Who Defines Islam?

The struggle for the soul of Muslim youth

BY: Jane Lampman
The Christian Science Monitor


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Dr. Sonn says, "It's never been more clear how little the American government and people understand the suffering that is going on in the Muslim world."

"If you are a young man and you've been involved in the Palestinian or Afghanistan situation," Ahmed says, "your emotions are high, and you'll want action. That's what the sometimes-illiterate religious leaders offer."

The crisis within Islam involves a battle over leadership, and the challenge is not only to win over hearts and minds, but to avoid being silenced or chased out of the country.

Those seeking a tolerant, open, contemporary society not only face threats from radical Islamists, but also from crackdowns by governments supposedly supportive of Western ties. For example, Saad Ibrahim, a leading scholar and dual citizen of Egypt and the US who works for tolerance and democracy, was recently sent to jail for seven years in Egypt on what are widely viewed as trumped-up charges.

"Muslim society is decimating its scholars," Ahmed says, despite the Koran's injunction to respect knowledge, and this is creating the vacuum that permits the rise of radical leadership.

As today's superpower, the US influences life in the Muslim world in weighty ways, and should not be surprised, these experts say, that expectations are greater that it take responsibility to support the right kinds of change - fostering civil societies and democratic openings and resolutely seeking solution to the Palestinian-Israeli problem. America's future will not be secure, they say, unless it becomes more knowledgeable about and positively engaged with the Muslim world.

It's being urged to do so, too, by religious minorities facing restriction or persecution in some predominantly Muslim countries. The Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights, an umbrella organization of some 50 Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Bahai, Jewish, and Muslim groups from around the world, is building a network to promote security and equality for minorities within their own societies.

But to do so, says Keith Roderick, the Episcopal priest who heads the coalition, also means challenging what it terms "the ideology of radical Islamism." This "segregationist view" that institutionalizes minorities as second-class citizens, he says, "is a perversion of Islam and creates a cultural temperament of hatred, within which the idea of jihad as holy war can flourish."

Michael Meunier, who heads the US association of Coptic Christians, grew up in southern Egypt and says his family regularly experienced persecution from Muslims. While some progress is being made - a law was recently changed that required approval of the Egyptian president before a Coptic church could be renovated - many Copts remain second- or third-class citizens, he says.

How the US carries out its "war on terrorism" and whether or not it develops a broader strategy for relating to a Muslim world in transition will have tremendous impact.

"I've gotten e-mails from all over the Muslim world expressing shock and anger" over the attacks on the US, Abu-Rabi says. "All are interested in preventing similar attacks in the future.... But if the US were to invade Afghanistan, it would create anger among neutral Muslims and breed more violence."

"If we drop bombs on Afghanistan, where there is massive starvation, who is going to sympathize with that?" Ahmed asks. "Not people in the Arab world, or Asia, or Africa."

They are hoping for a more targeted approach, involving intelligence work with other nations similarly committed to wiping out the terrorism scourge.

"Millions and millions of Muslims have great affection for American values," Ahmed says. When it comes to mainstream Islam and the US, "we are talking of two compatible systems: both believe in God, in a happy family life, and in an optimistic future."

These Muslims want a dialogue, not a clash of civilizations.

US actions will influence whether those who want the dialogue or those who want confrontation gain the upper hand, he adds. "You can create more Osamas, or you can help create the Jinnahs of our societies, who will challenge the Osamas."

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