Soul-searching on Islam covers militant path

Miami Herald, Sep. 7, 2002
Knight Ridder News Service

After Muslim extremists burned down Javed Nazir’s newspaper in Pakistan and threatened him with death for blasphemy, he and his wife, Ameera, fled to the United States.

Passing through New York City one year ago on their way to the safety of a research fellowship at the University of Michigan, Ameera Nazir’s one request was to tour the symbol of U.S. economic power: the World Trade Center.

But her husband said there wasn’t time and assured her that the twin towers weren’t going anywhere. ”We’ll come back to New York,” he promised. “We’ll see it next time.”

Twelve days later, the Nazirs were as stunned as the rest of America at the collapse of the towers. ”I knew from my own experience that extremists are dangerous, but I had no idea they could act on such a scale in this country,” said Javed Nazir, who is a Muslim.

Now, as the terrorists’ attacks near their first anniversary, the Nazirs, other Muslims and many of the nation’s leading scholars, government officials and political activists are engaged in a life-and-death debate over the question:

How dangerous is Islam?
In recent weeks, evangelist Franklin Graham angered Muslims by calling their faith evil and accusing Islam of encouraging violence, and Americans sparred over whether the University of North Carolina should have assigned students to read a book about the Koran.

Around the world, a Nigerian Islamic court sentenced a woman to be stoned to death for adultery; Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf seized sweeping legal powers and is vowing to quell Muslim extremists; U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia are strained, partly over the regime’s ties to traditionalist Islamic groups, and Arab-Muslim leaders across the Middle East, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, are speaking out against President George W. Bush’s march toward war with Iraq.

Marking the Sept. 11 anniversary in this country, dozens of books, newspapers, cable talk shows and TV news reports are weighing the threat of Muslim extremism.

Some American claims also sound extreme.

”I see analogies between militant Islam and communism and fascism,” said Daniel Pipes, a frequent political analyst on cable TV and the author of the newly released Militant Islam Reaches America.

”This is a virulent, hostile ideology that is in our midst, that has attacked us many times in the past quarter of a century, and there’s no reason to think it won’t attack us again,” Pipes said.

Pipes claims that 80 percent of mosques in the United States are controlled by extremists, and he calls for limiting Muslim immigration.

In sharp contrast, Imam Mohammed Ali Elahi of the Islamic House of Wisdom in Dearborn Heights, Mich., called Pipes’ charges more explosive than any Muslim threat.

”People like Pipes and Graham are following a very dangerous agenda of creating tension between Christians and Muslims,” Elahi said. “It is very unfair.”

When he hears the claim about extremists controlling mosques in the United States, Elahi said, “At first, you can’t believe a person is actually saying this thing. Then, you realize they really are talking this kind of nonsense. And, as a Muslim you really feel the pain of hearing people say this about your faith.”

Nearly 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed introduced Islam not as a separate faith but as a correction and completion of Judaism and Christianity. The Koran, the movement’s new scripture, tried to embrace great figures of the earlier faiths, including Jesus and his mother, Mary.

Islam’s simple code of direct access to God through daily prayer, seasonal fasting and gifts to the poor also stressed that God’s most important qualities are compassion and mercy.

‘In the Koran, each section — each surah — excepting one, begins with, `In the name of God, the merciful and the compassionate,’ and the fact that Muslims are to be compassionate to their fellow humans is one of the Koran’s major themes,” said John Esposito of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., one of the country’s most widely cited scholars of Islam.

Over the centuries, the faith produced civilizations in Spain, North Africa and as far east as India that were unsurpassed in tolerance and cultural innovation, said Sussan Babaie, a University of Michigan assistant professor of Islamic art and architecture.

”One of the saddest aspects of the negative publicity right now is that it contributes to a long-standing image of Islamic culture as negative,” Babaie said.

”But there were highly sophisticated, extremely tolerant centers of poetry, the arts, philosophy and science in the Muslim world,” including the Ottoman Empire based in modern-day Turkey, Babaie said. “When Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th Century, their survival was thanks to Ottoman protection.”

Today, said Esposito, “It is true that there are extremists in the world who are deadly and we have to go get them. But talking about the relationship between extremism and the history of Islam is as complex as talking about extremes in Christianity and Judaism through the centuries.

”If a Christian extremist blows up an abortion clinic or an extremist who’s Jewish kills someone like Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the average American immediately understands there’s a complex relationship here between violence and religion,” Esposito said. ‘No one in this country says, `Well, that’s just like a Christian,’ or `That’s just like a Jew.’

