- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004


Across the globe, Islam finds itself under the microscope yet again. This time it is the focus of the French government to ban headscarves (and other visible religious signs) from public schools.

Ever since September 11, 2001, much attention has been directed toward a religion that, at least until a few years ago, was mostly ignored by the West.

Indeed, nothing could be more accurate in describing Islam now than the opening lines in Akbar Ahmed’s book, “Islam under Siege.” The American University professor writes, quoting the Prophet Mohammed, “There will be a time when your religion will be like a hot piece of coal in the palm of your hand.”

Mr. Ahmed, and others who closely follow developments in Islam, believe the 21st century will be the century of Islam. At a time when Islam has more followers than ever before, it is also, ironically, at its most critical stage.

Since September 11, 2001, much has changed — and not all of it for the better — with fatwas and counterfatwas being thrown at believers and nonbelievers alike.

Even French President Jacques Chirac has issued an edict — or fatwa of his own — aimed at preventing the visual display of religious symbols in state schools. He hopes to ban the veil worn by many Islamic females from secular French schools.

As Mr. Ahmed states, “Islam it seems, was under siege.” That is true both within and without. He writes, “Muslims everywhere are being forced to reassess and re-examine Islam.”

Yet part of the problem with Islam today is not enough Muslims are asking pertinent questions about their religion. Too many, particularly the tens of thousands who graduate from the madrassas, or Islamic schools that have cropped up, principally in Southwest Asia, accept without question the teachings of their imams, no matter how extremist these teaching may be.

One explanation Mr. Ahmed gives for the sudden surge of violence is that it may be a reaction to an attack on “the honor of the group.”

“Exaggerated tribal or religious loyalties,” or what he calls “hyper-asabiyya,” Mr. Ahmed says, are “cause and symptom to the post-honor world in which we live.” Mr. Ahmed believes that, if attacked, the group will find the “need to take revenge.” That, he says, “becomes more important than worshiping God.

“Islam, which sees itself as a religion of peace, is now associated with murder and mayhem,” writes Mr. Ahmed. If Samuel Huntington spoke of “a clash of civilizations,” Mr. Ahmed believes the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims suddenly find themselves “on a collision course with the other world religions.”

But, Mr. Ahmed says, taken out of context, religion can be molded to fit any shape one intends for it, as Osama bin Laden has so wittingly done.

Bin Laden and others have used “asabiyya” — the loss of honor — to propel men to violence. Mr. Ahmed’s believes a powerful alternative is emerging, that of a dialogue of civilizations. One would hope so.

Some Western leaders, such as Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, were quick to point to Islam as the enemy. But just who represents Islam?

Are bin Laden and his fanatics or more moderate Muslims calling for understanding and peaceful coexistence among faiths? Indeed, that may well be part of the problem facing Islam — there is no central figure of authority. There is no equivalent to the pope, as with Catholicism, for example — to guide, lead and direct the faithful. Muslims around the world even have a hard time agreeing on the start and end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Professor Ahmed’s view is that Islam was unjustly blamed, particularly after September 11. There is little doubt Muslims (and in some cases others wrongly believed to be Muslims) were harassed and unjustly discriminated against. At the same time, Muslims, in fact, did little to alter that perception.

Shortly after September 11, a Saudi Arabian delegation met a group of journalists at a conference in Washington that was arranged by the Islamic Institute. Instead of pointing out what steps had been taken to improve relations with the West and address their internal problems, given that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudis, the delegation, made up of scholars and religious leaders, lambasted the media for all their ills.

As Mr. Ahmed points out in his book, it was their honor that had been targeted, and in a knee-jerk reaction, they lashed out in self-defense.

Bin Laden used this very basic feeling — albeit on a far larger scale — and seized on the issue of dishonor within the Muslim community to propel his movement. Muslims had been wronged in Chechnya, Palestine and Kashmir. And the West largely ignored their plight.

Mr. Ahmed argues it is what Emile Durkheim, founding father of social science, calls “anomie” — the collapse of solidarity that leads to abnormal behavior. Mr. Ahmed further argues that “a kind of global anomie is what Muslim society is experiencing as a result of the breakdown of “asabiyya.” In this respect, Mr. Ahmed has clearly identified the ills — or at least part of them — that plague Islam today. “The collapse of asabiyya… creates conflict and violence in society.”

One important and courageous stand by Mr. Ahmed takes is in pointing out that bin Laden, despite his fatwas, bears no theological reasoning. “There is no reflection of God as Beneficent and Merciful in killing innocent civilians.”

Other scholars who have spoken out against misleading Islam have found themselves driven out of their countries or under pressure to remain silent. Therefore, writes Mr. Ahmed, “it is not surprising that the Muslim world’s educational achievement is among the lowest in the world.”

Moreover, lack of pan-Muslim leadership is affecting the followers of Islam at a time of great crisis.

As Ahmed asks, “Why are the gentle teachers and mystics of Islam not heard?” Indeed, one wonders.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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