Don't buff the sharp edges off Islam
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, September 29, 2001)

We all know more about Islam than we knew when we awoke on Sept. 11, and we will learn much more by living in the painful and complex world that Sept. 11 created. Absorbing a million new facts will be difficult, but we may find it even harder to learn precisely how we should think about Islam, without hatred and yet also without naïveté. Like all education, this will require patience, curiosity and rigorous skepticism.

George Bush and Jean Chrétien reminded Americans and Canadians of the demands that civility makes on us even in a frustrating struggle against an amorphous enemy. They rightly urged us not to turn innocent Muslims living among us into scapegoats. Just hours after the atrocity there were reports of insults and worse inflicted on people whose appearance suggested they might be Arabs. The hysteria of the moment, heightened by memories of racist Hollywood movies about Arabs who are both evil and stupid, apparently inflamed the bigotry that waits within many of us.

The politicians were right to recall us to our duty as citizens of multicultural democracies. We should understand, however, that this will never be more than a one-way street. Multiculturalism does not exist as an ideal in Islamic countries, and among the Arab states there are no democracies.

That doesn't make Muslims enemies of the West. In the past 18 days, platoons of commentators have pointed out that the terrorists and their supporters do not fairly represent Muslims, most of whom obey the law and want to be left alone. But commentators have also made much of the fact that a true Muslim follows the Koran, which condemns the slaughter of innocents. I can't count how often I've heard that lately. Even so, it feels more like piety than realism.

Every great civilization articulates exalted beliefs about human conduct; and every great civilization routinely violates those beliefs. Christians, while claiming to follow the prince of peace, have frequently carried their cross into vicious wars. Perhaps apologists for Islam are insisting that their militants are no worse than, say, the Spaniards who killed their way across central America during the Renaissance. If that's the argument, it's cold comfort.

Like many outsiders, I've often thought that Islam awaits its own Martin Luther, the devout and fearless Muslim who will defy the religious authorities, carve out space for intellectual freedom, and launch a novel idea, Islamic self-criticism. So I was delighted to hear Hamza Yusuf Hanson say, in an interview with Michael Enright on the CBC: "Muslims need to become introspective. The Muslim world has to stop blaming the West for its problems. It's the easy way out." Mr. Hanson is an American-born scholar who converted to Islam in 1977 and now promotes traditional Islamic study. He sees encouraging signs that the Muslim world is entering a Protestant-style reformation.

But even Mr. Hanson seemed anxious to buff the sharp edges off our idea of Islam. For a start, he wants to change our language. We should not use the word jihad, for instance, to mean holy war. That's incorrect. In fact, "Jihad is probably one of the highest concepts that the Arabs and the Muslims have." It means struggle, but the struggle for goodness within oneself. He quoted Mohammed: "the greatest struggle is with your own soul's insidious suggestions."

Mr. Hanson (and he can stand for many commentators we have lately heard from) is apparently dreaming of an Islam that should exist. In English, as the Oxford English Dictionary says, jihad has meant "A religious war of Muslims" since the 19th century; more important, the Arab Studies Quarterly, published by the Association of Arab-American University Graduates, recently said that in the Sudan, "The Islamist government transformed the civil war into a religious jihad." The word runs through modern Islamic writings, carrying the meaning we normally give it.

But that's not all. Mr. Hanson also said that any adjective placed in front of "Islam" is harmful. For instance, he claims the term "militant Islam" is oxymoronic. "The idea that Islam is a militant religion is a very dangerous concept."

Dangerous, perhaps, but not inaccurate. In 1996, Samuel Huntington, a professor of political science at Harvard, argued in his much-admired book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, that Muslims show a greater propensity for war than any of the other disputatious civilizations now competing for territory on the planet: "Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbours." In the mid-1990s, a world-wide study identified 20 violent conflicts involving groups from different civilizations, 15 of them between Muslims and non-Muslims. Huntington also cited a summary in the International Studies Quarterly of six recent conflicts involving deaths of 200,000 or more. Three were between Muslims and non-Muslims (Sudan, Bosnia, East Timor), two involved Muslims only (Somalia and Iraq-Kurds) and only one (Angola) did not involve Muslims.

Last winter Jessica Stern of the Kennedy School at Harvard described "Pakistan's Jihad Culture" in a searching article for Foreign Affairs. She discussed Pakistani religious schools where jihad is on the curriculum. The government tolerates the schools because many graduates go off to fight the Indian government in Kashmir, but they can also stray into terrorist organizations, including those in Afghanistan. These Pakistani militants endanger international security, regional stability, and Pakistan itself, which they want to transform into a puritanical Islamic state.

Together they have become a loosely organized entity, funded by rich Pakistanis abroad, described by the late scholar Eqbal Ahmad as "Jihad International, Inc." These people are jihad-dependent: It's their way of life. Many militant groups associated with radical schools promise (Professor Stern reported) that they will bring jihad to all of India and into the West as well. She quoted one organization's plan to "plant Islamic flags in Delhi, Tel Aviv, and Washington." She concluded that "The jihad against the West may be rhetorical (at least for now)." Professor Stern was writing long ago, in the year 2000.

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