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Understanding Islam

Rivers, ponds, lakes and streams—they all have different names, but they all contain water. Just as religions do—they all contain truths.

Muhammed Ali (Muslim), surveying the WTC wreckage after 9/11


Continuing the analysis of the 9/11/01 terrorist attack on America....

Some facts about Islam
From the LA Times, 9/24/01:

Extremists Put Own Twist on Faith

Islam: Lack of central authority lets violent ideologies flourish. Belief's principles of peace are used for political gain, experts say.


What kind of religion is this? How can Islam be used to justify both peace and war?

The recent terrorist attacks, which authorities have blamed on Islamic extremists, have highlighted the tensions and contradictions in the practices of the world's 1 billion Muslims. Muslim leaders quote Koranic verses against aggression, while Osama bin Laden ignores such commands and cites other exhortations in the book to slay the infidels. Muslim women have ruled countries like Pakistan, while the Taliban of Afghanistan denies them the right to work or attend school.

The religion has produced world empires, a civilization of stunning beauty and a theology of peace and submission to God. But it is also plagued with images of ruthless jihadi warriors, chopped-off hands, forced conversions—and now, hijacked airplanes blasting into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. Since the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I, diverse Islamic practices have flourished in the absence of a central religious authority. Extremist ideology has flourished as well.

"The crumbling of the Islamic civilization has removed the established institutions to seriously challenge the extremists," said Khaled Abou El Fadl, UCLA acting professor of Islamic law. "Extremists have always been there in the Islamic tradition, but they tend to be very powerful when the institutions of society weaken and crumble."

Most Muslims—and non-Muslim experts on Islam—are quick to say that extremists are distorting the faith and violating its fundamental principles of peace for political gain.

"Nothing in the Koran, Islamic theology or Islamic law in any way, shape or form justifies ramming two airliners into civilian buildings," said Hamid Dabashi, chairman of the Middle Eastern languages and culture department at Columbia University. "In every great religious tradition, you can launch the most humanistic, loving ideas, or the most violent terrorist actions."

He and others say Islam is no more inherently violent than Christianity, which produced followers who carried out brutal campaigns of extermination during the Crusades and the Inquisition. Violence in Northern Ireland between Roman Catholics and Protestants is not a product of the religion, experts note. Judaism did not produce the strife in Israel, any more than Hinduism is at fault for fundamentalist violence against Christians in India.

But Dabashi and other experts said the Islamic religious texts lend themselves to manipulation by extremists because they are filled with fiery references to war, exhortations to fight oppression and mandates to mobilize against the enemy.

In the Koran's ninth chapter and fifth verse, for instance, Muslims are exhorted to "fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them. And seize them and beleaguer them and lie in wait for them," according to an English translation. (The passage also instructs that Muslims must embrace those who repent, "for Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful." And, in other verses, Christians and Jews are explicitly exempted from attack, embraced as kindred "people of the book" qualified for paradise.)

The militant verses are a product of the times in which the faith emerged in the Arabian desert almost 1,400 years ago. The leading city of Mecca was in chaos, with drunken orgies, a scarcity of goods, political deadlock and a prevailing religion of animistic polytheism, according to Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions.

The man who would later be called the prophet of God and challenge the Meccan corruption was born about AD 570, orphaned at an early age and named Muhammad—"the highly praised." He is regarded as a descendant of Ishmael, linking Islam with Judaism and Christianity as one of the three great monotheistic faiths stemming from Abraham, Ishmael's father.

Muhammad became a trader known for his honesty and integrity. He was a believer in one God and would often retire to a cave to meditate. At about age 40, the event that would change the world occurred: According to Islamic belief, the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad while he was meditating, told him that God, or Allah, had chosen him as a messenger and revealed to him the first few words of the Koran.

Over the next several years, Muslims believe, the entire holy book would be revealed to Muhammad and form the scriptural basis of the faith, along with a collection of more than 100,000 accounts of the prophet's words and actions, known as hadith.

In a climate of widespread inequity and idolatry, Islam was a revolutionary message of equality, justice and peace. It also featured several militant scriptures—particularly after Muhammad moved to Medina to escape a death plot hatched against him by the Meccan elites in 622. For the last 10 years of his life, he and his band of Muslims battled relentlessly to establish their faith against the Meccan establishment and other Arab tribes. The Koran and hadith reflect their environment, with numerous verses urging them to fight for Allah.

"Islam naturally includes a lot more material in its most classic, basic sources that are militant because that is the world they lived in—a world of successful military campaigns," said Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and USC.

The Islamic sacred texts not only include exhortations to fight, they also lay out detailed rules of engagement. Experts say the terrorists broke every rule in the Islamic sacred books. The tradition expressly prohibits the killing of noncombatants: women, children, the aged, hermits, even trees. It forbids suicide. It even requires notice before attack.

Sheik Yusuf al Qaradawi of Qatar, in a condemnation of the attacks as a "grave sin," cited a hadith in which Muhammad sees a woman killed in the battlefield and condemns the action. The Egyptian-born Qaradawi, one of Islam's most influential authorities, also said that even if the terrorists were driven by anger over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, it was not permissible under Islam to shift the confrontation outside the region.

The Islamic rules of engagement, however, seem to be lost on the terrorists. UCLA scholar Abou El Fadl has closely analyzed the religious references used in the literature and speeches of extremists, including a year-old interview with Bin Laden rebroadcast last week on an Arabic TV channel.

He said the Saudi-born militant heavily focused on the Koranic verses about fighting oppression and that he asked, "What greater oppression is there than the American imperialist forces within driving distance of the holy shrines?" That was a reference to U.S. forces that have been stationed in Saudi Arabia in the decade since the Gulf War.

Bin Laden told the interviewer from the Al Jazeera network that the holy shrines were under occupation by infidel forces who were spreading AIDS in the holy land, and he cited Koranic verses conveying God's permission for victims of injustice to throw off the yoke of oppression, according to Abou El Fadl.

The extremist leader appears to have memorized several Koranic verses, and cited them selectively and incompletely, but with calm and confidence, Abou El Fadl said. In the interview, Bin Laden dismissed as inauthentic the more spiritual Islamic traditions that the highest jihad is an internal struggle to purify the heart, not a fight against unbelievers. When the interviewer presented him with opinions by Muslim jurists against killing noncombatants, Bin Laden implied that they had been co-opted by corrupt governments, Abou El Fadl said.

