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The Battle Within Islam

Though many believe that reactionary Islam is at war with “Western” values of tolerance and human rights — not without reason, of course — it’s also true that there is a serious battle going on within Islam between modernist, moderate Muslims and anti-modern, anti-human rights extremists. Salam al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, eloquently explores that battle:

By now we know well the opposing worldviews that characterize our struggle with extremists. The latter promote the cult of death, whereas we—the mainstream—promote the theology of life. They believe that only they know the will of God, which they can impose on people, whereas we believe that the will of God is represented by the will of the people. They believe Sharia is limited to draconian punishments to terrorize people, whereas we believe Sharia is the path to God—one defined by different groups that adhere to justice, mercy and compassion. They believe grievances are irreversible facts that should be fuel for political violence, whereas we believe grievances can be redressed non-violently, and in partnership with others who, like us, respect human dignity. They believe that recruiting young people to serve as their warriors will be their unending revitalization, whereas we believe that the mission of Islam is entrusting Muslim youth to be ambassadors of good will and future leaders.

Islamic thinkers have pushed back against extremists for years. Fathi Osman, an Egyptian and Islamic scholar who died on September 11, 2010, wrote about human rights as the fulcrum of Sharia in the 1960s. He also raised the concern that Muslim extremism was an immediate threat to Muslims. In this way he rebutted the confrontational ideology of Sayyid Qutb, who was radicalized after years of torture under the Nasser dictatorship in Egypt. Dr. Maher Hathout, a colleague of Dr. Osman and a leading American Muslim spokesperson, likewise said, with pithiness: “We are determined to win the ideological battle to discredit and isolate the extremist voices.”…

As American Muslims, we can work in a united front with other Americans in leading our country out of the abyss of terrorism. We need the American public to realize our role. That realization will enhance our security, for it will make the mainstream relevant and the extremists irrelevant. Irrelevance is the nightmare scenario of any extremist group. But the mainstream’s relevance is our hope for victory.

As atheists and secularists, we should be firmly on the side of the moderates and modernists. Sure, we’d prefer that they give up their religion entirely, but so what? It is far better, in nearly every imaginable way, that Muslims opt for this more humane and decent form of Islam than that they opt for the Bin Laden version. As the old saying goes, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council should get more attention. I know Haris Tarin, one of the MPAC’s high-ranking officials, and he is an incredibly thoughtful and decent man who is absolutely committed to fighting for equality and human rights. I don’t care whether he believes in Allah or not, he’s on my team.

Comments

  1. voidhawk says

    This. more muslims have been harmed by extremist Islam than Westerners.

  2. says

    Good. I keep complaining that not enough moderates (of all religions) are willing to issue unqualified condemnations of the evil done ostensibly in their names by their co-religionists. Now I can complain a little less.

  3. CaitieCat says

    This person sounds like the many Muslims I know. I work as an editor/proofreader/advisor to academics and students at my local universities; because of word-of-mouth, a large proportion of my clients are Muslim/ah-s.

    They’re all personable, peaceful folk, honest to a fault (three of them have written to remind me that I’ve not billed them for something yet, for instance), studious and committed. None has ever asked me to behave or dress differently; I do take a break when I know it’s prayer time, so they can take their five minutes of supplication. I don’t even mind when they make a bit extra in aid of our session going well. It does no harm to anyone, and usually helps settle their minds to focusing better on work.

    They’re largely apolitical, and most tell me that most people they know are too; the people you see on TV tend to be the same kind of people who blockade abortion clinics here: extremists, people who can’t cope with there being people who don’t live the way they do.

    All of them know I’m atheist, but apparently my word-of-mouth is good, because they mostly view that as being kind of an odd curiosity, rather than an implacable enemy. A few were initially wary, probably based on stereotypes of atheists from their upbringing, but they’ve all been open-minded enough to have no trouble being respectful of me.

    About the only unpleasant thing I’ve encountered is a few who thought jokes about Jews would be okay with me, being an atheist, but once I said I didn’t find jokes that harm people funny, none of them has done it a second time.

    That’s my fairly extensive, but anecdotal, experience of Muslims. I strongly suspect this is the attitude of the majority of educated Muslims, just as the majority of educated Christians aren’t trying to make a theocracy. It’s the extremists, the serious radicals, that are the problem, and their sparseness in the population that makes profiling so useless. There’s no method of profiling that wouldn’t return vastly more false positives than can be dealt with reasonably.

