Reform in Islam?

Rick van Opbergen
As being a bit ignorant on this part, I would like to ask you: does Islam need a reform? Is that reform already there (happening)? I was wondering about this after I read an article in the Volkskrant (People's News), one of the major newspapers in the Netherlands. According to French autor, Arabist and Islam-expert Gilles Kepel, there's a struggle going on inside (Arab?) Islam these days, between the moderate part of Muslims and the fundamentalists. The moderate voices can be found in people like Abdel Rahman al-Rashed ('it's a fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it's also a fact, an extremely painful fact, that almost all terrorists are Muslim') - although he got a lot of remarks about the fact he didn't adress the fact that are also non-Muslims who are doing these things - , and also people like Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, an important Egyptian religious leader who said that the mutilation of foreign hostages and Western soldiers in Iraq acts contrary to the Islamic belief, and Seikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, an important Shiite clergyman from Libanon who said that the kidnapping and killing of foreigners who are working and and are feeling safe in a muslimcountry (Iraq) acts contrary to Islam as well. On the other hand however, there seems to be a tendency that it are the fundamentalists getting a lot of attention (and not only in the Western media). And when Al-Jazeera - a very popular broadcoaster in the Arab world - carried out a survey among the viewers of a talkshow with the question 'Do you believe the kidnappings in Iraq are justified?', 96% of the respondents said yes.

Now, what is your opinion about this?
Dexter Sinister
Short answer: in my opinion, yes, Islam is past due for a major reformation, along the same general lines as the Protestant Reformation that completely altered the Christian church in 16th century Europe and started the era of what most historians now call modern history.

Longer answer: you've asked a complex and subtle question here Rick, and I can't pretend to offer anything like a complete answer, but I think I know where you're coming from. It's hard to miss the fact that most of the active terrorists we hear about are Muslims, and a great deal of the Muslim world appears to be, to put it charitably, somewhat behind the level of modernity we find in Western Europe and North America. This is odd, because at one time, between about the 11th and the 17th centuries, the Muslim world was a tolerant, cultured, progressive civilization, superior in most respects to the European civilization that ultimately defeated it at the gates of Vienna in 1683.

A good reference on this subject is a book called "The Trouble with Islam" by Irshad Manji. She identifies three major problems with contemporary Islam. From the book jacket: "tribal insularity, deep-seated anti-Semitism, and an uncritical acceptance of the Koran as the final, and therefore superior, manifesto of God." Another book I found very useful in trying to understand these matters, though it doesn't treat them directly, is "Paris 1919" by Margaret MacMillan. It's published in Europe as "The Peacemakers." It's about the peace conference after the first World War, and one thing that emerges clearly from it is that much of the current trouble in the Middle East is a direct result of the way Britain and France divided up that territory between themselves to suit their imperialist ambitions, with no regard for local cultures or traditional boundaries. Iraq's a good example. It was created in 1932, if my memory is correct, out of bits of Britain's Palestinian Mandate, and it really should have been three countries, because it contains zones of three very distinct ethnic and religious groups that don't get along: Kurds, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims.

Well, there's a start at an answer. Better minds than mine have grappled with these issues and not come up with answers, so I don't feel bad about not doing better myself. A caution though: don't equate Islam with Arabs. Arabs are only about a fifth of the Muslim world.

Rick van Opbergen
Thanks for the reference. I myself have a book about the history of the Arab world, so on that part I'm not totally ignorant. Thanks for the whole post by the way. I have nothing to add really, accept that I should not equate Islam with Arabs: I know. The reason for saying "inside (Arab?) Islam" is mainly because the fundamentalist Islam seems to be mostly "vibrent" among Arab Muslims (although that could also be due to the fact the media portraits it in such a manner, I don't know). With that I mean Wahhabism for example, although on the other hand I realize that a lot of Taliban were from religious schools in Pakistan (to switch to the Taliban). But I'm aware of the fact that the majority of Muslims are not Arab (the countries with the largest Muslim populations are found outside the Arab world - Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Nigeria ...)
Dexter Sinister
Quote: Originally Posted by Rick van Opbergen

I'm aware of the fact that the majority of Muslims are not Arab

Yeah, I was pretty sure you were, I just stuck that caution in for the benefit of others reading the thread. Not everybody's as well informed as you and I are...