And when Bin Laden cited a Koranic verse about fighting infidels, he left out the part requiring Muslims to seek peace if opponents do. Abou El Fadl said that all Islamic scriptures on waging war are tempered by the command not to commit transgressions but that extremists ignore it.

"Unless you know the Koran, you will not be able to say, 'Wait a minute, where's the rest?' " Abou El Fadl said. "Bin Laden speaks in a way that if you're not already steeped in the tradition, you would not think that there was any other possible interpretation. You're talking about an aura."

The UCLA scholar, who has written extensively on extremism and, growing up in the Mideast, personally debated radicals, said their common justification is that Islam is so endangered that the war to save it must be won by any means. Only after that, these radicals suggest, can Islamic ideals of mercy and justice be applied, Abou El Fadl said.

Columbia University's Dabashi said that examining religion as a factor in terrorism was a red herring, since extremists are waging a political struggle against the perceived effects of colonialism and simply veiling the effort in the language of God. But Abou El Fadl disagreed.

"Of course religion influences this," Abou El Fadl said. "It gives you a sense of empowerment, entitlement and self-righteousness.

"Extremist theology," he added, "is a combustible brew of puritanism, ethical and moral irresponsibility and rampant apologetics."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

What happened to Islam?
From the LA Times, 9/14/01:

What Became of Tolerance in Islam?


Khaled Abou El Fadl is an acting professor at UCLA Law School and author of "Rebellion and Political Violence in Islamic Law" (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

Extreme acts of violence and evil such as the recent terrorist attacks test the mettle and moral depth of societies—the society that is targeted by the violence and the society that generated it.

The Japanese stealth attack on Pearl Harbor tested both the aggressor and the victim. Pearl Harbor challenged the moral integrity of Japanese normative values, but it also tested us. We responded to an extreme act of aggression with another extreme act: We interned our Japanese citizens in concentration camps, resulting in deep fissures in our constitutional and civil rights fabric.

We do not have a good record when responding to aggression. As a society, we tend to vent our anger and hurt at our own citizens and then spend decades expressing regret and talking about lessons learned. Considering the scale of what has been called the second Pearl Harbor, I fear that there will be an explosion of hate crimes against Muslim and Arab Americans, both by police and by ordinary citizens. Anticipating the backlash, Muslim and Arab organizations have rushed to issue condemnations of terrorism and hate-motivated violence and have gone to pains to explain that terrorists who happen to be Muslim do not represent Muslims at large, Islam or anyone else.

Nevertheless, the recent terrorist attacks mandate a serious introspective pause. As Americans, we should reflect on our own Middle East policies and the arrogance by which we deal with the dark-skinned people we collectively refer to as Arabs. Muslims, American and otherwise, should reflect on the state of their culture and the state of the Islamic civilization.

As a Muslim, I feel that the horror of recent terrorist attacks demands a serious, conscientious pause. Terrorism is an aberration, but most often it is of a particular type, an extreme manifestation of underlying social and ideological currents prevalent in a particular culture. Terrorism is not a virus that suddenly infects the brain of a person; rather, it is the result of long-standing and cumulative cultural and rhetorical dynamics.

In Islamic law, terrorism (hirabah) is considered cowardly, predatory and a grand sin punishable by death. Classical Islamic law explicitly prohibits the taking or slaying of hostages or diplomats even in retaliation against unlawful acts by the enemy. Furthermore, it prohibits stealth or indiscriminate attacks against enemies, Muslim or non-Muslim. One can even say that classical jurists considered such acts to be contrary to the ethics of Arab chivalry and therefore fundamentally cowardly.

It would be disingenuous, however, to propose that this classical attitude is predominant or even that familiar in modern Arab-Muslim culture. I like many other Muslims grew up with an unhealthy dose of highly opportunistic and belligerent rhetoric, not only in the official media but also at popular cultural venues such as local mosques. Even in the U.S., it is not unusual to hear irresponsible and unethical rhetoric repeated in local Islamic centers or Muslim student organizations at universities. It is disheartening to hear contemporary Arab news agencies, for example, refer to acts of terrorism in neutral terms such as guerrilla attacks (amal fida'i) and to suicide bombers as martyrs ( shuhada ).

All of this begs the question: What happened to the civilization that produced such tolerance, knowledge and beauty throughout its history? A lot has happened. The Islamic civilization has been wiped out by an aggressive and racist European civilization. Colonialism and the expulsion of Palestinians happened. Numerous massacres against and by Muslims happened. Despotic and exploitative regimes have taken power in nearly every Muslim country. Most important, however, a dogmatic, puritanical and ethically oblivious form of Islam has predominated since the 1970s. This brand of Islamic theology is largely dismissive of the classical juristic tradition and of any notion of universal and innate moral values. This orientation insists that only the mechanics and technicalities of Islamic law define morality. Paradoxically, it also rejects the classical juristic tradition and insists on a literal reinterpretation of all Islamic texts.

Fundamentally, this puritanical theology responds to feelings of powerlessness and defeat with uncompromising symbolic displays of power, not only against non-Muslims but also against Muslim women. It is not accidental that this puritanical orientation is the most virulent in flexing its muscles against women and that it is plagued by erotic fantasies of virgins in heaven submissively catering to the whim and desire of men.

This contemporary orientation is anchored in profound feelings of defeatism, alienation, frustration and arrogance. It is a theology that is alienated not only from the institutions of power in the modern world but also from its own heritage and tradition.

The extreme form of this puritanical Islam does not represent most Muslims today. But there are two ways in which contemporary Muslim culture, Arab or non-Arab, inadvertently feeds these extreme trends. First, since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the onslaught of colonialism, Islamic intellectuals have busied themselves with the task of "defending Islam" by rampant apologetics. This produced a culture that eschews self-critical and introspective insight and embraces projection of blame and a fantasy-like level of confidence and arrogance. Second, Muslims got into the habit of paying homage to the presumed superiority of the Islamic tradition but marginalize this idealistic image in everyday life.

Muslim intellectuals justified hijacking airplanes and taking hostages. Terrorist attacks such as the 1976 Entebbe operation or the 1972 killing of Israeli Olympic athletes were justified on purely pragmatic grounds: How else are we to fight Israeli arrogance and belligerence?

