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The Silence of Moderate Muslims By: Bernard Kaykel
Dawn.com | Thursday, December 05, 2002


Many in the US have been baffled by the apparent silence of moderate Muslims since the events of September 11. Other than initial condemnations of the attacks by prominent Islamic scholars in the Middle East and in the West, many Muslims appear to have acquiesced in the hijacking of their religion by extremists like Osama bin Laden.

The moderates, that is those who reject on principle the use of indiscriminate violence to achieve political ends, have yet to level a systematic critique of the radicals in print or on air. There are some notable exceptions to this, namely such persons as Khaled Abou el-Fadl of UCLA who have been forthright in condemning radical Islam; but his voice, and those of others like him living in the West, has yet to echo in the Muslim world itself. Instead, many, perhaps the majority of Muslims have voiced scepticism and even denial about the involvement of their co-religionists in the attacks.

Over the summer, I travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and South Asia, visiting Islamic scholars, mosques, madresshas, bookstores and cassette shops as well as watching many news programmes and TV interviews on the numerous local and satellite TV stations. In bookstores, for instance, I found considerable material on Osama bin Laden, but most of it is either in praise of the man or situates him, and the events of 9/11, in some conspiratorial scheme hatched by the US military and "a secret force" within the US that is led by Jews.

The perception of the events of last September is nicely summed up by a Saudi employee of the Muslim World League who said to me: "In sum, the entire events of September 11, and all that has ensued therefrom has had but one aim: the weakening and destruction of Islam."

A few people I met expressed satisfaction at the damage inflicted on America as a result of the attacks and were unabashed in their open support for Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda movement. A Muslim jurist from Deoband in India, for example, went so far as to state that "should it be proved that Osama was the mastermind behind the attacks of September 11, he would not be punished under Islamic law since his actions were the result of an independent legal opinion issued by top jurists (ijtihad)." I also met Muslim moderates who invariably condemned the radicals for defaming Islam and stated that the latter did not represent the Islamic mainstream. Most moderates, however, demurred when I asked them whether they had openly aired or published their views. How does one account for their silence?

The immediate reason for this silence is that Al Qaeda, through its repeated attacks (the bombings of embassies in East Africa, the Cole in Aden and 9/11) along with the military reaction these have provoked from the United States, has been successful in instilling in the minds of Muslims that the US is the principal political enemy of the ummah, or the worldwide Muslim community. Moreover, this has been confirmed by the perception that the US extends unquestioned support to the policies of the government of Israel in the on-going Palestinian Intifada as well as the present talk of a US invasion of Iraq.

Muslims perceive themselves to be under direct military attack and on a number of fronts. An Indian Muslim scholar from Nadwat-ul-Ulema, the famous seminary in Lucknow, expressed this sentiment by stating that "a worldwide anti-Muslim alliance has been formed and is headed by the US. It runs in an arc from Hindu fundamentalist India, through China and Russia and ends with Europe and the US in the west. The effect is to encircle and choke the Islamic world."

Throughout my travels I noted a marked, and unprecedented, level of hatred not only for the policies of the United States but for many of the values it stands for. Confronted with a formidable foe, Muslims have chosen not to wash their dirty linen in public by engaging in mutual recriminations and polemical exchanges - mosque sermons, television and radio stations are more than ever insisting that Muslims remain steadfast and united against the common enemy; some clerics, mainly Shiite, are even advocating a consumer boycott of all goods manufactured by US-based companies.

Posters and fatwas (religious opinions) urging such a boycott were plastered all over West Beirut in July. For this reason, any criticism by Muslim moderates or others, such as the secular nationalists, of the radical viewpoint is depicted as betrayal of the cause of defending the ummah.

There are also historical reasons for the silence of Muslim moderates. Simply put, the moderates in the last half a century have been progressively relegated to the intellectual and political margins of Islamic society by a new breed of Islamic political activists - otherwise known as Salafi or Wahhabi.

