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Moderate Islam: is there hope?

Posted by Richard on July 31, 2005

Friday, I posted about Italian journalist Fiamma Nirenstein’s depressing look at how the friends and relatives of the Sharm el-Sheik bombing victims felt about these terrorist attacks. In a nutshell, they deplored such acts, but were certain that Muslims weren’t to blame; it had to be the work of Israelis and Americans. If that’s how "mainstream" Arab Muslims generally think, it’s grounds for serious pessimism.

Today at Winds of Change, Donald Sensing offers evidence for a contrary, more optimistic view of the future of "mainstream" Islam. He cites an AP story about prominent voices in Egypt speaking out sharply:

Stunned by terror attacks at a Red Sea resort, Egyptians are having a remarkably frank debate about whether mosques and schools — and the government itself — should be blamed for promoting Islamic extremism.

Even pro-government media say authorities have created a climate where young people are turning into radicals and suicide bombers.

The debate since Sharm has been a deepening of the soul-searching across the Arab world in recent years over whether religious interpretations need reform in the face of attacks by Muslim radicals.

The debate began, hesitantly, after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. And the voices have grown with each act of terrorism — particularly ones in the Middle East. A series of attacks in Saudi Arabia in 2003 forced that country to begin acting against extremist thought.

What was unusual about the self-criticism after Sharm was that it came from government media — and even from within the Islamic clerical hierarchy picked by the government.

"There is no use denying. … We incited the crime of Sharm el-Sheik," ran a bold red headline of a lead editorial Wednesday by Al-Musawwar’s editor in chief, Abdel-Qader Shohaib.

The bombers "are a product of a society that produces extremist fossilized minds that are easy to be controlled," Shohaib wrote.

Go read Sensing’s entire post. He has much more, and it’s not Pollyanna-ish; he’s appropriately cautious and notes some of the mixed signals (although he seems not to question the sincerity of the Fiqh Council’s recent fatwah here in the U.S.; for a more critical view, see The Counterterrorism Blog).

As usual, Little Green Footballs offers plenty of posts and links for you to chew on, and most of them don’t encourage optimism. For instance, there’s this report on British police cooperation with a leading "moderate" Muslim cleric:

British police invited the most respected Islamic cleric in Birmingham to join them in a press conference promoting cooperation between Muslims and law enforcement.

They were shocked … shocked! … when Sheikh Mohammad Naseem proceeded to call Tony Blair a liar, and said DNA evidence is meaningless, the bombing suspects could have been “innocent passengers,” and there’s no such thing as Al Qaeda.

And LGF linked to The Spectator’s fascinating new cover story, "The myth of moderate Islam" by Patrick Sookhdeo (registration required; try BugMeNot). Its picture of the Muslim community in Britain gives pause:

On 8 July the London-based Muslim Weekly unblushingly published a lengthy opinion article by Abid Ullah Jan entitled ‘Islam, Faith and Power’. The gist of the article is that Muslims should strive to gain political and military power over non-Muslims, that warfare is obligatory for all Muslims, and that the Islamic state, Islam and Sharia (Islamic law) should be established throughout the world. All is supported with quotations from the Koran. It concludes with a veiled threat to Britain. The bombings the previous day were a perfect illustration of what Jan was advocating, and the editor evidently felt no need to withdraw the article or to apologise for it. His newspaper is widely read and distributed across the UK.

Sookhdeo explains the problem with Islamic scholarship: The Koran is full of contradictory texts, so the scholars adopted

… the rule of abrogation, which states that wherever contradictions are found, the later-dated text abrogates the earlier one. To elucidate further the original intention of Mohammed, they referred to traditions (hadith) recording what he himself had said and done. Sadly for the rest of the world, both these methods led Islam away from peace and towards war. For the peaceable verses of the Koran are almost all earlier, dating from Mohammed’s time in Mecca, while those which advocate war and violence are almost all later, dating from after his flight to Medina. Though jihad has a variety of meanings, including a spiritual struggle against sin, Mohammed’s own example shows clearly that he frequently interpreted jihad as literal warfare and himself ordered massacre, assassination and torture.

So there is plenty of justification available for the Islamist interpretation of Islam. And Britain’s embrace of multiculturalism certainly hasn’t helped soften and modernize Muslim thinking, suggesting this frightening future (emphasis added):

British Muslims now have Sharia in areas of finance and mortgages; halal food in schools, hospitals and prisons; faith schools funded by the state; prayer rooms in every police station in London; and much more. This process has been assisted by the British government through its philosophy of multiculturalism, which has allowed some Muslims to consolidate and create a parallel society in the UK.

The Muslim community now inhabits principally the urban centres of England as well as some parts of Scotland and Wales. It forms a spine running down the centre of England from Bradford to London, with ribs extending east and west. It is said that within 10 to 15 years most British cities in these areas will have Muslim-majority populations, and will be under local Islamic political control, with the Muslim community living under Sharia.

What happens after this stage depends on which of the two main religious traditions among Pakistani-background British Muslims gains the ascendancy. The Barelwi majority believe in a slow evolution, gradually consolidating their Muslim societies, and finally achieving an Islamic state. The Deobandi minority argue for a quicker process using politics and violence to achieve the same result. Ultimately, both believe in the goal of an Islamic state in Britain where Muslims will govern their own affairs and, as the finishing touch, everyone else’s affairs as well.

Thus, according to Sookhdeo, the peaceful majority and violent minority both agree on the goal: Sharia law and dhimmitude for all the infidels. They disagree only on the means to best achieve the goal.

Sookdheo argues that Muslims must begin a difficult, painful, and profoundly fundamental reform of their faith:

They must with honesty recognise the violence that has existed in their history in the same way that Christians have had to do, for Christianity has a very dark past. Some Muslims have, with great courage, begun to do this.

Secondly, they must look at the reinterpretation of their texts, the Koran, hadith and Sharia, and the reformation of their faith. Mundir Badr Haloum has described this as ‘exorcising’ the terrorism from Islam. …

Such reform — the changing of certain fairly central theological principles — will not be easy to achieve. It will be a long, hard road for Islam to get its house in order so that it can co-exist peacefully with the rest of society in the 21st century.

He sees some indications of this happening. Read the whole thing.

Is there hope for moderate Islam? I think there are positive signs, but I wish there were more. Whenever I see a story about the future of Islam, I keep my fingers crossed and repeat to myself "the transformational power of Liberty, the transformational power of Liberty…"  

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