The reality of contemporary Muslims is unfortunate. Easy oil money, easy apologetics, easy puritanism, easy appeals to the logic of necessity have all but obliterated the incentive for introspection and critical insight. Arab and Muslim organizations in the U.S. are right to worry about hate crimes and stereotypical projections of Muslims and the Islamic religion.

The problem, however, is that Muslims themselves responded to the challenge of modernity by stereotyping and then completely ignoring their own tradition. It is not surprising that some extremists have taken this tendency to its logical and heinous extreme.

Comment:  Wonder what Bush would get if he took an Islamic IQ test? Probably a positive score, just like his "presidential IQ."

At least the fundamentalist "puritans" around the world are consistent. Jerry Falwell and Osama bin Laden agree: America deserves to suffer. Imagine these like-minded thinkers singing "God Is Great" and "God Bless America" in harmony.

Inside the Muslim mind
From the LA Times, 9/24/01:

Cult of the Holy Warrior Flourishes

Asia: Many in Pakistan see Saudi militant not as a terrorist but as a freedom fighter.


PESHAWAR, Pakistan — There is peace in the narrow back streets of old Peshawar, where soft sunlight falls on ancient doorways, and a small boy need worry about little more than where his next piece of candy will come from.

He is 3 years old and dressed for play in matching T-shirt and shorts patterned with small red hearts, a smiling cat, fish bones and the word "Meow."

The child is free to dream now, but his father, Abdullah Ahad Baig, has great hopes for him—that someday he will be a moujahed, or holy warrior, in defense of Islam. That is why he named his child Osama bin Ahad, after the man he idolizes as the greatest moujahed of all: Osama bin Laden. To Baig, a shop owner, and legions of others like him in the Muslim world, the Saudi-born millionaire suspected of ordering the most horrific foreign attack on U.S. soil is not a terrorist but a freedom fighter. In their view, Bin Laden is leading the latest phase of a war that began centuries ago when medieval Christian crusaders tried to crush Islam.

Such hero worship is widespread and deeply felt in Pakistan, a Muslim nation of 140 million souls. The man seen by Americans as the personification of evil has over the last 12 days taken on a kind of mythical quality in the bazaars and back streets of this country. He has become a figure deemed worthy of unlimited adoration and respect.

In a part of the world that has produced few heroes or role models for its people in recent times, the image of Bin Laden is a metaphor for the vast distance in public perceptions that today separates America from much of the Muslim world.

Under pressure from the United States, Arab and other Muslim governments are closing ranks in the quest to bring down Bin Laden and subdue the Taliban government in Afghanistan that shelters him. But in millions of living rooms, sympathy for him reigns.

An important strand of this sympathy is the unwavering conviction held by many Pakistanis that Bin Laden is innocent of any responsibility for the Sept. 11 events in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. Muslims here invariably say that if he did order the carnage that struck America, he should be punished.

U.S. Focus Has Elevated Militant's Status

Still, the fact that the United States believes Bin Laden was capable of mounting such a sophisticated terrorist offensive has lifted him to new prominence in the eyes of people who have come to view America as an anti-Muslim bully.

Bin Laden's young namesake in Peshawar, near Pakistan's northwestern border with Afghanistan, is a Kashmiri—from the Himalayan region that Pakistan and India have fought over since partition in 1947.

Peshawar is a rough frontier town, where a shopper can pick up a Swiss watch cheap at the Smugglers' Market and then go next door to purchase a grenade launcher or an assault rifle from the arms bazaar. Harder to find these days are popular T-shirts emblazoned with Bin Laden's name above a map of Afghanistan, an image of a Kalashnikov assault rifle and the words "The Great Mujahid of Islam."

Sales of the T-shirts shot up after the strikes on the U.S., and Pakistani police warned hawkers to hide the rest as official policy shifted toward Washington.

Pakistan's military president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has been trying for months to disarm his population, and his crackdown on fund-raising for guerrilla groups fighting Indian forces in Kashmir is another reason the younger Osama's family feels aggrieved.

Two of the boy's cousins were killed—or martyred, as their relatives prefer to put it—while fighting Indian troops in Kashmir in 1996 as members of the most feared guerrilla army there, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. The family belongs to the Ahl-i-Hadith sect, which espouses a purist form of Islam emphasizing a literal and often harsh interpretation of its teachings.

The family lives in a small house with few decorations beyond the bumper sticker on a bulky gray metal cabinet in the living room.

"Allah is sufficient for us. We need no one else," it says.

Many of the boy Osama's immediate family members don't want to be quoted by name because they fear retribution from Pakistani authorities now that their government is once again an ally of the U.S. A family friend, Abdul Ghajar Baig, spoke for them Sunday.

"The United States is only interested in becoming the single power in the world," he said through a translator. "According to our Muslim faith, the superpower is Allah."

A Shadowy Figure Who Is Rarely Seen or Heard

Meanwhile, in the more affluent environs of the capital, Islamabad, well-traveled Pakistanis complain that America's obsession with Bin Laden has been a key reason for his fame.

"He's a hero [here] because of the manner in which he's been built up by the United States and by the media," said Zulfikar Ali Khan, Pakistan's former ambassador to Washington.

The saga of Bin Laden as a rich and privileged Arab who fought the Soviet invaders of Afghanistan in the 1980s and donated millions to the war effort merely adds to the aura surrounding him. The fact that he moves free of any government's control—a shadowy figure, rarely seen or heard but known rather as a faint and peaceful smile staring out of photographs—also contributes to the awe in which he is held by so many.

"Mysterious, almost mystical," said a mother of three in Islamabad who declined to be identified.

"He's the best person on Earth, a pious man who prays five times a day," said Tariq Rashid Butti, an accountant in the capital. "When all the evidence points elsewhere, the Muslim world will support him."

Said Mohammed Fayaz, a fruit dealer in Islamabad's bustling Sunday market: "He inspires us. He gives us motivation. Everyone else is for sale. Not him."

Some of Bin Laden's fiercest supporters believe that an apocalyptic battle is nearing and that either paradise or victory awaits them when it is over. Waris Khan Afridi, a tribal chief from Pakistan's rugged Khyber Pass, which leads to Afghanistan, accused Israel of starting a fight that is spreading around the world.

"Is the blood of Muslims not blood?" he asked. "Are we not human beings? Look what Israel is doing to the Palestinians. And is Israel not supported by America? Where is the justice in that?

"We like justice. We are not terrorists. But if you attack us, if God wills it, we will start the third world war and the whole world will be destroyed. Every Muslim will fight until the last Muslim is alive."

During prayers outside the Red Mosque in Islamabad on Friday, worshipers were handed leaflets that read in part, "Oh God Almighty, give us so much strength that we are able to sacrifice our lives, our material possessions and the lives of our children for this pious Arab billionaire."

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Clash of civilizations confirmed
Some politicians are honest enough to speak what many Americans have been thinking. From the LA Times, 9/27/01:

West Superior to Muslim Civilization, Premier Says
From Times Staff Reports

Breaking ranks with allies reaching out to the Muslim world, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said that Western civilization is superior to Islam and that he hopes the West conquers Islamic civilization.

"We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and—in contrast with Islamic countries—respect for religious and political rights," he said after meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin about the terrorist attacks in the U.S.

"The West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered communism," he said, even if it means a confrontation with "another civilization, the Islamic one, stuck where it was 1,400 years ago." His comments were instantly disavowed by more moderate politicians in Italy, who called them ill-timed and offensive.


Italian Premier Puts Down Islam
By SUSAN SEVAREID, Associated Press Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain — Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's contention that Western civilization is superior to Islamic culture compounded fears Thursday in the Middle East that America's war on terrorism will be a war on Islam.

European leaders distanced themselves from Berlusconi's comments, which came as the United States tries to build a coalition with Islamic countries against terrorism after the Sept. 11 suicide attacks.

Berlusconi's remarks Wednesday in Berlin "crossed the limits of reason," Amr Moussa, secretary general of the 22-nation Arab League, said in Cairo, Egypt. "We don't believe there is a superior civilization, and if he said so he's utterly mistaken."

Coalition-building with Middle East nations already is difficult because many have uneasy truces with homegrown Islamic extremists that easily could be shaken — and moderate Muslims could harden their views if they feel their faith is under attack.

Speaking at a news conference after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Berlusconi said, "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and — in contrast with Islamic countries — respect for religious and political rights." He added [that he] hoped "the West will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered communism."

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, sitting next to Moussa at a news conference at Arab League headquarters in the Egyptian capital Thursday, condemned Berlusconi's contention.

"It's totally contradicting the values in which we believe," said Michel, leader of a European Union mission to the Mideast trying to drum up support for an international coalition against terrorism.

Other European officials echoed that condemnation.

"Such words can be dangerous, because they can instill a feeling of humiliation at a time when we need dialogue and cooperation between the West and the world of Islam," Belgian Premier Guy Verhofstadt, who holds the EU's rotating presidency, told reporters as he left for talks with President Bush in Washington.

The political hot air continues:

You're either with civilization or with terrorists.

New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, speech to the UN, 10/1/01

Comment:  The terrorists are clearly civilized, since they're college graduates who can speak foreign languages and fly airplanes. If they aren't part of our civilization, they must be part of some other civilization. Whatever this other civilization is, that makes it a clash of civilizations—the very thing George W. Bush has said isn't happening.

Oops. Looks like either George or Rudy got it wrong. Or they both did.

More on the clash of civilizations
"Bush's gaffe ensured that the terms of the conflict...were defined at the outset: Christianity against Islam, Western materialism vs. Eastern spiritualism."
Arab World Sees the Conflict in Religious Terms (3/18/03)

Resolving the clash
From the LA Times, 9/23/01:

The Muslim Ally Within


Jack Miles, senior advisor to the president at the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the author of "God: A Biography" and the forthcoming "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God."

Secretaries of State may have to learn some theology if the looming clash between the Western and Muslim civilizations is to yield to peaceful coexistence, to say nothing of fruitful collaboration. If Osama bin Laden is a spiritual leader with military designs on the United States, the first step in confronting him must be to deal with him as just that. To suppose that we can achieve security by treating him as a common criminal, and by dealing with the Muslim governments that support or harbor his movement as secular governments unconcerned with the religious dimension in his appeal, is to fight this new war as if it were the last one.

To say this is not to dignify the man but rather to suggest that containing Bin Laden's threat may entail promoting a true alternative to him in the world where he originates. This task will require more knowledge of Islam than it takes to issue a declaration that Bin Laden does not represent true Islam. Who does represent true Islam? "Will the real Islam please stand up?" This is the kind of question that our military and diplomatic institutions are designed never to ask and never to notice that they are not asking. At the end of World War I, as historian David Fromkin demonstrates in "A Peace to End All Peace," Britain and France vastly overestimated the importance of Arab nationalism and correspondingly underestimated the importance of Islam as an organizing principle in the polity they sought to construct on the ruins of the Turkish Empire. The British and French were psychologically incapable of dealing with the Middle East other than through leaders manufactured to resemble their nominally religious but passionately nationalistic selves. They were at a loss when confronted with a culture whose real leaders were passionately religious and only nominally nationalist.

When the United States became the dominant power in the Middle East, it made the same mistake. It vastly overestimated Iranian nationalism as represented by the shah and correspondingly underestimated Muslim religion as represented by the Ayatollah Khomeini. It was as if the United States had to find someone like the shah to deal with because, well, how could a self-respecting secretary of State possibly do business with an ayatollah? What would they discuss? Theology?

In the current crisis, the answer to that question should be: Yes, theology is just what they would discuss. Reducing what is a jihad for the soul of Islam to an international manhunt is a battle plan guaranteed to fail. How can we make war against nations that have harbored Bin Laden's agents when the United States itself is one of those nations? We have harbored his agents unwillingly and unwittingly. But how witting or willing have been the regimes of the relatively friendly Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to which much of the paper trail, perhaps by design, has led?

There cannot be, in the long run, an effective sorting out of good Muslim states from bad ones. It is the Muslim Umma as a whole that has harbored Bin Laden's murderous movement within it, and it is the Muslim Umma as a whole that must somehow be persuaded to break with it. War between the West and the Umma is unthinkable. But a defensive strategy may nonetheless exist that will spare us World War III as the strategy of communist containment did in the decades after World War II.