A few other thoughts strike me as well. The Koran, which I've actually read most of, requires Muslims to respect what it refers to as People of the Book, that is, people with a revealed religion and scriptures, i.e. Jews and Christians. It also quite clearly forbids Muslims from engaging in violence or war except in self-defense or if the faith itself is threatened. Islam claims to be a religion of peace, same as Christianity does. Unfortunately, both the Bible and the Koran are sufficiently large and complex documents that you can find support in them for any damn fool position you'd care to take, if you're willing to twist things out of context. And a lot of people are.

Islamic terrorists are no more Islamic than the Catholics and Protestants who are at each other's throats in Northern Ireland are Christians. I believe they're both terrible perversions of the essential message of their faiths.

Reverend Blair
Dex...good take on it. The Muslims I know are as disgusted by the likes of bin Laden and his pals as anybody else is.

Unfortunately some "good" Christians have gone searching the Koran for reason to discriminate against all Muslims. Oddly enough these are the same Christians who are radical fundamentalists and believe in may of the same things that their peculiar brand of Chistianity supports.
Dexter Sinister
Thanks Rev. I have a feeling from lurking around here for a long time that you and I would agree on a lot of other things too.

Feh! Spare me from fundamentalists, of any stripe. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, they do horrible things to each other. Radical Islam is just one more in a long line of similar human follies, stretching back into the dim mists of history.

I once worked for a devout Muslim. He was the best manager I've ever had, everything I know about being a manager myself I learned from him. He was intelligent, articulate, honest, witty, deeply respectful of my disagreements with him, and one of the kindest, gentlest people I've ever known. That's what I try to think of when I think of Islam.

Dex you will be a great addition to the board I already like what you have to say..not that it matters of course
Dexter Sinister
Hey peapod, of *course* it matters what you think. Just 'cause we're more or less anonymous in here doesn't mean I don't care if people like me or not. Being liked is always better, even anonymously. I was raised to have manners, unlike some of the dipsticks that show up everywhere online.

Besides, If I can't please the "Obsessive Compulsive Ubergod" I'll be going down in flames. Right?
Quote: Originally Posted by Dexter Sinister

Thanks Rev. I have a feeling from lurking around here for a long time that you and I would agree on a lot of other things too.

Feh! Spare me from fundamentalists, of any stripe. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, they do horrible things to each other. Radical Islam is just one more in a long line of similar human follies, stretching back into the dim mists of history.


Rick, good thread!

Dex, welcome to the board. I think you raise some really great points. It's important for us to recognize that the Islamic fundies are no more different that the Christian, Jewish etc, fundies. Fundamentalism always rises when a people begin to feel marginilzed and will inevitably lose popularity after a while. The problem is that is does untold damage in the time that it does reign strong.

With regards to the book The Problem with Islam, I have not read it yet and I should. I have avoided it, because I have a friend who is Muslim and one of the most moderate left wing women I have ever met. She read the book and was outraged by her selective interpretation of Islam... I can't speak to the validity of the book, but I do know that a main complaint of it has been it's disregard of certain parts in the Koran that do raise troubling questions for people of the faith. I think we need to begin to view the Koran along with other religious texts as cultural artifacts that reflect the reality of the time, not as gospel truths... but then, I'm not a religious girl

Again, welcome, I can't wait to read your further contributions to the board!!
Dexter Sinister
Quote: Originally Posted by Jillyvn

... Fundamentalism always rises when a people begin to feel marginilzed...

Right on the money there, Jillyvn, extremism is a response to powerlessness.


I can't speak to the validity of the book, but I do know that a main complaint of it has been it's disregard of certain parts in the Koran that do raise troubling questions for people of the faith.

Neither can I, really, I'm no expert on Islam, but I found it useful because it made me think. Your point is well taken, there is much troublesome stuff in the Koran, especially when it comes to the status of women. The Prophet didn't seem to have much use for women. There's a lot of similarly troubling stuff in the Bible as well. The same issues about the status of women exist there (ever read the bit where it instructs women that their husbands are their lord and master?), and in the prescriptions for correct behaviour we find in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. There are over 600 of them, and a lot of them are illegal in most civilized societies. The Bible is no longer taken as an absolute authority in nominally Christian societies, except among certain fundie sects. The Koran has quite a different status in Islamic societies, it's *the* authority and no separation of church and state is really possible, the church *is* the state. That's one of Manji's main criticisms, and it seems legitimate to me. In her defence, I'd have to say that the Koran is too complex to deal with all the troublesome issues it raises in a single book like Manji's, especially when we consider that many books have been written about the single issue of the status of women. It seems a little unfair to criticize a book for things that it doesn't deal with, when there's so much useful stuff it does deal with.

