From the Islamic perspective, the attacks on New York and Washington were part of an ongoing clash between those Muslims who strive to reconcile their religious values with the realities of the modern world and those who react to modernism and reform by reverting – sometimes fanatically – to the “fundamentals” of their faith.
-- Reza Aslan.
The annual US-Islamic World Forum was held in Doha, Qatar last month. Organized by the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institute, the event brought together over 200 predominantly Muslim analysts, scholars, journalists and activists to advise the United States on its policy towards the Muslim world. As usual, it was an animated three days, with heated debates and angry denunciations of the Iraq invasion and other American foibles. Several polls revealed growing anti-Americanism across the region, which to most observers came as no surprise.
More interesting, then, were the results of a Gallup poll that found Muslims admired American freedom and democracy, yet sought greater respect. And what, according to the survey, did most Americans like about Muslim societies? Nothing.
The poll’s findings underscore the incomparable visibility of liberal American culture, surely. And perhaps the survey also suggests the relative ignorance of Americans, aware of little beyond their own comfortable existence. Yet the poll certainly illuminates the argument that dare not speak its name: Muslim societies today offer the rest of the world very little to admire.
“Much of Western public opinion today has a poor view of Islam and Muslims because of the barbaric acts committed by fundamentalists that are so often in the headlines,” explains Islamic scholar Mohammed Charfi in the 2005 edition of his insightful book “Islam and Liberty.” “Violence is no more part of the essence of Islam than it is of the other monotheistic religions. The only problem is that, whereas the great majority of members of other religions have left behind that stage of history, Muslims are still living through the pain of a transitional period.”
But violence is not the only problem. The 22 member countries of the Arab League, for instance, which have a total population of 300 million and a land area larger than Europe, as well as plentiful natural resources—have a GDP lower than that of Belgium plus Holland and produce fewer scientific publications than Israel alone. Finally, the proportion of religious books is three times the world average yet the number of books translated into Arabic each year is fewer than the total translated into Greek.
Charfi first highlighted the root causes of this societal underdevelopment nearly a decade ago, presenting a diagnosis that, although updated for a new era two years ago, still applies today. The Tunisian scholar wondered how this happened – why Islamic societies, which dominated the world a millennium ago, stopped investigating the mysteries of the universe and fell into a deep freeze that led to widespread and growing fundamentalist extremism – and came up with a convincing two-part response.
The first mistake was linking Islam to politics and the structure of the state. Although the Prophet no specific instructions on electing a successor, the ulema of Medina immediately fell to doing so after his death in the late 8th century, ultimately selecting Abu Bakr, who dubbed himself caliph, or Prophet’s successor. During his reign and that of his two successors, Oman and Othman, an ambitious Islamic empire stretched across a broad swath of the world.
[The contrast with early Christianity is illuminating. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Saint Paul was clear. “’It is not my responsibility to unravel or dispatch temporal matters;’” he wrote. “’There are people who have those as their vocation: emperors, princes, and authorities, and the source from which they must derive their wisdom is not the Gospel.’”]
Ever since, Islamists have been convinced that the Islamic state is a pillar of Islam. It was not by chance that the Muslim Brotherhood, with its goal of restoring sharia and the Islamic state, was established a mere four years after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s triumphant abolition of the caliphate. And Sayyid Qutb, the father of modern fundamentalism, has written: “any regime that bases sovereignty on the will of men is a regime that deifies man instead of God.” Perhaps, but Charfi would argue that any regime that bases sovereignty on the will of God is blasphemous, at least according to the Koran.
Although the Holy Book does mention a ruling deputy of Allah and David is at one point made a caliph, Charfi explains that according to the Koran the state is not a religious institution. “No religious function is attributed to it,” he writes. “It is a question that does not come up for discussion. It logically follows that the state and politics are not part of religion.” Further, the five pillars of Islam are belief, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage, and to add a sixth is to doubt the Prophet and contradict the Koran.
But the event that “marked the onset of the intellectual decay of Muslim civilization,” argues Charfi, “was the fall of Baghdad during the Tatar invasion in 1258, which caused the deaths of numerous ulema and the loss of many of their manuscripts.” With Muslim society thus weakened, many ulema lost hope in the future and, fearing Islam would be lost in interpretations increasingly distant from its essence, they decided to close the door of ijtihad, or reflective effort. From that point on there was little room for interpretation of Islamic texts by researchers, clerics, or muftis. Those with new ideas were denounced as apostates and faced death; classicists were revered and conservatism prized above all else – an attitude that, among Islamists and the ulema, has essentially remained intact to the present day.
To sum up: Since the death of the Prophet Islam has been inappropriately intertwined with the state; thus intertwined, state-sponsored education has served up a closed-minded, medieval version of Islam unchanged since the 13th century. As a result, 21st century Muslim youths learn that it is necessary to cut off the hand of a thief, to stone those guilty of adultery, to kill apostates, and to wage war on infidels, even though such things often seem wildly out-of-date.
