Sunday, August 28, 2011

The struggle within Islam

Here's a rather optimistic article in the Smithsonian. "Terrorists get the headlines, but most Muslims want to reclaim their religion from extremists."

I'd like to believe that, so I need to remind myself to be appropriately skeptical. Then again, there are a lot of people in America who want to use fear - fear of Islam just one of many - for political gain. So we Americans are far more likely to hear a different kind of story, I think.

And stereotypes are invariably wrong. No group of people are exactly alike, and we're all more alike than we're different. Irrational fear is just that, irrational.

But let me just post some excerpts:
[E]ven as the outside world tried to segregate Muslims as “others,” most Muslims were trying to integrate into a globalizing world. For the West, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, obscured the Muslim quest for modernization; for Muslims, however, the airliner hijackings accelerated it. “Clearly 9/11 was a turning point for Americans,” Parvez Sharma, an Indian Muslim filmmaker, told me in 2010. “But it was even more so for Muslims,” who, he said, “are now trying to reclaim space denied us by some of our own people.”

This year’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond have rocked the Islamic world, but the rebellions against geriatric despots reflect only a small part of the story, obscuring a broader trend that has emerged in recent years. For the majority of Muslims today, the central issue is not a clash with other civilizations but rather a struggle to reclaim Islam’s central values from a small but virulent minority. The new confrontation is effectively a jihad against The Jihad—in other words, a counter-jihad. ...

By 2010, public opinion polls in major Muslim countries showed dramatic declines in backing for Al Qaeda. Support for bin Laden dropped to 2 percent in Lebanon and 3 percent in Turkey. Even in such pivotal countries as Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia—populated by vastly different ethnic groups and continents apart—only around one in five Muslims expressed confidence in the Al Qaeda leader, the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported.

Muslim attitudes on modernization and fundamentalism also shifted. In a sampling of Muslim countries on three continents, the Pew survey found that among those who see a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists, far more people—two to six times as many—identified with modernizers. Egypt and Jordan were the two exceptions; in each, the split was about even.

In the first month of Egypt’s uprising in 2011, another poll found that 52 percent of Egyptians disapproved of the Muslim Brotherhood and only 4 percent strongly approved of it. In a straw vote for president, Brotherhood leaders received barely 1 percent of the vote. That survey, by the pro-Israeli Washington Institute of Near East Policy, also found that just two out of ten Egyptians approved of Tehran’s Islamic government. “This is not,” the survey concluded, “an Islamic uprising.”

That's just an excerpt, which doesn't get into the details of the article. And the details are quite interesting. I recommend that you read the article itself.

It is easy to stereotype other people - other scary people, in particular. Likewise, we tend to give too much attention to the recent past, especially when it includes events such as 9/11, which shocked our entire nation. But the future does not have to be the same as the past. In fact, it rarely is.

Now don't get me wrong. I'd prefer that Islam disappear, just as I'd prefer that all religions fade away. I think that faith-based thinking is inherently a bad idea. Even if you happen to come up with the right answer, you've used the wrong method - a method which will very likely give you the wrong answer on the next question.

And I doubt if Islam is ever going to be my favorite religion. There are too many parts of it that just rub me the wrong way (the whole idea of submission, in fact - which is literally what "Islam" means).

But although I can, and do, argue against religion in general, it's not my place to tell everyone else what they must think, what they must believe. I strongly support freedom of religion as the best thing for the religious and non-religious alike. I strongly support the separation of church and state for the same reason.

And I'm sure that most American Christians do, too. For more than two hundred years, we've lived in a society where your religion, if any, was your own business, not your neighbor's, and certainly not your government's. That's worked very well for Christians, and it can work very well for Muslims, too.

I think most Muslims understand that. I'm confident, at least, that most American Muslims understand it. In many Muslim nations, they haven't had much experience with freedom. And freedom results in bad things as well as good. You have to understand that the good far outweighs the bad, and you have to realize that you can't get the good without the bad.

That's a difficult thing for even American Christians to accept. Certainly, Republicans seem to have trouble with it. But it's not an impossible concept for anyone. Most Christians do understand it, I think, and there's no reason most Muslims can't. Indeed, they might already.

Let me end this with one more excerpt, one more optimistic excerpt:
“Today, Al Qaeda is as significant to the Islamic world as the Ku Klux Klan is to the Americans—not much at all,” Ghada Shahbender, an Egyptian poet and activist, told me recently. “They’re violent, ugly, operate underground and are unacceptable to the majority of Muslims. They exist, but they’re freaks.

“Do I look at the Ku Klux Klan and draw conclusions about America from their behavior? Of course not,” she went on. “The KKK hasn’t been a story for many years for Americans. Al Qaeda is still a story, but it is headed in the same direction as the Klan.”

Let's hope that's true, huh? More importantly, let's work to make sure it becomes true, if it isn't already. Demonizing Muslims is not the way to empower the moderates. Just the reverse, in fact. Unfortunately, it might be a good way to get elected in America.

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