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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1995, Pages 17, 92

Special Report

Muslim Scholars Face Down Fanaticism

By Aicha Lemsine

The terrible April 19 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, with its searing images of bloodied children and battered adults against a background of debris, is even more terrible if we remember that similar scenes are repeated regularly in places like Rwanda, Bosnia and Algeria. Wherever it occurs, terrorism is a product of fanaticism, whether cultural, religious or political. The only difference in Oklahoma City is that Americans, to their horror, found that this time the threat was not "red" or "green," but "white." The monster of murderous extremism lives in America as well.

At the end of the 20th century, it is often said that the world is growing together. True, but the sophisticated satellite communications and speed-of-sound jet travel which the global village relies upon are value-neutral; CNN educates but it also propagates images of violence and mayhem. Nor has technology made human beings better. The age of laser surgery and heart transplants is also the era of "ethnic cleansing" and truck bombs.

Wherever it occurs, terrorism is a product of fanaticism.

The passing of the Cold War was supposed to mark the "end of history" and the advent of a safer, more secure world. What happened instead was a profusion of local and regional conflicts, civil wars and ethnic tensions. The rapid growth of religious fundamentalism—Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Hindu—seems to mark a worldwide trend toward exclusionary politics based on the persecution of women and ethnic or religious minorities.

Faced with this bleak picture, the only solution is a program of education in the ways of peace, rather than conflict. There is a growing movement among scholars, clergy and laypersons toward religious dialogue and trialogue among the three great monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This kind of exchange closes the door on retrograde and isolationist attitudes by reaffirming the common bonds which unite these religions.

At the same time, scholars struggle to undo racial, ethnic and cultural misunderstandings by studying fundamentalist movements, not to condemn them outright but to understand them. Ultimately, these historians, philosophers, theologians and writers seek knowledge in order to lower tensions and dilute the appeal of extremism. The phenomenon of "Islamic fundamentalism" is thus a matter of great interest to two Washington, DC-area Muslim scholars concerned with relations between Islam and the West.

A Spiritual Tack

One of the pre-eminent commentators on the manifestation of spiritual forces within the Islamic tradition is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a theologian, philosopher and Sufi master who is a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. Nasr believes that fundamentalist movements are a break with traditional Islam because their recourse to violence contradicts Islam's ethic of peace and harmony. He points out that millions of Muslims condemn terrorist actions committed in the name of Islam.

Nasr believes the tools to counter fanaticism lie within Islam and with the Muslims. "Today, hope is manifested in Muslim intellectuals who are intelligent, pious and who are in the process of rethinking Islam in the face of the challenges of modernity," Nasr told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. This group of thinkers is working within the framework of Islam, which has a long tradition of tajdid (renewal) and islah (reform) based on internal sources. "They look at the question from the opposite direction than those Muslim intellectuals who are fascinated by secularism and who attempt to bring Western solutions to Muslim problems. Such intellectuals have no ties with the popular masses," he adds.

Nasr, who has written extensively on Sufism, the centuries-old mystical tradition of Islam, believes spiritual growth is essential for an Islamic reawakening. "The Islamic intellectual renewal is impossible without the renewal of Sufism in its intellectual, metaphysical and spiritual dimensions," he believes. "The faith and spirit of openness among intellectuals is both the principal force and the surest path for the revival of Islam in a contemporary setting," Nasr says.

Nasr's emphasis on faith and spirituality also has ramifications for interfaith relations and ties among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Spiritual understanding is at the heart of all of the revealed religions, he feels. "It is why I defend other religions," Nasr declares. "They are our friends in this confrontation with those who reject the transcendence which represents the very basis of human history."

The Political Dimension

Those interfaith bonds are sometimes strained by political differences, however. A number of American and European scholars have tried to minimize the damage by acting as a bridge for discussion between the Muslim and Western worlds. Perhaps the best example of this approach is the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Scholars like center director John Esposito, Yvonne Haddad, Fathi Osman and John Voll work to interpret Islam for Americans—and America for Muslims. These efforts, grounded in intelligent inquiry and tolerance, are designed to demythologize the "green peril" which some in the U.S. and Europe insist is menacing the very foundations of Western civilization. Dialogue with groups and individuals across the Islamic spectrum is essential to this task, many American scholars believe.

Other American academics, however, argue that while dialogue is important, it is also important not to confuse "Islamism" with "Islam." The latter should be approached as a partner in discussion, but the former should be combatted with all available means, according to analysts like Daniel Pipes and Khalid Duran. It is a controversial position.

Khalid Duran was born in Spain of Hispano-Moroccan Muslim parents. He is a cosmopolitan "scholar-at-large" who has studied not only sociology and Oriental languages in Europe but also Islamic theology in Pakistan. He has taught in a number of universities in Asia, Africa and Europe, and brings a wealth of personal contacts and experience to his writing. He speaks not only English, French, Spanish and German, but also Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Turkish.

In an interview with the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,, Duran defended his views and his friend, Daniel Pipes. "First of all, neither Dr. Pipes nor myself are 'anti-Arab devils'! My colleague sincerely cares about the Arab world, in which he has numerous friends," Duran says of Pipes. "He is not an 'agent of Israel,' as rumor might have it. If he is a pro-Israel hard-liner, he is also someone who always pleaded the case for a pro-Iraqi policy, because he is convinced that Iran is the more dangerous threat," Duran notes. "He is assuredly anti-Islamist, but certainly not against Islam or anti-Arab!"

Although our views on political Islam may differ, I share Duran's experience of meeting and talking with Islamists and their leaders on their own terms, in their own countries. Working on my book Ordalie Des Voix, I had the opportunity to interview Omar Tlemsani, the late head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood; Sheikh Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah of Lebanon, the spiritual leader of the Hezbollah; and Hassan al-Turabi, the influential Sudanese law professor and Islamist activist, among others.

