We are inundated with reams of information about Islam and Islamophobia as well as calls for Islamic reform. Christine Douglass-Williams has written an excellent book, The Challenge of Modernizing Islam: Reformers Speak Out and the Obstacles They Face, explaining Islam and Islamophobia. Most importantly, she shares the views of eight Muslim Reformists: Dr. Zuhdi: medical doctor, reformist and founder of American Islamic Forum for Democracy; Raheel Raza: founder of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, journalist and activist; Sheik Dr. Ahmed Subhy Mansour: founder of Egypt’s Koranist Sect; Dr. Tawfik Hamid a former member of a terrorist group and now Chair of Study of Islamic Radicalism Potomac Institute for Policy Studies; Dr. Salim Mansour: Historian and Political Scientist; Dr. Qanta Ahmed: physician, author and columnist; Dr. Jalal Zuberi: medical specialist and East Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism; and Shireen Quodisi; activist and freelance writer.
Both Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes provide a forward in this book which is the first book I have read that gives the reader the opportunity to “listen” to these remarkable Muslims share their visions on Islam; past, present and future. We hear how they confront and resolve issues about their faith: about Muhammad as a model to Muslims, today, and differentiating amongst reformists, moderates and Islamists.
These Muslims face major obstacles. They are often ostracized for suggesting there is more than one Islam.
Here are comments from Turkey’s’ leader, Recep Erdogan from a speech at a program hosted in Ankara by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) on women’s entrepreneurship, November 2017.
“Islam cannot be either ‘moderate’ or ‘not moderate.’ Islam can only be one thing…Recently the concept of “moderate Islam” has received attention. But the patent of this concept originated in the West.”
Ms. Williams gives an excellent overview of Islam. If you are well-read in Islam or know nothing, this book provides workable definitions of problematic words, because words matter. If we are going to enter into a meaningful discussion about Islam, Islamism, Islamophobia, today, we must all know the meaning of the words we use. Ms. Williams also provides an excellent glossary.
She discusses problematic Islamic texts that speak to the most important question: “Who speaks for Muslims” other than the “Muslim Brotherhood Plan for North America and the Islamist project which reveals how Muslim advocacy groups that appear harmless have found an effective way to penetrate the West from within, through ‘civilized Jihad’ which is a stealth form of Jihad using the strategy of a fifth column to infiltrate and overthrow.”
Ms. Williams asked provocative questions. Difficult questions about the meaning of Islam to each of these people who want so much to share their idea of Islam with the world. I came away with a sense of sadness for each of the participants. They want so much for their religion to be peaceful, loving and benign; an interpretation of Islam that is so very different from the one we know, today.
Here are some of the answers.
Dr. Jalal Zuberi said:
“A litmus test for being a moderate is acceptance of another opinion without labeling them an apostate, a kafir, and such terms. These terms have very serious connotations to Muslims and Muslims need to reject such terms”
Shireen Quodosi said:
“Islamists are like the wolf in sheep’s clothing where they appear to be part of the democratic political structure but they are not. They use diplomacy and diplomatic ties to achieve the same ends. They use legal grounds to manipulate people where the more aggressive Jihadists use religious grounds but they are the same.”
Dr. Qanta Ahmed said:
“Islamists claim they are being persecuted and they claim they are being silenced when underneath, they are stealthily advancing their own mission.”
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser said
“As a reformer I would like to see a time in which Islam is not a threat to national security and in no way conflicts with societies like America, which is based on the Constitution and the Establishment Clause. If that goal can become normative Islam so that people stop seeing my ideas as a sort of mutation, I think that would be a sign of success.”
Dr. Salim Mansur said:
“Most mosques in North America and in Europe and around the world are basically reflecting the argument of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat Islam. This has been facilitated by petrodollars. It exerts an influence on the world stage since 1972-73 since oil prices went up.”
Raheel Raza said:
“Islamists bring children up with a sense of arrogance and superiority. This brainwashing takes place at a very young age so you find a whole generation of young people who have grown up with a set of ideologies that teaches hatred toward others, intolerance of others, and disrespect toward others, and that could easily transform into violence.”