Just as militant communism could not be militarily defeated in the last clash of civilizations, so militant Islam cannot be militarily defeated in the new one. Peace will come not when Bin Laden or any other single prophet of terrorism and his network of secret agents have been "surgically" eliminated, but when an authentic alternative vision has emerged within the House of Islam that makes such visions of victory-by-terrorism irrelevant and unwelcome.

The development of such an alternative vision, however, will require a major paradigm shift in Western diplomacy. It will no longer suffice to treat religion as a mere happenstance ("I happen to be Christian," "I happen to be Muslim") and, therefore, as a political irrelevancy. This method of dealing with religion politically may have served us well enough in overcoming Christianity's own hideous wars of religion. But the old way will not meet this new challenge, for it takes off the table just the topic that militant Islam finds most compelling. By the same token, it will no longer do to use the word "theology" as shorthand for that-which-does-not-matter or, worse, that-which-gets-in-the-way. One can no more discuss religion without discussing theology than one can discuss communism without discussing ideology. Theology is the ideological element in religion, and nothing at this moment could be more tragically evidence than that we have ignored it to our peril.

Our leaders, in sum, must find a way to untie their tongues on a topic of world-historical importance. Fortunately, there are those who can help. In 1968, anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote a book called "Islam Observed," in which he compared and contrasted what were then the western and eastern extremes of the House of Islam: Morocco and Indonesia. Since 1968, however, the western extreme has moved westward from Morocco to North America—all the way to California. No paper trail has connected the Sept. 11 terrorists to any American or Canadian mosque, and there is every reason to believe that Bin Laden's contempt for the acculturated Muslim communities of North America is total. But in the years ahead, why may it not be the voice of Western Muslim communities like these, rather than Bin Laden's voice, that resounds most loudly in the world Umma ? Rather than the enemy within, the Muslims of the West should be seen as the ally within.

Muslims often have reason to fear other Muslims. The bloodiest war of the latter half of the 20th century, surpassing even the genocide in Rwanda, was the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. For American and other Western Muslims who dare to claim an international role, the personal risks may be as large as the intellectual challenge. But if this community of often recent immigrants can rise to the historic challenge, the good news is that they will not be without allies elsewhere in the House of Islam. Is there a single Muslim nation in the world that aspires to the condition of Afghanistan? Is there not every reason to believe that a voice both authentically Western and authentically Muslim would find a wide audience? Time will tell, but the enemies of our enemy may yet prove to be the friends of our Muslim friends.

If American Muslims, clearly the key community, muster the necessary courage and intelligence, the question that must be asked is: Will they find correspondingly courageous or appropriately educated allies in Washington—allies for whom theology is not "theology"? To make a difference, the West's Muslim communities must be dignified with much more than the occasional courtesy invitation to the diplomatic dinner table. They must be not just cultivated as allies of convenience but heard and honored as teachers. They must be protected and supported both materially and spiritually as they take on the enormous challenge of raising from their own ranks the theologians and religious leaders whose courage and creativity will save two worlds at once.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

Comment:  This is part and parcel of the multicultural perspective I've talked about. It doesn't mean talking to fanatics like Osama bin Laden and expecting them to suddenly see the light. It means understanding the thinking of the entire Islamic world: the thinking that supports Islamic militancy and makes fundamentalist terrorism possible.

"President" Bush can say he's only hunting terrorists, but his actions belie his words. As of October, his bombing sorties hadn't touched a single Al Qaeda terrorist or Taliban leader, but had killed Taliban soldiers and Afghan civilians and turned innocent people into starving refugees. How is this anything but a punitive strike against a Muslim country?

Don't look for Bush to lead a paradigm shift in our international approach. I doubt he knows what the words mean. He's stuck in last millennium's paradigm: good vs. evil, God vs. the Devil, Christians vs. pagans, cowboys vs. Indians, Allies vs. Nazis, democracy vs. communism, etc.

What Muslims should do
From the LA Times, 9/16/01:

Wake-Up Call for Islamic World


Shireen T. Hunter is director of the Islamic program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Terrorist attacks on two important symbols of U.S. military and economic power—the World Trade Center and the Pentagon—along with the heavy loss of life are a great tragedy for the United States. But they are also a blow to Islam, the Muslim peoples and their governments.

The attackers represent only a tiny minority among Muslims, but their actions seemed to give credence to the worst perceptions of Islam as a rigid, aggressive, reactionary and xenophobic creed. They also risk making all Muslims targets of strong resentment and loathing.

Such natural but misplaced feelings can only be dealt with if Muslim countries—jointly, strongly and unequivocally—condemn these acts of terror and offer their condolences to the American people and their leaders. This collective condemnation could take the form of a resolution issued by the Organization of Islamic Conference. The terrorist attacks also are a wake-up call for all Muslim governments and societies to look carefully into what is happening in their midst, especially the phenomenon of extremist Islam and its latest incarnation in the jihadist trend. They need to act eliminate extremist groups and to prevent the emergence of new ones.

Honest self-criticism and follow-up actions should be undertaken not just to please the U.S. or other major powers. Such steps are also in the self-interest of Muslims, individually and collectively. Indeed, the principal victims of Islamic extremism have been Muslims.

Iran first experienced the paroxysm of the Islamic revolution and then the extremist policies of the early 1980s. These mired the country in an eight-year war with Iraq that cost the lives of a million of its youth and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage, subjected it to international isolation and sanctions and set it back 20 years in economic and social development.

Islamic extremism also played a major part in plunging Lebanon into a horrendous civil war and making it the target of military attacks. Meanwhile, since 1992, Algeria has been mired in civil strife that has claimed more than 40,000 lives. Activities of various extremist groups in Pakistan have engulfed that country in internecine fighting, pitting Shiites against other Muslims. Militant jihadist groups have become so bold that even Pakistan's military government cannot subdue them.

And then there is Afghanistan, which for all practical purposes has ceased to be a real country. When I visited Kabul nearly 30 years ago, it was a clean, peaceful and pleasant city, where at noontime school girls freely strolled in the streets. Today, Kabul is a heap of rubble, and many of Afghanistan's people—a people of noble traditions and humane values—are living in exile or in subhuman conditions in refugee camps.

This is not what Islam, in any of its legitimate guises, wants for its followers. Most acts of violence carried out in the name of Islam and in its defense have been a shameless abuse of religion to advance the ambitions of extremist groups, elites, governments, sects and individuals.

