intercession of priests, clergy or saints. Their duties are summed up in five simple rules, the so-called Five Pillars of Islam: belief, worship, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage.

>> The 1.2 billion followers of Islam comprise about 25 percent of the world's population, making it the second-largest religion in the world, behind Christianity. The most populous Muslim countries are Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.


Mark Coleman's conversations with people who have had an impact on our community appear on the first Sunday of every month. If you have a comment or suggestion, please send it to

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