I’ve been struggling with a pretty negative view of Islam lately, to put it mildly. I wondered how hard it could be to unequivocally denounce flying planeloads of people into skyscrapers, to forego “yes, but”-U.S.-bashing while body parts were (are!) still being pulled from the smoking ruins in New York.
So I’ve been bookmarking various and sundry links to a kind of public “Favorite Places” site that I’ve imaginatively called “Islam “. Obviously, this is a very subjective and incomplete survey of web resources about Islam; it’s one I will add to from time to time. I’ve tried to incorporate instances of “honest Muslim” writing (honest by my lights), and more general articles about the relationships, twisted or otherwise, between Islam, Al Qaeda, and the Arab political world. The “Favorite Places” site is maintained by a very nice, useful free service, Backflip.com . You may want to use it for your own “bookmarks”.
Some conclusions, lame though they may be:
- “Islam” covers a lot of territory
- there are many Muslims who are not satisfied with Islam in general or with its fundamentalist movements (Wahhabism, Khomeini Shi’ism, etc.) in particular
- that said, such Muslims may not exactly be the opinion leaders and trendsetters of their Islamic generation
After browsing around for a while at various bookstores and online, I decided to get In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam , by Milton Viorst, who writes frequently for The New Yorker. He decided to write a sequel to an earlier book about Arab nationalism, Sandcastles, that instead focused on the current relationship of Islam itself to Arab politics. He visited leading seminaries, religious universities, and intellectuals throughout the Arab world, from Egypt to Iran to Saudi Arabia to France(!) to research the book. From the first chapter, “Through the Damascus Gate”:
Arab culture [is deeply attached] to a heritage that has been transmitted largely intact over countless generations … [while] Westerners [are more ready to] subject their practices to constant review, experimentation, modification… I would argue that this difference, in large part, explains why the West is rich and the Arab world poor […]
…The West’s focus on Middle East terrorism is much too narrow. Terrorism is a serious problem, one that requires constant vigilance. But terrorism is a symptom of ailments that the social lens must be widened to include… Terrorism is the cry of a society in disarray, a society which acknowledges that it has lost its bearings. […]
…[Modernist Muslims have] been targeted for attack not just by a secular state but by orthodox and fundamentalist Muslims. In the struggle for who rules Islam, the modernists are underdogs. Islamic history teaches us that the odds heavily favor traditionalist beliefs.
Thus, Chapter 2 is titled “The Murder of Farag Foda.” Farag Foda was an Egyptian Muslim dissenter who was assassinated in 1992 by members of “Gama’a Islamiyaa”, a terrorist organization committed to suppressing heresy and establishing an Islamic state. Foda’s crime: taking on Islamic scholars at a Cairo book fair to argue that Islam would actually be better served by not becoming part of the state, that the rashidun era immediately after Mohammed’s death could not have been as idyllic as Islamic orthodoxy proclaims (3 of 4 of his closest apostles were murdered), that Egyptian Christians (Copts) deserved the protection of the state, and other heretical notions.