I learned from an Afghan friend that one of my most memorable Kabul interviews, Dr. Ayaz Niazi, was killed by ISIS terrorists at his Wazir Abul Khan mosque, the city’s largest. At the end of our interview, concerned that an intimate photo with a Jewish American writer could be dangerous, we posed for a photo after he received my promise that I would not publish it. With his violent, tragic death, I share it now, along with our interview published in WAR: The Afterparty. He showed me extraordinary hospitality and warmth, his staff hosting and caring for me for four hours, then a one hour interview, then a second after he leads the call to prayer. Rest In Peace, Dr. Niazi.
Excerpt from Chapter Six of WAR: The Afterparty, “Without Peace, We Have Nothing”
I want to speak to a local cleric about the Quran. Fawad’s close friend in school is a mullah’s son and, after several requests, he arranges a meeting. Over lunch, both Farshid and Javid dismiss meeting with a local mullah (a Muslim religious leader, scholar or teacher) as a waste of time. Instead, they insist, I should get a meeting with Dr. Ayaz Niazi, the country’s leading scholar on Islam, educated at a prestigious Cairo University. I call Fawad later to ask if he knows anyone who could get me to see Niazi. He says that’s the guy we’re going to see.
Niazi greets me at the entrance to the Wazir Abul Khan prayer hall with a small entourage, thanking me for my visit. He is in full regalia, and exudes warmth and charm. In the course of six hours, I meet a steady stream of mosque clergy and staff. One, in white dishdasha and headdress, tells me that there is greatness in my face and that I must come to Islam. I tell him flattery will get him everywhere.
Mohammed, the imam’s media producer, shows me his television production gear and downloads the Quran Explorer app to my phone. I am the first American he has met. I am treated to lunch and tea and a visit to the mosque gift shop, where I am presented with black prayer beads. The welcome is warm and expansive.
After the imam leads Friday prayers and counsels families, a weekly tradition, he joins me along with his son, Fawad, Mohammed and several staff. Maybe it’s a sort of learning moment for them as well, an American Jew in Kabul.
The imam admires my hat. “This is a Chitrali cap. You went to Chitral?” I start by asking what for him is the most important teaching of Islam and how Islam brings beauty to his life.
Islam consists of four main parts, or columns. First, faith and belief. Worship and prayers. Moral attitude. And social life, how to build relations with other people. So, it’s not just belief.
Islam has a message for each of these four parts. How we build a connection with Allah, with God. But our sense of worshiping means keeping Him always in mind, having a deep relation with Him.
I didn’t follow Islam like a blind man without any research. I have researched other religions, I have compared mine with others and then I came to the conclusion that Islam is the best religion that we can apply in every part of our life. Economic, political, family, social life, psychological life. When I accepted Islam, I felt like I don’t have to worry about anything in life, no stress, no worries. Islam brought calm and happiness to my life. Being kind to any creature in the universe, animal or human.
If Islam is the one true faith, how do you respect other spiritual paths if you believe that, in effect, they are inferior? The imam directs his media producer to start recording video and asks if that’s OK with me.
Humankind from the creation of the universe has passed through many phases. At the beginning, life was simple. Human life was all about feeding ourselves and staying alive. It’s like when someone gets a simple sickness, we need simple medicine. Allah’s books, scriptures and messengers are like doctors and medicines for humanity. In a specific period in history, there was a specific illness, so that prophet was sent to help the people to solve that problem. It’s like when you go to a doctor, he gives you a prescription with an expiration date.
And when you go back to the doctor, you get the new prescription, and the old ones are no longer usable to you.
Humankind’s problems are like diseases that need deep resolutions and solutions. When someone gets a really serious disease and he goes to a doctor, the doctor doesn’t write all the prescriptions at one time. He instructs the patient to use this medicine for 10 days and then come back. After that, he writes another prescription and he says you can’t use the first medicine anymore.