In the course of my travels I also met an Islamic thinker unlike the rest: Sudan's Mahmud Muhammad Taha, the leader of the Republican Brotherhood, a small party with a liberal and secularist interpretation of Islam. Taha's revolutionary vision of Islam angered many traditionalists, and he was tried "as an enemy of God" and executed in 1985 by the government of then-Sudanese President Jaafar Numayri, whose minister of justice at the time was none other than Hassan al-Turabi.

Khalid Duran was personally acquainted with both the late Mahmud Muhammad Taha, whom he admires profoundly and refers to as "al-Ustadh" ("the Teacher"), and Hassan al-Turabi, whom he despises. An outspoken critic of Islamism, which he compares to European fascism, Duran says his views are the product of his own experiences. "In the 1960s I was a professor in West Germany, and acted as the secretary-general of the Muslim community. In the Islamic cultural center—which was there as a result of the government—I taught Arabic and the rudiments of the ritual prayer to immigrants, most of them North Africans," Duran says.

"In 1964 we were invaded by Islamist students—all from Middle Eastern countries like Syria, Iraq and Egypt—who proclaimed that the Islam we taught and practiced in this center was not "true" Islam. There were fights between them and the immigrant workers who refused their diktats, to the point that the authorities closed the center. It was then that I began to study European fascism in an attempt to understand this Islamist phenomenon which I had discovered in its most brutal, violent and reactionary form there in Germany," according to Duran.

"I discovered the similarities between the first Muslim Brothers and European fascist ideology," Duran says. "[Muslim Brotherhood founder] Hassan al-Banna was a great admirer of these supremacist movements. He probably didn't understand the consequences of the racism of this ideology, but he was fascinated by the system of leadership. The only difference is that for the German fascists it was a question of race, while for the Muslim Brotherhood it became a question of religion."

A More Tolerant Side of Islam

Duran saw a more tolerant side of Islam in the 1950s when he studied with an imam of the Great Mosque of Sarajevo who happened to be the father of the future prime minister of Bosnia, Haris Silajdzic. "The Islam of the Bosnians is the ideal!" he exclaims. Duran says Islamism has not succeeded in Bosnia because the country's thinkers are intellectually advanced and Bosnian Islam is suffused with Sufism, which is based on the heart, the soul and the spirit. Despite the murderous genocide visited upon Bosnian Muslims, non-Bosnian Islamists have had no success fishing in these troubled waters, according to Duran. At the same time, he recognizes that if the fighting continues, so do the "risks that the pacific Muslim community in Bosnia could succumb to the Islamist virus."

What of the "Islamic threat" which some observers say confronts the West? "I don't really believe that Islamism will be a threat of the same magnitude as the Soviet Union was in the past," Duran says, though he adds, "In their pamphlets—especially those from Iran—they are very happy to be perceived as a threat.

"I sincerely believe that Islamism is very dangerous—not for the West, as some think—but for Islam itself and for the millions of Muslims in the world," Duran says. "What can the Islamist movements give to the Muslims if not violence, hate and psychological damage? They render Islam guilty in Western eyes and divide the Muslims among themselves. What have they brought to Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, Palestine and Algeria if not hate?" he asks.

Duran—a "one-hundred-percent Muslim" as he says in response to some Islamists who falsely claim he is a Jew who "converted" to Islam for sinister goals—is a strong yet realistic advocate of secularism in the Muslim world. "Secularism will be the solution for those Muslim countries which contain other religious minorities," he says. "But because secularism is perceived as 'the religion of atheism,' it seems to me it will be difficult to promote it as a panacea. But by taking traditional-classical Islam and rethinking it using modern intellectual tools, one can produce a concrete alternative to the supremacist ideology" of the Islamists, Duran believes.

Duran seems to echo Seyyed Hossein Nasr when he declares that "Islam has all the intellectual and scientific references to meet the challenge of the modern world. Islamic radicalism is foreign to Islam, not only because it is an act of violence, but because it is foreign to the theology of Islam," Duran believes. He points to the "new interpretation" by Islamism of various Qur'anic passages and several hadith, or reports of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad, concerning the meaning and importance of jihad. "That is why it is essential to combat and demystify their discourse; that is the duty of the sincere Muslim."

Hopes for Dialogue?

Must there be combat between Islamists, traditionalists and modernists, or is there room to engage the Islamists in dialogue? Duran says blame for the lack of constructive exchange lies with "the Islamists themselves, who refuse any ideas but their own. When they decide to play the game of dialogue, they are also burning bridges. Look at Turabi: he tells the Western media what they want to hear but in practice he implements a program for society that is one of the most obscurantist and one of the cruelest in regard to human rights. We think back to Khomeini speaking from his refuge in France about human rights for the Iranian people—he was welcomed by even the leftist intellectuals in Iran as a liberator—but he ended by arresting and killing them and plunging Iran into the depths of fear and oppression," Duran argues. "The problem is not to listen to [Islamists'] ideas but to judge them by their actions, which at the moment are based on violence and religious supremacism." Duran is nothing if not a man of firm beliefs.

Muslim thinkers like Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Khalid Duran are engaged in a fundamental rethinking of their religious heritage and teachings. Their provocative arguments are an example of the flowering of Islamic thought outside the Islamic world and the innovative philosophical ideas coming from Muslim intellectuals in the West. The arguments which they put forward vary considerably, yet they all are designed to meet the challenges of a 21st century where religious and political extremism—whether in the Middle East or the American Midwest—seem to be on the rise.

Aicha Lemsine is an Algerian journalist, author, and vice president of Women's WORLD, the World Organization for Rights, Literature and Development.