Maybe this all has something to do with the way societies evolve. Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and 600 years ago the Christian nations of western Europe weren't behaving any better than radical Islam is now. A band of Christian Spanish thugs, for instance, was busily destroying a high civilization in Central America.

Hm... I think Mr. van Opbergen might be a little surprised when he wakes up in his time zone and sees what he started.

Rick van Opbergen
I'm awake by now , and I'm indeed surprised by the responses, some really good stuff! But in response to what you said Dexter ...


Islam is about 600 years younger than Christianity, and 600 years ago the Christian nations of western Europe weren't behaving any better than radical Islam is now.

... what do you suggest? Is it about giving (radical) Islam some time? So we should wait for - in accordance with my main question - a reform in Islam, like European Christianity underwent during the Renaissance, with the primary goal of a seperation of church (or: mosque) and state?

And do you believe that a significant part of struggles in the Muslim world, which are often reflected as having the root cause inside Islam, have actually their roots in ethnic differences, or in (European) colonialism?

And do you believe that another way to fight fundamentalism is by increasing wealth among those who feel a bond with Islamists? Is that too obvious? Or is it - contrary to that - much more difficult, as in the US - to give an example - there are Christian sects which are fundamentalist in their views, though do enjoy prosperity? Or is comparing fundamentalists in the Muslim world with fundamentalists in the US (or: Christian - Western world) the same as comparing apples to oranges?

And the main question: am I asking too many questions?
Dexter Sinister
I'm not really suggesting I have any solutions, I'm just trying to understand what's going on, and maybe help a few others make some sense of it too. If I thought I had any serious answers I'd be writing books about them and getting rich and famous. Or something.

Giving radical Islam some time might be part of a solution, but I'm not sure we can wait long enough, they've got a pretty dangerous agenda. If Jillyvn and I are right, that such fanaticism comes from powerlessness, that points at a fairly obvious solution, but things are never as simple as we'd wish. It's way too easy to offer glib and simple solutions to complex problems. As somebody once said, every complex problem has a solution that is simple, obvious, reasonable, compelling, and wrong.

Yes, I do believe that much blame can be laid at the feet of ethnic rivalries and 19th-early 20th century European imperialism, but I don't believe that's a complete explanation either.

Consider, for instance, a fundamentalist Muslim thinking along these lines:

Islam used to be a glorious and powerful civilization, stretching from Spain in the west, across north Africa into the Middle East and almost to India, and up into south eastern Europe to the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For a thousand years we contested successfully with Christian Europe for control of the lands around the Mediterranean. What happened? Why did we lose that contest?

And here's where religion leads people astray. A fundamentalist is going to look for answers in terms of what pleases and displeases God, and it becomes a very simple calculation: God must have turned His back on us, or we would still be successful. Why? Because we've turned away from Him, allowed western secular influences to corrupt our virtues, fallen away from the rituals and practices God prescribed for us so long ago. And what's the solution? Return to the old ways of mediaeval Islam, then God will smile upon us again and all will be well. I've heard exactly analogous arguments advanced by fundamentalist Christians in response to what they perceive as the moral decay of western civilization. There were even a few people who blamed the 9/11 attacks on the United States on exactly that: "God's mad at us for our evil ways."

That's a huge oversimplification, but I believe the essence of it is correct. That's where the Taliban were coming from--Gwynne Dyer (Canadian historian, smart guy, and an expert in these matters) described them in a speech at the local university a year ago as the hicks from beyond the furthest range of hills--and I think it's at the root of what motivates Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda. What they want is not the destruction of the West, though they wouldn't weep over its demise, what they want is fundamentalist Islamic governments in all the Islamic nations. Their particular targets are secular Islamic states like Egypt and Turkey. Flying airplanes into buildings a few years ago I believe was an attempt to provoke the United States into a thunderous and ill-considered reprisal that would lead to popular uprisings and the overthrow of secular (or not fundamentalist enough) governments across the Middle East. And I think it's to the great credit of the United States that it did not respond as Osama anticipated. It's shown less good judgement since, unfortunately; invading Iraq just plays into their hands, but that's another subject.

Okay, enough ranting for a while. I have a life to lead...

Rick van Opbergen
WOW that was a great answer! Thanks, that helped a lot Dexter.
Reverend Blair
I doubt Islam will require as much time as Christianity to reform itself. The influences of the west, the accidental ones, are very much effecting change. Look at Iran...the government is hanging on, but the generation of people now in their twenties is rebelling quietly...mostly through the internet.

