Two years after that fateful day that unsettled American lives and radically shifted national priorities, it appears that little has been accomplished in one area crucial to shaping a secure future: Even as the country's resources are focused on the war on terrorism and rebuilding Iraq, 68 percent of Americans say they know little or nothing at all about Islam. Yet rising numbers (44 percent, up from 25 percent in March 2002) say that Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence among its followers, according to a Pew Research Center poll released last week. Americans seem willing to reach conclusions, though admittedly with little knowledge.
In this unhappy milieu, two very different books by Muslim scholars shed welcome light on Islam and issues central to the world's well-being. Both men have worked in Muslim and Western societies and been personally involved in trying to bridge gaps of misunderstanding. They appreciate the necessity for self-examination on both sides, and are voices that need to be heard above the debilitating din of talk radio, TV shouting matches, and calculated religion-bashing.
Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World is the work of Akbar Ahmed, the chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington. A learned Pakistani social scientist with a wealth of experience - provincial administrator on the border with Afghanistan, ambassador to Britain, promoter of dialogue among religions while under threat by supporters of Osama bin Laden, creator of books and a film promoting democratic values across the Muslim world - Ahmed is regularly called on by local Islamic centers across the US and by American think tanks.
His new book seeks to explain "the world that created bin Laden and the world he has helped to create." Bold and provocative, its penetrating cultural analysis will challenge Muslims and Westerners, demanding a more sophisticated consideration of what is occurring in the world. His thesis cuts through simplistic notions that either religious teachings or an evil mind have produced bin Laden and his many supporters.
Rather, a breakdown in social cohesion has occurred in many Muslim societies, he contends, which has helped produce an extreme sense of group loyalty and a perverted sense of honor.
This breakdown is the effect of colonization on local institutions, the failure of post-independence Muslim leadership, and the profound disruption of traditional cultures by globalization. These societies have lost their moorings and moved away from central features of Islam, including the goal to create a just and compassionate society.
"In the process of dislocation," Ahmed argues, "they develop intolerance and express it through anger.... Even those societies that economists call 'developed' fall back to notions of honor and revenge in times of crisis."
"By dishonoring others, such people think they are maintaining honor," he adds. "Many in our time consider it honorable to indulge in acts of violence." And religious loyalties are used to disguise those acts of violence, though they are contrary to religious teaching.
He points to bin Laden's extensive use of the concept of honor, the depiction of suicide bombing as an honorable act despite the Koran's complete prohibition, and rape being employed to dishonor other groups (by Christian Serbs and Indian Hindus, for example, as well as Muslims in Pakistan.) This is neither Islam nor tribal custom, he says, but moral collapse.
The widespread use in various cultures of a perverted sense of honor suggests we are living in a post-honor world, he argues. In a startling example in the US, Paul Hill, the former Christian minister executed last week for killing an abortion doctor, said in his final interview, "I feel very honored that they are most likely going to kill me for what I did." His followers call him a martyr.
Muslims have long felt humiliated by the failure of the world to take seriously the UN resolutions relating to Palestinians and Kashmiris, and since 9/11, many feel unwelcome in the world community. With Muslim societies in turmoil, the West can help restore a sense of dignity, Ahmed argues, by genuinely listening to Muslims and seeking to understand Islam, rather than clinging to stereotypes and prejudices.
This is the century of Islam, Ahmed says, and the real battle will be between exclusivists and inclusivists - between those who promote a faith-based group loyalty versus those who promote understanding and dialogue. "The world needs to focus on resolving these problems and not on responding to them with increasing force; it has been established in human history that violence simply creates more violence."
Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a specialist in conflict resolution who also teaches at American University, addresses that issue in Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam. Primarily a work for practitioners in the field of peace-building, the book is illuminating for its discussions of Islamic principles of nonviolence and traditional Arab-Muslim methods of conflict resolution, which include forgiveness and reconciliation.
At this time of despair in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, his in-depth exploration of the extensive, organized nonviolent actions during the first Palestinian intifadah is revelatory.
While identifying historical examples of Muslim nonviolent movements, Abu-Nimer underlines the strong obstacles to peace-building in Arab-Muslim societies today, including officials who discourage criticism of political and social institutions and states that co-opt religious leadership, which has spurred the emergence of radical Islamic leaders.
Both these books make clear the primacy of justice as an Islamic ideal, promoted consistently in the Koran. "The Islamic tradition calls for resistance to injustice through activism," says Abu-Nimer. "Peace is the product of order and justice." Taking seriously a burning sense of injustice explored in these works may be an essential element in restoring a righteous sense of honor in today's dangerous world.
• Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.