One of the most important feature of any culture is its religion -- its belief in a supernatural power or powers, its explanation of the origin of man and his purpose on earth, its interpretation of death and a possible afterlife, its set of ethical values and the penalties for their transgressions. Over mankind’s long history, religions and cultures were born, grew and developed and eventually died. Religion is generally the most conservative element of a culture; it may change or even give birth to a new distinct religion but only under cultural stress, upheaval or duress.
In the history of Islam, the assassination of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Mohammad, and the subsequent massacre of his son Hussein together with his followers in Karbala (680 CE), resulted in the separation of the Shiites from Sunni Muslims. This split was precipitated by internal politics rather than by a change in theology; the two kinds of Islam are basically very similar. When it comes to violence and terrorism, for instance, the Shiite Hizballah and the Sunni Islamic Jihad or Al-Qaeda have identical religious and political ideologies. Since that fateful event in Karbala, no significant religious changes occurred in Islam, and no major religious variations have grown out of it.
Islamic fundamentalism, which has become politically active in the last hundred years, is not a new religion or a new variation of Islam. It is an expression of classic theocratic Islam in reaction to the secularization of certain Muslim counties, such as Turkey, Kuwait or Iraq. Classic Islam feels threatened by modernization and potential secularization. However, since Islam is practiced by 1.2 Billion people, it is unlikely to disappear or be displaced by secularism.
Following the defeats of the "mighty" Arab armies by the fledgling IDF in 1948, and then again in 1967 and 1973, after the political defeat and retreat of the atrocious Muslim Indonesians from East Timor in 1999, and after the recent military collapse of fundamentalist Islamic Afghanistan and the Arab militant dictatorship in Iraq, Islam is due for a major shake-up. Unlike Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and most other religions, Islam is a politically driven religion bound on military triumph, conquest and subjugation. Consequently, this chain of recent military and political defeats, in addition to the realization that defeating Israel or the US by indiscriminate terrorist attacks on innocent civilians is futile, must give Muslims worldwide ample material for soul searching. It seems that Islam is due for a major reform.
There has been lots of talk in American media about a difference between "moderate" and fundamentalist Muslims. People have been wondering, however, why the "moderate" Muslims have not denounced the Islamic fundamentalists and their violent deeds. The reason is that there is no theological or cultural distinction between the two. Built into Islam are the doctrines of the infallibility of Mohammed and the Qur’an, the superiority and supremacy of Muslims over all non-believers (infidels) -- implying religious intolerance, the concept of the Umma – the Islamic universal nation, and the goal of having all of humanity become Muslim or at least subjugated to Islam. "Moderate" or even "secular" Muslims feel uncomfortable to publicly violate any of these doctrines, even if they may privately disobey the dietary or other behavioral rules of Islam.
Secular Muslims are not a well-defined subset of Muslims, like Christian or Jewish atheistic Socialists or Communists. Under appropriate circumstances, secular Muslims readily revert to traditional Islamic ideology, and they are cheerfully accepted by the traditionalist masses. We just witnessed this in Iraq where Saddam Hussein, a secular national socialist dictator, used traditional Islamic premises to bolster his defiance of the West. We saw the same trend even more dramatically in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Here, the secular PLO leadership invoked fundamentalist Islamic tenets to produce hundreds of suicidal terrorists, available for export to any Islamic country in need, with Arafat threatening to sacrifice a million Muslim martyrs (Shahids = suiciders) to conquer Jerusalem from the Jewish "infidels". Secular PLO has thus become the hotbed for upbringing a new generation of Islamic fanatics.
The Islamic premise that land conquered by Arabs belongs to the Umma for perpetuity and cannot ever be given back to infidels is the ideological basis for the one-hundred-year-long bloody war with the Jews in the land of Israel. This bloody war is aimed at eradicating the Israeli Jews, although the territory in dispute is less than 0.2% of the total territory of the Umma, the Arab nation. That disputed territory includes land that Jews purchased for inflated prices from Arabs in the Land of Israel. Although purchased legally, this land is still considered -- according to the Islamic ideology -- as land "stolen" from the Umma (in most Arab countries infidels cannot own any real-estate, in Saudi Arabia they cannot even live as permanent residents).