After this short period, he writes the permanent prescription that you should use forever. And the last prescription must be complete. And other religions and Islam are like this, the prescriptions that Allah gave to us. And then when the last religion came, the other religions are expired. And this is the new complete prescription.
Humankind’s problems are getting more serious day by day. If we look at the Christian’s bible, you cannot find resolution on the use of drugs. Or Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism. Islam has a resolution for preventing use of drugs and solving this problem in human society. In holy Quran, in the speech of prophet Mohammed, in Sharia. So we need a religion, a complete religion for our daily life. In the holy Quran, there are verses about science and technology. Galileo spoke about his theory of the motion of the earth.
“The Church condemned him,” I interject.
But in the holy Quran, there are verses that indirectly address the motion of Earth. In Europe, in the French Revolution, people were forced to separate law from religion. They left religion just in the framework of a church, nowhere else.
The Enlightenment. At that time there were hundreds of years of religious wars, Catholics and Protestants killing each other. One of the reasons for the Enlightenment was to stop those wars and allow freedom of religion. Do you see any benefit in that or is that an apostasy?
In the noble holy Quran, Allah said there is no pressure to force someone into Islam. (Niazi starts to speak in English and his son interrupts him. I congratulate him on his English and tell him he’s doing fine). It is totally wrong that people in the West believe that Muslims only want Islam on Earth. That is a totally wrong idea.
Islam has two kinds of citizenship. One is for Muslims who live in an Islamic state, and the other is non-Muslims who live in Islamic states and those who live outside Islamic countries. The policy of Islam and its citizens is equal about their rights and laws, for Muslims and non-Muslims. An example of this equality is if a Muslim kills a non-Muslim, he will be punished according to the laws of Islam, and he must be killed. Muslims and non-Muslims must be treated with respect.
There are radical Islamist groups in the world now, the Taliban, the Islamic State, Boko Haram, al-Qaeda that seem to justify violence against non-believers or Muslims who don’t measure up to their standards. Why does this kind of radical, more violent understanding of Islam seem to be spreading?
You started our conversation by asking me about Islam. Islam totally differs from what these Muslims are doing today. Those Taliban, radical groups, they have their personal ideas. You should ask them why are they doing such things. Is what they are doing in the holy Quran, did Allah say so, to kill people, to murder non-Muslims? You should ask them. It’s all a reaction against global policies. For example, I ask you, do Palestinians have the right to live in their territories?
I answer, “yes” and say, there is a similar issue with Jewish fundamentalism. Some Jews believe that God gave this land to them. So they owe Palestinians nothing. This seems a big problem in the world, where people are saying, “I have the truth and you don’t, so I have a divine right to oppress you.”
The world accepts that Palestinians should live with the Jews, they should make a Palestinian state. Germany agrees with them, France, England, Russia, but the United States doesn’t accept them. The U.S. accepts and supports Zionist policy. Why are they doing so? If they are doing so, Muslims must react.
When the U.S. attacked Iraq, what was the reason that they destroyed the Iraqi government? And now, they are seeing the reaction — ISIS — to what they did. There is no problem in the world between people and religions. The problem is the wrong ideas and the wrong policies against Muslims, against humanity.
What change would you like to see in U.S. foreign policy, the way the U.S. approaches the world?
The Afghan nation is thankful for the help and support the United States gave in its struggle against the Soviet Union. But after the battle was finished, the U.S. policy toward Afghanistan changed. For example, Osama bin Laden was traveling to Pakistan and Islamic groups were active. America was supporting them. But after the U.S. achieved its goals, why did U.S. policy change and become against Muslims around the world?
You said two things, One, you said the U.S. should have continued to help Afghanistan. Two, I’m curious as to why you believe the U.S. was against Muslims. Is that because of the Iraq war? I don’t think American policy changed toward Muslims. The Persian Gulf is a major source of oil, and when Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, many Muslim countries opposed Iraq. The second Iraq war is widely viewed as a mistake.
