Islam's Image Problem

Article excerpt

Westerners have called radical Islam one of the gravest threats facing the free world. But scholars and foreign-affairs experts agree that the faith's teachings are humane.

For years, journalists documenting militant Islam have supplied U.S. and Western media with harrowing stories of extremists conducting a reign of terror. But such reports neglect millions of peace-loving, tolerant Muslims who abide by the true teachings of their faith, says Sheik Hisham Kabbani, chairman of the Islamic Supreme Council of America.

Kabbani was one of numerous scholars, anthropologists, diplomats and religious leaders attending a conference earlier this year sponsored by the Supreme Council and Johns Hopkins University's School for Advanced International Studies. Participants analyzed the nature of radical Islamic movements, from their origins in Iran and Afghanistan to their more recent infiltration of Central Asian regions such as Dagestan and Chechnya.

Most experts agreed that politicization of Islam is the primary factor driving radical factions of the faith, combined with modernization and globalization. "With the growth of Islam, we see the birth of different schools of thought within Islam," Kabbani explained. "As previously isolated races and nations converge through the process of globalization and technical advancement, there are more opportunities for differences to arise."

For Kabbani, however, the core Islamic teaching essentially is unchanged since the days of the Prophet Mohammed. "As we consider traditional Islam vs. radical Islam -- in Central Asia or anywhere else -- we see that the difference between them lies not in the basic beliefs of the religion," he said. "The differences arise from love of authority and misguidance by people who don't fully understand the religion."

Now trained primarily in Afghanistan, Islamic militants receive little formal education and get a very distorted view of Islam, said Julie Sirrs, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. "Oftentimes, training schools seem to be a funnel for jihad movements" she said, using the Islamic name for holy war.

Likewise, radical movements are funding themselves from the sale of illegal drugs. "Terrorism has become a very profitable business" said historian Sherzod Abdullayev, formerly of Ferghana State University in Uzbekistan, who spoke through an interpreter. International terrorism and radical Islam are closely tied and pose a serious global threat, but radical Islam can be tempered and maybe even stopped through forces of political and social stability, noted Abdullayev.

Indeed, the essence of Islam is not antidemocratic, but forces of history and economics have worked against the establishment of democratic governments in much of the Muslim world, according to speakers attending a separate conference organized by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, or CSID, at Georgetown University. Long before the establishment of modern one-party states and authoritarian governments, the Muslim world had the makings of democratic government. In the classical Islamic era, Muslim systems featured an independent judiciary and separation of powers, noted Tamara Sonn, professor of religion at the College of William and Mary. But whether Islam is inherently democratic or not, Muslims soon will not enjoy democracy because they face obstacles of poverty, authoritarianism and political insecurity -- a point stressed by several scholars.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Is Islam?

ORIGIN

Islam is one of world's three major monotheistic religions, along with Christianity and Judaism. It was founded in Arabia and based on revelations received by the Prophet Mohammed, who lived from 570 to 632. Mohammed began his ministry at age 40, when tradition says the archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision. His central teachings were the goodness, omnipotence and unity of God, the need for generosity and justice among humans and a fear of Judgment Day. …

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