Dr. Charles Kimball is a Baptist minister, but the focus of his scholarship has always been the religion of Islam. The professor of comparative religion at Wake Forest University has written extensively on topics such as Islamic militancy, and has traveled to the Middle East on no less than 35 occasions in order to help during times of political and social unrest. Many of those trips were made during 1983 to 1990, when Kimball served as the Director of the Middle East Office at the National Council of Churches.
On Jan. 21, Dr. Kimball spoke at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson on "the struggle for the soul of Islam." He also presented themes from his new book, "When Religion Becomes Evil" (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, $13.95).
How did your interest in Islam arise?
My grandfather is Jewish and came from a large family, so I had a lot of extended family members that were Jewish. So from an early age, I was interested in differences among religions that led me to really study comparative religions. My wife and I lived in Cairo as part of my doctoral studies of Islam in 1977 and '78, and that led me much more deeply even into the contemporary issues of Jewish, Christian and Muslim relations.
What has been the purpose of your trips to the Middle East?
I did a lot particularly in war zones, working on relief and development issues in Lebanon and Israel-Palestine in relation to the Iran-Iraq war. (It was) the kind of thing we see now in the rebuilding of Iraq—those kind of efforts in the middle of very difficult circumstances. I've done a lot of work in the area of public-policy advocacy. A lot of trips have been involved with meeting with ambassadors and leaders in countries in the Middle East, including prime ministers, foreign ministers, religious leaders, etc. It's key to understand what's going on and be practical as we as American citizens and Christians respond to the struggle in the Middle East.
What do you think is the main agitator in Muslim and Christian religions today?
There are a lot of perceptions that are rooted in some reality, but are often incorrect. There's a long history where Christian and Muslim have lived together pretty well in many places at many times, but there's always been a long history of conflict, particularly with the Crusades and the Inquisition. There are certainly people on both sides who want to portray conflict today as a clash between Christianity and Islam. Certainly Osama Bin Laden tries to cast things in that way, as do a number of religious leaders on the religious right in the United States. I think that is very unhelpful and ultimately dangerous.
Are Muslim and Christians relations more strained in the South?
I don't know that it is more intense in the South. I think it's probably the case that there is less direct experience with many people in the South with Muslims, although Islam is present all over the country. And I suppose there is probably a little bit more rigidity in the Southern parts of the U.S.
Your book focuses on five warning signs that a religion is becoming evil. What observations led you to those signs?
The immediate backdrop for the book is the event of September 11. The book came out on the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, and has continued to do very well. So that kind of gets people's attention, obviously, that here is a classic and very dangerous example of a religion being used for violent and destructive purposes, and the reality that something more could happen, as we saw on July 7, 2005 in London. It's still there with us, but the larger part of the book is that the patterns of behavior that we see evident among violence in Islam in fact can be seen in all religious traditions, and particularly in the larger ones throughout history. So we need not only be to be aware of the dangers posed by extremism within Islam, but also our own ability to do violent and destructive things out of fear or commitment within our own religious tradition.
What impact do you hope your message had on the religious community in Jackson?
I hope very much that ... people will become more aware of the wide diversity that makes up the world of Islam, will be more fair-minded in their approach and understanding, and will be more attentive to and concerned with the way we are all susceptible to violent and destructive behavior.
Quite a few predominately Islamic countries seem to offer counterexamples of what we see in the news. Since WW1 at least, Turkey has a long history of separating religion and politics (their government even banned wearing headscarfs in public places, if I understand correctly. Furthermore, Turkey seems to be making a reasonably smooth transition to democracy (though its not without its problems - most notably a Kurdish resisitance movement in its east)
Also, I think Albania and Bosnia, European countries that have substantial Islamic populations (in Albania's case, majority-Islam) are democracies as well. Both nations also seem in good standing in the world community. Malaysia (half Islamic) is one of the Asian Tigers (and home of the tallest building in the world even before the destruction of the WTC). Indonesia, despite some problems with terrorists, is another emerging democracy that has potential (though its still in its infancy).
So we can't really speak of "Islamic nations". Turkey Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia are as different from each other as the USA, Russia, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines.