Reflections from East Asia

In East Asia, 'Arab Islam' and moderate Islam are clashing. In India, orthodox thinking is flourishing--and that's a good thing.

BY: Akbar Ahmed



Akbar AhmedThe West and the Muslim world stand on the brink of what seems to be an impenetrable divide. The war in Iraq, American Muslims' fear of racial profiling, and desecration of the Qur’an at Guantanamo have alienated many Muslims. Yet many other Americans and Muslims believe they can still build a strong relationship.


With this in mind, Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed, who wrote the forward to “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” is traveling for two months throughout the Muslim world with two of his students--Hailey Woldt and Frankie Martin and research assistant Hadia Mubarak--to learn what Muslims think, and how they really view America. Below is an edited travelogue, based on interviews with Beliefnet's Islam editor Dilshad D. Ali.

The Rise of "Arab Islam"
Bali, Indonesia, April 7, 2006
We're in the third phase of our journey--in East Asia, where Islam came not through warriors, not through conquerors, but through Sufis and traders and scholars. So traditionally, it's a much more gentle form of Islam. Islam here is more about Sufi-influences and tolerance and moderation, about balancing between faith and worldly aspirations. And the Muslims here are interactive with the other world civilizations, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, and Confucian philosophy.

So you can see it's a very different atmosphere for Islam than that of the Middle East, an environment of openness to Eastern faiths and cultures. The giants of this region are China, Japan, and Indonesia--the largest Muslim nation in the world with a population of 220 million people. It’s an extremely important country to monitor in terms of feelings, philosophies, and interpretations of the Islamic faith.

In recent years tension has been mounting in this part of the world between two quite distinct ideologies: There is a sharp confrontation between locals, and those who want to practice an Islam that many locals feel is imported. They call it "Arab Islam." The locals say, "Our own Islam is much more accepting and much more progressive." They say "Arab Islam" has been influenced by some of the more literalist interpretation of the religion and is alien to them.

The example they give of that confrontation is the 2005 terror attack in Bali--the perpetrators were people who were influenced by this new form of "Arab Islam," according to Bali locals. Now intellectuals in Indonesia are speaking out against this form of Islam.

For example, I gave a talk at a large university in Jakarta, attended by the former Indonesian minister of religious affairs, Dr. Maulana Muhammad Abdul Aleem Siddique. He took the opportunity of my lecture to launch an attack against "Arab Islam." He said, "We have our own culture, and we're proud of our culture. This Arab Islam makes us very uncomfortable, because it's alien to us."

America’s Role in the Fight for Islam
Bali, Indonesia, April 7, 2006
The big proverbial $64,000 question that came from this part of my journey was which type of Islam will prevail--the more aggressive type that is fueled by events like the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib and the Iraqi war, or the more moderate, compassionate Islam.

The answer will depend to a large degree on the United States, and it’s truly important for Americans to understand this. If America is able to help and promote those Muslims who want dialogue and who want to promote peace and tolerance, then that form of Islam--which is the true Islam of compassion and dialogue and tolerance--will prevail. But if America continues to encourage the literalists, sometimes called confrontationalists, or followers of "Arab Islam," by constantly seeming to provoke and attack Islam, then America reinforces the position of Islamic literalists and marginalizes those who want dialogue.

This is the equation that the United States needs to understand. There is an intense debate--a kind of a battle for faith--in the Muslim world. The so-called "moderates" are absolutely marginalized, as in the case of the Muslim intellectuals in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta who are trying to promote a pluralistic society with dialogue and good faith. They've been receiving death threats through fatwas.

If America is able to reinforce the position [of the moderate Muslims of the world] through respect, seminars, conferences, actions that will strengthen them in society, then in the long term they will prevail. Because Islam essentially is the religion of balance and good faith and compassion. But if America continues with abuses such as those at Abu Ghraib and fails to improve the situation forIraqis, then the literalists will prevail because they will have the ammunition to argue that America is on the warpath against Islam, and therefore we must support a jihad against the enemy of Islam--the United States.


Three Schools of Thought

New Delhi, India, April 1, 2006
The Islamic debate regarding a moderate versus orthodox Islam was personified here in a very unique way through visits to three places: Aligarh Muslim University, which was founded under British traditions; Ajmer, a city rich in Sufi tradition; and the university in Deoband, which is the center of conservative Islamic thought in India.

Aligarh has always been dear to me because it follows in the traditions of Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah--the students there are quite Westernized, wear coats and ties, and have a very modern education as well as moderate Islamic studies. Deoband is the complete opposite--more like a madrassa education, with all male students wearing traditional Islamic dress. Until very recently, English was banned at Deoband, and only religious studies was offered. Now they do have some non-religious courses, like computer science, and also offer English.

Hailey and friends
Author Hailey Woldt and friends

Visiting Deoband after Aligarh was quite a revelation because I found the students at Aligarh more frustrated with their situation. With all their modern education, they were having trouble getting jobs. They also felt not of the Islamic world or of the Western one. Then in visiting Deoband, I found the students there very comfortable in their conservative setting. They had a positive outlook for their future. They were relaxed, secure, and forward-thinking.

And so, in thinking that the Aligarh representation of a balanced Western and Islamic education was the right model for Muslims, I learned that the Deoband model of conservative but positive thinking may be a better situation. The Deoband students were very interested in my lectures on dialogue, compassion and building friendships with people of other faiths. So if these orthodox students are willing to reach out to the rest of the world, then the lesson here is that a dialogue with all types of Muslims is possible, and necessary.

Continued on page 2: What do Muslims think of the Iraq war? »

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