  4. Trebuchet says

    Rather like the difference between extremist and mainline Christians, isn’t it?

  5. Reginald Selkirk says

    The latter promote the cult of death, whereas we—the mainstream—promote the theology of life.

    OK, I get that there are Muslims who are moderate and decent. But claiming to be mainstream implies that you have at least a plurality. So show us the numbers. Don’t tell us about one or two brave writers; give us statistics on what broad populations of Muslims think worldwide, or if you prefer, country by country. What percentage of Muslims believe that the death penalty is appropriate for apostasy, fro example?
    .
    BTW. I am currently reading Why I am not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq.

  6. Trebuchet says

    @Caitie Cat

    I strongly suspect this is the attitude of the majority of educated Muslims, just as the majority of educated Christians aren’t trying to make a theocracy.

    This needs repeating. Education is the enemy of ignorance. Fundamentalist religion depends on ignorance.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    Rather like the difference between extremist and mainline Christians, isn’t it?

    Yes, in that a few advocates of extreme liberal Christianity claim to represent Christianity in general, when polls show that roughly half of US Christians are Young Earth Creationists.

  8. dingojack says

    So Reg – no christians outside the US and no muslims outside of Pakistan and Egypt, then?
    Dingo
    ——–
    OBTW, and what percentage of Amerians support the death penalty? (Perhaps there are more secret muslims in the US than you think).

  9. Synfandel says

    Dingo, you’d probably find that not very many Americans support the death penalty for apostasy.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    <So Reg – no christians outside the US and no muslims outside of Pakistan and Egypt, then?

    Don’t make shit up and pretend that I said it. If you have numbers for other countries, feel free to post them.

  11. abb3w says

    So, if you ask a Christian whether they think the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God, the Inspired Word of God, or a collection of God-themed Fables, you can get a really fast approximation (though outliers exist) on whether they’re a mainline or more moderate type of Christian.

    Are there any corresponding questions that can be asked that allow the casual conversant a quick-and-dirty classification about what type of Muslim you’re dealing with?

  12. Reginald Selkirk says

    Are there any corresponding questions that can be asked that allow the casual conversant a quick-and-dirty classification about what type of Muslim you’re dealing with?

    ‘Would you kill me if I let slip that I’m an atheist?”

  13. dingojack says

    Reg – No, you’re the one pretending that a small sample is ‘all‘, you do your own homework.
    Dingo
    ——–
    Did you know up to 50,000 children in the Democratic Republic of Congo had (as of 2006) been thrown out home for being witches? Since the DRC is 70% christian it must mean Americans do the same thing, since they have about the same percentages of christians too, right?
    You can see the fallacy of this kind of reasoning.

  14. dingojack says

    Besides even if that were true, wouldn’t that be all the more reason to encourage those who hold more moderate (and sensible) views to shape less theocratic societies?
    Dingo

  15. says

    This is a very important topic and I applaud Ed for posting the link and for his thoughtful opinion.

    Yes, we’re sharing the planet with roughly 1.5 billion Muslims, so it is in our best interest if they embrace a moderate and tolerant form of their faith. In spite of the claims of bigoted and misinformed ignoramuses, Islam is not a theological and intellectual monolith, thus such liberalization is indeed possible.

    And please realize that it is an enlightened, tolerant, and increasingly liberal Islam that we’d like to see, but not necessarily an “Islamic Reformation.” That’s because—and many a self-appointed expert seems to be painfully unaware of this fact—an Islamic Reformation has already occurred, and it is what has given us the Salafis, Wahabis, Jihadis, and other militant extremists that we’re plagued with today. Indeed, the anti-traditional, anti-clerical, politically-focused, and “back to the sources” ideas of the likes of Sayyid Qutb, Muhammad Abduh, and Abul A’la Maududi produced the sectarian morass and intellectual crisis that the Muslim World is in today (although the European colonialism certainly laid the groundwork). Those who think that an “Islamic Reformation” is what the world needs seem to be painfully ignorant of the fact that Europe’s 16th-century Protestant Reformation did not bring about liberal religion, open-mindedness, and increased tolerance, but quite the opposite. Indeed, Martin Luther and John Calvin were at least as intolerant and theological narrow as the Roman Catholic Church which they rebelled against, so let’s be careful what we wish for.

