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Special Report

Islam on the defensive


President George W. Bush has insisted that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the U.S. response to them are not about Islam but about terrorism. In the immediate aftermath of the events, many agreed. Muslim clerics around the world denounced the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that left approximately three thousand people dead.

While Osama bin Laden, the alleged instigator of the terrorist hijackings, portrayed the attacks and the retaliatory bombing by the United States as a clash of civilizations and called on Muslims to rise up against the infidels, a chorus of voices both inside and outside the Muslim world said bin Laden’s views represented a perversion of Islam.

More recently, some voices have spoken out to suggest that the conflict between the United States and Osama bin Laden and his followers is more rooted in the nature of Islam than its defenders conveyed.

Writing for The New York Times Magazine in a piece titled “This is a Religious War,” Andrew Sullivan argued that the religious dimensions of the conflict are central to its meaning.

Salman Rushdie wrote a Nov. 2 New York Times opinion piece, “Yes, This is About Islam,” in which he spoke of the need for a depoliticized Islam that would assume the secularist-humanist principles on which modernity is based. Novelist and Nobel prize-winner V.S. Naipaul, long a critic of Islam, assailed the religion once again in an interview published in the Oct. 28 issue of The New York Times Magazine, asserting that a non-fundamentalist Islam was a contradiction in terms. More recently, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman weighed in, arguing, “This is not about terrorism. Terrorism is just a tool. We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism.”

Suddenly Islam itself, not just Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, is under scrutiny, the object of an intellectual inquisition about its values, its history and its compatibility with modern society.

Are the claims true? Is there something inherently intolerant in the nature of Islam that makes it maladapted to modernity and vulnerable to extremism?

These are tricky issues, both because of the complexity of Islam and the diverse range of beliefs within it, and because Osama bin Laden’s brand of Islamic fundamentalism is entwined with political grievances that are widely shared by people in the Mideast, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Morever, in many cases the criticisms of Islam contain simplifications and misunderstandings, not only about Islam but about Western culture and history.

“The key question always has to be, whose Islam are we talking about?” said Professor R.K. Ramazani, professor emeritus of government and foreign relations at the University of Virginia. “The reason for that is there are 1 billion Muslims in the world scattered all over the world from Indonesia to West Africa and they have extremely diverse subcultures. The way of looking at Islam in Egypt is not the same as in Saudi Arabia or in Iran. This is why it is so difficult to talk about whether Islam is prone to violence or fertile soil for terrorists.”

It may be, in fact, the very diversity of Islam that accounts for the contradictions in speaking about it. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, speaks of an authoritarian streak that runs through Muslim culture “from the dining table to the bedroom.” On the other hand, he acknowledges that numerous factors other than religion are responsible for the lack of democratic institutions in the societies of the Middle East.

Few democrats

“How can you have democratic institutions if you have few democrats?” Gerges asked. “This has to do not just with Islam but with political culture, with socialization, with lack of economic growth, with hundreds of years of political oppression. Islam is just one factor in the equation.

“If you look at the various voices within Islam, they are highly diverse. You have enlightened voices, conservative voices, fascist and reactionary voices,” said Gerges.

John O. Voll, professor of Islamic history at Georgetown University’s Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding, notes that of the four most populous Muslim societies, two -- Indonesia and Bangladesh -- are competitive democracies with female heads of state. Of the other two, India is the world’s largest democracy with a large Muslim minority that has actively participated in the political process since India was founded while Pakistan is currently a military dictatorship but also has some tradition of democracy.

Like Indonesia and Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have been headed by women, which should perhaps jostle some stereotypes of Islam, Voll said.

The Georgetown professor described Islam as no more ill prepared to cope with modernity or democracy than Christianity or Judaism.

“All you have to do is walk through the Mea Shearim area in Jerusalem and see the Hasidic Jews concentrated there, who have some difficulty accepting modernity. Or listen to Christian fundamentalists,” he said. “Jerry Falwell has as much difficulty conceptually coping with global pluralism as bin Laden.”

