Listening for Islam's silent majority
As Osama bin Laden calls for a jihad, and militants rally, where are the moderate Muslims?
(Page 3 of 5)
In many Islamic countries, in fact, significant numbers of people refuse to accept that bin Laden, or any other Muslim, was responsible for the attacks, preferring to believe conspiracy theories blaming them on Israel or on other culprits.Skip to next paragraph
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Rare are the authoritative voices from mosque pulpits or TV studios prepared to confront Muslim audiences with the thought that "there are people in Islam who are ready to do this sort of thing, and this is where we have to start with our self-criticism," as Tariq Ramadan - a leading advocate of Islamic reform in Europe - puts it.
Mr. Ramadan, based in Geneva, argues in his books and lectures that Muslims must condemn the use of force, and embark on theological reforms to encourage a less literal reading of the Koran than fundamentalist Muslims advocate.
Only that kind of "Islamic Reformation," he says, can modernize his religion so that it embraces the scientific and social changes that have transformed the world since Islam's holy texts were written, but which extremists reject as haram, or forbidden.
In a religion that has no papacy or other central authority to lay down the law, Islamic scholars, writers, and imams in many Muslim countries have argued on and off for decades in favor of such changes, hoping they would open up their religion to broader influences.
But they have never succeeded in gathering much popular support. "The voices in favor of authentic pluralism are not nearly sufficient among Muslims," says Farid Esack, a South African Muslim theologian who was Nelson Mandela's minister for gender equality.
"Today I see a debate opening, but only among a few individuals," worries Malek Chebel, a Paris-based French-Algerian scholar whose own eclectic interests are evident from his crowded bookshelves, where a tome on Sufi mysticism sits between a biography of Jimi Hendrix and a book about war in cyberspace.
Dr. Chebel and others like him, who call themselves "moderates" or "modernizers" or "tolerant Muslims," complain that one of their problems is a lack of money and other resources.
Wealthy businessmen from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries - some of them members of ruling royal families - have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into charities that have built mosques and religious schools promoting Wahhabism, a particularly austere version of Islam, all over the world, from Bosnia to Malaysia, from the US to Chechnya.
It was Saudi money, too, that funded the religious schools in Pakistan where the Taliban movement was born.
"We don't have petrodollars to promote liberal Islam," laments Boubakeur, of the Grand Mosque in Paris. "It would help if they just cut off their support to the others," the radical Islamic ideologists, he adds.
Though the vast majority of ordinary Muslims everywhere are as constitutionally pre-disposed to moderation as anyone else, moderate-minded leaders are not anywhere near as active as their radical colleagues when it comes to organizing storefront mosques, setting up neighborhood clinics, or establishing simple schools.
"We express ourselves in books and in universities, but not on the street," acknowledges Chebel. "We have to reform our methods. If we are not heard, it is partly our own fault."
On the other side of the world, Ulil Abshar Abdallah, an official of Nahdlatul Ulamam, Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, agrees. "We've been terrible communicators," he says. While traditional Indonesian Muslim leaders were mulling over religious paradoxes and disputes about the lives of long-dead saints, "radical Muslims have been presenting a simple yet comprehensive ideology that can be grasped by common people."
Mr. Ulil and like-minded religious leaders - both Christian and Muslim - recently created the Indonesian Council on Religion and Peace to counter a tide of intolerance that was rising even before the US war on Afghanistan began. So far the council's work consists of brainstorming sessions in search of effective ways to get that message out. "It's not an easy battle we're fighting," he says.