They are mostly Muslims and mostly fairly devout, but they want a secular state. The fundamentalists cannot hold them down for much longer.

The same holds true in Saudi Arabia. There is a large faction there that has been calling for democratisation. They would be much further along by now without the influence of the US governement in propping up the House of Saud, but they are making inroads.

The call for democracy and secular states goes a long way toward reducing the power and influence of the fundamentalists and reform will be hastened very much by that.
Not too mention the biggest influence...Family. I work with a number of Muslims from Pakistan, Ethiopia, Etriria, (sp),Iran, etc. They fly home all the time . They talk, they see that we are just trying to make a living, just like them. That will have an influence on reform.
Dexter Sinister
I dunno Rev. Maybe you're more optimistic than I am, but it seems to me that an authoritarian state finds it pretty easy to suppress dissent more or less indefinitely. What's more likely to make a difference is the generations turning over; when the generations in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia now in their 20s get their chance to run the place, maybe things will be different. I think these things will take a generation, at least. That's more or less what you implied, if I've understood you correctly, but I'm less than optimistic about how long it'll take. I'd really like to think you're right and it'll happen quickly. But even in the unlikely (in my opinion) event that these fundamentalist regimes become secularized and democratized some time soon, there will still be the disgruntled lunatics who are so sure they're right they're prepared to repress or kill everybody who disagrees. We've still got people like that calling themselves Christians too. I've no idea what the solution is to that kind of thing.

Zenfisher, you've touched on another important item: information. If I could get a single message to the folks suffering under authoritarian fundamentalist regimes, it would be this: it doesn't have to be that way. Family will carry that message back, as you say, with examples of how it *can* be, as long as they're allowed to travel to and from the West, and the Internet's spreading some if it as well, as Reverend Blair observed, though a lot of those regimes control that pretty tightly.

And I'd like to say this: I'm really enjoying this. Lots of cogent comments from sensible, thoughtful people. I'm glad I signed up.

Reverend Blair
Dissent is becoming harder to suppress as people gain access to technology though, Dexter. Secular forces who wanted to get rid of the Shah allied themselves with Khomeni in Iran in the 1970s too...very much helped depose the shah. They didn't want the Ayotollahs in power, just to get rid of the shah.

They were easy to put down after the revolution because they lacked access to the media. The leaders ended up dead, in jail, or in exile. There remained an underground movement though and Iran needed the internet to become and remain a modern country, so that movement has grown.

People are still being arrested and so on, and media other than the internet have helped too...small camcorders, traditional underground press, pirate radio stations, and so on. The movement continues to grow though, and the internet has become its driving force.
And this latest report (external - login to view)
Dexter Sinister
There goes your optimism again, Reverend. I think I agree with you in principle, but not in detail. The technologies you refer to do indeed make the suppression of dissent more difficult, but not difficult enough. Internet access, for instance, is fairly easy to control on a national basis if you have tight state control of the telecommunications infrastructure. Most authoritarian states, recognizing the threat that a free flow of information represents, do exactly that, mostly by simply not making the service available to any but a privileged few. I was reading recently about how Cuba does that, and I know China does it as well. It's not hard. No doubt there are also tight import restrictions on things like camcorders, and nasty penalties for unauthorized possession and use of them.

That's an ugly story you linked to there, bevvyd, but hardly surprising, unfortunately. I can't prove this with the information I have readily at hand (i.e. books I can reach without getting out of my chair), but it seems to me that nasty things like poverty, repression, and underdevelopment, are highest where the status of women is lowest, and I don't think that's a coincidence.
That's tragic Bevvyd.One would think that Mothers would emphasize this point to their sons throughout their lives. " I am a woman. If you had been born a girl, like me you may have been killed. Your Grandfather could have killed me, in which case you would never be."

DS...A large percentage of the Earth's oppressed do not have access to the internet. That's why family and free radio and televison being beamed into these countries is important. While they may not own a radio or television, they may have access.There is always a way around oppression. Look how the slaves in America did it. Listen to the spirituals. They managed to communicate ideas over great distances without the aid of any technology. There is always hope.
Reverend Blair
It isn't just internet access though, Dexter. It plays a large role in Iran because there is access, but other things work in other areas. Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders have both run programs to supply camcorders to oppressed people. Khomeni took over Iran long before the internet was commonplace and an underground press survived using little more than mimeograph machines. In Saudi Arabia the outlawed extremists communicate through the mosques and the outlawed human rights/democracy workers communicate through cell phones and personal meetings.