“This is a grave discrepancy that tears people apart and brings them to the verge of schizophrenia,” writes Charfi, having witnessed the problem firsthand. “For they do not wish to sacrifice either Islam or modernity.”
Moderate Muslims are as attached to their religion as they are to the idea of the modern state, which they believe should be democratic and representative. Yet they sense the inherent contradiction or even an incompatibility between the two; a dissonance that inevitably leads to confusion and sometimes worse. Fundamentalism was born of a divorce between society and its educational institutions, and it will last as long as that chasm remains.
Because of apparent echoes of Christianity’s violent splintering, in his bestselling 2004 book No God But God Islamic scholar Reza Aslan called “this internal battle to define the faith and practice of a billion Muslims” the "Islamic Reformation." Yet this tug-of-war has already been waxing and waning for more than a century.
In Tunisia, the divide was at least partially bridged in the late 19th century after an ideological cleavage in its finest institutes of learning. For most of a millennium Zituna religious university educated the best and the brightest of young Tunisian scholars. But when the reformer Khereddine become prime minister in 1873 he pointed out that Tunisia lacked a political and intellectual life because Zituna “lived outside time in a shell where the only subjects taught…were sharia law, the history of the Prophet, and Arabic grammar.” He then created Sadiki, a liberal university that quickly became a breeding ground for the Tunisian elite.
Inevitably, the two schools clashed, pitting the Zitunians versus the Sadikians for the future of Tunisia, one supporting liberty and open study and the other clinging to conservative Islam and sharia.
“The debate soon went beyond the particular issue that had triggered it,” writes Charfi, “turning into a fierce Kulturkampf apparently between religion and secularism, Francophonia and Arabhood, East and West, but in reality between tradition and modernity.”
The fight remained intense, if civilized. After several decades the voice of progress and secularism – the Sadikians – prevailed and ultimately built an independent Tunisia, eliminating sharia courts and ensuring liberal institutions.
In recent years, however, extremist Zitunians are again in ascendance across much of the Muslim world. Last month a liberal Egyptian blogger was sentenced by an Alexandria court to four years in jail for insulting Islam. The very next day the Taliban, which according to reports has recently retaken large swaths of Afghanistan, promised international observers the bloodiest year yet. Hamas and Hizbollah cling to their guns, their fundamentalist beliefs, and a measure of political legitimacy in Palestine and Lebanon, respectively. Late last year, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad cleared the nation’s universities of liberal professors, fearing they might influence the students. This while the mullah and Ayatollah-dominated Islamic Republic grows ever-nearer to wielding a nuclear weapon. A late February Time magazine cover story described how Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, was going the way of fundamentalist Salafists. The story pointed out that 53 percent of its districts had enacted sharia law. And it was one year ago this month that conservative Muslim rage led to nearly 50 deaths after a Danish newspaper published cartoons of the Prophet.
Even Charfi’s home region of North Africa is witnessing a Zitunian resurgence: Moroccans were behind the Madrid bombing of 2003; in February a Salafist Algerian terror group set off seven near-simultaneous bombings just outside Algiers, killing six; and the same group also planned a January bombing in tourist-friendly Tunis next door. Regional counter-terrorism officials and local police foiled that plot but according to a recent New York Times article, experts say the rugged and desolate North African mountains “could become an Afghanistan-like terrorist hinterland.” In nearby Somalia, the extremist Islamic Courts recently threatened suicide attacks on African Union peacekeepers.
Charfi argues that reforming and modernizing education is the best hope for the reassertion of a liberal, moderate Islam, but the United Nations’ 2003 Arab Human Development Report describes a region making scant progress (the Arab and Muslim worlds are different entities, to be sure, but the former is the godhead of Islam and often indicative of the state of the broader Muslim world). The quality of higher education in the Arab world is dropping steadily, according to the report, and public spending on education has declined since 1985. The number of computers per head is one quarter the global average and the number of newspapers published is one fifth that of the developed world average, most of which are censored and restricted.. And expenditure on research and development is 0.2 percent of GNP while the number of scientists and engineers per capita is one third the world average.
All of which may explain why Americans find so little to admire in the Muslim world. Yet ironically, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States, and the US’ estimated 2 million Muslims are more educated and more affluent than the average American. The Wall Street Journal, in fact, has characterized the group as "role models both as Americans and as Muslims.” And if Islam were incompatible with modernity the majority of Muslims polled by Gallup would not admire freedom and democracy. Such views place them in the Sadikian camp and bode well for the future of the ummah. Further, a University of Maryland (US) survey released in late February revealed widespread rejection of terrorism in the Muslim world, including 86 percent of Pakistanis and 75 percent of Indonesians.
More than half the Westerners polled in that same survey, however, linked Islam with terror. Again it appears the Muslim World has failed in the exporting of peaceful and progressive ideals. With that in mind, here's to hoping that at the inaugural Islamic-Western World Forum sometime in the not too distant future, a young American will stand up and list all the things she admires about the Muslim world, and nobody will be the least bit surprised.