Who Defines Islam?

The struggle for the soul of Muslim youth

Sept. 20, 2001--It's an event that might occur in any family--capturing a child's imagination and sending him in a new direction, perhaps shaping a lifetime.

A young boy in Lahore, Pakistan, often told his uncle that he wanted to grow up to join the Army and kill Hindus. Then he saw a feature film about the man who founded his country. Now he talks about growing up to be another Jinnah, a man of justice and peace.

It's a simple, true story, and it's not happenstance. And the implications are global.

Aiming for the hearts and minds of youths throughout the Muslim world is exactly what Akbar Ahmed - a former Pakistani diplomat and a scholar of Islam - had in mind when he spent years on that film, which has stirred debate in many countries since 1997.

His desire to offer youths a compelling role model other than radical Islam struck a nerve: Sheikh Bakir, the self-declared representative of Osama bin Laden in Europe, attacked Dr. Ahmed as an "Uncle Tom" who "admires Western civilization more than Islamic civilization."

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The reason: M. A. Jinnah - who was the leader of perhaps the largest Muslim movement of the 20th century - also talked of democracy, human rights, and women's rights.

Who defines Islam?

This clash symbolizes the ferment roiling many countries in the Muslim world over what should be the contemporary face of Islam and its expressions in society. But it also holds a message for America, as it decides how to respond to the terrorism unleashed against it, apparently by Mr. bin Laden's followers.

"This is not just a defining moment for America, it's a defining moment in world history," says Ahmed, now chair of Islamic studies at American University in Washington. One of every 5 people is a Muslim, and the relations between the West and Islam will shape the 21st century, he says. "Anyone involved in a crime like this has to be punished, but we at the same time need long-term thinking; otherwise we are on a collision course between Islam and the West."

This is not a "clash of civilizations," as some have claimed, he and other experts say. It is more a clash of misunderstandings. But if the US focuses only on eliminating a terrorist network, and fails to recognize the larger stakes, "there will be many more Osamas."

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