Dr. Tawfik Hamid said:
“A reformist sees a problem in the religion and tries to find solutions by changing interpretations. I distinguish between the vocal moderates that speak out in the media , but they really don’t go to the theology to change it. A vocal moderate is great to demand secularism and separation of mosque and state, but a reformist is the one who will try to give a theological foundation to the concept of secularism.”
Ultimately I was left without any theology that describes their vision. This is not the fault of the author. I was left wondering what the laws, customs and regulations would be for this Reformist Islam that would protect and preserve the Islamic spirit. What would make their Holy Days holy?
Ms. Williams pointed out to me that the religion of Islam from Mecca is far different from the one that developed after Mohammed went to Medina, and that a reformed Islam would have to be one that carries the Mecca message which expressed love for all.
Muhammad was born in Mecca and lived there until 622 when he traveled to Medina. This journey is known as the hijra and marked the beginning of a united Islamic community.
In Medina, when the Jewish people thanked him for sharing his new faith with them, but said no thank you, Islam changed. It became filled with hate, beginning with the ethnic cleansing of two Jewish tribes, murdering the men of the third and sending their women and children into slavery. In 628 Muhammad attacked the Jews of Khaybar. Islam is now left with a number of inflammatory statements about Jews that Muhammad made that appear in the Koran — which, over the years, stoked Arab/Islamic anti-Semitism. And, today, we hear in Islamic tradition, the chant, the battle cry “Khaybar Khaybar, ya yahud, Jaish Muhammad, sa yahud,” which means, “Jews, remember Khaybar, the army of Muhammad is returning.”
I wish Ms. Williams had asked each of these reformers to speak about the Al Fatiha prayer that is said many times a day. In it Jews and Christians are demeaned, denigrated, and disrespected; treated as less than second class citizens. How would these reformists address this prayer? And if this prayer is not acceptable to their ideals, what prayer would summarize Islam, the way the Apostles’ Creed and the Our Father encapsulate Christianity and the Shema encapsulates Judaism?
Ms. Williams ends on a hopeful, or is it wishful, sentiment.
“Only when Islam is depoliticized can it collectively join the twenty-first century in peace. I wish reformers every success as they advance human rights, pluralism, the intellectual query of their faith, and their quest for peace and unity with human kind.”
So do I. But I am reminded of Kamran Bokhari whom I had the great pleasure of meeting and listening to him earnestly talk about Islam and his book Political Islam in the Age of Democratization which he co-wrote with Farid Senzai. At the time of writing the Arab Spring was underway. Mr. Bokhari had high hopes for Iran. On the second last page of the book we read:
“Islamists and many Muslims are unlikely to accept the Western practice of confining religion to the private sphere or to dilute their worldview so much that they cease to believe that Islam has a certain role to play on public affairs-even though the nature of this role is not exactly clear and thus likely to remain a bone of contention.”
I, too, hope for a change; for as Ms. Williams shared with me:
“If we as Westerners are proponents of human rights and freedom of religion, we should support the premise, vision and hopes of the genuinely moderate Muslim and reformist view that Islam can modernize. It is the human manifestation of a faith that defines the faith. It is up to Muslims to choose and cultivate equal rights for all and pluralism as democratic societies do. Ideas and ideologies are all subject to scrutiny. To live in the West, it is mandatory that Muslims depoliticize the practice of their faith and collectively accept scrutiny. Westerners would do well to facilitate this growth by expecting Muslims to adapt to Western mores. In Islamic countries, such growth toward pluralism is the only hope of escaping tribalism and oppression.”
I end, though, with the words of philosopher Will Durant.
“The trouble with most people is that they think with their hopes or fears or wishes rather than their minds.”
And with the voices of Islam
From the Ethics of the Fathers: “Rabbi Tarfon used to say, it is not incumbent upon you to complete the task, but you are not exempt from undertaking it.”