Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Crisis of Islam

Review by Bill Doughty
Osama bin Laden is violently against the separation of church and state, which he sees as America’s greatest sin.
Author Bernard Lewis
That’s one revelation from Bernard Lewis in his eye-opening The Crisis of Islam - Holy War and Unholy Terror.  Lewis gets to the core of understanding fundamentalist extremism.
For bin Laden and his followers, Islam is not just a private religious belief but also a cultural identity.  
Not just another way of life, fundamentalist Islam is the only allowable way of life, say the extremists.
“The literal divinity and inerrancy of the Qur’an (Koran) is a basic dogma of Islam, and although some may doubt it, none challenge it,” writes Lewis, Princeton University Professor of Near Eastern Studies Emeritus.

Explaining fundamentalism in the Muslim world, Lewis says, “Most Muslims are not fundamentalists, and most fundamentalists are not terrorists, but most present-day terrorists are Muslims and proudly identify themselves as such.”
He recommends, “In devising means to fight the terrorists, it would surely be useful to understand the forces that drive them.”
At the Heart of Intolerance
Lewis’s book, on the Navy’s Professional Reading Program list, is a springboard to learn more about the history of the Middle East and what caused the intense feelings of persecution, anger, hate and violence.
What was the impact of Western sea-based discovery and commerce five centuries ago?  How did the loss of the Ottoman empire affect the psyche of believers?  Why did most followers of Muhammad turn their backs on the enlightenment and all it represents in freedom, tolerance, scientific logic, and human rights for both men and women?

The terror-inflaming strain of Islam behind bin Laden, Wahhabism, encourages secular book burning, says Lewis.  “The burning of books was often accompanied by the summary execution of those who wrote, copied or taught them.”
Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali
One author whom Islamist fundamentalists abhor is Somali expatriate Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  Ali’s Infidel, her personal story of confrontation with fundamentalism and journey to freedom, is a good companion piece to Crisis of Islam.  For Ali, the crisis of Islam is tyranny over freedom.
She writes, “By declaring our prophet infallible and not permitting ourselves to question him, we Muslims had set up a static tyranny.  The Prophet Muhammad attempted to legislate every aspect of life.  By adhering to his rules of what is permitted and what is forbidden, we Muslims suppressed the freedom to think for ourselves and to act as we chose.  We froze the moral outlook of billions of people into the mindset of the Arab desert in the seventh century.  We were not just servants of Allah, we were slaves.”
In the desert in 632 CE, Muhammad supposedly told followers in his farewell address, “I was ordered to fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god by Allah.’”  It’s a quote restated by bin Laden to justify his vision and actions in attacks against embassies, the USS Cole, and the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11.
‘On Vacation from History’
Lewis shows that it’s no coincidence that the most tolerant, least fundamentalist cultures are those with the highest education levels.
As Lewis points out, Muslim countries rank low in national performance indicators, including GDP, industrial output, life expectancy, number of phones and computers per 100 people, and -- especially -- the number of books sold.  Lewis says of the top 27 countries in the human development index, from the U.S. (#1) to Vietnam (#27) not a single nation is a Muslim country.

Can Islam as a religion be embraced by followers as a matter of faith and practice rather than an identity and loyalty transcending all others?  That, according to Lewis, is the “crisis of Islam.”  
Last Sunday on Meet the Press, another expert on the Middle East, author Thomas Friedman said he hopes for a peaceful transition in Egypt, but noted, “Egypt, and really most of the Arab world has been on a vacation from history for the last 50 years.”

Friedman, Ali and Lewis frame the issue in similar ways:  Can Islamic groups move beyond medieval authoritarianism and cultural stagnation and embrace freedom and democracy?
According to Lewis, “If the fundamentalists are correct in their calculation and succeed in their war, then a darker future awaits the world, especially the part of it that embraces Islam.”
On the other hand, it’s clear that a new generation of young people is emerging in a globalized world connected by social media, peacefully demanding freedom and democracy in previously autocratic societies.  Can they see past the past and find common human values as inalienable rights?
“I know there are many -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- who question whether we can forge this new beginning.  Some are eager to stoke the flames of division, and to stand in the way of progress.  Some suggest that it isn't worth the effort -- that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash. Many more are simply skeptical that real change can occur.  There's so much fear, so much mistrust that has built up over the years.  But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward.  And I want to particularly say this to young people of every faith, in every country -- you, more than anyone, have the ability to reimagine the world, to remake this world.
“All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort -- a sustained effort -- to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings.
“It's easier to start wars than to end them.  It's easier to blame others than to look inward.  It's easier to see what is different about someone than to find the things we share.  But we should choose the right path, not just the easy path.  There's one rule that lies at the heart of every religion -- that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  This truth transcends nations and peoples -- a belief that isn't new; that isn't black or white or brown; that isn't Christian or Muslim or Jew.  It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization, and that still beats in the hearts of billions around the world.  It's a faith in other people, and it's what brought me here today.”
What about bin Laden’s faith in people and respect for law and government?  
With contempt for the human, secular values of independence and free-thinking, bin Laden said in his Letter to America from 2002 that the worst of all of our sins is the separation of church and state:  “You are the nation who, rather than ruling with the Shariah of Allah in its constitution and laws, choose(s) to invest your own laws as you will and devise your separate religion from your policies, contradicting the pure nature which affirms absolute authority to the Lord and your Creator.”
Lewis argues that the solution to defeating Islamic terrorism starts with understanding its historical roots and the narrow view of its purveyors.  The next step is for good people with moderate, tolerant views -- people like Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- to step into the spotlight and condemn extremism. 

As always, education is key to achieving progress and helping people discover they have freedom of choice.
A Common Thread
On the centennial of President Ronald Reagan’s birth tomorrow and in light of the continuing turmoil in the Middle East, it’s timely to remember Reagan’s tribute to late President of Egypt Anwar Sadat, assassinated by Islamist fundamentalists on Oct. 6, 1981.  (Nobel Peace Prize recipient Sadat tried to make peace with Israel, brought together by President Jimmy Carter at Camp David in 1976.)
Presidents Sadat and Reagan in 1981
“President Sadat was a courageous man whose vision and wisdom brought nations and people together. In a world filled with hatred, he was a man of hope. In a world trapped in the animosities of the past, he was a man of foresight, a man who sought to improve a world tormented by malice and pettiness,” Reagan said in his tribute address.
Sadat was murdered by Islamic Jihad, a group associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya, who accused Sadat of apostasy and condemned him for the peace treaty he’d signed with Israel. 
That group was tied to al-Qaeda in the 1990s.
Among the Al Gamaa al-Islamiyya’s leaders: Ayman al-Zawahiri, founder of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, proponent of Wahhabism, and, as al-Qaeda’s Number 2, deputy to bin Laden.