The Trouble with Islam
Sadly, mainstream Muslim teaching accepts and promotes violence.
by TAWFIK HAMID
Tuesday, April 3, 2007 12:01 A.M. EDT
Not many years ago the brilliant Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, published a short history of the Islamic world’s decline, entitled “What Went Wrong?” Astonishingly, there was, among many Western “progressives,” a vocal dislike for the title. It is a false premise, these critics protested. They ignored Mr. Lewis’s implicit statement that things have been, or could be, right.
But indeed, there is much that is clearly wrong with the Islamic world. Women are stoned to death and undergo clitorectomies. Gays hang from the gallows under the approving eyes of the proponents of Shariah, the legal code of Islam. Sunni and Shia massacre each other daily in Iraq. Palestinian mothers teach 3-year-old boys and girls the ideal of martyrdom. One would expect the orthodox Islamic establishment to evade or dismiss these complaints, but less happily, the non-Muslim priests of enlightenment in the West have come, actively and passively, to the Islamists’ defense.
These “progressives” frequently cite the need to examine “root causes.” In this they are correct: Terrorism is only the manifestation of a disease and not the disease itself. But the root-causes are quite different from what they think. As a former member of Jemaah Islamiya, a group led by al Qaeda’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, I know firsthand that the inhumane teaching in Islamist ideology can transform a young, benevolent mind into that of a terrorist. Without confronting the ideological roots of radical Islam it will be impossible to combat it. While there are many ideological “rootlets” of Islamism, the main tap root has a name–Salafism, or Salafi Islam, a violent, ultra-conservative version of the religion.
It is vital to grasp that traditional and even mainstream Islamic teaching accepts and promotes violence. Shariah, for example, allows apostates to be killed, permits beating women to discipline them, seeks to subjugate non-Muslims to Islam as dhimmis and justifies declaring war to do so. It exhorts good Muslims to exterminate the Jews before the “end of days.” The near deafening silence of the Muslim majority against these barbaric practices is evidence enough that there is something fundamentally wrong.
The grave predicament we face in the Islamic world is the virtual lack of approved, theologically rigorous interpretations of Islam that clearly challenge the abusive aspects of Shariah. Unlike Salafism, more liberal branches of Islam, such as Sufism, typically do not provide the essential theological base to nullify the cruel proclamations of their Salafist counterparts. And so, for more than 20 years I have been developing and working to establish a theologically-rigorous Islam that teaches peace.
Yet it is ironic and discouraging that many non-Muslim, Western intellectuals–who unceasingly claim to support human rights–have become obstacles to reforming Islam. Political correctness among Westerners obstructs unambiguous criticism of Shariah’s inhumanity. They find socioeconomic or political excuses for Islamist terrorism such as poverty, colonialism, discrimination or the existence of Israel. What incentive is there for Muslims to demand reform when Western “progressives” pave the way for Islamist barbarity? Indeed, if the problem is not one of religious beliefs, it leaves one to wonder why Christians who live among Muslims under identical circumstances refrain from contributing to wide-scale, systematic campaigns of terror.
Politicians and scholars in the West have taken up the chant that Islamic extremism is caused by the Arab-Israeli conflict. This analysis cannot convince any rational person that the Islamist murder of over 150,000 innocent people in Algeria–which happened in the last few decades–or their slaying of hundreds of Buddhists in Thailand, or the brutal violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq could have anything to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Western feminists duly fight in their home countries for equal pay and opportunity, but seemingly ignore, under a façade of cultural relativism, that large numbers of women in the Islamic world live under threat of beating, execution and genital mutilation, or cannot vote, drive cars and dress as they please.
The tendency of many Westerners to restrict themselves to self-criticism further obstructs reformation in Islam. Americans demonstrate against the war in Iraq, yet decline to demonstrate against the terrorists who kidnap innocent people and behead them. Similarly, after the Madrid train bombings, millions of Spanish citizens demonstrated against their separatist organization, ETA. But once the demonstrators realized that Muslims were behind the terror attacks they suspended the demonstrations. This example sent a message to radical Islamists to continue their violent methods.
Western appeasement of their Muslim communities has exacerbated the problem. During the four-month period after the publication of the Muhammad cartoons in a Danish magazine, there were comparatively few violent demonstrations by Muslims. Within a few days of the Danish magazine’s formal apology, riots erupted throughout the world. The apology had been perceived by Islamists as weakness and concession.
Worst of all, perhaps, is the anti-Americanism among many Westerners. It is a resentment so strong, so deep-seated, so rooted in personal identity, that it has led many, consciously or unconsciously, to morally support America’s enemies.
Progressives need to realize that radical Islam is based on an antiliberal system. They need to awaken to the inhumane policies and practices of Islamists around the world. They need to realize that Islamism spells the death of liberal values. And they must not take for granted the respect for human rights and dignity that we experience in America, and indeed, the West, today.
Well-meaning interfaith dialogues with Muslims have largely been fruitless. Participants must demand–but so far haven’t–that Muslim organizations and scholars specifically and unambiguously denounce violent Salafi components in their mosques and in the media. Muslims who do not vocally oppose brutal Shariah decrees should not be considered “moderates.”
All of this makes the efforts of Muslim reformers more difficult. When Westerners make politically-correct excuses for Islamism, it actually endangers the lives of reformers and in many cases has the effect of suppressing their voices.
Tolerance does not mean toleration of atrocities under the umbrella of relativism. It is time for all of us in the free world to face the reality of Salafi Islam or the reality of radical Islam will continue to face us.
Dr. Hamid, a onetime member of Jemaah Islamiya, an Islamist terrorist group, is a medical doctor and Muslim reformer living in the West.