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Thursday, December 16, 2004


muslim reformation

through reason, the new york times reports on the nascent debate within islam regarding fundamentalist interpretation of the qu'ran.

On one side of the discussion sit mostly secular intellectuals horrified by the gore joined by those ordinary Muslims dismayed by the ever more bloody image of Islam around the world. They are determined to find a way to wrestle the faith back from extremists. Basically the liberals seek to dilute what they criticize as the clerical monopoly on disseminating interpretations of the sacred texts.

Arrayed against them are powerful religious institutions like Al Azhar University, prominent clerics and a whole different class of scholars who argue that Islam is under assault by the West. Fighting back with any means possible is the sole defense available to a weaker victim, they say.

The debate, which can be heard in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, is driven primarily by carnage in Iraq. The hellish stream of images of American soldiers attacking mosques and other targets are juxtaposed with those of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading civilian victims on his home videos as a Koranic verse including the line "Smite at their necks" scrolls underneath.

When the mayhem in Iraq slows, events like the slaying in September of more than 300 people at a Russian school - half of them children - or some other attack in the Netherlands, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia or Spain labeled jihad by its perpetrators serves to fuel discussions on satellite television, in newspapers and around the dinner tables of ordinary Muslims.

"Resistance was never like this - to kidnap someone and decapitate him in front of everyone," said Ibrahim Said, delivering pastry in the Cairo neighborhood of Nasser City recently.

"This is haram," he went on, using the Arabic word for something forbidden or shameful, and then quotes the Koran on his own. " 'Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves.' That means nothing will change unless we change ourselves first."
as mr freund notes, this is perhaps more evidence of gilles kepel's theory of failed jihad. but regardless of the embryology, what looks increasingly certain is that there is a liberal movement in islam which is getting a sympathetic hearing among some of the rank-and-file faithful as carnage increases.

in some ways, these may be seen as voices in the wilderness -- perhaps vanguards of a reformation. the nyt article notes that the vocal debate is largely confined to the intelligentsia, and no one should fool themselves about what such opinion confronts. islam is a long-established religion with an entrenched and very powerful clerical establishment, which is likely to view re-interpretation of the qu'ran as a threat to ecclesiastical power.

but that clerical establishment is fractious. there is no central authority such as the catholic papacy of the 13th c, and can perhaps be changed as one peels an onion. that may be good and bad, of course -- effecting conclusive change in such a system cannot come simply by a papal bull. factions will have to be won more honestly and thoroughly by a more profound change in the civilizational dialectic of islam.

and such dissenters may find help in the secular nationalist states of the islamic world -- particularly egypt, turkey, syria and jordan, where the influence of western secularism has been strongest. perhaps these states can play the role of the electors of saxony.

unfortunately, what must also be said is that the united states' actions, both in iraq and more generally, while moving this debate to the front burner, feeds endless ammunition to the conservative side -- both philosophically and militarily -- by unifying muslims against western incursion and making the sword the necessary focal point of discussion. our behavior validates much of what men like bin laden say.

Abdel Sabour Shahin, a linguistics professor at Cairo University and a talk show stalwart, ...says the Muslim world must defend itself and most foreigners in Iraq are fair game. In the new middle-class suburbs stretching into the desert beyond the Pyramids, Professor Shahin greets visitors inside a small gated compound of high white walls that includes his own mosque where he preaches each Friday.

"There is a large group of people who wear civilian clothes but serve the occupying forces," he said. "So how can we demand from someone who is resisting the occupation to ask first if the person is a civilian or not?"

When asked what he thinks of those who chop off heads, he responds: "When a missile hits a house it decapitates 30 or 40 residents and turns them to ash. Isn't there a need to compare the behavior of a person under siege and angry with those who are managing the instruments of war?"

His remarks echo those of Sheik Yousef Qaradawi, an Egyptian-born, now Qatari cleric whose program "Islamic Law and Life" on Al Jazeera satellite television makes him about the most influential cleric among mainstream Sunni Muslims, the majority sect.

Last August Sheik Qaradawi seemed to imply that all Americans in Iraq could be targets. Asked whether that included civilians, the sheik responded with a question, "Are there civilians in Iraq?" In the ensuing uproar across the region he issued a clarification, suggesting that he meant only those who abetted the occupation, and pointed out that he had previously condemned beheadings.

Yet late last month, right after the renewed United States assault on Falluja, the sheik again put the Islamic seal of approval on anyone fighting back.

"Resistance is a legitimate matter - even more, it is a duty," he said on television.

While few Muslims argue with the right to resist a military occupation, the problem is that such sweeping, ill-defined statements are interpreted as a mandate to undertake any violence, no matter how vicious.

"You condemn the beheading and then on a different question you say anybody who supports the occupation is worth fighting," said Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi expert on Islamic movements. "So the message does not sink in."

In November, 26 prominent Saudi clerics signed a petition supporting the "defensive jihad" in Iraq. Although their statement ruled out attacking relief workers or other uninvolved parties, it was interpreted as a signal for Saudis to volunteer. Osama bin Laden and his followers emerged from a similar call 25 years ago to fight in Afghanistan, a fight that they subsequently spread around the globe.

The discussion on the reinterpretation of Islam remains largely confined to an intellectual elite, but even raising the topic erodes the taboo that the religion and those schooled in it are somehow infallible. There are no opinion polls on the subject, but in talking to people on the streets, one gets the sense that they are grappling with these issues within their own understanding of their faith.

Some utterly reject any criticism and immediately identify Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush as those bearing the most responsibility for the butchery. They inevitably also mention the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib as needing to be avenged.

But others exhibit a certain introspection.

One sense of the growing public dismay in the Arab world is the muted reaction to the Falluja assault last month compared with the one six months ago. This has been partly attributed to the atrocities committed by the insurgents, including suicide attacks killing many Iraqis.

The wide public sympathy enjoyed by those fighting the American or Israeli soldiers, however, makes it difficult to mount any campaign against violence and terrorism, advocates of a change say.

Proponents of jihad argue that it is only natural for Iraqis and Palestinians to fight back, and point to what they call American hypocrisy.

Sheik Khalil al-Mais, the mufti of Zahle and the Bekaa region in Lebanon, compares the treatment of two despots, Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi, both with a long history of abusing dissidents and other ills. One did not yield to the West, while the other abandoned his unconventional weapons programs.

"Qaddafi bought his way out, but Qaddafi is still Qaddafi," the sheik said, donning his carefully wrapped white turban before leaving to deliver a Friday Prayer sermon. "Why did they put Saddam in jail and leave Qaddafi in power? America should not talk about principles."
at best, then, it seems american action in the middle east has served mostly to undermine the position of the islamic liberals in the debate out of necessity even as the urgency of the debate has escalated. this does not seem a likely winning position for the west. yet it is one which the bush administration is particularly dogmatic about -- and insistent on further manifesting.

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