TAKING BACK ISLAM
In the wake of the terrorist attacks that shook London's transit system on July 7, a proclamation against all things extremist was drafted by a group of North American Muslim scholars and signed by some 250 Islamic organizations. It was not the first time mainstream Muslims had issued such a condemnation. In the aftermath of 9/11, a similarly worded statement barely registered a blip on the mass media's blood-soaked radar screen. . .
In this interview, we talk with commentator and writer Parvez Ahmed about Islam, how radicals have twisted its central message, and what can be done to prevent impressionable Muslims from turning to violence.
Parvez Ahmed is a board member for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which, according to the organization's Web site (http://www.cair.com), was set up to "enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding." His writing, published on the op-ed pages of American newspapers coast to coast, addresses common misconceptions about Islam and Muslims and, more recently, has focused on the fight against extremism. In 2002 the American Civil Liberties Union recognized Ahmed's work with a regional Civil Liberties award.
What are the most common misconceptions non-Muslims have concerning mainstream Islam?
Common misconceptions include the following: Muslims worship a different God. Muslims do not have respect for other religions. Muslims do not treat women properly. Muslims are violent. People also forget about the spiritual nature of Islam. Often, it seems that this religion is just a matter of following certain rules. But all things ritualistic have a spiritual meaning.
Like many religions, it's about fortifying the soul to help a person navigate the day to day.
Yes. And that guidance is, first and foremost, doing things that earn the pleasure of God, which in turn helps your fellow human beings. Because, on a very basic level, no one can live well if somebody else is not living well.
What about extremists who cloak themselves in the Islamic faith? What do they commonly misunderstand or misinterpret about the Muslim religion?
The central misinterpretation is the lack of understanding about how the Koran talks about living with others. There is also a tendency to take religious verses completely out of context or take them too literally. The Koran is not just a series of literalisms, and that's why people have to be guided by religious scholars. None of the people who are extremists or terrorists -- and who claim the Muslim faith or the Islamic faith -- are scholars of the religion. . .
You've written that young Muslims must be presented with an alternative ideological discourse to counterbalance radical influences. What are the first steps in this process?
There is a concept in Islam called itijihad. The root word of itijihad is jihad. Itijihad simply means a struggle or striving to reinterpret and reunderstand the traditions in the context of contemporary times. I think Muslims are beginning to do that. We are beginning to see how religion can play essential roles in the life of a Muslim without sacrificing any of the modern context. In other words, Muslims do not have to live in isolation to be good Muslims.
What role can Western governments play in this shift?
A first step would be for Western governments, the United States especially, to embrace and amplify mainstream Muslim voices and give them credibility by engaging them -- inviting them to the United States to speak with policymakers, interfaith leaders, scholars, and the public. Once those voices find that they are being embraced by mainstream society, I think they will be amplified. One of the fundamental grievances that many Muslims have would be that we are not given importance. That is the feeling that really alienates the youth. We are not given respect. We do not have a situation of hope. Once that changes, the extremists will be increasingly demarginalized. . .
What can average Americans do to assist in this effort?
They can start by refusing to accept the connection between religion and terrorism. When Timothy McVeigh [bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City], we did not describe that as Christian terrorism, and justifiably so. When a Jew assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel, we did not describe that as Jewish terrorism, and justifiably so. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism. It's just terrorism. Second, I urge people to visit mosques and Islamic centers. There is no substitute for actually going out and meeting Muslims and spending some time with them and learning about their faith from them directly. Most mosques that I know of have an open-door policy, especially if you go there on a Friday afternoon, which is the day of congregation for Muslims. You will be able to meet a broad cross-section of Muslims; you will be able to interact with men, women, and children. That will be much more meaningful and fruitful than simply reading something on paper or on an Internet site. Third, invite a Muslim community leader or an Islamic scholar to speak at your church or at a community organization gathering or wherever you and your friends meet. That dialogue will make its way back to the Muslim community and reinforce our view that we are on the right path.