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Struggle in Islam

A Response to The Place of Tolerance in Islam

John L. Esposito

8 In the aftermath of September 11, Americans have had to face some hard questions: about global terrorism, the Muslim world, and our own country. "Is Islam more militant than other religions?" "Does the Qur'an condone violence and terrorism directed against non-believers?" "Is there a clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim World?"

Khaled Abou El Fadl's brilliantly incisive article raises and addresses many of these fundamental issues. He describes with particular force a religious struggle for the soul of Islam between "puritanism" and modern Islam. The political side of this struggle is that a minority of extremists, who are dangerous and fanatical and thus predominate in media coverage, struggle against a majority which is often divided along a spectrum ranging from conservative to reformist. The situation is complicated by the nature of many Muslim governments—the Islamic authoritarian regimes, which limit dissent and rely on their military and security forces to stay in power. Failed states—politically and economically—and repression make for an explosive combination.

Of course religious revival and associated political conflict are not confined to the Islamic world. In recent years we have witnessed a global religious resurgence encompassing all major world religions. Personal piety has often been accompanied by political action in Israel, India, Sri Lanka, America, and much of the Muslim world. The majority of Islamic movements ("Islamic fundamentalists") have operated within their societies. But a minority have turned to violence and terrorism to overthrow regimes and impose their vision of an Islamic state. Like all religious extremists, militant Muslims exploit religion through selective reading and interpretation of sacred texts, history, and doctrine. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda appeal to grievances that exist among many mainstream Arabs and Muslims, from foreign policy issues like Palestine, the American presence in the Gulf, and the Russian presence in Chechnya, to domestic complaints against repressive and corrupt governments and failed economies. However, they transform Islam's norms and values—about good governance, social justice, and the requirement to defend Islam when under siege—into a call to arms, in order to legitimate the use of violence, warfare, and terrorism. Their theology or ideology divides the world into mutually exclusive categories: the world of belief and that of unbelief, the land of Islam and that of warfare, the forces of good and the forces of evil. Those who are not with them, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, are the enemy; they are to be fought and destroyed in a war with no limits, no proportionality of goal or means.

The situation has been compounded by governments that have created and support a compliant religious establishment. Some religious leaders are seen as "lackeys" of the government, while many other ulama or religious scholars are seen as possessing a worldview and skills that are medieval and out of touch with the realities of modern Muslim life. They contribute to a worldview that is anti-reformist at best or one that promotes a militant exclusivist Islam and vision of the world. The spread of Wahhabi or Salafi Islam is a reflection of this problem.

Abou El Fadl represents a visible critical mass of Muslim intellectuals, laity, and clergy (ulama), men and women from Egypt to Indonesia. They emphasize the importance of reading texts within the historical and social contexts in which they were written. Distinguishing between universal principles and laws and texts that address specific time-bound issues, they explore major issues of modern reform: democratization, civil society, pluralism and tolerance, the status of minorities and women. The dialectic of change in the struggle between Puritanism and modern Islamic reform can be clearly seen in the debates over democracy and jihad.

In current debate about political participation, secularists argue for the separation of religion and the state. Rejectionists (both moderate and militant Muslims) maintain that Islam's forms of governance do not conform to democracy. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, a long time ally of the West, says that "the democratic system prevalent in the world is not appropriate in this region.…The election system has no place in the Islamic creed, which calls for a government of advice and consultation and for the shepherd's openness to his flock, and holds the ruler fully responsible before his people."1 Extremists agree, condemning any form of democracy as haram, forbidden, an idolatrous threat to God's rule (divine sovereignty). Their unholy wars to topple governments aim to impose an authoritarian "Islamic" rule. Conservatives often argue that popular sovereignty contradicts the sovereignty of God, with the result that the alternative has often been some form of monarchy.

In contrast to both secularists and rejectionists, Islamic reformers have suggested ways to reinterpret key traditional Islamic concepts and institutions—consultation (shura) of rulers with those ruled, consensus (ijma) of the community, reinterpretation (ijtihad), and the public welfare (maslaha). They operate within Islam, and aim to show how Islamic ideas can be interpreted to support forms of parliamentary governance, representative elections, and religious reform. Just as it was appropriate in the past for Muhammad's senior Companions to constitute a consultative assembly (majlis al-shura) and to select or elect his successor (caliph) through a process of consultation, Muslims should now, according to these reformers, reinterpret and extend this notion to the creation of modern forms of political participation, parliamentary government, and the direct or indirect election of heads of state. The essential point, often missing from popular discussion, is that the debate about the virtues of democracy is not simply a debate between Islam and western liberalism, but a debate within Islam itself.

