Sunday, October 08, 2006

Islamic Reformists -- A Matter of Life and Death

Robert T. Jordan

For modern Muslim reformists, a 21st Century interpretation of the Qur'an assures that: Man was created free, with a mind and a mission on earth to do good and avoid evil. His allegiance is to God and no one else. God will judge man for his deeds in the hereafter –- not anyone else. Man bears full responsibility for his deeds. Thus, freedom and responsibility means accountability. If these are the bases of the relationship with God Almighty, it should be the bases for all human relations in this world as well.

As Islamic fascist groups, such as Al Aqsa, Abu Sayaf, The Egyptian Brotherhood, HAMAS, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda, rein terrorism throughout the world, the question arises as to why Islam’s moderates do not restrain this supposedly minority faction that high jacked their religion.

I posed these questions at a church briefing about Islam by an Arab Christian convert. “What happened to the Islamic reformists? Why aren’t the Islamic moderates responding with outrage?”

Our guest speaker smiled wryly, making a motion as if casting a fishing line into the water. “They are in the pond,” he said. “And al-Qaeda fishes for them. If they do not covert, they are killed.”

What I was referring to is a struggling group of moderate Moslems who urge fellow Moslems to initiate a modern interpretation of the Qur'anic text that would be in harmony with 21st Century ethics and civil thought.

The reformists base their call for Moslems to respect freedom of thought upon their interpretation that Allah (God) refrained from providing any worldly punishment any deviation or change of heart or mind on matters of religious faith. They assert that any penalty for such would be the province of God on judgment day.

Advocating Servility

Saad E. Ibrahim, in his article: Democratization and Islamic Reformation, points to many Qur'anic verses where Mohammad is commanded to abstain from harsh manners in advocating the new faith of Islam:

"Invite all to the way of the Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious, for the Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His path." [Verse 125, Sura 16, al Nahl] "Those who spend freely, whether in prosperity or in adversity; who restrain anger, and pardon all men; for God loves those who do good." [Verse 134, Sura 3, Al Omran]

“In the last ten years, Muslim militants killed thirty times more fellow Muslims than non-Muslims. In other words, the wrath of Islamic zealots is more directed against other Muslims, whom they consider ‘corrupt’ or ‘decadent’.’” Ibrahim says. “The question, therefore, is, what are the roots of this madness, and whether something can be done about it?”

But Islamist radicals want to ignore these parts of the Qur'an. They want to take all of Islam back to the 7th Century’s strict punitive controls and ignore any parts of the Qur'an that support freedom and equality other than their limited view.

Former Tunisian Education Minister Mohammed al-Sharafi told a gathering of Moslem moderates in 2004 that, "if a child learns an idealized view of the past that sanctifies its history and tradition, then looks around and sees in society what goes against what he's learned, he will have some sort of a schizophrenia that might lead to violence." This disconnect is easily exploited as the terrorist leaders prey upon naïve youths to sacrifice themselves for their idealized goal of one global theocratic state.

Ibrahim wonders which version of the Qur'an will be taught to future generations.

The Charter of Medina

The Charter of Medina embodies the Prophet Mohammed's understanding and practice of pluralism. Upon his flight from Mecca to Yathrib in 622, he proposed a new name for it -- "civicus," or "medina" in Arabic. Muslim newcomers were to co-exist peacefully with non-Muslim communities and tribes in the same city. A written Charter negotiated and signed by the elders of 17 distinct groups in Civicus (The Charter of Medina) asserts the basic values and rights of the peaceful coexistence, including:

• Freedom of religious belief and worship for each and all;
• equality in all worldly rights and obligations,
• communal settlement of disputes, and
• shared responsibility in the defense of Civicus against outsider threats.

Coming nearly six centuries before the Magna Carta (1215), the Charter of Medina is probably the earliest formulation of the basis of what later on defined "civil society."

Conservative Reaction to Reform

Where Islamic reformists see peace and harmony in their modern interpretations of the Qur'an, conservative activists see danger. Ibrahim points out that conservatives closely allied with the heads of Islamic governments control all media and education. They also use Islamic law to proscribe, intimidate and persecute any reformists brave enough to speak out.

Ibrahim explains that the militant Islamists response to the reformist movement of the 1970s was to take direct action against the reformists by intimidating, assaulting or assassinating them.

“Two dramatic cases in point were the kidnapping and killing of Sheikh al Dhabi in July 1977 and the assassination in daylight of Dr. Faray Fouda, shortly after a public debate with an arch-conservative sheikh in June 1992,” Ibrahim explains: “Worse still is when the arch-conservatives incite the state to persecute Islamic reformists. The most dramatic case in point is the execution of four leading Sudanese Islamic reformists, known as the Republican Brothers, in January 1985, on charges of ‘heresy’ and ‘apostasy’. Their religious crime was their public rejection of the Shari'aa, as handed down from the ulama of ten centuries ago.”

What Must Be Done

The Islamic reformists stress that the Qur'an must be reinterpreted from an “ancient” 10th Century understanding into modern terms that harmonize with current thought.

They point to the dark periods of Christianity, such as the Inquisition and the crusades, when church and state were inseparable. They point out that “pure spirituality” came within the Christian faith only after the Reformation, which introduced the concept of separation of church and state.

That will only come through a democratization of Islamic governments that adopt concepts of individual liberty and the separation between religious belief and governmental law.

But democracy alone is not the answer. As seen in Palestine and Lebanon, democratic elections may be co-opted when fanatical factions are capable of unduly influencing the process by external support and influence.

The seeds of moderate thought and individual freedom cannot thrive very well in the hostile environment of Islamic fascism. But evidence exists that the planted seeds only need encouragement and support to flourish. The alternative is enslavement or death.

(Robert Jordan is a Former PAO Major with the United States Marine Corps and Beirut Veteran)

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