“But we all were so traumatized by 9/11 that we’re seeing Islam through the lens of this extremism and we don’t want to believe it when people tell us that the majority of Muslims were appalled by the attacks.”

Muslims comprise a majority in 56 countries, Esposito said. ”Until the Iranian Revolution in 1979, most people simply did not take religion as a serious factor in international relations,” “People were stunned by Iran and, at first, thought it was a unique thing.”

Later, Muslims from many parts of the world gathered to fight Soviet forces in Afghanistan and contributed to the crumbling of the Soviet bloc. At that point, scholars say, a broad array of Muslim political aspirations arose around the world.

Today, the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims are as diverse as the 1.5 billion Christians circling the globe, Esposito said. “There are enormous differences in the way Islam is expressed in the Middle East, Africa or Asia.”

That diversity is highlighted in the latest of Esposito’s 30 books on Islam, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, being released this month. Within the faith, he writes, “there is no single model of government, as attested to by the diverse examples of Saudi Arabia’s conservative monarchy, Iran’s clergy-run state, Sudan’s and Pakistan’s experiments with military-imposed Islamic governments and the Taliban’s Afghanistan. And still others reject all these experiments . . . and subscribe to more secular or Islamic democratic forms of governance.”

That diversity also showed up in an unprecedented survey of 10,000 people across the Muslim world, conducted by the Gallup Organization this year. Though still being analyzed, so far data indicate that vast majorities in Muslim countries from Morocco to Indonesia think the Sept. 11 attacks were wrong, except in Kuwait, where only 38 percent of those surveyed found the attacks immoral. Thirty-six percent of Kuwaitis said the attacks could be morally justified and 26 percent had no opinion.

The importance of religion appears strongest in Kuwait and Pakistan, where eight of 10 people ranked their faith as even more important than their families to a satisfying life. In sharp contrast, two-thirds of people in Turkey and Lebanon ranked family more important.

Looking to the future, Gallup also focused on the viewpoints of younger adults and found that nearly half of people under 30 in Lebanon and Turkey have a favorable view of the United States. In contrast, only 4 percent of young Pakistanis have a positive opinion of this country.

Gallup did not survey American Muslims. But Elahi, who travels widely and runs one of the largest mosques in metro Detroit, thinks that most Muslims who choose to live in the United States do so because they admire this country.

In an era when the United States is at war with terrorists, experts say it is difficult to separate legitimate threats from paranoia.

There is no question that extremists in Pakistan, claiming to act on behalf of Islam, are threatening moderate Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

Eight months before the Sept. 11 attacks, The Frontier Post, a daily in Peshawar, Pakistan, ran a letter to the editor that some Muslims regarded as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed. As a top editor, Javed Nazir did not even see the letter before publication.

”But, in reaction, hundreds gathered in front of the paper,” Nazir recalled. “They ransacked the place, tore apart the machinery and burned down the paper.”

Some staffers were arrested on charges of blasphemy, an offense punishable by death. ”It was very frightening and I went into hiding,” Nazir said.

He and his wife eventually fled to a yearlong fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Javed is teaching a course on religious conflict as a visiting professor of journalism. And Ameera is doing research at the university on the status of women in the Muslim world.

Both Nazirs regularly give talks on the dangers of bigotry and the need for the United States to support alternative educational programs in Muslim countries to combat schools set up by extremists.

”Yes, the Taliban has been defeated in Afghanistan,” Javed told a civic group recently in Ann Arbor. “But most people in the region feel a bigger conflict is yet to come in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We have to hunker down for the long haul and work on establishing schools to educate a new generation.

“But already, it seems likely the United States may leave the job half-finished there and go on to war with Iraq.”

The anxiety among Muslims is almost overwhelming, said Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Islamic law at the University of California at Los Angeles. El Fadl served as an Islamic spokesman on Frontline: Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, which aired Tuesday on PBS. ”I am fighting for the soul and the identity of Islam itself,” El Fadl said on the program.

El Fadl said he is urging American Muslims to move beyond condemning Al Qaeda to more actively combatting extremist thinking within the worldwide Muslim community.

On the other hand, he calls anti-Muslim paranoia a ticking bomb. “Because the minute you start being suspicious of every Muslim, then you’re part of the problem.”

Conflict between Muslim and Christian nations is tragic, Elahi said.

”Together, Muslims and Christians make up almost half of this world. If we worked together in unity, we could make this world like heaven,” he said. “If, instead, we fall into war, then it will bring nothing but disaster.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday September 7, 2002.
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