That was all about the battlefield, the field of war. But in the political field, with American policy in Algeria, there was a democratically elected government. Islamists were elected to run the government. Why were America and European countries opposed? The same in Egypt, when Mubarak fell, there was a peaceful and democratic election, why did the U.S. support Sisi. Israel helped the government and the Muslims were ruined there. Why did America do that?
Well, you are talking about Algeria and Egypt. In Egypt, I agree that it is problematic to promote democracy and then bring down the democratically elected government. But while the U.S. provides military aid, it did not invade Egypt. The Egyptian people felt there was chaos and Morsi was bringing the country to a bad position. They protested in the streets and wanted him out and there was an undemocratic solution, and, yes, the U.S. did not prevent it, but this was Egyptians coming to a political resolution in their country.
The muezzin begins the call to prayer. Niazi apologizes that he must go and asks me if I need more time. I tell him I have a few more questions.
After leading late afternoon prayers, the imam comes back in the meeting room. I cut to the chase, “Two final questions.”
He interrupts. He has more to say about American politics.
In President Obama’s first presidential speech in Cairo, he pointed out some important things and he said that U.S. policy was wrong toward Islamic countries and promised changes. I still remember that speech. I had so much hope when I heard that President Obama won the election and he got to the White House, but unfortunately, he failed. He didn’t fulfill his promises. I wish and I hope that the U.S. will stop solving problems from a military basis. This is not the solution. I wish that America comes to discuss with us in a diplomatic way, that it invites these radical groups to sit together to solve it in a political way, not by assassinating or creating bloodshed. Islamic countries are not only countries, they are a union of all Muslims, and the world and America must change its policy toward Islamic countries because what they are doing is totally wrong. Why did Obama not fulfill his promises?
First, I am not an apologist for Obama nor for the American government. Obama withdrew troops from Iraq, as promised. He has now withdrawn almost all troops from Afghanistan. He chose not to invade Syria. He helped rebels in Libya but did not occupy or invade the country. He resisted political pressure to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. So there has been some reconsideration of attitudes toward Muslim countries.
We must have a new look and resolution to today’s problems. That was President Bush’s fault, that he made a grave mistake in Iraq. We and Obama must have a new look and we have to have a new approach for these problems. It is not all about fighting battles.
A few final questions. Once al-Qaeda was pushed out and the Taliban removed from power, should the U.S. have left Afghanistan? Were there positive effects from 13 years of the U.S. presence here? And should the U.S. now leave Afghanistan completely?
As far as al-Qaeda, America will never be able to defeat al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is an international reaction to policies, and the only way to defeat or destroy al Qaeda is not the way of bullets. It depends on the Afghan people. Now, I ask you, America came here with the aim of destroying terrorism and the Taliban, and in one day they bombed and pushed out the Taliban. They came for security. Can you say that America was successful in its aim?
Then what is the benefit of America to stay here when the U.S. cannot defeat terrorism? (He laughs, warmly.) So why stay? That will not solve problems. That will create more problems.
One final question, as you are a revered Islamic scholar in Afghanistan, what message do you want to give to the American people?
My message is, it’s not about Americans or Spanish or Afghans, we are a universal family, we are one, so as a brother, my message to the American people is to do not be the victim of wrong policies of the U.S. government, and the people of America should not be the victim of the wrong policies of Israel. For Israeli and Zionists, wrong ideas and policies, American youth mustn’t be killed in war in Afghanistan. All these things go back to Israel and Israeli policies. Not Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria.
We take a picture together, which he asks me not to publish, and we walk together to the door. He embraces me and says, “You must become a Muslim, and move to Afghanistan.” I answer, “Then you have to find me a nice Afghan girl to marry.” He laughs and takes his leave. His son, who translated our discussion, invites me to stay and hang out at the mosque for the evening, but I have another interview at the City Center mall. He tells me that I am welcome back, any time.