Islam on the Defensive: Scholars Contend Criticism of Islam's Links to Terrorism Oversimplify Complex Tradition. (Special Report)

Article excerpt

President George W. Bush has insisted that the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the U.S. response to them are not about Islam but about terrorism. In the immediate aftermath of the events, many agreed. Muslim clerics around the world denounced the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington that left approximately three thousand people dead.

While Osama bin Laden, the alleged instigator of the terrorist hijackings, portrayed the attacks and the retaliatory bombing by the United States as a clash of civilizations and called on Muslims to rise up against the infidels, a chorus of voices both inside and outside the Muslim world said bin Laden's views represented a perversion of Islam.

More recently, some voices have spoken out to suggest that the conflict between the United States and Osama bin Laden and his followers is more rooted in the nature of Islam than its defenders conveyed.

Writing for The New York Times Magazine in a piece titled "This is a Religious War," Andrew Sullivan argued that the religious dimensions of the conflict are central to its meaning.

Salman Rushdie wrote a Nov. 2 New York Times opinion piece, "Yes, This is About Islam," in which he spoke of the need for a depoliticized Islam that would assume the secularist-humanist principles on which modernity is based. Novelist and Nobel prize-winner V.S. Naipaul, long a critic of Islam, assailed the religion once again in an interview published in the Oct. 28 issue of The New York Times Magazine, asserting that a non-fundamentalist Islam was a contradiction in terms. More recently, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman weighed in, arguing, "This is not about terrorism. Terrorism is just a tool. We're fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism."

Suddenly Islam itself, not just Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, is under scrutiny, the object of an intellectual inquisition about its values, its history and its compatibility with modern society.

Are the claims true? Is there something inherently intolerant in the nature of Islam that makes it maladapted to modernity and vulnerable to extremism?

These are tricky issues, both because of the complexity of Islam and the diverse range of beliefs within it, and because Osama bin Laden's brand of Islamic fundamentalism is entwined with political grievances that are widely shared by people in the Mideast, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Moreover, in many cases the criticisms of Islam contain simplifications and misunderstandings, not only about Islam but about Western culture and history.

"The key question always has to be, whose Islam are we talking about?" said Professor R.K. Ramazani, professor emeritus of government and foreign relations at the University of Virginia. "The reason for that is there are 1 billion Muslims in the world scattered all over the world from Indonesia to West Africa and they have extremely diverse subcultures. The way of looking at Islam in Egypt is not the same as in Saudi Arabia or in Iran. This is why it is so difficult to talk about whether Islam is prone to violence or fertile soil for terrorists."

It may be, in fact, the very diversity of Islam that accounts for the contradictions in speaking about it. Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations and Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, speaks of an authoritarian streak that runs through Muslim culture "from the dining table to the bedroom." On the other hand, he acknowledges that numerous factors other than religion are responsible for the lack of democratic institutions in the societies of the Middle East.

Few democrats

"How can you have democratic institutions if you have few democrats?" Gerges asked. "This has to do not just with Islam but with political culture, with socialization, with lack of economic growth, with hundreds of years of political oppression. …