The Struggle for the Soul of Islam

One of the many sources that I review on a daily basis are translations of the Arab press that are produced by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  In a recent issue of Sawt al-Jihad ("Voice of Jihad"), a site identified with al Qaeda, an article appeared titled "A Letter to the Wife of the Slain Pagan Paul Johnson from the Wife of One of the Martyrs." The letter celebrates the murder of the American hostage Paul Johnson in Saudi Arabia and is attributed to the wife of one of the terrorists who was subsequently killed by the Saudi Security forces. In it, the unnamed letter-writer wrote: "I swear to God that I was extremely happy that day, for the true terrorist was killed, after having sucked the blood of our Muslim children." It continued, "The blood of your husband is the blood of a dog because he is an idolatrous infidel." (MEMRI, Special Dispatch - Saudi Arabia/Jihad & Terrorism Studies Project, August 5, 2004 No. 758)

This was followed by a New York Times article that stated that al Qaeda's upper ranks are being replenished by lower-ranking members and new recruits filling the vacuum created when its leaders are killed or captured. In other words, the madrassas continue to teach the young to hate and to churn out suicide bombers. Thus, it becomes clear that for Western civilization to triumph over Islamic barbarism, fundamental changes must first occur within Islam itself.

For the first time since the Crusades, Western civilization finds itself involved in a religious war. As Shmuel Bar has noted in his probing analysis of modern day Islam, a counter-terrorism strategy to fight radical Islam must begin at the religious-ideological level not at the political or legal level. The Report of the 9/11 Commission goes far in detailing the political and legal options, but it says little of the religious/ideological ones.

The reason the Commission dodged the issue is simple. In addressing this Islamic phenomenon, the West is at a severe disadvantage. Western concepts of civil rights along with legal, political, and cultural constraints preclude any government intervention in the internal affairs of organized religions. As a result, our laws make it difficult to prohibit or punish inflammatory sermons of imams in mosques or to punish clerics for decrees (fatwas) justifying terrorism. They are free to spread their ideology of death from pulpits throughout America. These sermons are seen as exercises in free speech. However, because we are involved in an ideological (more so than a territorial) war, it is a dangerous mistake to skirt this issue. By doing nothing, we cede the ideological playing field to radical Islam in our own country. And so do the moderate leaders of Islam in America and around the world.

Even the Patriot Act deals primarily with investigative powers (such as allowing for unlimited administrative arrests, etc.) and does not deal with the prohibition of religion-based "ideological crimes" (such as the anti-Nazi and anti-racism laws that are in force in many countries including Canada and Europe). France, for example, has taken one of the hardest lines of any Western country in fighting Islamic extremism. It has expelled many Muslim preachers who foment anti-Western sentiment and violence in their sermons. However much we may dislike French foreign policy, and however much we find French anti-Semitism repulsive, that country has recognized that terrorist acts cannot be separated from the words that feed them.

And therein lies the problem for many Americans. A strategy designed to cope with radical Islamic ideology cannot take shape without a reinterpretation of our own Western concepts of the limits of our freedoms of religion and speech, our definitions of religious incitement, and the criminal culpability of religious leaders for the acts of their flock as a result of their spiritual influence and dangerous sermons. Such a reinterpretation impinges upon the basic principles underlying Western laws. But where the alternative is allowing Islamic hatred to grow in our midst, I suspect that redefining the limits of our religious and free speech laws may be the lesser of the two evils.

For all these reasons, it is difficult for us to prevent the conversion of young Muslims in the West to the ideas of radical Islam emanating from the safe houses of the Middle East unless radical Islam itself is attacked as a perverted ideology. Thus, the goal of the West cannot be to fight this war defensively or even offensively, and even the democratization of the Middle East (although that may be part of the ultimate solution - if it is doable) is not the panacea. Rather, the goal must include a religious-ideological component to this war - active pressure for religious reform in the Muslim world and pressure on the orthodox Islamic establishment in the West and the Middle East not only to disassociate itself clearly from any justification of violence, but also to pit itself against the fundamentalist camp in a clear demarcation of boundaries.

Such disengagement, unfortunately, cannot be accomplished by non-Muslims. It can only be achieved by clear and binding legal decrees (fatwas) from moderate, respected Muslim religious authorities who contradict the axioms of the fundamentalists worldview and virtually excommunicate these radicals. In essence, the radical narrative (which promises "paradise" to those who perpetrate acts of terrorism against infidels) must be met by an equally legitimate religious force that guarantees "eternal damnation" for the same acts.

Some elements of the kinds of decrees (fatwas) necessary include:

•     A call for a renewal of ijtihad (independent thinking) as the basis to reform Islamic dogmas and to relegate old dogmas to historic contexts.

•       That there exists no state of jihad (holy war) between Islam and the rest of the world (hence, jihad is not a personal duty).

•       That the violation of the physical safety of a non-Muslim in a Muslim country is prohibited (haram) by the Koran.

•      That suicide bombings are clear acts of suicide, and therefore, their perpetrators are condemned to eternal damnation.

•      That moral or financial support of these acts of terrorism is prohibited (haram).

•      That any legal ruling that claims jihad is a duty derived from the roots of Islam is a falsification of the roots of Islam, and therefore, those who make such statements have performed acts of heresy.

Only by discrediting fundamentalist Islam throughout the Muslim world can the radical elements of al Qaeda (and its terror franchisees) be exorcised and a clash of our two civilizations be averted.

Herein lies the conflict within modern day Islam - the disinclination of moderates to confront the radicals is not out of fear of reprisal (as many would have us believe). Rather, a fundamental element of Islam demands that takfir, or the act of accusing another Muslim of heresy (kufr) by falsifying the roots of Islam, allowing that which is prohibited (or forbidding that which is allowed) is not to be taken lightly. Even moderate Muslims believe in the deep-rooted value that Islam places on unity among the believers and its aversion to fitna (communal discord). Unfortunately, a religious mechanism that has been created as a tool to preserve pluralism and to prevent internal debates from deteriorating into civil strife and accusations of heresy (as occurred in Christian Europe) has become a political tool in the hands of the radicals who use it to to drown out any criticism of their actions.

The internal struggle between orthodox Islam and fundamentalist Islam must be based on an in-depth understanding of the religious sources for justification of Islamic terrorism and a plan for the creation of a legitimate moderate counterbalance to the fundamentalist narrative in Islam. Such an alternative narrative should have a sound base in Islamic teachings, and its proponents should be Islamic scholars and leaders with wide legitimacy and accepted credentials.

We are in a war for survival and these are tumultuous times. As such, we must recognize that although we may kill millions of Islamic terrorists, others will continue to arise to take their place unless we address the core of the problem. We cannot win this war only with JDAMs or building an "international consensus." Short of democratizing the entire Muslim world, the radical ideology of Islam must be discredited from within - by its own moderate Islamic scholars. Unless that happens, our political and legal remedies will not be able to stem the tide of this Islamic scourge.

In effect, the war on Islamic terrorism cannot be won unless and until Islam itself is modernized and moderated in the same way that Christian and Jewish scholars have (over the centuries) moderated the more strident aspects of their scriptures and promoted those verses that spoke of the brotherhood of man, tolerance and understanding over those portions that speak of exclusivity. 

Islam awaits its Reformation. So too does the civilized world.

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