A Peaceful Faith, A Fanatic Few: More Than 1 Billion Faithful Believers Trust in the Compassion and Power of Allah. What Is It in the Religion of Islam That Turns a Few Extremists to Terrorism?

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Islam: even the sound of this lovely Arabic word, which means "surrender," conveys the promise of peace, justice and harmony that comes to those who do the will of God. It is a word that defines the faith of more than 1 billion people, and embodies the aspirations of Muslim societies from the west of Africa across a wide arc to the islands of Indonesia. It also expresses the vision of the Quran, the very words of God--so Muslims believe--revealed to the last of His prophets, Muhammad. Why, then, should it inspire some Muslims to acts of unspeakable violence and terrorism?

Make no mistake. Though an act of war was committed against the United States last week, we are not witnessing regression to an era of religious warfare. The vast majority of Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike, deplore the slaughter of thousands of civilians that took place in New York City and Washington, D.C. "It violates the very foundations of Islamic law," says Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school. Nor are we witnessing a clash of civilizations. On the contrary, the United States is one place in the world where Jews and Christians and Muslims alike can live in peace with each other.

In moments of crisis like the present one, Muslims are quick to stress their bonds with Jews and Christians. Islam recognizes figures like Abraham and Moses and Jesus as prophets of the one God, Allah. Muslims study the Quran like others study the Bible, but they also look to the ahadith, or sayings and stories of Muhammad, for guidance. As Islam evolved into a great medieval civilization, various schools developed to interpret those passages in the Quran that are contradictory or unclear. Like other religions, Islam has its divisions and sects. The Shiites, for example, dominate Iran, where they have developed a hierarchy of clerical authority--the ayatollahs--roughly similar to Roman Catholicism. By contrast, the majority of Sunni Muslims are rather like Protestants in their stress on individual interpretation of the faith. And then there are the great Sufi saints and poets like Rumi who give Islam its mystical dimension.

Nonetheless, all Muslims observe certain fundamental practices such as prayer five times a day, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Mecca. They also share the ideal of creating Muslim societies based on the Sharia, or Muslim law. In such a utopia, Islamic principles would govern every aspect of personal and social behavior. But there's the rub: since the perfect Muslim society has yet to be created, Muslim fundamentalists and other purely political dissidents can--and have--declared various modern Muslim governments illegitimate. Indeed, the crisis the United States faces is a product of a crisis of legitimacy within the Islamic world itself.

The violence that exploded over New York City began in the back alleys of Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem--wherever Muslim extremists discerned the power of the United States behind their more immediate enemies. For nearly three decades, the Arab world has witnessed a broad Islamic revival that established Muslim governments have systematically repressed. In moderate Muslim nations, governing elites welcome Western support and the secular culture that goes with it. These elites have suppressed or co-opted the popular revivalist movements--thus opening the way for radical freelance sheiks and their terrorist networks. Experts like Daniel Pipes call the extremists "Islamists," meaning ideologues who "politicize their religion," and, like latter-day Leninists, turn the Sharia into a "blueprint for establishing a coerced utopia."

In Algeria, for example, when the Islamic Salvation Front threatened to win electoral victory a decade ago, the military government canceled further elections and imposed martial law. In Egypt, the government has used torture to suppress a similar Islamist revival. "Extremists see the U.S. government propping up states they regard as Muslim in name only," says Scott Appleby, a historian of religion at the University of Notre Dame, "and doing so to further their own geopolitical interests. …