'Religion is Morally Neutral'

During the harshest years of apartheid, Desmond Tutu was always an outspoken voice of conscience. The 73-year-old Anglican archbishop faced down dirty tricks, arrests and assassination threats to lead protest marches and highlight racial injustice in his native South Africa. And when his country finally became a democracy in 1994, Tutu went on to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission--a widely-admired panel that granted amnesty to human rights violators and set a global model for other countries trying to come to terms with legacies of political violence.

Now Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, wants to move out of the public eye. "I'm striving to cut down and have a much more contemplative lifestyle," he told NEWSWEEK. That, however, may be easier said than done. The winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize is continuing to have his say, describing the U.S. invasion of Iraq as "immoral" and criticizing South African President Thabo Mbeki--successor to Nelson Mandela--for Mbeki's policies on poverty and AIDS.

Tutu spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz from his home in Johannesburg about the tsunami tragedy, God, Iraq and his astonishment at the re-election of George W. Bush. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK:We are entering 2005 with the news dominated by the tsunamis that have claimed such an awful death toll in Asia.

DESMOND TUTU: It's a devastating event and one wants to express, however inadequately, deep sympathies and condolences to all the bereaved. This reminds us that in the midst of life we are in death, and shows how utterly vulnerable we human beings are. But a wonderful thing is seeing how selfless people have been when, for example we hear about them diving into the surf to rescue people.

The United Nations relief coordinator has accused wealthy Western nations of being "stingy" in their aid to the affected nations. What type of aid would you like to see?

One just hopes that the world will continue to respond with what is usually remarkable generosity and compassion. Obviously, the more prosperous you are, the more one would hope you would be able to do that.

You said recently that if forgiveness and dialogue were possible in post-apartheid South Africa, the same could be true for Iraq. What impact do you expect the Jan. 30 elections to have there?

Any normal human being ought to be feeling considerable outrage and deep, deep, deep hurt for so-called ordinary [Iraqi] people. We hardly ever hear about what the casualties have been on that side. How I wish that politicians could have the courage and the humility to admit that they have made mistakes. President Bush and Prime Minister [Tony] Blair and whoever supported the invasion ought at least to have the decency to say [they] went into this war because [they] were given the wrong reasons for going to war. I do not know that you are able to have any meaningful election [in Iraq] in the present circumstances--where you are never sure, when you get into a car and you drive along the roadside, [whether] the other car that is coming towards you is carrying bombs that might explode in your face.

Yet other countries--South Africa's first all-race election 10 years ago is one notable example--have managed to hold successful elections in spite of pre-poll violence.

There are things that give you some kind of hope. Most people don't want violence. [But] who in the awful situation of Iraq genuinely represents the people? The [interim government] that was put there by the United States can't really claim to have any genuine credibility. Fortunately in South Africa [in 1994] we knew who genuinely represented us. I do not really see that we have a like situation there [in Iraq.]

You said George Bush should admit that he made a mistake. Were you surprised at his re-election?

[Laughs] I still can't believe that it really could have happened. Just look at the facts on the table: He'd gone into a war having misled people--whether deliberately or not--about why he went to war. You would think that would have knocked him out [of the race.] It didn't. Look at the number of American soldiers who have died since he claimed that the war had ended. And yet it seems this doesn't make most Americans worry too much. I was teaching in Jacksonville, Fla., [during the election campaign] and I was shocked, because I had naively believed all these many years that Americans genuinely believed in freedom of speech. [But I] discovered there that when you made an utterance that was remotely contrary to what the White House was saying, then they attacked you. For a South African the deja vu was frightening. They behaved exactly the same way that used to happen here [during apartheid]--vilifying those who are putting forward a slightly different view.

Do you see any other parallels with white-ruled South Africa?

Look at the [detentions in] Guantanamo Bay. You say, why do you detain people without trial in the fashion that you have done? And when they give the answer security, you say no, no, no, this can't be America. This is what we used to hear in South Africa. It's unbelievable that a country that many of us have looked to as the bastion of true freedom could now have eroded so many of the liberties we believed were upheld almost religiously. [But] feeling as devastated in many ways as I am, it is wonderful to find that there are [also] Americans who have felt very strongly [about administration policies]--the people who turned out for rallies against the war. One always has to be very careful not to do what we used to do here, where you generalize very facilely, and one has to remember that there are very many Americans who are feeling deeply distressed about what has taken place in their country. We take our hats off to them.