    It is very unlikely that in the foreseeable future that large numbers of Muslims will abandon their faith or adopt an extremely watered-down and cherry-picked version of Islam. However, there are moderate voices within the Muslim tradition who enjoy, within the worldview of Islam, intellectual viability and theological respectability—and these are the Muslims that we should be supporting. For far too long, Western governments and intellectuals—including both neo-cons and leftist elites—have been supporting nominal Muslims from the extreme liberal fringe of the spectrum of the Islamic faith. Such Muslims are never going to get much traction amongst the masses in the Muslim World. That’s because their approach to Islam—in the rare case when they even know enough to articulate it—is puerile, self-serving, and incoherent.

    If one wanted to shift a group of bigoted Bible-thumping Baptists a bit to the left, sending in a liberal hippie Christian who considers much of the Bible to be subjective myth and Jesus to simply be a great moral teacher probably wouldn’t bear much fruit. One would be better served by sending in an intellectually vibrant and Biblically-informed Methodist in order to engage the Baptists at their own game and convince them of a more tolerant and inclusive view of Christianity. This is essentially what we need to do with the Muslim World, since heretofore the approach has been misguided, uninformed, and naïve. The liberal and intellectual elites in the Muslim World will continue to be a voice in the wilderness, and there will always be a minority of open-minded thinkers who will be attracted by them. In the meantime, however, we need to do what we can to ensure that a moderate form of Islam that we can all can live with gains traction amongst the Muslim masses. Such a form of Islam is out there already, but we just need to assist its growth.

  16. CaitieCat says

    Good comment, robsquires. I would suggest, too, to those who complain that the Muslim moderates don’t call out terrorism for what it is, to go to websites like that of CAIR (the Council on American-Islamic Relations), where you will find the long list of press releases they’ve sent out to every press organization they can find, every single time that extremist jihadists have made an attack.

    Look, too, to the number of attempted jihadists who’ve been turned in by their imams, other congregants, even family members, none of whom want their friends, family, or fellow believers to be blowing anyone up, including themselves.

    They already ARE speaking out against it. It’s not their fault if the overwhelming response from Western press organizations has been a resounding shrug. But it’s flatly factually wrong to say that moderate Muslims aren’t speaking out about extremist violence. They surely are. We’re just not listening.

  17. says

    But claiming to be mainstream implies that you have at least a plurality. So show us the numbers.

    Data point for the Netherlands: most Muslims here vote for secular, mostly left-wing parties. According to one survey in 2012, 72% voted for the Labor Party (PvdA), the Socialist Party (SP), or the Green Left Party (GL). Another 12% voted for the somewhat more centrist Democrats ’66 (D66). Note that the SP and D66 are the two parties pushing the repeal of the blasphemy laws that the Netherlands still has on the books (although it hasn’t been used since 1965) that was recently voted on (it’s now in the senate). The only parties voting against it were the three (yes, three) Christian parties. There are no Muslim parties at the national level, and there doesn’t appear to be much demand for one.

    I think this shows that moderate, secular Muslims, are clearly a plurality in the Netherlands, and likely even a majority. Other data, such as dropping mosque attendance numbers that don’t really differ much from church attendance for Protestants or Catholics, seems to only confirm this.

  18. Scr... Archivist says

    Reginald Selkirk @6 and @8,

    If you read the “About” and “Mission” pages of the Muslim Public Affairs Council website, you will see that they are focused on American Muslims. And a Pew survey from two years ago shows that U.S. Muslims tend to be more liberal than Muslims abroad. Your own link said as much, and here is another one:

    http://www.people-press.org/2011/08/30/muslim-americans-no-signs-of-growth-in-alienation-or-support-for-extremism/

    You and I both want to see more liberal attitudes worldwide, and maybe you would agree with me that all religion should be abandoned. The question is, how do we get there? Trends like those among American Muslims should be encouraged, so they can better exemplify and export those beliefs worldwide. Don’t expect everything you want to come true in five minutes.

  19. wscott says

    I agree completely with Ed, robsquires, and others that moderate Muslims are our allies and we need to be doing more to support them. As for how much of a minority-majority they are, I expect the numbers vary widely from country to country, and don’t always line up the way you suspect. Some studies (I don’t have the link handy) have found that British Muslims tend to be more radicalized and fundamentalist than most Arab countries. Meanwhile, US Muslims tend to be far more moderate. I suspect that has much to do with how well Muslim immigrants are “normalized” into mainstream society, but I don’t have any data to back that up.
    .
    All that notwithstanding, I have to point out…

    we believe that the will of God is represented by the will of the people.

    Isn’t this basically admitting that God’s will is whatever we want it to be?