Similarly, the militancy some people ascribe to Islam is equally present in the other monotheistic religious traditions, where an emphasis on the primacy of one god and one truth leads to distinctions between believers and unbelievers. Intrinsic in Judaism, Christianity and Islam is the idea that you serve your God through charity and love and also through war, Voll said, noting that all three religions contain strains that make it possible to argue both for and against the concept of the just war.

People sometimes conveniently forget that while Jesus said, “Love your enemy,” Jesus also said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace. I came to bring the sword,” Voll said.

“In the same way, the Quran says fight against the unbeliever and the Quran also says God created us as diverse people so we could learn from each other and compete with each other in doing good.”

Some scholars suggest that the focus on Islam after the terrorist attacks is misleading because it bypasses anti-Americanism as a staple of Arab politics, irrespective of religion.

“The United States has managed to alienate most of the rising social classes in the Arab and Muslim world,” said Gerges, author of American and Political Islam: Clash of Interests or Clash of Cultures? “The Islamists do not differ from other social and political groups in anti-American sentiment.”

Accumulated grievances

Mumtaz Ahmad, professor of political science at Hampton University, Hampton, Va., noted that a host of grievances have accumulated in the Middle East. They relate both to America’s perceived blind support for Israel, despite Israel’s violations of U.N. resolutions and international laws, and to U.S. support for dictatorial, oppressive regimes that serve the United States’ own short-term strategic purposes.

With no way of legally changing the regimes they live under, people are driven to violent, underground activities. Often the mosque is the only place where people can freely meet and mingle.

“Islam has become an important variable in this whole drama only because the people who indulge in terrorism are doing it in the name of Islam,” Ahmad said. “That’s the only Islamic relevance to the events of Sept. 11. No less. No more.”

Like others, Ahmad said Osama bin Laden’s extremist viewpoints are unrepresentative of Islam. Ramazani calls bin Laden’s views downright “un-Islamic” and a “fringe perspective within Islam.”

Fringe perspective it may be, but theologian Fr. James Fredericks believes it’s a mistake to dismiss the religious faith bin Laden and his followers subscribe to as un-Islamic, even if it is atypical. Fredericks, a professor who teaches comparative theology at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, draws an analogy with Christianity and its troubled and troubling history of anti-Semitism.

“The idea of justifying Christian anti-Semitism from the teaching of Jesus is just wrong,” Fredericks said. “Therefore, there’s the temptation to say that Christians who are anti-Semites are not true Christians. That kind of approach can excuse Christians from looking into their own tradition, and into some dark and ugly corners of the history of Christianity.”

Muslims, too, have an obligation to look at their own tradition and the social, institutional, political and theological problems Islam faces, said Fredericks, who described Islam today as challenged both by secularism and the effects of colonialism.

“In United States we’ve worked out this tentative arrangement where religion is relegated to the private sphere but on occasion takes on this very public voice, like Martin Luther King,” said Fredericks. “That is what Islam is struggling with. In a lot of Muslim societies, they’ve tried to become modern nations like in the West where religion is a purely private matter. What it’s brought them is corruption, economic injustice, immorality and social inequality. So what I hear them saying is that no, this is not what we want. We don’t want to become decadent like in the West. What we want is a society based on justice and morality, and we’re not going to find this in the Western secular model.”

Instead, many Muslims are looking to a revived and renewed Islam that will provide the basis for a just society. “Some of these Islamic voices are not all that different from Christian liberation theologians,” Fredericks said. “Both are very public religious voices calling for justice and critiquing economic inequality and immorality.”

Fredericks noted that Christianity’s adaptation to pluralism and secularism is the result of long and painful struggle. It was only in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, that the Roman Catholic church officially endorsed freedom of religion.

Today, he said, two kinds of Christians disagree with the current Western model of privatized religion: Jerry Falwell and Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, both of whom believe Christian truth and morality should be very much in the public sphere.

Unlike Islam, Christianity worked out its way of living with modernity without also having to deal with the cultural interruption imposed by colonialism, Fredericks said.

“Modernity was forced on Islam through colonialism. The fact that we would have violent reactions and that we would have many, many voices in the Islamic world saying at times contradictory things should come as no surprise,” said Fredericks.

