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Program 9846
November 17, 1998

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.


JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground. Can you remember twenty years ago? If you can, do you remember Jonestown?

KIT NASCIMIENTO: Yeah, they not only knew, they saw the results of it. It’s a pretty horrible death. It’s quick but very agonizing. You could hear the screams on the tape.

MARTIN: In this edition of Common Ground, a look back at the slaughter that happened in Jonestown, Guyana.

JANET JAGAN: So they had poisons, they had arms, they had an isolated community and they had a nut at the top. So what happened, happened.

MARTIN: And then later in this program, the concerns of Muslims in America. Many of them bristle at the way their religion is abused by extremists and portrayed in the American media.

KAREEM GHULDARI: When it comes to terrorism Muslims condemn the terrorist acts because it’s against the nature of the religion itself.

MARTIN: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.

MARTIN: Twenty years ago this month, on November 18, tragedy befell a commune located in the jungle of Guyana. Mary Gray-Davidson reports.

[sounds of jungle insects]

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: There’s a peaceful air about the rain forest in Guyana that belies the tragedy that took place here two decades ago. The jungle grows quickly and the clearing that was once called Jonestown is barely discernible from the rest of the forest. What took place here in 1978 is unfathomable. No one can really answer what possessed 914 people to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in a mass suicide. All we have are the facts and a recording Jones made during the hours-long suicide ritual. Kit Nascimiento, an advisor to the President of Guyana at the time, became the country’s spokesperson in the weeks following the discovery of Jones’s temple of doom. The cult leader apparently became unglued when a U.S. congressman, Leo Ryan, went to Guyana to investigate allegations that Jones was keeping people against their will. As Ryan and his delegation were preparing to leave, Jones had the Congressman and members of party murdered at the nearby airstrip.

NASCIMIENTO: Jones, realizing then, when they, his gunmen, reported back to him, that news would have gone out of this, called the whole community together. And they had rehearsed these suicides on a number of previous occasions, apparently, on the grounds that they, sooner or later the U.S. government would send to get them. And that they were, they regarded themselves as fugitives from an oppressive American regime, who had disenfranchised black Americans, essentially. Most of the community were black. Jones preached socialism. And I think attempted to practice it at one time. So they had had these sort of final fleeing and going off to heaven rehearsals. That was not known to any of us until after the—I mean the government of Guyana didn’t know, the U.S. Embassy—I’ll go back into that if you want me to—but they, this came out afterwards in the literature, etc. that we found. So he said this was the real thing this time. And he got the Kool-Aid up there with the acid in it and he talked them through, literally talked them through one at a time, coming up and drinking it.

DAVIDSON: Did they know?


DAVIDSON: That it was the real thing?

NASCIMIENTO: Yes. Yeah, they not only knew, they saw the results of it. It’s a pretty horrible death. It’s quick but very agonizing. You could hear the screams on the tape. And you could hear the whole community beginning to wail. He had placed his gunmen, three or four of them I think, around the hall. It was a sort of open-air hall, but with a cover—no walls. So he had contained them in case anyone wanted to run or leave. But there didn’t appear to be much desire to do that. Until the last person, until he and his wife were left, apparently. This is not clear, but the evidence suggests this. His wife then shot him. He did not drink it. And then she drank it. Either she drank it or she shot herself; that I can’t remember.

DAVIDSON: And their children? Did their children die?

NASCIMIENTO: Everyone was there: the son, the adopted son; every single person on site, including the guards. There was no one alive at all. There were only about five or six Guyanese who—it was an American community. It was not a Guyanese community. It was an American phenomenon. It was an American cultist phenomenon. And I remember very well Brokaw, who at that time the American press were looking for a scapegoat. They wanted to blame somebody because American journalists had died. And they were looking for someone to blame. And they thought the Guyana government was as good as anybody to blame. Didn’t turn out that way in the end. And I remember Brokaw asking me, the first question to me on the “Today Show,” was “Mr. Minister”—I was a minister in the government then—and he said, “Mr. Minister you must be very concerned about the reputation of your government?” And I fired right back by saying, “I don’t see why I should be. Both the murderers and the victims were Americans.”

DAVIDSON: Guyana’s current President, Janet Jagan, the wife of former Communist President Cheddy Jagin?? and the political opponent of Forbes Burnham, does lay part of the blame on Burnham and the government that Kit Nascimiento worked for.

