Fighting for the Soul of Islam
How a decades-old crisis of authority affects the campaign against terrorism
Law of the land. And what does this majority want? Well, for one, Abdo explained, the implementation of Islamic sharia law as the law of the land for Muslim countries and even the restricted use of sharia within some western countries. Abdo concluded that Muslims living in the West are unlikely to be fully integrated into their societies, while nations in the Muslim world are likely to be "much more Islamic than western."
To speakers at the Secular Islam Summit, accepting such views is giving up the cause without a fight. Yet the frequent intemperance of the secularists' remarks, including the claim by the Syrian-American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan that there is no difference between "radical Islam and regular Islam," played almost perfectly into the hands of CAIR. As its board chairman, Parvez Ahmed, noted, "The [Secular Islam Summit] drew an amalgam of extreme right-wing and neocon voices who touted as role models of 'reform' those who are deep in their hostility to Islam."
Such mutual mudslinging only hints at the complexity of what has been going on within the house of Islam for over a century. And unfortunately, American attempts to make sense of it have been handicapped by ignorance of Islam and by our own partisan divides and culture wars.
Take the seemingly simple matter of reform and reformation. Repeatedly called for by westerners, a reformation is precisely what Islam has been undergoing since the late 19th century, largely in response to the perceived causes and consequences of western domination of Islamic lands.
New caliphate. While this reformation has had many tendencies and fathers, the most militant of the reformers hope to reassert a dominant role for Islam in all areas of life and society, particularly the political. (This is one reason that liberal and secular Muslims say Islam needs an Enlightenment, not another Reformation.) Rejecting secularists like Turkey's Kemal Atatûrk and harking back to the age of the first caliphates, ideologues like India-born Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi, Egypt's Hassan al-Banna (founder of the Muslim Brotherhood), and fellow Egyptian Sayyid Qutb laid out the main lines of modern Islamist thought and action. Borrowing elements of European fascist ideology, they backed extensive social welfare programs while tirelessly promoting the idea of an Islamic state governed by Islamic sharia law. For some, the ultimate goal is the creation of a transnational community of believers, or umma, united under a new caliph. In addition to spawning organizations such as the Palestinians' Hamas and Jordan's Islamic Action Front, the Brotherhood has seen the emergence of rival groups boasting more militant, if not quite violent, programs. Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), nearly banned in Britain after the London subway bombing, is now active in more than 40 countries and openly boasts of its ambition. "The winner of this battle [the ideological struggle] will decide whether the future belongs to Islam or western secular liberalism," declares one official on the Australian HT website.
But the rise of Islamism is only part of what Columbia University historian Richard Bulliet calls, in a Wilson Quarterly article, "a crisis of authority that has been building within Islam for a century." The crisis, which grows out of the religion's decentralized and relatively weak authority structures, has undermined the power of the traditional ulema (the leading Muslim scholars), who once were able "to disqualify or overrule a man who does not speak-or act-for Islam."