Listening for Islam's silent majority
As Osama bin Laden calls for a jihad, and militants rally, where are the moderate Muslims?
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Moderate Islamic leaders all over the Middle East "are between a rock and a hard place right now," says John Esposito, who heads the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "President Bush has given them a polar choice - they are with us or they are against us. Many of them are totally against what happened on Sept. 11, but they are not going to be thrilled if the war against terrorism is broadened to attacks on other countries," such as Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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A one-page flyer, stacked in a pile on a shoe rack at the London mosque, made the same point. "Bin Laden and Bush have both called on the world to be 'either with us or against us' " read the anonymous protest, titled "Bombing and killing and assassination do not win hearts and minds."
"The free-thinking citizens of the world reject both these simplistic calls," it continued. "We condemn the loss of innocent lives, wherever it occurs. We appeal to our leaders to stop this mad war immediately and instead make a stand for diplomacy, justice, and the rule of law."
Even in Paris, where the mood is calmer than in many Middle Eastern capitals, the director of the Great Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, has judged it wiser to instruct his imams not to speak out too bluntly against the radicals just yet. "The train is still going at 120 miles an hour," he says. "We have to wait for things to cool down. For the time being, our sermons are calling on people to reflect and to be vigilant."
That is not a terribly dramatic or appealing message when set against the stirring calls for jihad that Dr. Boubakeur says "are ravaging our young people." The devil, he says, has all the best tunes.
And they are especially catchy among disaffected, frustrated and disillusioned people, who can be found by the tens of millions in poor and struggling Muslim countries. It is their despair that makes the radicals' interpretation of jihad so appealing, although orthodox Muslim scholars universally have repeated time and again in recent weeks that, properly understood, jihad is acceptable only as a defensive war against aggression.
But that hasn't stopped Taliban leaders and Osama bin Laden from calling for Muslim support. The latest video-taped recording was broadcast Saturday by the al-Jazeera television channel. "It is fundamentally a question of a religious war ... the peoples of the East being Muslims, and those of the West being Christians," said renegade Saudi millionaire Mr. bin Laden. He called on Muslims to "defend their religion and their brothers in Afghanistan" against the "crusade" being led by the US.
In the West, the destruction of the World Trade Center has galvanized some Muslim leaders to raise their voices publicly against the vitriolic strain of Islam that bin Laden has espoused.
And yesterday, Amr Mussa, the head of the Arab League, resoundingly rejected bin Laden's call to join in a "religious" war against the Christian West. "Bin Laden does not speak in the name of the Arabs and Muslims," Mr. Mussa told journalists in Damascus.
"I now feel responsible to preach, actually to go on a jihad [holy war] against extremism ... and to urge other religious leaders" to do the same, says Siraj Wahaj, the imam of the Tawqa mosque in Brooklyn, New York, and a prominent voice in American Islam.
"Up to now, people would speak frankly about Muslim governments or movements within the [American Muslim] community, yet were reluctant to criticize publicly," adds Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America. "But that's all changed."
Outside America and Europe, however, Muslim condemnations of the Sept. 11 events have often been muted or hedged.