Jihad provides a major example of this struggle within Islam. In the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries the word jihad has gained remarkable currency, becoming more global in its usage. On the one hand, jihad's primary religious and spiritual meanings, the "struggle" or effort to follow God's path, to lead a good life, became more widespread. On the other hand, in response to European colonialism, authoritarian regimes, and other contemporary conditions, jihad has been used by resistance, liberation, and terrorist movements alike to legitimate their causes and motivate their followers. The Afghan Mujahiddin, the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance, have all waged jihads in Afghanistan against foreign powers and among themselves; Muslims in Kashmir, Chechnya, Daghestan, the southern Philippines, Bosnia, and Kosovo have all fashioned their struggles as jihads; Hizbollah, HAMAS, and Islamic Jihad Palestine have characterized war with Israel as a jihad; the Armed Islamic Group has engaged in a jihad of terror against the Algerian government; and Osama bin Laden has waged a global jihad against Muslim governments and the West.

Today, the term jihad has become comprehensive; resistance/liberation struggles and militant campaigns, holy and unholy wars, are all declared to be jihads. Jihad is waged at home not only against unjust rulers in the Muslim world but also against a broad spectrum of civilians. Jihad's scope abroad became chillingly clear in the 9/11 attacks, which targeted not only the American government but also innocent civilians.

Terrorists like bin Laden and others go beyond classical Islam's criteria for a just jihad and recognize no limits but their own, employing any weapons or means. They reject Islamic law's regulations regarding the goals and means of a valid jihad—that violence must be proportional and that only the necessary amount of force should be used to repel the enemy; that innocent civilians should not be targeted; and that jihad must be declared by the ruler or head of state. Today, individuals and groups, religious and lay, seize the right to declare and legitimate unholy wars in the name of Islam.

At the same time, Islamic scholars and religious leaders across the Muslim world—such as the Islamic Research Council at al-Azhar University, regarded by many as the highest moral authority in Islam—have made strong, authoritative declarations against bin Laden's initiatives: "Islam provides clear rules and ethical norms that forbid the killing of non-combatants, as well as women, children, and the elderly, and also forbids the pursuit of the enemy in defeat, the execution of those who surrender, the infliction of harm on prisoners of war, and the destruction of property that is not being used in the hostilities."2

As in the modern reform processes in Judaism and Christianity, questions of leadership and the authority of the past (tradition) are critical to both debates. Whose Islam? Who leads and decides? Is it rulers, the vast majority of whom are unelected kings, military, and former military? Or elected prime ministers and parliaments? Is it the ulama or clergy, who continue to see themselves as the primary interpreters of Islam, although many are ill prepared to respond creatively to modern realities? Or is it modern, educated, Islamically oriented intellectuals like Abou El Fadl and others? Lacking an effective leadership, will other Osama bin Ladens fill the vacuum?

Moreover, there is the question: "What Islam?" Is Islamic reform simply a returning to the past and restoring past doctrines and laws, or is it a reformation or reformulation of basic Islamic ideas to meet the demands of modern life? Some call for an Islamic state based upon the re-implementation of classical formulations of Islamic laws. Others argue the need to reinterpret and reformulate law in light of the new realities of contemporary society.

As we pick up the pieces and move forward, Muslims face critical choices. If Western powers need to rethink and reassess their foreign policies and their support for authoritarian regimes, mainstream Muslims worldwide will need to address more aggressively the threat to Islam from religious extremists. The struggle for reform faces formidable obstacles: the conservatism of many (though not all) ulama; the traditional training of religious scholars and leaders; and the power of more puritanical, exclusivist Wahhabi or Salafi brands of Islam. To overcome these obstacles, this jihad for openness and renewal will need to move forward rapidly on religious, intellectual, spiritual, and moral fronts, and to embrace a wide-ranging process of reinterpretation (ijtihad) and reform.<


John L. Esposito is director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, and author of Unholy War: Terror in the Name of Islam.

Click here to return to the exchange, Islam and Tolerance with Abou El Fadl and respondents.

Notes

1 Mideast Mirror, 30 March 1992, 12.

2 Al-Hayat, 5 November 2001.


Originally published in the February/March 2002 issue of Boston Review



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