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Listening for Islam's silent majority

As Osama bin Laden calls for a jihad, and militants rally, where are the moderate Muslims?

(Page 5 of 5)

"Our governments are busy with one thing, fighting extremism," he says. "But they have done nothing to support a moderate way of thinking, and legal restrictions mean moderates can't set up parties or other organizations."

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"We are fighting on two fronts," he adds. "Against the extremists, and against undemocratic political pressure from our governments."

It is that sort of difficulty, says Dr. Ramadan in Paris, that puts such a heavy responsibility on Muslims in Western countries, where they enjoy the political freedoms they need to open up a debate with their co-religionists elsewhere in the world.

"Over the last 10 years, in Europe and in America, we have developed a completely new understanding of the West, which is not hostile," he says. "If a clash of civilizations is going to be avoided, it is up to us in the West."

That's a view echoed by many American Muslims, who say they can play an important role in portraying America more positively, and more accurately, to their Muslim brothers and sisters abroad. But they say that a more sympathetic mood in America would help them do this.

They also insist that they will only be credible abroad if they express themselves honestly - and that generally means criticizing aspects of US foreign policy. But if they silence their criticisms to avoid charges of treachery from their neighbors, moderates say they will not be taken seriously in the Muslim world.

"Muslim-bashing and profiling are absolutely counterproductive because they force Muslims to put their heads down and deal with harassment," says Mohiaddin Mesbahi, an Iranian-American who teaches security studies at Florida International University. "Only if they feel confident and welcome as Americans can [American Muslims] become important ambassadors of Islamic thinking," he adds.

And there is a lot of Islamic thinking going on in America, trying to mesh traditional Islamic precepts and principles with the realities of today's world.

"American Muslims have shouldered the responsibility to try to formulate an Islamic jurisprudence suitable for the 21st century," says Azizah al-Hibri, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, who has helped draft Qatar's new laws on women's rights and the family. "And this is an era of democracy, free thought, and peaceful conflict resolution."

One result of this work: a 600-page volume of articles on Islamic law, published last month in the Journal of Law and Religion of the Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., that is aimed at stirring debate throughout the Muslim world. One highlight of the volume: a detailed exploration of Islamic jurisprudence by a Syrian thinker who rejects the use of violence or coercion.

America, perhaps naturally, is one of the countries where Muslims have raised their voices most loudly to condemn those who perpetrated the attacks on Sept. 11.

Standing on the White House lawn with President Bush a few days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, one of America's most prominent and influential Muslim scholars, Hamza Yusuf, spoke for all his fellow moderates when he lamented that "Islam was hijacked on that Sept. 11, 2001, on that plane as an innocent victim."

On the website, Ingrid Mattson, who teaches Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Conn., wrote recently that she had "not previously spoken about suicide attacks committed by Muslims in the name of Islam.... This was a gross oversight," she acknowledged.

"I should have asked myself, who has the greatest duty to stop violence committed by Muslims against innocent non-Muslims in the name of Islam?" she wrote. "The answer, obviously is Muslims."

Reporting by staff writers Scott Baldauf and Robert Marquand in Islamabad, Pakistan, Ilene R. Prusher in Cairo, Jane Lampman in Boston, as well as special correspondents Dan Murphy in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Nicole Itano in Istanbul, Turkey.