Jonathan Hayden is an assistant to noted Islam scholar Professor Akbar Ahmed. Hayden spent more than a year organizing Ahmed’s 10-week, eight-country trip through the Middle East, South Asia, and the Far East, and is conducting research for Ahmed’s forthcoming book, “Islam in the Age of Globalization.”
Hayden joined Ahmed on the last stage of his journey in Malaysia and Indonesia, during which he learned first-hand about the complex realities for moderate Muslims. Here he offers advice and chronicles his experiences for Beliefnet.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, I handed out a questionnaire to a class of 50 college students at an Islamic University that was designed reveal their feelings toward the West, globalization, and changes within Islam. The class was about 70 percent women, ages 19-23. Their hijab was mandatory, but if the women were to take it off, they would’ve looked like any college class in America.
They were sweet, funny kids who wanted to take pictures afterward and ask questions about the U.S.. Why, then, did roughly 75 percent of them list as their role models people like Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini, Yousef al-Qardawi (of Al-Jazeera), Yassir Arafat, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? We obviously have a problem.
If these young students are choosing as heroes people who are hostile to the US., what can we do to change this? What has led to this? Who can help us? And where are the moderate Muslims? We must try to answer these questions if we are to build bridges with countries with a largely Muslim population and avert the “clash of civilizations.”
The answers obviously do not come easily and will take much time to answer. But one of the things I noticed in Malaysia and Indonesia is the vital role that moderate Muslims will play. I hesitate to use the word “moderate” because of its negative connotations. From what I’ve gathered, moderatesare viewed as people who are unwilling to stand up for anything.
But the people that I am talking about when I use the term “moderate Muslim” are those who are standing up for the true identity of Islam while actively living in this “age of globalization.” From what I’ve learned in this trip, moderate Muslims are practicing the compassionate and just Islam that is taught in the Qu’ran without rejecting modernity and the West. They are, as I learned, hardly weak.
There were two people that I met who were particularly impressive. Through them I began to understand the challenge that moderate Muslims are up against: Dr. Ismail Noor of Kuala Lumpur and Dr. M. Syafi'i Anwar of Jakarta are Muslims fighting against formidable odds to create a dialogue between Islam and the West. They are facing a monumental task with their hands tied behind their backs. And I am ashamed to say, we are not helping them.
We must realize that each mistake directly marginalizes moderate Muslims throughout the world who are arguing for interfaith understanding, pluralism, modernity, and democracy. So which group will the masses follow after their religion, or their Prophet is attacked--the ones talking about peace and reconciliation or the ones fighting back? This may seem like a simple point, but it is essential in understanding why more Muslims are looking to the extremists as their leaders.
This point was driven home for me as we conducted our interviews in the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. When we asked Muslims to identify a role model from the past, the name Omar frequently emerged. Omar, a fierce warrior, initially fought against the Prophet Muhammad before he converted to Islam. He became the second Caliph after the Prophet’s death.
When asked why Omar was the choice, the response always was “because of his strength and because he fights for justice.” It stands to reason that when Muslims feel attacked, they will gravitate to the Omar-like leaders--not so much for their extremist rhetoric, but because they are fighting for them and some kind of justice.
In Washington, D.C., where I work with Prof. Akbar Ahmed, who is considered the foremost moderate Muslim in the U.S., we receive threats, complaints, and pressure from all sides. Muslims look to Prof. Ahmed to stand up for them and defend Islam when he is called on for knowledge and advice by the State Department, Department of Homeland Security, policy makers, or leaders from all religions. Similarly, the government looks to Prof. Ahmed to calm Muslims when any incident occurs. How is he to walk this line?
The radicalization of Islam has been slow and steady. The response will take time. We cannot bomb the problem away. This only exacerbates the problem. We have to meet the enemy, face to face. We have to rediscover the art of diplomacy and realize that everything we do as a nation matters on a global scale.
The West must support moderates. They may be our only hope of isolating the extremists. They have something that American diplomats do not have: legitimacy within the Muslim world. They can reach people through the teachings of Islam. They can remind Muslims that Omar was not only a strong and just defender of Islam, he was also the one who, after capturing Jerusalem, banned Muslims from destroying the church and ordered the respect of all houses of worship.
Since 9/11, the United States government has spent billions of dollars trying to defeat the enemy. Meanwhile, the people who can really change the minds of the Muslims on the brink--like those students who admire Osama Bin Laden--toil with no support.