Because of the activities of extremists, the Muslim world is weaker, more divided and less capable of advancing its legitimate interests than ever before. To reverse this situation, Muslim countries must do the following:

* Eliminate extremist groups in their midst, while sincerely addressing the root causes of their militancy and responding to their legitimate needs and grievances.

* Stop using Islam as an instrument of foreign policy and a tool for expanding their influence.

* Realize that they cannot isolate themselves. Instead, Muslim countries must equip themselves with the tools to deal with the challenges of the globalizing world.

* Abandon outdated utopian or expansionist schemes and concentrate on realistic and fruitful cooperation among themselves.

A more cohesive Islamic world should enter into constructive dialogue with the rest of the world to generate a more hospitable environment for raising Muslim concerns. A first step would be for the Muslim states to join in international efforts to root out extremism of all kinds and its monstrous offspring, terrorism.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

From the LA Times, 10/19/01:

Where Are the Arab World's Moderate Voices?


Shibley Telhami is a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

As the militants in the Middle East take to the airwaves, many others are asking: Where are the voices of the moderate Arab majorities?

Aside from voices criticizing Osama bin Laden and his terrorist acts, it is clear that the moderate elites—even though they are terrified by the prospect of a world dominated by militants—are watching the confrontation from the perspective of bystanders, as if it were merely between Bin Laden and the West.

There are two reasons for this:

* They have no positive vision to offer the public, and they are paralyzed by their overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

Regardless of Bin Laden's agenda, which includes an Islamic state across the Muslim world and the expulsion of Westerners from the region, his strength is that he speaks to the core concerns of Arabs and Muslims, and he promises results. For the powerless, he shows how the acts of a few men with knives can shake up the world order in one day. The moderate majorities who reject his methods have no proposal of their own to change the economic and political order that most people see as oppressive, and to resolve the Palestinian and Iraqi problems about which most people care deeply.

Throughout the 1990s, governments and moderate elites could point to a post-Cold War, post-Gulf War vision that aimed at resolving regional disputes through negotiations and promised development and economic prosperity. By the end of the 1990s, that vision collapsed—together with the Arab-Israeli negotiations—and the region's economies worsened. During the past year of increasing violence on the Palestinian-Israeli front, moderates have become invisible. Today, as they need to confront the militants whose message and aims they reject, they find themselves with no positive vision of their own.

* A tremendous sense of victimization and powerlessness is prevalent across the region.

This is in part because of the legacy of the 20th century: a collective memory that sees the region's political agenda set to serve Western imperial designs at the expense of regional interests. It is this legacy that Bin Laden evokes when he speaks of the "past 80 years," beginning with the British Mandate on Sept. 11, 1922.

But the sense of powerlessness is also a product of a political system that has not given the people much say, let alone control, in their lives and futures. There is a pervasive sense of helplessness about economic prospects, politics and relations with the world. This widespread resignation is at once the fertile ground for conspiracy theories and the opportunity for Bin Laden. He and other militants are able to provide a sense of empowerment to induce change and overthrow an unacceptable order of which the U.S. is seen to be the anchor. To this, the moderate elites have no alternative message that the public can believe, so they choose to pretend that Bin Laden's struggle is not with them, and in the process lose even more ground.

To be sure, there are some in the Arab and Muslim world who not only reject Bin Laden's terrorism but perceive his message as a threat to them. In a recent article in a leading Arab newspaper, one columnist spoke of the threat to "our America" as a threat to people in the region: "America is the dream of the peoples; it is the paradigm to which the peoples lift up their eyes, and it is toward its light that the countries advance." Such individual voices, however, have little impact without organized political action, and many other individuals are easily intimidated.

The absence of organized political voices is a symptom of a broader problem in the region: the absence of political pluralism.

But these are not ordinary times. This is not merely a Western conflict involving a few militants, and certainly it is not a conflict between Islam and the West. For the Middle East, it is a conflict for its soul, a conflict within.

It is time for those elites and political forces that represent the views of the majorities in the region to speak with more courage and imagination, and for the international community and especially the U.S. to help them succeed. Certainly the U.S. cannot accomplish the task alone, but it is the richest and most powerful country, the anchor of the international system. We are the only ones who can help restart a credible Arab-Israeli peace process, mobilize international resources that inspire hope, and provide the support the moderates will need in their unavoidable war of ideas.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

From the LA Times, 11/25/01:

What Went Wrong in the Arab World? Ask Yourself


Hussein Ibish is communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.

A growing chorus of American and Israeli voices is demanding that the Arab world engage in some serious introspection. Such self-criticism is clearly warranted. However, those handing down this prescription may not care for the results, and they are badly in need of a dose of the same medicine themselves.

There is no doubt that the state of political, social and economic malaise and stagnation in the Arab world generally demands self-examination. For decades, the Arab world has been dominated by repressive and parochial regimes that have failed to mine the region's only great resource, its people. Public discourse all too often is stultified. Dissent is regarded as treason. Education is reduced to a third-rate patronage racket. And religious bullying is tolerated, even encouraged.

Under such circumstances, social and national consciousness withers. Politics becomes the art of back-room manipulation, and political discourse becomes paranoid and given to the most absurd conspiracy theories. Worst of all, absent a functional political process, people seeking change are easily driven to various forms of extremism. Westerners demanding Arab introspection seem to expect that this will mean the adoption of their perspectives. However, a truly empowered and dynamic Arab public would surely demand not only stronger and more direct support for the Palestinians but also would raise serious questions about the level and role of American military and corporate presence.

It would insist on using the region's natural resources in a very different manner. It would mean the assertion of Arab national interests in a manner not seen in many decades and which has been regarded as threatening in the past. It would not, and could not, mean greater subordination to the interests of others.

Israelis and their supporters, who lead the calls for Arab introspection, are in no position to do so. Israeli society is engaged in an extended exercise in neurotic denial about the basic facts of its own brief history, which remain a largely repressed scene of national trauma.

Israel proceeds as if it had not violently wrested control and ownership of all its territory from the Palestinians. Worse, it is utterly blind to the nature of its relationship with the Palestinians living under Israeli military rule and the effects its actions have on the people it is abusing and killing.

In truth, Israel acts as a predatory, 19th century-style colonial power toward the Palestinians, and yet it insists on seeing itself as democratic and equitable.