The Salafis, of whom Osama bin Laden is one, are crude literalists in matters of religious interpretation and perceive most of the values of western modernity to be antithetical to Islam. Often they are not steeped in the traditional religious sciences, and they promote a simplistic and utopian vision of Islam, which they claim to be "authentic" and opposed to the western social and political values that threaten the Islamic order.

Salafis have risen to prominence since the early 1970s for a number of reasons:

1) Muslim states have throughout the twentieth century co-opted, mainly through government employment, moderate Islamic scholars. As a result these scholars have become the official mouthpieces of their respective governments, providing Islamic justification for whatever policies are adopted on a given issue. Some of the most important examples of this are the fatwas that the Mufti of Egypt has issued permitting peace with Israel; another relates to the permissibility of using contraceptive methods in family planning. The effect has been a serious loss of credibility for the moderates in the eyes of many Muslims.

2) The political and economic failure of the secular nationalist policies of most of the Arab states, combined with a strong-armed authoritarianism that has regularly brutalized ordinary citizens. In response to this, mosques have become the only centres of opposition to the regimes in power, and these have come to be dominated by a younger and more militant generation of Islamists, inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran and the Mujahideen in Afghanistan.

3) Perhaps the most significant factor in the silencing of the moderates has been the accrual of vast sums of petro-dollars by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms, all of whom have spent billions of dollars on the propagation of Salafi Islam, the tradition that has been dominant in central Arabia (a.k.a. Najd) since the mid-seventeenth century. By contrast, the traditional centres of Islamic education have been starved of funds and have consequently not been able to recruit or to educate a generation of dynamic scholars who might rise to the intellectual challenge posed by the Salafis and the authoritarian regimes that dominate the Muslim world.

While in India this past August, I noted that the Saudi government was still active in subsidizing the creation of schools that subscribe to their interpretation of Islam as well as providing scholarships to young students to study the religious sciences in the Kingdom's universities.

The influence of Saudi Arabia in altering the religious landscape of the Muslim world over the last three decades cannot be overstated. In Yemen, for example, Salafi proselytizing and funding has considerably undermined the traditional sects of Islam, the Zaydis as well as the Shafiis. The Zaydis, for instance, are practically extinct.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in Pakistan, where South Asian forms of Islam, namely certain Sufi mystical practices, have come under severe attack by Salafis. Likewise in India, the Hanafi scholars of Deoband and the Nadwa often deprecate traditional Indian Islamic beliefs and practices, preferring Saudi-inspired ones instead. Even more important has been the ability of the Saudis and the Gulf states to buy most of the Arabic media outlets where any criticism of Salafism is strictly prohibited and all religious discussion is censored.

I noted, however, that this form of religious censorship might be receding finally, perhaps as a consequence of 9/11, and as an indication of this I saw a number of non-Salafi Sheikhs interviewed on such TV stations as Iqra, MBC and al-Jazeera. The change, if one can call it such, remains hard to discern except for the learned or the seriously devout who can follow the references and allusions of the sheikhs.

Faced with this Salafi onslaught in the Muslim world, it is not surprising that some of the more dynamic moderates, men such as Tariq Ramadan and Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid to name only two, have found refuge in the West, and that Muslims born in the West should be in the vanguard of moderate Islam, scholars like Hamza Yusuf and Nuh Keller. But being in the West is itself a major factor of marginalization, for among other things, those in the West do not share in the everyday concerns and travails of Muslims in the heartlands.

More significantly, it is clear that the Salafi message resonate with particularly modern concerns Muslims have about their role in the world and their disenchantment with aspects of western modernity. The certainties that Salafism posits in answering questions, its lack of nuance in viewing the world, and its success in projecting a muscular and robust Islam, all account for its contemporary appeal. Until and unless moderate Muslims are able to provide some of the same, they will remain on the sidelines of an on-going debate about what it means to be Muslim and how to define the contours of a modern Islamic identity.


The writer is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, USA. e-mail: bernard.haykel@nyu.edu


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