According to the first-ever Pew Global Attitudes Survey of the American Muslim community, Muslims in the United States are much more assimilated into society than Muslims in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. The detailed survey conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Centre found that American Muslims tend to have a better standard of living than their counterparts in Europe and are more comfortable with a society in which a majority believes in God compared with secular Europe. The study found that Muslims, by and large, share American values including “outlook and attitudes.” And “overwhelmingly, they believe that hard work pays off.” These are all positive signs.

But there are other findings in the Pew Study that are less pleasant and it is these findings that should concern us – one of which is that, after six years and despite overwhelming evidence, over 60% of American Muslims still cannot bring themselves to believe that their Muslim co-religionists carried out the 9/11 attacks. In effect, to the majority of American Muslims, the 9/11 tragedy has been unfairly blamed on Muslims and this “injustice” has led to their demonization in American society. If these statistics are correct, the American Muslim community is in a serious state of denial – a denial that could lead to the dangerous perception that they are being victimized.

This attitude may account for another finding that 26% of younger American Muslims under the age of 30 (that is, one out of every four) believe that suicide bombings in defense of Islam are justified under certain circumstances. Overall, 13% of those polled told Pew researchers that suicide bombings against civilians were (under certain circumstances) justifiable. So let’s be clear. Despite what you read in the mainstream media, 13% is a significant figure – the same percent, in fact, that blacks represent in the general U.S. population (and I doubt that anyone, especially blacks, would consider 13% to be insignificant). If 13% of American Muslims (or over 300,000 Muslims based on the Pew statistics) are prepared to justify suicide bombings in defense of Islam, this is a matter of grave concern for government and law enforcement officials, and raises serious questions about immigration, the monitoring of American mosques and the extent to which Saudi-funded madrasses in America are promoting their dangerous version of Islam in our penitentiaries, in our military, in our institutions of higher learning, and in American society in general.

While the survey has been represented in the mainstream media as proof of moderation among American Muslims, these other findings suggest cause for concern. Federal officials have warned that the U.S. must be on guard against homegrown terrorism, much as the British suffered with the London subway bombings of July, 2005. If, as the Pew Study estimates, there are 2.35 million Muslims in America that means there are a substantial number of people in this country who think suicide bombings can be justified. As Michelle Malkin warns in her recent editorial on Townhall.com: “This poll comes on the heels of the Fort Dix jihadi terror bust involving young, American-raised Muslims and the conviction of Muslim doctor Rafiq Abdus Sabir born in Harlem and based in Florida who had pledged loyalty to al Qaeda and vowed to treat injured al Qaeda fighters so they could return to Iraq to kill Americans. A Brooklyn bookstore owner and a Washington, D.C. cab driver also pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison in the case. This tiny minority of jihadi sympathizers aren’t just sitting around stewing harmlessly about their beliefs. They are recruiting, proselytizing, plotting and growing.”

Of more concern is that these figures correlate with a recent study in Britain that found that 13% of British Muslims believe the London subway bombers were righteous “martyrs,” while 7% approved of suicide bombing attacks in Britain in some circumstances. Combining the British figures with the 16% of French Muslims, 16% of Spanish Muslims, 10% of Indonesian Muslims, 7% of German Muslims, 28% of Egyptian Muslims, 14% of Pakistani Muslims, and 46% of Nigerian Muslims who told Pew researchers last summer that “violence against civilian targets in order to defend Islam” can be justified “often/sometimes”, these numbers translate into millions of jihadists who are prepared to become “martyrs” for Allah…..all of which requires some serious Muslim introspection about how their religion is being interpreted in the modern era.

The Need for Muslim Introspection

At a recent conference led by Malaysia and Indonesia, political and business leaders from Asia, North Africa and the Middle East vowed to change Western attitudes toward Muslim nations “from something negative or indifferent – if not hostile – to something positive and enthusiastic.” Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the president of Indonesia who delivered the keynote address stated: “Muslim countries need to change what is taught in madrasses, the Islamic schools that have been criticized for being heavy on religious training and light on science, technology and the humanities.” In addressing the most enlightened business leaders in the Islamic world, he expressed the frustration of millions of moderate Muslims when he demanded that Muslims….”break the shackles of rigidity and dogma that currently envelop Islam. We must go beyond rituals and ceremonies,” he said.

While it may be unpopular to say it, there is a problem within Islam today and claims of “Islamophobia” (a new word created to define the demonization of Muslims) raised by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (C.A.I.R.) cannot camouflage it. A 7th-century Islamic text cannot be given a 7th-century interpretation in the 21st century without inevitably leading to widespread carnage, catastrophic wars and the segregation of the world. Yet, the nations of the Arab world continue to use religion, Islam, and the name of Allah in everything – in politics, economics, science, art, and literature.

A counter-terrorism strategy is required to fight Salafi Islam, but it must begin at the religious-ideological level within Islam itself. [1] Muslims should publicly show their strong disapproval for the growing number of attacks by Muslims against other faiths and against other Muslims whether the attacks take place in New York, Washington, Madrid, London, Beslan, Bali, Beirut, Baghdad, Fallujah, Kabul, Kandahar, Istanbul, Nairobi or form part of the ongoing slaughter of Buddhists in Thailand by Islamic groups or Muslim silence over the Mumbai train bombings which took the lives of over 200 Hindus in 2006. Tawfik Hamid, writing in the Wall Street Journal noted that of the two million refugees fleeing Islamic terror in Iraq, 40% are Christian, and many of them seek a haven in Lebanon, where the Christian population itself has declined by 60%. In Turkey recently, Islamists slit the throats of three Christians for publishing Bibles. In Saudi Arabia, bibles are seized at their borders and proselytizing religions other than strict Wahhabi/Salafi Islam is prohibited and scrupulously monitored by the Saudi religious police (the Mutaween).