One wonders why moderate Muslims do not disavow in public Islamic terrorism against Americans, terrorism that started long before 9/11. It started in 1973 with the murder of the US Ambassador to the Sudan by the PLO, continued with the massacre of 241 Marines in Beirut in 1982 by the Hesballah, and has continued even since (e.g. the Khobar Tower in 1996, the East African US Embassies in 1998, the USS Cole in 2000). By the same token, no one has ever heard moderate Muslims renounce the brutal Arab campaign against the Jews in Israel, starting with the terrorist massacres in 1921 and 1929 and continuing up to date. Both these terrorist campaigns seem to be tacitly endorsed by the "moderate" Arabs. Harvard’s Professor Samuel Huntington’s "clash of civilizations" is, therefore, not illusionary. The Islamic clergy is threatened by the secularization of the Muslim masses and is worried that this secular trend will take over the political structure of Muslim countries as it did in Turkey. That threat becomes increasingly more ominous as the Islamic masses are exposed to Western culture through satellite TV and the Internet. Islamic clergy fights back by polarizing these masses and inciting them by religious-nationalistic slogans. The result of this militancy is, however, humiliating military defeat and economic misery. One can see this clearly played out in the PA territories. What is needed for the benefit of all parties concerned is a reformation of Islam. Such reform, which is a natural development in all religions following military calamity, can be facilitated by new technology.
Let us pause for a moment and consider the occurrence of reforms in other religions. The stress of the fall and destruction of Samaria (722 BCE) and the momentous siege of Jerusalem by the Assyrians some 20 years later, were evidently a terrible national calamity. This led to the first significant religious reform in Judaism, culminating in the establishment of the Deuteronomic Law by King Josiah. The destruction of Solomon’s Temple (586 BCE) was followed by another set of dramatic changes in Jewish religion, formulated and instituted by Ezra the Scribe in the early days of the Second Temple. The loss of Judean political independency to Rome raised apocalyptic messianic beliefs that culminated in the rise of Christianity following the destruction of the Second Temple. The same cataclysmic event made Rabbinic Judaism dominant, constituting the third major reformation of Judaism. In spite of scores of recent Jewish books on the theological ramifications of the Nazi Holocaust, it may be too early to tell whether this cataclysm will eventually result in another major reform in Judaism.
In Christianity, the socio-economic changes in Europe in the 16th Century following the discovery of the "New World" and the rise of the bourgeoisie, diminished the grip of the Roman Church on the Christian population. This resulted in Martin Luther’s Reformation that was facilitated by the new technology of the printing press. Unlike Islam, both Catholicism and Protestantism have undergone many theological evolutionary changes. But although the Pope expresses occasionally political views and the Evangelic Protestants wield some power in US internal politics, Christianity has given up territorial ambitions a long time ago.
Unlike Islam, which politically dominates a third of humanity and has aspirations to conquer the rest, Judaism has just a minimal territorial desire – to regain sovereignty over its ancient national homeland, a sliver of territory at the edge of the lands conquered by the Arabs in the seventh Century and held by them for a relatively short period. This modest desire of the oldest nation in Western civilization is, however, rebuffed by the Arabs, leaving the Jews in an existential struggle with the intrinsically intolerant political Islam. The Arabs, who have been achieving nothing by their indiscriminate terrorism, seem to bound to continue that futile "holy war."
To end the futile Jihadistic Muslim terrorism that will only result in additional loss of innocent lives, and to avoid additional devastating military defeats by the "infidels," Islam must undergo reformation. As it stands, Islam does not have the theological- religious tools to live in full harmony with non-Muslims. This reformation must come from within the Islamic religious community. Islam must give up its global political ambitions and its claim to supremacy over all other religions. This means an end to Islamic expansionism and intolerance, and possibly also an end to Islamic ancient tradition of despotism. One can only hope that a wise and conscientious Islamic theologian, one who realizes the dangers in perpetuating the current Islamic beliefs, will come up with a formula that will allow giving up some of the basic tenets of the Qur’an. Other religions have done it. Islam can do the same. This would mean the establishment of a new reformed Islamic religious movement that will no doubt face bitter and violent opposition. In view of historical inevitability, it will prevail. Like the printing press that helped Luther, modern global communication technology should make it possible to reach the hundreds of millions of Muslims who may be ready for such a needed change -- a change that will make the Muslims welcomed as equal partners in the modern world.
Michael Anbar , Ph.D., is a Professor of Biophysics and Chairman of Dept. of Biophysical Sciences at the School of Medicine, University of Buffalo (1977-2002, now retired). Previously, he was Director of Technical Program Development, at the Stanford Research Institute.