  20. laurentweppe says

    Dingo, you’d probably find that not very many Americans support the death penalty for apostasy.

    Nooooooo: they just supported the invasion of Iraq and remained to this day very apathetic regarding extremist Christians bullying Atheists and a signifiant ratio expressed a desire to disafranchise Mulims. The kind of people who will never dare to openly demand the slaughter of people they don’t agree with, but who will nonetheless cheer when the slaughter begins

  21. Reginald Selkirk says

    dingojack #16: Besides even if that were true, wouldn’t that be all the more reason to encourage those who hold more moderate (and sensible) views to shape less theocratic societies?

    Yes it would. But that would not change my mind as to which faction is “mainstream” within Islam.

  22. naturalcynic says

    For those who are looking for a reformation within Islam, should hope for something a lot more peaceful than the Reformation of Christianity: Hundreds of years of war that only ended recently in Northern Ireland.
    What might be considered as a reformation within Islam may have been started by the Salafist and related movements – a radically regressive movement back to what those adherents believe was the “original” Islam – just as Luther and Calvin thought that they were leading their movements back to the “original” Christianity.
    What we need is a Muslim Enlightenment. There are encouraging signs.

  23. iangould says

    “OK, I get that there are Muslims who are moderate and decent. But claiming to be mainstream implies that you have at least a plurality. ”

    Damn right, people have the right to be considered innocent until proven to be a sand nigger.

  24. says

    Of course it makes sense to make common cause with otherwise reasonable people who believe in an invisible man in the sky. And many Muslims in the USA are in this category. But worldwide, how many majority Muslim countries have freedom of religion? Atheists in Morocco (a supposedly modern Muslim country) and Bangladesh (a supposedly secular country) have been persecuted and killed recently. I appreciate it when Muslims condemn terrorism, but it’s not enough. They must also condemn every Muslim government that doesn’t have freedom of religion before I make common cause with them.

  25. dingojack says

    And in ‘the land of brave & the home of the free’ when a person (atheist or not) files a lawsuit against a school for violating the first amendment of the constitution they are, of course, treated with the upmost respect, consideration and kindness by those loving christians. Oh wait now…
    Dingo

  26. unemployedphilosopher says

    @abb3w, #13: Your proposed question is a good one, but if your interlocutor starts quoting verses in Greek, that should be a sign that you’re out of your depth. (Seriously, I’m a non-theist, but John 1:1 is absolutely beautiful poetry. I don’t know how to do Greek lettering on blogs, but get somebody to read it to you properly sometime.)

    @robsquires, #17: Go Frege with me for a minute and think about the sense of “reformation”. It’s not limited to the awfulness that accompanied the Reformation in Europe. Other than that, you’re on point.

    @erikjensen, #27: What? Expand your logic: by your reasoning anybody who doesn’t completely agree with you isn’t worth talking to. And that’s just silly; disagreement is the core of discovery. Yeah, it sucks, and it’s dirty and people die. Oh, wait, everybody dies sooner or later. It’s one of those things with which we need to deal. You already have common cause with every living Muslim on the planet: stay alive. Or, if you’re a good person: help the ones who need it. I hope you’re the latter.

  27. dingojack says

    unemployedphilosopher – “εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος.”*

    That’s poetry to you? I’t’s all greek to me.

    Dingo
    ——–
    * 1550 Stephanus New Testament

  28. says

    @unemployedphilosopher
    Anybody who thinks people should be thrown in jail or killed for changing their religion (or publicizing this change) is my enemy. I don’t have a long list of standards, but that is one of them. Sure, if the waters are rising and a nice, “moderate Muslim” who thinks it’s a good idea to kill apostates is out their sandbagging, I’d problem join him for the time being. This applies to Fred Phelps as well.

  29. dingojack says

    erikjensen – I guess I really shouldn’t be surprised your list of standards is so short.

    So what are you going to do about these ‘evul muslims’ then, in a practical sense*? You gonna ride in on your white charger and bloody sword and change their minds? You gonna force a society on them that lives up to your own (short) list?

    How about we make our own societies better and fairer, make our societies more transparent to scrutiny and more just in it’s dealings with others. Let us be that ‘shining light on the hill’ so long claimed and so little seen. How about we support and be an example, to those who are willing to risk everything to drag thier societies into the 18th century, at least.

    How about that?

    Dingo
    ——–
    * particularly since you seem unwilling to support moderates who want to change their culture and society for the better

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