Never, for the sake of its own future, was a society more desperately in need of introspection, not to mention a simple reality check.

Which brings us to the United States.

The whole world has a stake in American introspection, but we seem to be perfect postmodern subjects, incapable of even the most basic kind of historical memory.

Each international crisis is treated as if it had no context whatever, at least no context involving ourselves, which prevents us from learning any lessons from the past. Our current bout of willful amnesia involves forgetting the role we played in promoting right-wing Muslim extremism in Afghanistan and throughout the Islamic world over many decades.

Americans denounce the "foreign invaders" in Afghanistan, but who sent them there? Who launched the first great global jihad? Whose massive covert war resulted in the collapse of all forms of civil society in Afghanistan, which led to the rise of the Taliban?

The most dreaded word in Washington is "blowback."

What we in the U.S. are forgetting is the long history of American and British promotion of the most right-wing Muslim politics as a counter to socialism and nationalism in the Arab world. We call for democracy and openness in the Arab world, but our government steadfastly opposes everything that tends in that direction. We seem unaware that the contemporary Middle East is as much the product of our own meddling, and that of France and Britain, as it is of any local forces.

"I'm amazed that people would hate us," remarked President Bush, "because I know how good we are." A discourse that casts the American role in the world as simply "good" and acknowledges none of our own self-interested brutalities and exploitations is profoundly dangerous to the entire planet.

Arab introspection is urgently required, but given the current state of affairs, everybody needs a hard look in the mirror.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times

So Americans and the Islamic world both need more introspection. They both need to examine their biases and blind spots. They both need to see each other's viewpoint, to learn from their cultural opposites.

In short, they both need a multicultural perspective.

The introspection begins
From the LA Times, 7/15/02:

An Arab Look at Arab Ills

Nations, like people, get defensive when outsiders point out their faults. For years, Westerners have criticized Arab countries' lack of political freedom and their discrimination against women, usually drawing the reply that it's part of the Arab culture or tradition or none of the West's business. Now a team of Arab intellectuals has looked at the 22 nations and 280 million people represented in the Arab League and concluded that political repression, mistreatment of women and poor education are crippling the region.

The first assessment of its kind, the Arab Human Development Report is blunt and balanced. Sponsored by the United Nations and a year in the making, it notes the good—fewer people living on an income of less than $1 a day than in other developing regions. And the bad—growth in per capita income over the last 20 years that was the lowest in the world except for sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1960, Arabs on average produced more per person than people in "Asian tiger" countries such as South Korea and Malaysia. Now they're half as productive as South Koreans. Intellectual capital is scarce as well. "The whole Arab world translates about 300 books annually," the report notes, "one-fifth of the number that Greece translates." The computer revolution has largely left the region behind. An Arab "brain drain" is one reason, but another is language. Most material on the Web is in English, a language that few in the region speak.

The authors also decry a "freedom deficit," ranking Arab countries the world's lowest in civil liberties and representative government. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a cause and excuse for the region's retarded political development, the authors say. But they devote little space to the pro forma denunciations of Israel so common in the region—which is fortunate, since Israel, even with all its faults, could serve as a democratic model for Arabs now ruled by hereditary monarchies or other authoritarian regimes.

Which brings us to the treatment of women.

The enrollment of Arab girls in primary and secondary schools has doubled in 30 years, but too many still go without education. And those who do complete high school often find no chance to use what they've learned, since fewer women have jobs or serve in parliaments in these nations than anywhere else on the planet.

"Sadly," the authors write, "the Arab world is largely depriving itself of the creativity and productivity of half its citizens."

Recognizing problems is the prerequisite to solving them. The West should encourage the Arab world to look squarely at this benchmark report's sobering message and assist any moves toward democracy it spurs. Those Arabs inclined to react defensively to the authors' hard facts might first consider this: About half the Arab teenagers polled for the report say they want to emigrate.

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

From the LA Times, 8/31/02:

9/11 Tops the Agenda of U.S. Islamic Gathering

Conference: Prayers for victims, Muslims targeted after attacks lead off D.C. meeting.

From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The largest annual gathering of American Muslims began Friday with prayers for victims of Sept. 11 and for Muslims who have been harassed since the attacks.

Muhammad Nur Abdullah, president of the Islamic Society of North America, said in his opening address that Islam condemns violence and that Muslims, like others in the United States, want the terrorists to be punished. "We're for justice," said Abdullah, a St. Louis imam, standing on a stage flanked by U.S. flags. "This is our country. American Muslims, we care for the betterment of this country and for every human being."

From the NY Times:

December 10, 2004
Muslim Scholars Increasingly Debate Unholy War

CAIRO, Dec. 9 -- Muhammad Shahrour, a layman who writes extensively about Islam, sits in his engineering office in Damascus, Syria, arguing that Muslims will untangle their faith from the increasingly gory violence committed in its name only by reappraising their sacred texts.

First, Mr. Shahrour brazenly tackles the Koran. The entire ninth chapter, The Sura of Repentance, he says, describes a failed attempt by the Prophet Muhammad to form a state on the Arabian Peninsula. He believes that as the source of most of the verses used to validate extremist attacks, with lines like "slay the pagans where you find them," the chapter should be isolated to its original context.

"The state which he built died, but his message is still alive," says Mr. Shahrour, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Syrian civil engineer with thinning gray hair. "So we have to differentiate between the religion and state politics. When you take the political Islam, you see only killing, assassination, poisoning, intrigue, conspiracy and civil war, but Islam as a message is very human, sensible and just."

Mr. Shahrour and a dozen or so like-minded intellectuals from across the Arab and Islamic worlds provoked bedlam when they presented their call for a reinterpretation of holy texts after a Cairo seminar entitled "Islam and Reform" earlier this fall.

"Liars! Liars!" someone screamed at a news conference infiltrated by Islamic scholars and others from the hard-core faithful who shouted and lunged at the panelists to a degree that no journalist could ask a question. "You are all Zionists! You are all infidels!"

The long-simmering internal debate over political violence in Islamic cultures is swelling, with seminars like that one and a raft of newspaper columns breaking previous taboos by suggesting that the problem lies in the way Islam is being interpreted. On Saturday in Morocco, a major conference, attended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, will focus on increasing democracy and liberal principles in the Muslim world.

