Moderate Islam Making Gains

I am one of those who has said many times that the larger context of the war on terrorism is that of a crucial internal battle within Islam, a battle that puts the US, and western ideals, in the crossfire. Ultimately, the battle to defeat the Bin Ladens of the world must be fought primarily by his fellow Muslims and I believe it is very important for the US to build ties to the voices of sanity within Islam and strengthen their hand as much as we can. We must redraw the lines of battle, redefine the dichotomies, so the battle is not between Islam and the west, but between decent and peaceful people within both groups, and the radicals within both groups. Extremism is the enemy, and it is the enemy of reasonable Muslims as much as it is of us. Having said that, I am very happy to see this report in New Statesment on efforts to humanize and moderate Islamic law around the world.

I was having a discussion the other day with a Christian who saw Islam as an inherently violent religion that swore death to all non-believers. I tried to impress upon them that one could find the same sort of support for that idea in the Bible as they do in the Quran. Both books are enormously broad, and one can take statements from them to support most any position. Peaceful and decent people can find plenty of textual support for peace and decency; violent and oppressive people can find plenty of support for violence and oppression. And this is true of either religion. The same is true of the history of theology that has grown up around both religions, you can find voices of moderation and wisdom and voices of bloodthirsty hatred in each. The key is in choosing which parts to focus on and which parts to assign to history. As the New Statesman article points out, the forces of moderation and rationality are beginning to make some inroads in Islamic cultures around the world:

The Muslim world is changing. Three years after the atrocity of 9/11, it may be in the early stages of a reformation, albeit with a small "r". From Morocco to Indonesia, people are trying to develop a more contemporary and humane interpretation of Islam, and some countries are undergoing major transformations.

Much of the attention is focused on reformulating the sharia, the centuries-old body of Islamic law deeply embedded in a medieval psychology. The sharia is state law in many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and the Sudan. For many conservative and radical Muslims, the sharia is Islam: it cannot be changed, and must be imposed in exactly the shape it was first formulated in the ninth century. Since 9/11, there has been a seismic shift in this perception. More and more Muslims now perceive Islamic law to be dangerously obsolete. And these include the ulema, the religious scholars and clerics, who have a tremendous hold on the minds of the Muslim masses.

The article points to numerous examples, including recent revisions in family law in Morocco, where women are now given equal rights in marriage and custody law, in India, and in Malaysia. Most importantly, where such changes are taking place, they are supported by the religious leaders who have justified the changes by reference to the Quran and to Islamic tradition:

Every change in the law is justified - chapter and verse - from the Koran, and from the examples and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. And every change acquired the consent of the religious scholars. Even the Islamist political organisations have welcomed the change. The Party of Justice and Development described the law as "a pioneering reform" which is "in line with the prescriptions of Islam and with the aims of our religion".

Elsewhere, the focus is not so much on Islamic law as on Islam as a whole. In a general election last March, the Malaysian prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, argued that Islam was almost totally associated with violence and extremism and needed to be formulated anew. He called his new concept "Islam Hadhari", or progressive Islam. It was pitted against the "conservative Islam" of the main opposition party, the Islamic Pas. For the first time, the governing coalition won more than 90 per cent of federal parliamentary seats. Pas, and its version of Islam (full implementation of the sharia, without modification; a leading role in the state for religious scholars; and so on), were routed.

Badawi, who is a trained religious scholar, took the term "hadhari" from Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Muslim historian and founder of sociology. The term signifies urban civilisation; and Islam Hadhari emphasises economic development, civic life and cultural progress. When Muslims talk about Islam, says Abdullah Mohd Zain, a minister in the prime minister's department, "there is always the tendency to link it to the past, to the Prophet's time". Islam Hadhari gives equal emphasis to the present and the future. "It emphasises wisdom, practicality and harmony," says Zain. "It encourages moderation or a balanced approach to life. Yet it does not stray from the fundamentals of the Koran and the example and sayings of the Prophet."

Islam Hadhari - fully explained in a 60-page document published by Badawi last month - emphasises the central role of knowledge in Islam; preaches hard work, honesty, good administration and efficiency; and appeals to Muslims to be "inclusive", tolerant and outward-looking. It advocates that Muslims should attend secular and not religious schools. Committees have been set up to spread the message throughout Malaysia, and mullahs have been instructed to preach it during Friday sermons.

It ends by noting that these reformers are attempting to export these efforts at humanizing Islam to other Islamic nations and communities:

Both Malaysia's Islam Hadhari and Indonesia's deformalisation emphasise tolerance and pluralism, civic society and open democracy. Both are likely to spread. Malaysia is trying to export Islam Hadhari to Muslim communities in Thailand and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Morocco is trying to persuade Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to adopt its model of family law.

Muslims worldwide are acknowledging the need for fundamental change in their perception of Islam. They are making conscious efforts to move away from medieval notions of Islamic law and to implement the vision of justice, equality and beauty that is rooted in the Koran. If such changes continue, the future will not repeat the recent past.

This is certainly very hopeful. We must recognize that these people are our allies in the battle against Islamic fundamentalism, and we must reach out to them and build bridges between cultures and governments. Even more than military success, this holds the key to finding a solution to our present circumstances.


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