You see similar things throughout all countries and societies that seek to oppress people...a resistance builds. When it meets critical mass, things change. Remember Lech Walesa going on strike...that had more to do with the end of the Cold War than anything Ronnie Rayguns did. Remember when the Shah of Iran was deposed? That was the Iranian people standing up and saying, "Enough!" That many of them didn't want religious rulers kind of got lost in the news spin, but all were tired of the devil they knew.

The same is happening throughout Islam. People are seeing that there is another way of life, and they like it. They are looking into Islam, actually reading and thinking for themselves instead of listening to the Imams, and finding that they justify listening to music and watching movies. That's a powerful thing, one we underestimate here.

Such things do undermine the authority of dictators and extremists. Knowledge and ideas always do.
It is truly sad, too bad there doesn't seem to be any change forthcoming.
Dexter Sinister
I'm still hoping a Muslim will come along and shed some light on this discussion. Yo! Any Muslims lurking out there? Let's have your 2 cents worth.

Again, Reverend, I agree completely, in principle, with your position. If I've read you right, you're saying information is important and does make a difference, and technology is a major enabler for that. Agreed, but we may disagree on the details of how effectively or quickly it can make a significant difference. However, I've been surprised before by how quickly things can change, so I freely concede I may be wrong this time too, and in fact I hope I am. I remember when the Berlin Wall came down, something I didn't expect to see in my lifetime, and it amazed and delighted me. That resulted from very sudden and sweeping change inside the old Soviet Union. It had more to do with Mikhail Gorbachev and glasnost and perestroika than anything Ronnie Rayguns (great name for him, BTW) did, though he cheerfully--and dishonestly in my view--took the credit for it.

A very personal note:

I keep hearing my father's voice in my head while I'm thinking about these things. He was a young man in the 1940s, joined the Hamilton Light Infantry, the regiment that was cut to pieces at Dieppe in 1942. I remember complaining to him after I'd finished school that all my friends seemed to have found jobs in different cities and moved away. His comment: when I was your age, all my friends went to Europe and got killed. The point, of course, is that he could remember a time when things seemed far worse than they ever have at any time in my life, and I try to keep that in perspective. Yes, there are some truly awful things going on in the world, people are doing horrible things to each other, but there was a time when things were worse. A world without Hitler and his gas ovens doesn't seem so bad.

Yeah, I think things are getting better. But too slowly.

Well, as a Muslim, I am taking my time to digest all the responses to a very good question. Unfortunately, my mother just passed away and I haven't been around much. I'll put my 2 cents worth and explain my opinion about fundamentalism that we see today. One thing I do not agree with is from the first post when it was said that all terrorists are Muslims. This is totally wrong. You have terrorists in Ireland, in the USA, China, Japan(train gas) and so on.

be back with a full picture.
Dexter Sinister
Sorry about your mother, Moghrabi, but glad to have you in this thread. My own mother is still with us, but failing badly and rapidly; she's 86, and clearly doesn't have much time left. I'll be away for the weekend visiting her and some of my brothers and sisters in another city. I need to see her one more time while I'm still sure she'll recognize me. I've been thinking about starting a discussion thread called something like "Life, Death, and the insufferable injustice of it all." Well, maybe later...

I will await your further contributions to this thread with great interest.

Reverend Blair

Again, Reverend, I agree completely, in principle, with your position. If I've read you right, you're saying information is important and does make a difference, and technology is a major enabler for that. Agreed, but we may disagree on the details of how effectively or quickly it can make a significant difference.

But the information war has been going on for a very long time. All that's required is for things to reach a point where the people go public. I think we're very close to that in Iran and would likely be much further along without the Iraq war. Once Iran changes you will very likely see other coutries follow suit quite quickly.

Sorry to hear about your mother Moghraibi. My condolences.
Thank you to all. Everything must end. Even great Mothers.
Rick van Opbergen
Quote: Originally Posted by moghrabi

One thing I do not agree with is from the first post when it was said that all terrorists are Muslims.

Lets make it clear that it was not my own opinion, but a quote from someone else .... and of course my sincere condolences moghrabi.
Thank you, Rick.

The reason for my disagreement about that statement is that not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs. You have Arabs who are Christians and even Jews. You have Moslem's who are Chinese. So we are comparing apples and oranges.

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