Saturday, April 19, 2008

Islam is Dominated by Radicals?

The Rosenkranz Foundation sponsored a debate in Islam this past week in New York, entitled "Is Islam Dominated by Radicals?"

The moderator, Robert Seigel, suggested that survey data are "not encouraging," and goes on to pose the age-old question of this decade, "Are we engaged, in Samuel Huntington’s formulation, in a clash of civilizations?"

The "clash" thesis was offered in the mid-1990s, and while he engendered tremendous controversy at the time, Huntington was later thought prophetic in his analysis of the main axis of world cultural/political conflict at the dawn of the 21st century.

Of course, the notion that Islam's fundamentally radical and hostile to the West, and that the religion works to convert or destroy all non-believers, remains contested. But scriptually, these notions are at the core of Muslim doctrine, according to Asra Nomani, a participant at the Rosenkranz panel who argued for Islam's essential radicalism:

So I would say assalamu alaykum to all of you, but according to the prayer book that I was handed when I went on the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, I’m not allowed to say this peaceful greeting to those who aren’t Muslim. When I see that headline: Islam is dominated by radicals, I don’t hesitate in believing it to be true. The opposite side wants to suggest that we can’t tell you stories from the trenches. But it is, in fact, in the trenches where we know what is happening, that we know that the radicals are, in fact, intimidating, silencing and paralyzing the moderates. I know it from my lifetime in the Muslim community and I know it from stories and anecdotes, sure, and historical and country cases. When I was given this proposition I asked my mother – a grandmother, who has taught me my Muslim prayers, who is teaching her grandchildren the prayers – I said, Do you think that Islam is dominated by radicals? You can dismiss her as an anecdote. You can dismiss her as somebody who isn’t pundit enough but she’s got her finger on the pulse of what’s going on in our communities. And she didn’t hesitate in saying yes. For the last thirty years that I have known, since the exportation of Wahabiism from Saudi Arabia to the far reaches of our Muslim world, I know that our community is dominated by radical ideology.

I know that it is an ideology that has taken root in countries from Pakistan to states in Nigeria to provinces in Indonesia with laws that put women in second class status, that give women criminal punishments because of sexual crimes. In each instance you could say that there’s a political purpose. But at the end of the day it is done in the name of Islam. I don’t stand up here and condemn my faith. I fight for it every single day. I fight for a progressive interpretation of our faith. But at the end of the day our religion, our institutional Islam out there in the world -- from my home town of Morgantown, West Virginia to Islamabad, Pakistan to Indonesia to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia – we are controlled and dominated by radical ideology. The moderates don’t want to lose their status. They don’t want to lose their place in the community. They don’t want to lose their invitation to the potluck dinner parties and wedding halls that they get to go to.

It’s an issue of social dynamics. At the end of the day it isn’t worth it to them to take on the radical ideology because there’s too much at stake. You risk your own safety and then you risk your social standing. I know this as a woman in the faith. I know that what we are struggling with is a situation where more mosques in America than in the 1990s are putting women in separate sections. Two-thirds of mosques in America versus half in the 1990s have women separated. And you could argue that that’s not radical ideology. But at the end of the day it is part of a continuum of an interpretation of Islam that takes a literal read that says a woman is sexual temptation, that a woman is sexual distraction. You take that interpretation and it isn’t that long that you have to also add up to an interpretation that says that you can’t be friends with the Jews and the Christians, that violence is acceptable.

Why do I know this? Because I’ve heard it from my pulpit. I’ve heard it from the sermons that are downloaded on college campuses across this country and across the world. There is an exportation of this ideology. We may watch our borders, we may check the visas of people who come into this country but I know that there is an ideology that says that a woman is half the witness of a man in criminal cases, that that is law in countries of our, of our religion, that there is interpretation that says that a woman gets less inheritance. When we put women -- half of our population, in particular -- in second class status around the world, you can call it anything you want. But I consider it unacceptable and I call it radical ideology. It’s unacceptable to have tradition become religion with female genital mutilation. It’s unacceptable to have honor killings, as we are, from Canada to Texas to Turkey. You can call those anecdotes but it’s a trend.

It’s a trend that’s happening because our Islam of today is dominated by radicals. We don’t have mosque leaders who are keeping that kind of ideology in check. We are, in fact, having leaders who accept preaching from the pulpit that says that we cannot imitate the dis-believers, that we cannot say assalamu alaykum to those who are not Muslim. At the end of the day what I want you to know is that I stand up for Islam as a faith. I stand up for the principles just like every other religion. But like Judaism and Christianity have evolved so that there is a continuum in institutional religion, so that there is a reform synagogue along with the orthodox synagogue, our mosques are defined by an institutional puritanical interpretation that to me is very radical and very unacceptable. And I encourage you to vote to support this motion because we need a truth telling. We need to be honest.

Read the whole thing.

Nomani's thesis is challenged by panelist Reza Aslan, who argues that all religions distill complex world socio-political controversies into simple dichotomies of good versus evil:

As I say, this is true of every society, ours especially. And if you don’t believe me, I suggest you ask Karl Rove.

Classic moral relativism. The Rovian smear is shorthand for left-wing America-blaming, which is standard fare for those on the radical left who apologize for the unparalleled brutality of Islam in the world today.

For more on Aslan, see Robert Spencer, at Jihad Watch, who suggests that Aslan's academic program consists of a "shallow and distorted depiction of Islamic teachings."

Note too the audience results from the debate, on the motion, "Islam is dominated by radicals":

Before the debate:

For the motion: 46%

Against the motion: 32%

Undecided: 22%

After the debate:

For the motion: 73%

Against the motion: 23%

Undecided: 4%