The struggle for the soul of Muslim youth
By Jane Lampman | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
It's a simple, true story, and it's not happenstance. And the implications are global.
Aiming for the hearts and minds of youths throughout the Muslim world is exactly what Akbar Ahmed - a former Pakistani diplomat and a scholar of Islam - had in mind when he spent years on that film, which has stirred debate in many countries since 1997.
His desire to offer youths a compelling role model other than radical Islam struck a nerve: Sheikh Bakir, the self-declared representative of Osama bin Laden in Europe, attacked Dr. Ahmed as an "Uncle Tom" who "admires Western civilization more than Islamic civilization."
The reason: M. A. Jinnah - who was the leader of perhaps the largest Muslim movement of the 20th century - also talked of democracy, human rights, and women's rights.
Who defines Islam?
This clash symbolizes the ferment roiling many countries in the Muslim world over what should be the contemporary face of Islam and its expressions in society. But it also holds a message for America, as it decides how to respond to the terrorism unleashed against it, apparently by Mr. bin Laden's followers.
"This is not just a defining moment for America, it's a defining moment in world history," says Ahmed, now chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington. One of every 5 people is a Muslim, and the relations between the West and Islam will shape the 21st century, he says. "Anyone involved in a crime like this has to be punished, but we at the same time need long-term thinking; otherwise we are on a collision course between Islam and the West."
This is not a "clash of civilizations," as some have claimed, he and other experts say. It is more a clash of misunderstandings. But if the US focuses only on eliminating a terrorist network, and fails to recognize the larger stakes, "there will be many more Osamas."
Those stakes include the outcomes of the "Islamic revival," a range of movements spurred initially by the encounter with Western colonization. across the entire Muslim world of 55 states, stretching from Indonesia to Morocco. To many Americans, Islamic revival evokes the image of angry clerics railing against the West and calling for Islamic states and the imposition of Islamic law. That is a significant part of the story.
But since the 19th century, it has also included major reform movements seeking a "rapprochement between Islamic values and Western values," says Ibrahim Abu-Rabi, co-director of the Center for the Study of Islam at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut. "These movements are still there in a very powerful way."
Former President Abdulrahman Wahid of Indonesia, for example, though an ineffective president, for decades was the renowned leader of a Muslim educational movement that supports pluralism and democracy.
"Islamic reformers can be advocates of women's rights and family planning, or they can be bearded mullahs calling for women to put on scarves and stay home," says Tamara Sonn, of William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Va., a specialist in contemporary Islam. "There is this huge range of approaches."
These movements, arising from differing interpretations of Islam, are vying for influence and credibility, particularly among the young. But their struggles are having to be fought out under the grip of unpopular dictatorships or foreign occupation, and under dire economic straits, she adds.
A majority of the population in many countries is under 25, and often frustrated, jobless, and unable to show their anger against their own governments. In some cases, they see the US propping up regimes; and in others, they see a US indifferent to their sufferings - as among the Palestinian, Afghani, and Iraqi peoples.
Dr. Sonn says, "It's never been more clear how little the American government and people understand the suffering that is going on in the Muslim world."
"If you are a young man and you've been involved in the Palestinian or Afghanistan situation," Ahmed says, "your emotions are high, and you'll want action. That's what the sometimes-illiterate religious leaders offer."
The crisis within Islam involves a battle over leadership, and the challenge is not only to win over hearts and minds, but to avoid being silenced or chased out of the country.
Those seeking a tolerant, open, contemporary society not only face threats from radical Islamists, but also from crackdowns by governments supposedly supportive of Western ties. For example, Saad Ibrahim, a leading scholar and dual citizen of Egypt and the US who works for tolerance and democracy, was recently sent to jail for seven years in Egypt on what are widely viewed as trumped-up charges.
"Muslim society is decimating its scholars," Ahmed says, despite the Koran's injunction to respect knowledge, and this is creating the vacuum that permits the rise of radical leadership.
As today's superpower, the US influences life in the Muslim world in weighty ways, and should not be surprised, these experts say, that expectations are greater that it take responsibility to support the right kinds of change - fostering civil societies and democratic openings and resolutely seeking solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem. America's future will not be secure, they say, unless it becomes more knowledgeable about and positively engaged with the Muslim world.
It's being urged to do so, too, by religious minorities facing restriction or persecution in some predominantly Muslim countries. The Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights, an umbrella organization of some 50 Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Bahai, Jewish, and Muslim groups from around the world, is building a network to promote security and equality for minorities within their own societies.
But to do so, says Keith Roderick, the Episcopal priest who heads the coalition, also means challenging what it terms "the ideology of radical Islamism." This "segregationist view" that institutionalizes minorities as second-class citizens, he says, "is a perversion of Islam and creates a cultural temperament of hatred, within which the idea of jihad as holy war can flourish."
Michael Meunier, who heads the US association of Coptic Christians, grew up in southern Egypt and says his family regularly experienced persecution from Muslims. While some progress is being made - a law was recently changed that required approval of the Egyptian president before a Coptic church could be renovated - many Copts remain second- or third-class citizens, he says.
Islam is not terrorism
How the US carries out its "war on terrorism" and whether or not it develops a broader strategy for relating to a Muslim world in transition will have tremendous impact.
"I've gotten e-mails from all over the Muslim world expressing shock and anger" over the attacks on the US, Abu-Rabi says. "All are interested in preventing similar attacks in the future.... But if the US were to invade Afghanistan, it would create anger among neutral Muslims and breed more violence."
"If we drop bombs on Afghanistan, where there is massive starvation, who is going to sympathize with that?" Ahmed asks. "Not people in the Arab world, or Asia, or Africa."
They are hoping for a more targeted approach, involving intelligence work with other nations similarly committed to wiping out the terrorism scourge.
"Millions and millions of Muslims have great affection for American values," Ahmed says. When it comes to mainstream Islam and the US, "we are talking of two compatible systems: both believe in God, in a happy family life, and in an optimistic future."
These Muslims want a dialogue, not a clash of civilizations.
US actions will influence whether those who want the dialogue or those who want confrontation gain the upper hand, he adds. "You can create more Osamas, or you can help create the Jinnahs of our societies, who will challenge the Osamas."
©Copyright 2001, Christian Science Monitor