Challenges for Moderate Muslims
by Husain Haqqani
May 31, 2006
When Osama bin Laden spoke of “a Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against Muslims” in a recent audiotape message, he sought to delegitimize moderate Muslims who refuse to accept violence and coercion as an integral part of their Islamic faith. Bin Laden rejected coexistence with the secular west on the basis of universal human values. “The West is incapable of recognizing the rights of others,” he declared, echoing the sentiment of Muslim revivalists bent upon turning the tide of modernity. According to bin Laden, “The West still believes in ethnic supremacy and looks down on other nations. They categorize human beings into white masters and colored slaves.”
Bin Laden’s message is aimed at the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims, many of whom have been engaged in a civil war of ideas for the last three centuries, the period of Muslim political decline. The successive fall of mighty Muslim empires, such as the Mughals in India and eventually the Ottomans in the Middle East, led Muslims to enquire into the causes of their downfall. Instead of recognizing scientific and intellectual stagnation as the reason for their lack of material progress, Muslim revivalists attribute Muslim debility to a combination of western conspiracies and Muslim neglect of military preparedness.
Contemporary Jihadists see themselves as reversing Muslim decay by reviving militancy. They play on the many post-colonial grievances of Muslims and are aware of the Muslim desire for restoring their past glory. But the west cannot be engaged in battle throughout the Muslim world with only a few thousand warriors of Al-Qaeda. Jihadists need more recruits for their cause and to do so, they need to set the hearts of young Muslims aflame with hatred for the United States, western civilization and Muslim “apostates” –those within the Islamic world who do not see the Jihadist venture as benefiting Muslims.
To win the war against terrorism, the west must not only fight existing terrorist groups; It must also deny the terrorists the opportunity of a wider war in many theaters. The effort by bin Laden and others of his ilk to recruit a large number of foot soldiers for terrorism can be resisted most effectively by Muslim modernizers and reformists. These are thinkers and leaders who examine Muslim history critically, recognize that Muslims must change and adapt to survive and thrive as a community in modern times and reject the view that “The west is to blame for all Muslim misfortunes.”
Muslim reformists believe that Muslims have something to learn from the ascendancy of the west beginning with the European renaissance and reformation. This makes the reformists attractive as allies to the west, which in turn leads to the charge by revivalists that modernity and reform are somehow an imperial project to change Islam. Historically, many Muslims have approached the question of reform from within a religious tradition. Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Abduh wrote of Islamic reform in the nineteenth century while Fazlur Rahman, Nurcholish Madjid and Mahmoud Muhammad Taha contributed significantly to reformist thought over the latter half of the twentieth century. Prominent among contemporary reformists are Abdul Karim Soroush, Khalid Masud, and Muhammad Arkun.
For their part, westerners often make the mistake of describing as moderates only non-practicing Muslims who call for virtually abandoning their religious tradition altogether. This leads to the fear among Muslims that the only good Muslim in the West’s eyes is one willing to give up Islam altogether.
In an era of terrorism in the name of Islam, the battle for Muslim hearts and minds is the key to success in the war against terrorism. Radical revivalists want to win over Muslims by arguing that Islam is under threat, hence bin Laden’s references to “a Crusader-Zionist-Hindu war against Muslims.” According to polling data more than 70 percent of the population in some countries, including Indonesia, Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, and Pakistan, believes that Islam is under threat. Support for terrorism feeds on the belief that large segments of the Muslim world are victims of ongoing injustice.
The perception of threats to Islam is deliberately cultivated by Islamist political groups and authoritarian Muslim governments to generate support for their agenda. But support for terrorism is unlikely to decline without addressing that perception, whether the perception is the product of propaganda or the result of legitimate political grievance.
While Muslim critics of Islam have a right to speak their mind and threats to their lives are legitimate cause for concern in the west, the moderates that need most support are those who seek to reform rather than reject their fellow Muslims. Moderation and pluralism rooted in the Quranic injunction ‘La Ikraha fid Deen’ (There is no coercion in religion) 2:256 would be a better basis for combating bin Ladenism than, say, calls for questioning Islam’s basic tenets. Terrorists could be defeated and marginalized if a majority of Muslims are persuaded of the need to live with other nations and peoples in accordance with the Quranic principle of ‘Lakum Deeno-kum wa lay-ya Deen’ (For you your religion and for me my religion).
The Islamophobia of some in the west complicates the task of moderate Muslims as much as the ideology of extremist Islamists. After years of being intimidated by radical Islamists and authoritarian regimes, Muslim moderates have gradually started to organize within the Muslim world as well as in Europe and North America. But the moderates cannot successfully invite fellow believers to embrace western ideals of tolerance and liberal democracy if every few months the west itself stands in the dock for atrocities such as Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and now Haditha.
Battles for hearts and minds require those with strong values to manifest these values in practice. There is no doubt that the west in general is democratic, tolerant and pluralist. But as New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman once wrote (in the context of the furore over the Dubai Ports deal), “9/11 has made us stupid.” Too many people in the U.S., in particular, seem to think that they can ensure the victory of American values in the War against terrorism by setting aside those very values. This attitude helps the extremists in the Muslim world who highlight the west’s “aggression” to rally Muslims demoralized by their community’s poverty and weakness for a clash of civilizations.
The U.S. decision to investigate allegations of a massacre of civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha might help overcome the outrage caused by such a tragic event. At the same time, it would be useful to inquire into the reasons why soldiers are periodically violating their own ethics, be it at Abu Ghraib or in Haditha. There is no doubt that an environment of hostility towards Islam and Muslims has been generated and some in the U.S. make no distinction between Muslim extremists and moderates.
By defining Islam as “an evil religion,” America’s extremists have paved the way for thoughtless individuals to act irresponsibly, even inhumanely, towards Muslims in war zones. Unfortunately, such behavior is likely only to swell the ranks of the terrorists and to prolong the war against terrorism.
(A shorter version of this piece has appeared in Gulf News, The Nation[Pakistan] and The Indian Express.)Top
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