Religion News Service

To Engage Moderate Muslims, We Must Understand Radical Islam

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom

The United States is not faring well in the war of ideas with radical Islam.

Earlier proposals for "rebranding" America were shallow, current proposals for "public diplomacy" lack focus, and many U.S. policies are unpopular, a situation aggravated by the Muslim world's media portrayal of them in a distorted and conspiratorial light. But the major problem is a refusal to say, and probably to understand, the nature of the ideas we are fighting.

Not until the Sept. 11 commission report did official Washington publicly acknowledge that "the enemy is not just `terrorism,' some generic evil," rather, it is "Islamic terrorism." But it said little about what Islamist radicals actually believe. Fortunately, they want to tell us. Every day, radical Islamists announce their beliefs and goals in magazines, fatwas, books and tapes, and on burgeoning Web sites.

They express outrage about "infidel" occupations of Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestinian areas and Iraq. But their core ideology is an understanding of history and law that resonates with a large Muslim audience worldwide, even while most of that audience rejects their methods. They tell Muslims that, because they have forsaken true Islam and rejected God's law, and instead embraced infidel beliefs such as democracy, their world has collapsed and they are controlled by their Jewish and Crusader enemies.

On Dec. 16, Osama bin Laden denounced the Saudis for implementing "man-made laws" and warned, "If a ruler ... abandons Allah's law, it is incumbent on the subjects ... to rebel." Two weeks later, his "Letter to the Iraqi People" denounced the Jan. 30 election since Muslims may elect only a leader for whom "Islam is the only source of the rulings and laws." He also forbade participation in the Palestinian Authority elections because "the constitution of the land is ... made by man."

Iraq's terrorist Ansar al-Sunnah warned Iraqis, "Democracy is a Greek word meaning the rule of the people. ... This concept is apostasy."

Instead of democracy and "man-made" law, they demand a reactionary version of Islamic sharia law reminiscent of the Taliban.

Their message produces results. Thirty years ago, only one large Muslim country, Saudi Arabia, accepted this ideology. But it has spread, often funded by Saudi money, to Sudan, Pakistan, areas of Nigeria, Malaysia and Indonesia, and, in a Shiite version, Iran.

Of course, most Muslims have absolutely no desire to live under Taliban-like regimes. Muslim-majority democracies, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Turkey, consistently reject this extremism. But such laws are pushed by force and intimidation by those who have no use for democracy.

Western attention to extreme sharia focuses on inhuman punishments, such as amputations or stoning to death women accused of adultery, but its effects are far wider. Its major threat is that it equates questioning the government or laws with questioning God, so that political opposition is treated as apostasy or blasphemy. Hence, it directly negates political and religious freedom by criminalizing dissent and debate.

When Sima Samar was appointed as the only Afghan female cabinet minister, the chief justice, Fazul Shinwari, charged her with "blasphemy," which carries the death penalty. Her "crime" was allegedly telling a Canadian magazine she did not believe in sharia.

In Iran, all political activity is conditioned on "compatibility with standards of sharia." In July 2004, professor Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to five years in prison for "insulting Islamic values" when he criticized the government's version of Islam.

Similar strictures fall on reformers in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Extreme forms of sharia grow because its opponents are vilified, imprisoned, killed or otherwise silenced by the state or vigilantes. Although the extremists' ideology and laws are an explicit threat to democracy and renewal in the Muslim world, the American response has been lackadaisical. It is as if, in the Cold War, we fought Communism without bothering to learn anything of Marxism.

However, since most Muslims have no more desire than we do to be stoned or beheaded, or killed for criticizing their governments, they can be our natural allies. We need to strengthen those Muslim voices developing and declaring an Islam at home with democracy and human freedom, and to protect them from the attacks they suffer.

The U.S. government can do some of this, but those it might support will be accused of being American lackeys. The slack needs to be taken up by American foundations and other non-governmental organizations, including churches. In supporting Muslim struggles against Islamist totalitarianism, we advance our own interest in a free, peaceful and prosperous world. This is an idea worth fighting for.