“What Westerners need to take seriously is that the secular model is not the only option for being a modern nation. I don’t think Westerners understand that. We just presume that any Muslims who say ‘We want a Muslim society’ are leading their people back to the ‘Middle Ages.’ Westerners can’t imagine any other form of modernity than to be secular.”

Graham Fuller, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer and a retired vice-chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, views the discussion of Islam as part of a broader discussion of the borderline between religion and politics that relates to all religions. Interestingly, in the case of Islam there are many more explicit ideals of good governance expressed in the Quran than there are in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament, Fuller said.

“The word democracy does not appear in the Bible, the Old and New Testament, but in the Quran and the words of the Prophet there is explicit recognition that one of the qualities of good governance is that the ruler must consult the people as to what is to be done. Muslim activists interpret that as meaning democratic government. Most Islamists strongly seek democracy in their own countries because they believe they would do well in such a system,” he said. “They claim the United States does not want to see democracy come to the Middle East because the United States does not want Islamists to come to power, whether moderate or radical.”

Like other commentators, Fuller said political Islam is simply one of the more potent contemporary expressions of a deep body of grievances that has developed in parts of the Muslim world. While many Muslim movements are turning to the political ideas expressed in the Quran as an inspiration for overturning unjust and corrupt regimes, only a tiny portion of those movements have turned violent, he said.

“To say the problem is in Islam any more than to say the basic problem in Northern Ireland is Christianity or acts of Jewish terror in Israel is Judaism … is to blame the religion for distortions or selective and narrow interpretations of it,” said Fuller. Though Americans are focused on the dangers of religious extremism, Fuller said most Muslims would point out that the most hideous crimes of the 20th century were committed in Europe, not in the name of religion but ideology.

Americans focus on menace

If a common impression is that Islam is a religion of extremists, some scholars said it’s in part because Americans, not unnaturally, are engaged by what they perceive as menacing.

“One of the reasons that Americans perceive Islam as anti-democratic and anti-pluralistic and prone to violence is that we tend to be more interested and engaged with those dimensions of Islam that are threatening to us and less interested in those dimensions that are compatible with our values,” said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation. “That image of Islam as a defiant force against the West, as a militant body seeking to overthrow democratic values, is precisely what the Islamic extremists want us to believe,” Appleby said. “It’s only a small part of the larger, more complex picture of Islam.”

Some of the recent criticisms of Islam suggest that many American Christians misunderstand their own history.

One of the most common statements made about Islam today is that it needs a Reformation. That opinion, Voll noted, ignores the fact that the Reformation ushered in almost a century of Europe’s bloodiest wars.

“People pick a symbol and then they conveniently forget the historical reality,” Voll said. “What most people mean when they say what Islam needs is a Reformation is that it needs to have thinkers who reformulate Islamic theology in modern terms.”

According to Voll, Islam has such thinkers. “The classic case is the great Egyptian intellectual Muhammad Abduh, who lived at the end of the 19th century and who provided a rearticulation of Islam in modern terms,” Voll said.

The recent scrutiny of Islam may offer a mirror in which Americans can see not only others’ values but their own. At least some of the responses to reports of Islamic terrorists’ religious motivations suggest how far materially secure Americans have progressed toward secularism, how far removed is the power of religion as a motivating force.

In an essay titled “Visions of Sacrifice” in the Oct. 17 issue of The Christian Century, Appleby discusses Attorney General John Ashcroft and journalist Bob Woodward’s professions of shock at a letter written by Mohamed Atta, one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, containing prayers and exhortations to martyrdom.

“One of the reasons America misunderstands Islam is that we’ve lost touch with the kind of devotion and self-sacrifice that traditional religion can evoke in its followers,” Appleby told NCR.

In his essay Appleby writes that Muslim extremists hate Americans because we cast off orthodox Christianity in the 1960s for a materialistic, liberalized, compromising approach to faith, which they despise in their own co-religionists.

“They hate us, most of all, for ignoring them and for underestimating the power of their faith,” Appleby writes. “And faith it is, however twisted, distorted, un-Islamic and sinful we deem its expression.”

Margot Patterson is senior writer for NCR. Her e-mail address is mpatterson@nat cath.org

Related Web site

Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001