For some in Islam, however, public relations doesn't go far enough. What's needed in their religion, they say, are central authorities to hold renegades accountable and show the world -- with actions, not words -- where Islam stands.
"Certainly the onus is on Muslims to get their own house in order so
that, amongst other things, the events of 9-11 are never repeated," said
Dr. A. Cader Asmal, an endocrinologist and spokesperson for the Islamic
Council of New England.
His proposal: set up a pan-Islamic judicial council to issue rulings for all Muslims and appoint enforcers to ensure "persons who spread hate in the name of Islam are prosecuted in courts of Islamic law."
Asmal is not alone in dreaming of stronger Islamic structures to rein in those who give the religion a bad name. But not everyone is convinced that more central authority is the answer.
Islam has always accommodated multiple schools of thought for interpreting the Quran and the corpus of Islamic law, according to Fred M. Donner, professor of Near Eastern History at the University of Chicago. One judicial body, operating as the voice of Islam, would never speak authoritatively for all Muslims, he said, even on basic issues such as the morality of targeting civilians for attack.
"It's a natural desire to want to have all this mess cleared up," Donner said. "But there are always going to be many different opinions. ... There is no one thing called `Islam.' It's a range of opinions. ... Creating this (judicial council) would actually exacerbate the problem," by creating a gulf between official Islamic rulings and those of an alienated populace that sees righteousness differently.
Like Judaism and Protestantism, Islam has no central authority to render verdicts on what constitutes righteous or unrighteous behavior. While it has courts to interpret Islamic law in particular cases, judges in one region may contradict those of another who invoke a different set of interpretive principles. Scholars with religious authority may issue a ruling or "fatwa" on certain issues, such as terrorism against innocent civilians, though none has authority to speak finally for all Islam.
Yet the time for public unity on basic questions has come, according
to Asmal, in light of "the speed of globalization and its impact on
"If Muslims fail to act to define themselves, they will be defined by those with an anti-Islamic agenda," Asmal told a recent gathering of Christian clergy here. Such definition on matters of ethics might begin, he said, with a new judicial council "to reconcile the multitude of disparate interpretations" and "entertain zero tolerance for any decrees ... calling for unprovoked assaults on persons of certain nationalities."
"I think this is a wonderful project," said Gordon D. Newby, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Emory University. "It's never been done before, but there's no inherent reason why it wouldn't work."
For some Muslims, the idea of increased central authority echoes an Islamic past when empires, such as the Ottomans, governed the entire Muslim world. The precedent of an Islam unified from above is worth recovering even as a range of opinion persists within Islam, according to Hussam Ayloush.
"This sort of centrality was political (under the Ottomans), but it provided a religious center point" through the unified pronouncements of scholars at the time, said Ayloush, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "At all times, what we are looking for is a voice for the majority of Muslims, and that is good enough."
Establishment of a pan-Islamic judicial council would benefit everyone, Ayloush said, but he would rather develop one by adding reputable scholars to existing bodies instead of creating a new institution from scratch.
Asmal confessed he isn't sure how a prosecutor or council would be sanctioned or funded to acquire credibility throughout the diverse Islamic world. But in his view, logistics shouldn't be a barrier to doing what's right.
"I know what Islam stands for and what it doesn't stand for," Asmal said. "Maybe there needs to be a council of people legally issuing fatwas or saying, `We ostracize you,' or doing whatever it takes. What was done recently (on Sept. 11) undermines the essence of Islam. This kind of abuse of Islam cannot be allowed by Muslims to take place again."
But can a central religious authority guarantee conformity across the ranks? Donner is doubtful.
"I'm not sure there's quite as much uniformity as he thinks there is," Donner said. "We'd like it to be easy, but it isn't so easy."