Muslims must engage in an honest and humble introspection about how the tenets of their religion can be reconciled with the socio-economic, scientific, humanitarian and political realities of the 21st century. There is a serious inconsistency between a religion that purports to teach peace and respect for human rights, yet justifies the burning of embassies and the murdering of non-believers and apostates in the name of Allah. Islam must be freed from the medieval prison imposed upon it by the proponents of Salafism.

Changing this perversion of the true message of Islam however can only be achieved by clear and binding legal decrees (fatwas) from moderate, respected Muslim religious authorities who are prepared to contradict the axioms of the Salafist worldview and excommunicate those who follow it. In essence, the Salafi narrative (which promises “paradise” to those who perpetrate acts of terrorism against infidels) must be met by an equally legitimate religious force that guarantees “eternal damnation” for the same acts.

The kinds of decrees (fatwas) necessary to free Islam from its medieval chains include a call for a renewal of ijtihad (“independent thinking” as was the accepted practice during the Golden Age of Islam in Andalusian Spain) as the basis for reforming Islamic dogmas and relegating old dogmas to historic contexts; that the law regarding apostates is not binding upon Muslims in the modern age; that the poll or head tax (Jizya) levied on non-Muslims under Islamic rule was never meant to apply to citizens who fulfill their obligations to the state; that polygamy was intended as a solution to a social problem not to be a natural right of a male; that there exists no state of jihad (holy war) between Islam and the rest of the world (that is, jihad is an internal struggle to achieve perfection in one’s self and not a personal duty to wage war on non-believers and apostates), that the violation of the physical safety of a non-Muslim in a Muslim country is prohibited (haram) by the Koran; that suicide bombings are acts of suicide and therefore, their perpetrators are condemned to eternal damnation; that moral or financial support of these acts of terrorism is prohibited (haram) and that any legal ruling that claims violent jihad is a duty derived from the tenets of Islam is a falsification of those tenets, and therefore, those who make such statements have performed acts of heresy. [2]

So long as 21st century Islamic scholars continue to place dangerous medieval interpretations on their religion, the Islamic mosques and madrasses of Pakistan, Indonesia, Britain and  the U.S. will continue to spin-off Salafi-trained imams and chaplains who will teach their flocks that true Islam requires the killing of apostates, the promotion of polygamy, isolation from infidel society, the beating of women, support for slavery, the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate by war if necessary, the raping of female war prisoners (as is happening in Darfur under the literal canons of Shari’a), the religious requirement that a woman’s testimony in court is of lesser value than that of a man’s and that women must be punished when they marry whom they please or dress as they wish.

By remaining silent for the sake of preserving Muslim unity, moderate Muslims in America and around the world have ceded the ideological high ground to the proponents of Salafi Islam. The Pew Study has identified a serious failing in the Muslim community, but it will be impossible to prevent the conversion of young Muslims in America or Europe to the ideas of Salafi Islam unless Salafi Islam itself is attacked as a perversion of Islamic dogma.

Thus, there must be a religious-ideological component to this war – active Muslim pressure for religious reform, an Islamic Enlightenment in the Muslim world, and pressure on the orthodox Islamic establishment in America, Europe and the Middle East not only to disassociate itself clearly from any justification for violence, but also to pit itself against the Salafists by redefining the tenets of Islam in the modern age. As Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of al Arabiya (the Dubai-based Arabic satellite news network that is al Jazeera’s chief competitor) has noted: “We cannot clear our names unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women.”  He concluded that “an innocent and benevolent religion, whose verses prohibit the felling of trees in the absence of urgent necessity, that calls murder the most heinous of crimes, that says explicitly that if you kill one person you have killed humanity as a whole, has been turned into a global message of hate and a universal cry for war.” [3]

Muslims must begin to speak out boldly in defense of a dynamic, moderate Islam – an Islam that upholds the sanctity of human life, reaches out to the oppressed, respects men and women alike, and insists on the fellowship of all humankind. Andalusia (the great Arab empire in Moorish Spain a millennium ago that laid the intellectual foundations for the European Renaissance) was not built on a foundation of ignorance and hate. It was built upon ijtihad (independent thinking).

Islam, along with other faiths, is capable of adapting to changing circumstances. [4] The Koran, like the Talmud and the holy scriptures of other major world religions, contains verses that reinforce religious exclusivity as well as verses that can be summoned to justify a new Islamic pluralism. Religions grow subtly when their adherents begin emphasizing certain parts of scripture to support their new spiritual insights. That is precisely what happened after the Holocaust to the Catholic Church, which stopped reciting the New Testament’s anti-Jewish verses and instead began emphasizing those verses affirming God’s love for all His people.

Islam’s challenge is to balance its vision of itself as a faith that must dominate the world, with Islamic humility that concedes the need for religious tolerance in a world threatened with nuclear destruction.  In short, Islam requires an Enlightenment – a bold new interpretation of its religious texts so that it can reconcile itself with the modern world. It took only 19 Salafists to murder 3,000 Americans in the name of Allah on 9/11 , but that is nothing compared to the millions who will die in future wars unless these “martyrs for Allah” are convinced that their actions are haram – forbidden by their faith and will earn them only eternal damnation.

Endnotes:

  1. Shmuel Bar, “The Religious Sources of Islamic Terrorism,” Freeman Center Broadcast. June13, 2004. See also: MEMRI, Special Dispatch – Egypt/Reform Project, November 18, 2004, No. 816.
  2. Jihad Watch, 2004 Archives
  3. John F. Cullinan, ‘A Time for Choosing: Muslims face a moral challenge,’ National Review Online, September 28, 2004
  4. Yossi Klein Halevi, “Islam’s Outdated Domination Theology”, Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2002