JAGAN: I’ve always diagnosed that one of the reasons you had the massacre—or whatever it was, suicide, massacre—at Jonestown was because the Burnham government allowed them to isolate the community. All through Guyana there are no isolated communities. There are none. People move back and forth as they want. But he allowed Jonestown to become isolated and allowed them to have guards around the place. So that, they, the people in Jonestown didn’t go out and mingle with the communities outside. And normally there would be hucksters, people coming, buying, selling, business back and forth. But he allowed a barrier. It’s the only place in Guyana there was ever a community enclosed. It was an enclosure. That’s how they became psychologically attuned to what happened, because they were isolated. It’s the only place in Guyana ever isolated. No communities are isolated.

And secondly he allowed them all sorts of privileges. We have strong control of arms. We have very strong laws on licensing of firearms. And they had numerous unlicensed firearms there, which he allowed it. He allowed them to have an international radio without going through the normal controls. He allowed them to have poisons. We have strong laws on who is allowed to keep poisons. Pharmacies have to apply for the right to have poisons. They have to send in periodical records on what poisons they have. All of that. So he just allowed them to do what they wanted. So they had poisons, they had arms, they had an isolated community and they had a nut at the top. So what happened, happened.

DAVIDSON: But Kit Nascimiento, advisor to President Forbes Burnham in 1978, says the Jonestown commune had broken no laws that they knew of. And besides the Guyanese government was happy to let the commune be a buffer between Guyana and its neighbor Venezuela, who were in dispute over the territory where Jonestown was located.

NASCIMIENTO: Of course I was well aware of the fact that the People’s Temple was a strategic settlement for the Guyana government. We were threatened by a Venezuelan invasion. And the People’s Temple arrived and they proposed this settlement in which they would develop a major agricultural facility in the middle of the jungle. And where in the middle of the jungle? Well, right in the middle of where the Venezuelans were claiming. And who were they? They were Americans. So Burnham thought, “Fine. Great idea. Let the Venezuelans come marching through an American settlement and kill Americans.” So he saw it both as a development activity, because they had a lot of money and they put a lot of money into that settlement. I mean it was highly viable agricultural settlement. There’s no doubt about it.

DAVIDSON: So they were established?

NASCIMIENTO: Oh, they were extremely established. In fact they were altogether too established as it turned out. Because they sought a degree of autonomy that really they shouldn’t have been allowed. But that’s hindsight. They had their own schools. They had, the guns were merely shotguns, some of which they had been allowed in and were licensed; others they had smuggled in. They were basically there for their personal security. It wasn’t a huge armory as some of the American press implied at the time. But they were very autonomous. They had their own ham radio. They had internal radio facilities between the settlement and Georgetown. They had I think, two houses, rented in Georgetown. They were dependent on the Guyana, country of Guyana for nothing. And they were not really being inspected in the way they should have been. After I had alerted Burnham we put inspection in there; agricultural inspectors went in there, educational inspectors went there. We began to pay more than an ordinary interest in what was going on. But never saw anything that—it came down to this: they were breaking no laws in Guyana. Whatever they’d done or alleged to have done in San Francisco they were breaking absolutely no laws in Guyana. They were good citizens.

DAVIDSON: Unfortunately few people in the world even knew where Guyana was located before Jonestown. The tiny country on the northern tip of South America just didn’t matter until then, says Nascimiento.

NASCIMIENTO: The point I made and kept making at the time when I lectured on this was that it was an interesting example of how the world media see developing nations and how they treat them. They don’t give a shit about the nation. Forgive me for being crude. And they didn’t then. They were only interested in the horror of what happened and looking for the worst possible reasons why Guyana hosted them. They, for instance one of the reasons Guyana hosted them was because we were trying to develop Guyana and they were a means, one means, of developing Guyana. That’s why they were welcomed. They, here’s a country that’s trying to move its population into a completely virgin jungle and develop it. And here are a thousand-odd Americans with loads of money, skills, technology, willing to go in there and say, “Hey, it can be done. Look!” It was a very attractive proposition. Plus of course it had the security aspects of it which I’ve already described to you.

DAVIDSON: Most people in Guyana, it seems, had never heard of Jonestown or the People’s Temple until the massacre. And to this day few have ever seen the site. Dennis Chabrol, now a journalist, was just a boy in 1978. It bothers him that Guyana is known to the outside world only as the country that hosted Jim Jones and his suicide-bound cult.

DENNIS CHABROL: Well, surely there is a lasting impact on Guyana’s image because even as you talk with an American or perhaps even a non-American but a person outside of Guyana, and you say, “Well, I am from Guyana, what do you know of that country.” ‘Oh, well, that old story, except for that Jim Jones.” So for the national image, unfortunately, that incident has put Guyana on the map, not in a very positive way.

DAVIDSON: Have you ever been out to the Jonestown site?

CHABROL: I have not been directly to the site but I have been in the general vicinity of Jonestown. There has been talk by some people who tend to believe that it might be worthwhile having some work done on the area to perhaps make it a tourist attraction.

