Do You Believe in Modernity?
Friday 28th Nov 2003
If militant Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution, as I often argue, how does one differentiate between these two forms of Islam?
It's a tough question, especially as concerns Muslims who live in Western countries. To understand just how tough it is, consider the case of Abdurahman Alamoudi, a prominent American figure associated with 16 Muslim organizations.
FBI spokesman Bill Carter described one of those, the American Muslim Council, as "the most mainstream Muslim group in the United States." The Defense Department entrusted two of them (the Islamic Society of North America and the American Muslim Armed Forces and Veterans Council) to vet Islamic chaplains for the armed forces. The State Department thought so highly of Alamoudi, it six times hired him and sent him on all-expenses-paid trips to majority-Muslim countries to carry what it called "a message of religious tolerance." Alamoudi's admirers have publicly hailed him as a "moderate," a "liberal Muslim," and someone known "for his charitable support of battered women and a free health clinic."
But this image of moderation collapsed recently when an Alamoudi-endorsed chaplain was arrested and charged with mishandling classified material; when Alamoudi himself was arrested on charges of illegal commerce with Libya; and when Alamoudi's Palm Pilot was found to contain contact information on seven men designated by the United States government as global terrorists.
Distinguishing between real and phony moderation, obviously, is not a job for amateurs like US government officials.
The best way to discern moderation is by delving into the record - public and private, Internet and print, domestic and foreign - of an individual or institution. Such research is most productive with intellectuals, activists and imams, all of whom have a paper trail. With others, who lack a public record, it is necessary to ask questions. These need to be specific, as vague inquiries ("Is Islam a religion of peace?" "Do you condemn terrorism?") have little value, depending as they do on definitions (of peace, terrorism).
USEFUL QUESTIONS might include:
Violence: Do you condone or condemn the Palestinians, Chechens, and Kashmiris who give up their lives to kill enemy civilians? Will you condemn by name as terrorist groups such organizations as Abu Sayyaf, Al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, Groupe Islamique Arm e, Hamas, Harakat ul-Mujahidin, Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and al-Qaida?
Modernity: Should Muslim women have equal rights with men (for example, in inheritance shares or court testimony)? Is jihad, meaning a form of warfare, acceptable in today's world? Do you accept the validity of other religions? Do Muslims have anything to learn from the West?
Secularism: Should non-Muslims enjoy completely equal civil rights with Muslims? May Muslims convert to other religions? May Muslim women marry non-Muslim men? Do you accept the laws of a majority non-Muslim government and unreservedly pledge allegiance to that government?
Should the state impose religious observance, such as banning food service during Ramadan? When Islamic customs conflict with secular laws (e.g., covering the face for drivers' license pictures), which should give way?
Islamic pluralism: Are Sufis and Shi'ites fully legitimate Muslims? Do you see Muslims who disagree with you as having fallen into unbelief? Is takfir (condemning fellow Muslims with whom one has disagreements as unbelievers) an acceptable practice?
Self-criticism: Do you accept the legitimacy of scholarly inquiry into the origins of Islam? Who was responsible for the 9/11 suicide hijackings?
Defense against militant Islam: Do you accept enhanced security measures to fight militant Islam, even if this means extra scrutiny of yourself (for example, at airline security)? Do you agree that institutions accused of funding terrorism should be shut down, or do you see this a symptom of bias?
Goals in the West: Do you accept that Western countries are majority-Christian and secular or do you seek to transform them into majority-Muslim countries ruled by Islamic law?
It is ideal if these questions are posed publicly - in the media or in front of an audience - thereby reducing the scope for dissimulation.
No single reply establishes a militant Islamic disposition (plenty of non-Muslim Europeans believe the Bush administration itself carried out the 9/11 attacks); and pretence is always a possibility, but these questions offer a good start to the vexing issue of separating enemy from friend.
The writer is director of the Middle East Forum and author of Miniatures (Transaction Publishers).
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