Talking about religion, much has been said about the role it played in the White House race. What do you say to those who believe that Bush was chosen by God?

[Laughs] I keep having to remind people that religion in and of itself is morally neutral. Religion is like a knife. When you use a knife for cutting up bread to prepare sandwiches, a knife is good. If you use the same knife to stick into somebody's guts, a knife is bad. Religion in and of itself is not good or bad--it is what it makes you do... Frequently, fundamentalists will say this person is the anointed of God if the particular person is supporting their own positions on for instance, homosexuality, or abortion. [I] feel so deeply saddened [about it]. Do you really believe that the Jesus who was depicted in the Scriptures as being on the side of those who were vilified, those who were marginalized, that this Jesus would actually be supporting groups that clobber a group that is already persecuted? That's a Christ I would not worship. I'm glad that I believe very fervently that Jesus would not be on the side of gay bashers. To think that people say, as they used to say, that AIDS was God's punishment for homosexuality. Abominable. Abominable.

Is this bigotry masquerading as faith?

No. I think there are people who do believe things genuinely. Bush followed the example of President [Ronald] Reagan--to be very simplistic. Bush said we are the goodies, those are the baddies, [just] as Reagan said about the Soviets--that they were the evil empire. President Bush has found much the same kind of thing: that people don't like ambiguities.

Do your comments about fundamentalism extend to fundamentalist Islam as well?

It's true of every faith, that there are those people who frequently are able to provide people with simplistic answers. Life is far more complicated than we would like it to be, but we actually don't like having to work through its ambiguities. We wish we could have straightforward answers. It's not just in terms of religion--you see it in things like ethnic cleansing. Part of the reason for ethnic cleansing is that one group says we don't like people who are different from us. We want people who think like us, people who look like us, and we want to eradicate any of the diversities. We find it far easier to be in the "against" mode than in the "for" mode.

So have the attacks of September 11 and the so-called war on terror given America and its allies another focal point?

Yes. There's no question at all. It appears as if we need enemies for our self identification.

What are your hopes for Africa in 2005?

I would like to see greater discrimination. When something happens in one country in Africa, the whole continent gets to be condemned. People don't make the distinctions that, for instance, there's been democracy ever since the colonial period ended in Botswana, for instance. They don't say, 'hey look at South Africa.' Africa is just seen as an undifferentiated whole, and mostly it's the bad things that make the news and those are the things that determine what the world thinks of Africa.

Your bitter public argument with President Thabo Mbeki recently made headlines in southern Africa. He claimed you had not demonstrated "decent respect for the truth" after you said his ruling African National Congress (ANC) had stifled debate on Zimbabwe, AIDS and poverty; you responded that he had called you "a liar with scant regard for the truth and a charlatan posing with his concern for the poor." How is your relationship after an exchange like that?

[Laughs.] Well, I'm always friendly. But I generally try to tell the truth as I see it. I don't claim to be infallible, but I've done that throughout my career here. I support a lot of things that [the South African government] is doing. I'm not a member of the ANC and I've never been a member of any political party [but] I think they've done well. Given where we come from, it is remarkable. But we do have the capacity, the potential, to become a really scintillating success. And we ought to be concentrating on some of the things I identified. It wasn't a hostile attack... and I was a little surprised at the vehemence of the president's response. But given my own record, that isn't anything that would intimidate me. If I wanted to, I could respond almost in the same vein that I used to respond to the apartheid legislators. But I'm retired and do not really want to engage in slanging matches.

So you're going to continue to speak out if you think it's necessary?

I'm not keen at the moment to be in the public eye. I'm striving to cut down and have a more contemplative lifestyle. I'd like to be more quiet, I'd like to be more reflective and yes, contemplative in the Christian sense of trying to spend more time in prayer and so on. But this is the country I love, and I want to see our government succeed. When the opportunity presents itself I will give due praise where that is due and point out the things that I think need further attention.

Mbeki has been widely criticized for being slow to make anti-AIDS drugs available to the poor of South Africa, which has the world's highest number of people with HIV. Is the situation improving?

I think our government has done a great deal less than it should have. We spent a great deal of time in academic discussions while people were dying, and that is deeply distressing.

You have been treated for prostate cancer. How is your health now?

I'm fine. [Laughs.] I sometimes say to people that when they heard upstairs there was a prospect of my coming, there was considerable consternation and they said, "No, no, no, not that guy. Keep him down there, we couldn't possibly manage him up here."