DAVIDSON: Perhaps that is just a persistent, albeit macabre rumor that someone is going to turn Jonestown into a tourist attraction. I was beginning to believe it after Kit Nascimiento told me he knew of someone wanting to develop the site. But then I came across a book about Jonestown, written by Chiva Nypaul?? in 1980, just after the mass suicide. Even back then, Nypaul was running into people who said Jonestown was going to become a tourist attraction. For now though, Jonestown remains deserted, reclaimed by the forest

[sounds of jungle insects and birds]

DAVIDSON: For Common Ground, I’m Mary Gray Davidson.

MARTIN: We’ll take a break for a moment , and when we return, a report on the fastest-growing religion in America—Islam. It’s practitioners often feel misunderstood.


ANWAR KASMI: And even now, where we see injustices being done to the Muslims, and then in the media they are demonized. And I think that has an affect.

MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MARTIN: Last August, when President Clinton announced U.S. bombing raids on Sudan and Afghanistan to strike back at Islamic extremists, he made a point of saying that Islam is not the enemy of the United States: terrorism is. But for Muslims in America, especially those of Arab heritage, that comment was small comfort. Kaleel Sakakeeny reports on a group who feels their religion is at best misunderstood and more often, reviled.

[sound of public speaker at a large conference]

KALEEL SAKAKEENY: The cavernous hall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology echoes with Koranic recitations and the passions and concerns of speakers addressing the 14th Islamic Conference held here in this world-renowned university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The topics under discussion by Muslims representing several Islamic countries, from Pakistan to Iraq, range from the educational and social services provided by the Ummah??, or Muslim community, to the current state of Islamic organizations in America. Some of the speakers in the background are addressing the role of Islamic organizations and helping to bring an end to the situation where 740,000 children each year from malnutrition and dehydration—a tragedy that Muslim health and welfare groups around the world are addressing, by by-passing sluggish and often indifferent governmental organizations. The Indian Muslim Relief Committee is such a welfare group. And judging from the attendance at the conference, Muslim organizations are alive and well represented here in the states. Attendance is impressive: not surprising since there are about 2,000 mosques in the country, up from just two fifty years ago. Muslim professional organizations touch virtually every aspect of life in the 50 states, including Muslim societies of engineers and scientists, sports groups, women’s groups, Muslim medical groups, and teachers.

But in truth America’s Muslims are on the defensive and in a quandary. When the United States let loose some 79 Tomahawk missiles on the Al-Shiffah pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, Africa’s largest country, and then attacked a rural site in Afghanistan, Muslims in America experienced conflicting emotions. As Americans and as Muslims they deplored the violent attack by alleged Muslim terrorist groups in Nairobi and Dar Es’Salaam. But as members of the Muslim community they also deplored America’s reaction. Impact International, a United Kingdom publication that often reflects the political views of the Islamic community worldwide, asked a very pointed question. If the attack on the American embassy killed innocent people in pursuit of political goals, weren’t the U.S. Tomahawk missiles designed to do the same thing? Kill innocent people in pursuit of political goals. In its editorial, Impact makes the point heard here at the conference, if not exactly in public speeches then certainly in private discussions, that the U.S. action was arguably worse because, according to Impact, in that case a state and not an anonymous group took action against another state. But the reality is, as I heard time and again at this gathering, who in the world has the political weight to challenge the U.S. worldview and its actions?

Muslims are also on the defensive because of the media’s tendency to link Islam to terrorism. Although President Clinton was careful not to condemn Islam the religion or Muslims as practitioners when he ordered the attack, the sense remains that Islam and terrorism are nearly synonymous. Muslims tell me they are especially concerned that mainstream media like the Wall Street Journal add to this misperception. Last August, for example, they pointed out the Journal carried an article by Steve Emerson who basically said that all Muslim organizations are suspect as cover groups supporting worldwide Islamic terrorist activities. I asked Dr. Kareem Ghuldari a practicing Muslim from Iraq and past President of the New England Islamic Council, if America’s Muslim groups could influence U.S. foreign policy, and more importantly, perhaps influence those Muslim groups abroad that may well be involved in terrorist actions.

GHULDARI: The idea of having the Islamic organizations actually to have contact with the Muslim countries are very limited. They have no contact. They consider themselves are American organizations to serve the people in here. But when it comes to political issues they don’t go beyond the boundaries of the United States and they consider these, any issues are actually local. But so far they have been defending themselves. I mean, only in terms of crisis, when there are problem and there is something in the news against Islam, these Islamic organizations in the United States, all that the do is try to protect themselves, explain themselves, and they say “We are not condoning any of those terrorist acts” and then we’d like to have a better understanding what the situation is all about as far as the Muslims in the United States.

