Tuesday, November 16, 2004


"We are looking for our own Martin Luthers, and we're looking for our own reformation"

From today's New York Times (I seem to be using this slug a lot lately, don't I? I'm trying to find stuff other bloggers aren't posting, in the hopes of attracting some more traffic):

A Little Late, but a Stand Against Hate


AFTER the Sept. 11 attacks by Islamic terrorists, Ginan Rauf's 12-year-old son asked a question that shook her, she says, "to the core." The boy, Sherif Ahmed, was in "deep despair and shock," said Ms. Rauf, a Muslim living in Franklin Lakes, N.J. His question could not have been blunter: "Mom, does anything good ever come out of the Muslim world?"

Her instinctive response, the mother recalled yesterday, was to say that of course there are good things, that people of their religion "have made so many contributions to human civilization."

But there was no avoiding the obvious. Islam, for many, including quite a few born in the faith, had become grim, cramped, exclusionary and - no getting around it - all too often death-embracing.

And so the question rattled her. "It expressed a deep frustration with how the diverse cultural heritage of the Muslim world was being reduced to a narrow religiosity," Ms. Rauf said. "It was becoming joyless and constricting. A lot of kids just didn't want to deal with it or associate themselves with it."

That is why, with the Ramadan holy period just ended, she found herself yesterday at Union Theological Seminary in Morningside Heights. There, she joined like-minded Muslims in announcing a new group committed to "the universal and egalitarian values of the faith."

They were for the most part young, a small band of American and Canadian academics, writers and community activists. Not a head scarf or beard was in sight. The Progressive Muslim Union of North America, they called themselves, organized as a counterweight to the "oppressive or dysfunctional practices" that have come to define Islam for many people, both inside and outside the religion.

Plain and simple, they said, they are not willing to be cowed by hidebound imams for whom the three R's mean restriction, resentment and retribution.

"We will not be intimidated into silence as narrow and authoritarian interpretations of our faith are presented," said the union's executive director, Ahmed Nassef.

Enough with treating women as barely human, said Mona Eltahawy, a journalist and a board member of the group. "I know there are millions of Muslim women out there," she said, "who want to hear someone say, 'You are fine just the way you are. No man with a robe down to here and a huge beard is going to tell you how to live your life.' "

Mr. Nassef added: "We won't step aside when women are excluded or when hate against a group of people - whether they be African-Americans or Jews or gays or anyone else - is spoken or practiced." Sarah Eltantawi, a spokeswoman for the union, said the one thing that she and the others would not tolerate is intolerance, whether by Muslims or toward Muslims.

Whether anything comes of them is, obviously, the great unknown. Perhaps a measure of skepticism is not out of place alongside expressions of encouragement. We are hardly talking for now about a mass movement. For all an outsider knows, these people appeal to a slender segment of their religion. They seem to lack the blessing of a single imam.

It was impossible, too, not to notice a conspicuous absence in the discussion yesterday. Is it possible to talk about Islam in the post-9/11 world without a single reference to the dread T-word? Nowhere in the group's mission statement or in the members' remarks was terrorism mentioned. Why is that?

"We're not going to equate Islam with terrorism," Ms. Eltantawi said. "You can see this entire effort as a response to terrorism, if you like," but the emphasis is more on "an enlightened and positive expression of our faith in this country," she said. "I think that is far more of a contribution than being defensive about the word terrorism in our founding mission statement."

Make no mistake, Mr. Nassef said, "we've been unequivocal about condemning terror."

For Ms. Rauf, what her son and other young Muslims need is an awareness of Islam's capacity for "a rich and varied cultural life," one that the madrasas, or religious schools, "are crowding out."

Plainly, this is a case where no imam need apply.

"We are looking for our own Martin Luthers, and we're looking for our own reformation," said Tarek Fatah, another board member and a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress. "I am an authentic Muslim because I believe I am. I do not need any clergy to give me that certification."

A) They should not have to prove their dissociation with terrorism, any more than a group of Christians should have to prove they are not associated with gay-bashers or the Branch Dravidians. But, of course, they do have to prove it. (Not that those who presume all Muslims are either terrorists or sympathizers or fifth-columnists or silent supporters will be persuaded; but then, those kinds of people are usually immune to evidence in the first place.)

B) I'm glad to see this. However, the reformation Tarek Fatah mentions really cannot be started except by the Martin Luther he says they are looking for - a Muslim cleric of sufficient standing - and courage - to begin. And lest anyone think it will be that simple, remember that what Martin Luther began in 1517 took several hundred years to play out, accompanied and disfigured by a great deal of rather horrific violence. In fact, in some ways we are still fighting over what Luther and Henry VIII started.

Even if some Muslim equivalent of Martin Luther should arise - and survive - it will take decades for a true alternative to radical, fundamentalist, anti-modern Islam to become truly legitimate in much of the Muslim world. A group of suburban American Muslims can barely even start the process. We need someone in Egypt, someone in Saudi Arabia, to realize that there is no necessary conflict between the modern world and Islamic faith.

I'm a Jew, and we came to terms with the modern world a long time ago. Those that did not, the ultra-Orthodox haredim and Chasidim, are, for the most part, not trying to wage war with the modern world, not trying to force it to adopt their lifestyle (except for a few border clashes - this is not the place to discuss the status of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel). There are very few of us, and except for Israel we don't control any territory. What goes on within Judaism is of concern mostly to Jews alone.

But what happens in Islam does not stay within Islam. They need a Reformation; but even if they get one, it will be a long and possibly bloody process with a non-trivial chance of serious collateral damage. But it's going to be a dangerous world anyway, so we might as well hope for an Islamic Reformation and do what little we can to encourage it. It may the world's only hope.
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