Listening for Islam's silent majority
As Osama bin Laden calls for a jihad, and militants rally, where are the moderate Muslims?
(Page 4 of 5)
Mehmet Aydin, a theology professor at the September 9th University in Istanbul in Turkey, says that while the radicals are often visible, "the other [moderate] voices do not have this history ... of rushing out into the street to express your anger, so perhaps they do not come out as strongly as we would like,"Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia or other Gulf sheikhdoms, it is simply forbidden for anyone to take to the streets to protest the state religion. In others, like Egypt and Algeria, where armed Muslim radicals have battled government forces - and intellectual enemies - for years, many moderates are simply too scared of being killed to stand up and be counted.
That fear has spread far and wide. In Pakistan, says a young man who - tellingly - asked not to be named, "it used to be quite OK to publicly criticize a mullah. It was normal. But now I keep silent. The man sitting next to me - I don't know where he stands. And he could take my name to the [militant] brothers."
In Cairo, Said al-Ashmawi, a former judge who has spent the past 20 years speaking out against Islamists seeking to shape Egypt's political life according to Islamic precepts, has needed a police bodyguard for those 20 years. "People like me are intimidated," he says. "Who dares to put himself in such a critical situation?"
And in Algeria, where the Armed Islamic Group has been blamed for tens of thousands of killings, debate among different schools of Islam "practically stopped 10 years ago, when the violence broke out, because everyone was too frightened to publish," says Boubakeur of the Grand Mosque in Paris. "It is terrible, the inquisition that has gone on in Muslim countries."
In a broad, tasteful sitting room in a wealthy Islamabad neighborhood, Fakher Imam and his guests are fighting against religious extremism in a more genteel fashion, over cups of tea, .
The problem, they agree, is not the extremists' religion, or even their idea of holy war. It is that many of them are so poorly educated that they are not aware of the deeper concepts of the religion they claim to defend.
"In Islam there are two jihads," explains Ahmad Raza Qasuri, a lawyer with a booming voice who argues cases before Pakistan's Supreme Court. "Fighting against a known enemy, someone who's behind that hillock or that tree, is minor jihad. The major jihad is against the demons inside of you."
Only better and more modern religious education can spread that kind of teaching, say opponents of Islamic radicals.
"Give me the media," demands Dr. al-Ashmawi, the Egyptian judge. "Give me a weekly half-hour program on television, interview me in the newspapers. If enough of us are aired enough, we can make a wave of enlightenment."
Imam Esack, the former South African government minister, worries that the problem goes deeper than that. "We have a history of wanting to dodge radical questions," he says of his fellow Muslims, "so we tend to go for simplistic lines," such as the insistence that Islam is a religion of peace.
"The major problem Muslims have is not that there is a single power that has hegemony in the world," such as the US, "but that we are not that single power," Esack argues.
Soheib Bensheikh, the Grand Mufti of Marseille - a French Mediterranean port that is home to many North African Muslims - is also skeptical. "Our religious thinkers lack weight and rigor and daring," he complains. "The modernists have developed nothing in their body of thought to support their affirmations that Islam is a peaceful and fraternal religion."
In the Arab countries of the Middle East, where almost all the governments outlaw free speech, it is perhaps not unsurprising to find a lack of the sort of intellectual vigor that Dr. Bensheikh is looking for.
For example, in Egypt, where the government has clamped down on any signs of political Islam, whether violent or not, moderates have had a hard time developing or spreading their thought, complains Howeidi, the Egyptian columnist.