SAKAKEENY: But Dr. Ghuldari goes so far so suggest that many terrorist acts supposedly attributed to Muslim groups are in fact committed by groups with no Islamic affiliation whatsoever.

GHULDARI: When it comes to terrorism Muslims condemn the terrorist acts because it’s against the nature of the religion itself. And they are not promoting any of that sort. But political views are heard every now and then in the name of Islam. Some of them actually might be true; some of them might be just put in the name of Muslims and other organizations who try to smear the name of Islam by saying “This is an act which is done by an Islamic organization.” As it happened in Oklahoma City. The immediate accused were the Muslims. And they were not, they were innocent.

SAKAKEENY: So you’re telling me that many groups that say they committed this act in the name of Islam really have nothing to do with Islam.

GHULDARI: That’s correct. And this is, whoever is calling and telling them this act has been done by Muslims, like it happened in the case again in Oklahoma City. You know, people immediately on the radio said, “This is an act of a terrorist.” Or somebody who looks Middle Eastern is accused to be a terrorist.

SAKAKEENY: Anwar Kasmi is a successful businessman and Chairman of the Muslim Relief Committee. He is especially disturbed by the negative images associated with Islam because he believes Islam is probably the world’s most tolerant religion, accepting and revering the prophets of the world like Jesus, Abraham, Noah, Joseph and Moses. But he does acknowledge that the frustration level among Muslims worldwide is very high, sometimes leading to violent acts of protest.

ANWAR KASMI: What we have to really understand is that the vast majority of Muslims come from countries which have gone through several hundred years of a colonial experience. And it is that built-up, that pent-up resentment, and for centuries of treatment. And even now, where we see injustices being done to the Muslims and then in the media they are demonized. And I think that has an effect. This is not meant, you know, to justify terrorism as such. But you know, again, it’s in that light that you can see why some of these people commit these kinds of actions.

SAKAKEENY: Dr. Ghuldari tells me that Muslims worldwide are acutely aware that the U.S. worldview is seldom or ever sensitive to their concerns and aspirations. He too believes that the lack of any legitimate forum for the expression of grievances and alternative viewpoints drives many Muslims and other developing world citizens to despair.

GHULDARI: Recently former Senator Paul Findley had indicated in his publication that the matter is all those terrorist acts is a result of frustration of different groups of people overseas who are actually frustrated with the American foreign policy. Which they don’t want to listen and it seems that the senators and the representatives don’t want to listen to the plight and the problems of people in the Middle East. And one of them, like the peace process. And the Palestinian point of view has not been considered. And Paul Findley, he puts it in such a way that any terrorist act is a matter of war against the country who is not listening to politics and diplomacy. And they want to be heard through the world and see their point of view. And it seems that what Paul Findley is trying to say, that the United States’ foreign policy have to be reconsidered in terms of the problems of other people, and go through negotiation. And understand what are the complaints of people and different parts of the world are saying. And if they don’t listen then the consequences are not that good.

SAKAKEENY: Muslims at this conference are quick to point out that the U.S. is equally quick to accuse countries like Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and people like the Palestinians, of terrorism, but are painfully slow to respond to equivalent acts of terrorism elsewhere in the world. Raising in their minds the question of double standards. Anwar Kasmi.

KASMI: Recently we happened to be at a meeting with the editors, or members of the editorial board of a major newspaper. And there were some Jewish-Americans who were complaining about the almost complete blackout of the violence that is committed by the settlers, for example, in Israel, against the Palestinians, Muslims, and Christians. And there is a complete, it’s not labeled as, it’s never even talked about. Similarly, if you can go back to what happened in Bosnia for example, there are very highly respected Americans who refer to what happened in Bosnia not just over a week or so, but what went on for almost four years, a genocide. Our response to that was very, very mild by comparison. And we never referred to that as terrorism.

[sound of Moslem chants and prayers]

SAKAKEENY: For these Muslim-Americans, whether or not the decision to bomb Sudan and Afghanistan is an example of state-sponsored terrorism, as the magazine Impact implies, is really a matter of conscience and interpretation.

[sound of Moslem chants and prayers]

SAKAKEENY: But all of them agree that the issue isn’t terrorism. Rather it’s Islam. And they are fervently at work trying to get Americans to see their religion for what it is; the third largest religion in the world, the fastest growing religion in America, and more importantly as they see it, a religion that celebrates peace and tolerance. But they acknowledge it’s an uphill struggle.

[sound of Moslem chants and prayers]

SAKAKEENY: I’m Kaleel Sakakeeny in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For Common Ground.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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