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."

Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, director of the Dubai-based satellite network Al Arabiya and a well-known Saudi journalist, created a ruckus this fall with a newspaper column saying Muslims must confront the fact that most terrorist acts are perpetrated by Muslims.

"The danger specifically comes from the ideas and the preaching of violence in the name of religion," he said, adding, "I am more convinced there is a problem with the culture, the modern culture of radicalism, which people have to admit. Without recognizing that as fact number one, that statistically speaking most terrorists are Muslims, we won't be able to solve it."

Mr. Rashed senses there is a movement in the Arab world, if perhaps not yet a consensus, that understands that Muslims have to start reining in their own rather than constantly complaining about injustice and unfairness. The violence has not only reduced sympathy for just causes like ending the Israeli occupation, he says, but set off resentment against Muslims wherever they live.

On the other side is Abdel Sabour Shahin, a linguistics professor at Cairo University and a talk show stalwart, who 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."

Asked about those who say the problem lies deep within restrictive interpretations of Islam itself, Sheik Mais grimaced and exclaimed, "Take refuge in God!" summing up the viewpoint of most Islamic scholars.

You cannot divide Islam into pieces, he says. You have to take it as a whole.

But whose whole, the would-be reformists respond, lamenting what one Saudi writer calls "fatwa chaos." A important difficulty under Sunni Islam, as opposed to, say, the Shiite branch predominant in Iran or the Catholic Church, is that there is no central authority to issue ultimate rulings on doctrinal questions.

Those in the liberal trend believe that Islam, now entering its 15th century, needs to undergo a wholesale re-examination of its basic principles. Toward that end, the Cairo conference this fall recommended reviewing the roots of Islamic heritage, especially the Prophet's sayings, ending the monopoly that certain religious institutions hold over interpreting such texts and confronting all extremist religious currents.

Those taking part were harshly accused of dabbling in a realm that belongs solely to the clergy, with the grand sheik of Al Azhar, Muhammad Sayed Tantawi, Egypt's most senior religious scholar, labeling them a "group of outcasts."

But Mr. Shahrour says he and an increasing number of intellectuals cannot be deterred by clerical opposition.

He describes as ridiculously archaic some Hadith, or sayings, attributed to Muhammad -- all assembled in nine bulky volumes some 100 years after his death and now the last word on how the faithful should live.

"It is like this now because for centuries Muslims have been told that Islam was spread by the sword, that all Arab countries and even Spain were captured by the sword and we are proud of that," he said. "In the minds of ordinary people, people on the street, the religion of Islam is the religion of the sword. This is the culture, and we have to change it."

For more on how closed, undemocratic Islamic societies need to change, see Why Don't "They" Like Us?:  Repressive Regimes.

A multicultural lesson on "harboring" terrorists (September 2001)
A brief look at Afghanistan provides a glimpse of multicultural understanding. If you're one of those who would obliterate the country, take a quick quiz. Q: Are all Afghans virulent terrorists who want to see Americans dead? A: No, of course not.

This is exactly why I've said we should ask questions first and shoot later, if at all. Understanding our alleged enemies can help prevent atrocities as terrible as the atrocity against the US. So let's peek inside a country that supposedly "supports" Bin Laden.

Here's part of a widely circulated essay from a prominent Afghan writer:

Considerations in a Response of Force
By Tamin Ansary

I've been hearing a lot of talk about "bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age." Ronn Owens, on KGO Talk Radio today, allowed that this would mean killing innocent people, people who had nothing to do with this atrocity, but "we're at war, we have to accept collateral damage. What else can we do?" Minutes later I heard some TV pundit discussing whether we "have the belly to do what must be done." And I thought about the issues being raised especially hard because I am from Afghanistan, and even though I've lived here for 35 years I've never lost track of what's going on there. So I want to tell anyone who will listen how it all looks from where I'm standing. I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.

There is no doubt in my mind that these people were responsible for the atrocity in New York. I agree that something must be done about those monsters. But the Taliban and Bin Laden are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think Bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think "the people of Afghanistan" think "the Jews in the concentration camps." It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators. They would exult if someone would come in there, take out the Taliban and clear out the rats' nest of international thugs holed up in their country.

Some say, why don't the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, they're starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering. A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan—a country with no economy, no food. There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets. These are a few of the reasons why the Afghan people have not overthrown the Taliban.

We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done.The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They are already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that. New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely. In today's Afghanistan, only the Taliban eat, only they have the means to move around. They'd slip away and hide. Maybe the bombs would get some of those disabled orphans, they don't move too fast, they don't even have wheelchairs. But flying over Kabul and dropping bombs wouldn't really be a strike against the criminals who did this horrific thing. Actually it would only be making common cause with the Taliban—by raping once again the people they've been raping all this time.

From Afghans Teeter on Edge in the LA Times, 9/17/01:

Westerners who worked in Afghanistan until recently claim that despite the Taliban's virulent anti-Americanism, many Afghans have a positive view of the United States. Although probably more a measure of their current despair than political sympathies, some are even said to view the idea of U.S. intervention as a potential glimmer of hope for a better future.

But as talk grows of possible U.S. strikes, security specialists warn that attacks launched to create a short-term "feel-good factor" at home could undercut U.S. efforts in the long run if they inflict heavy civilian casualties.

"The question is how to protect innocent civilians, who are probably the only people to suffer more at the hands of the Taliban than Americans," said an international aid worker who declined to be identified by name or organization. "There is a real danger that once the United States takes an active [military] role, it will be seen as responsible for what happens there."

And from "Unwelcome Lessons of Terror" by Simon Reeve. In the LA Times, 9/16/01:

The Afghan people did not invite Bin Laden into their country. Nor did they elect the vicious Taliban militia. Their country has been ravaged by decades of conflict. So, it is a further tragedy that the Afghan people may now suffer because of Bin Laden—just as thousands of innocent Americans suffered last week.

Comment (3/20/02):  As we know now, the war cries to nuke Afghanistan were grotesquely inappropriate. US forces managed to overthrow the Taliban government, but not to capture or kill most of Bin Laden's terrorists. The price: thousands of Afghans dead, or more casualties than on 9/11.

Related links
Terrorism:  "good" vs. "evil"
Culture and Comics Need Multicultural Perspective 2000
America's cultural mindset

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