The War Within Islam

Much hinges on which interpretation of the faith will prevail.


A surface calm prevails in Egypt. No mosques give a bully pulpit to radical clerics who preach an incendiary form of Islam. Indeed, no large, widespread Islamic extremist groups remain active here. Because of a government crackdown in the late 1990s, their leaders were killed, imprisoned, or forced into the shadows. And the remnants of those groups have since agreed to a cease-fire. But the silence is misleading. Below the tranquil surface, countless disaffected young Egyptians still find the siren song of radical Islam as sweet and commanding as a prayer call.

Driven underground, many of Egypt's frustrated would-be radicals now record and trade tapes of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden or download terrorist how-to kits from the Web. Some still try to act. In recent years, police have arrested small groups of what one observer calls "freelance jihadis," who were in possession of bin Laden tapes and al Qaeda literature.

Meanwhile, 5,600 miles away, in Indonesia, private Muslim schools—madrasahs—imbue their students with antiwestern propaganda. The number of bomb-thrower schools is small, says Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, but that's small comfort. That's because the schools are not the only place where young Muslims are exposed to hard-line rhetoric, she says. "Certain mosques are just as important," she says. "And these days, the hundreds of websites delivering that message may be the most important [outlet] of all."

Egypt and Indonesia are not unique. Throughout the 1.2 billion-strong world of Islam there rages a war for the hearts and minds of its adherents. "It is fair to describe it as a struggle for the soul of Islam," says Katerina Dalacoura, a Middle East expert at the London School of Economics. "It's a struggle about which interpretation of Islam will prevail." On one side: hate-driven militants like bin Laden, who claim Islam is engaged in a war against the godless, American-led West that justifies terrorism as a weapon. Their ultimate goal: the Islamification of the world and death to infidels who don't submit to the will of Allah. Opposing them: moderates who want good relations with the West and a democratization of the Muslim world.

In terms of raw numbers, the moderates would seem assured of victory. Extremist forces still tend to be relatively small, and most Muslims oppose bloodshed. Nonetheless, the militants now control and define the debate. "The radicals are loud, violent, and claim to offer clear-cut solutions. This gets attention," says international historian Kirsten Schulze. In his book Al-Qaeda, author Jason Burke worries, "The extremists are no longer perceived as the 'lunatic fringe'.... Their language is now the dominant discourse in modern Islamic political activism."

Certainly there's fertile soil for the seeds of hate sown by Muslim extremists. Poverty, joblessness, and illiteracy are endemic throughout Islam, as are burgeoning populations of young people, many of whom see no hope for their future in this world. Moreover, most Muslims live beneath the jackboot of hated authoritarian regimes—despotic, often corrupt governments they consider propped up by the United States. Shireen Hunter, director of the Islam Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), says the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran may have since left most Iranians weary of life dictated by stern clerics, but millions of Muslims living in secular, authoritarian states "still have illusions that if they could only apply the sharia [Islamic law], all problems would be solved."

America is also seen as siding with Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the war on terrorism and the invasion of Iraq—which many Muslims consider a humiliating occupation of Muslim land by a Christian force—are viewed darkly. "The reaction of many Muslims is, 'It's not a war on terror; it's a war on all of us,' " Schulze explains. Adds Dalacoura: "In the Mideast, the U.S. gets a lot of undeserved blame for problems in the region because it's politically convenient." Deserved or not, that blame fuels an anti-Americanism that has run rampant among Muslims. According to surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center, only 21 percent of Pakistanis—whose country is a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism—have a favorable view of the United States. Only 15 percent of Indonesians and a miserly 5 percent of Jordanians express positive feelings toward America.