Understanding Islam

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    [color=000033][align=left]Understanding Islam
    A best-selling religion writer explains why the West needs Muslims to maintain a strong and vital faith
    Karen Armstrong: 'Islam does not preach violence'
    By Karen Fragala
    Newsweek Web Exclusive
    Updated: 8:06 a.m. ET Oct. 29, 2001Oct. 29 - With 1.2 billion followers, Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion—but also its most misunderstood. Karen Armstrong, a scholar and former nun, tries to correct some of the stereotypes in her latest book, “Islam: A Short History.” One of her key arguments: that because fear feeds extremists, any sustained attack on terrorism must include Western efforts to cultivate a more accurate appreciation of Islam.

    ARMSTRONG IS CURRENTLY a visiting scholar at Harvard and the author of nine books on religion. “Islam: A Short History” was originally released in 2000 but became a best seller in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. NEWSWEEK’s Karen Fragala spoke with the writer about the true meaning of jihad, the myth of the suicide bomber’s heavenly reward, and the prospects for democracy in the Middle East.

    NEWSWEEK: Your book has been described as an attempt to lay to rest the picture of Islam as a violent, backward and insular tradition. What are the greatest misconceptions about the religion?

    Karen Armstrong: Sadly, the events of Sept. 11 are going to confirm for many people a vision of Islam that is unjust. Islam does not preach violence, it does not preach vicious holy war, it certainly does not condone terror, suicide bombing or anything of that sort. Like all of the great world religions, it preaches compassion and justice, and that is why it has been a success.

    The term “jihad” originally referred to the struggle required to be a devoted Muslim, but today it is more commonly used to denote a holy war waged for Allah. Why the shift?

    The first major Muslim thinker to make jihad—meaning holy war—a central tenet of the faith was [a] Pakistani thinker, Mawdudi [in the late1800’s] and now Osama bin Laden has put jihad at the center of his campaign. That is a very new development in the Muslim world, to focus narrowly on jihad as holy war, and the media also reinforced this. Jihad is the struggle or effort that is pursued on all fronts—intellectual, spiritual, social, moral as well as political.

    Do most Muslims today regard jihad, in the sense of holy war, as a central tenet of Islam.


    Have militant groups hijacked mainstream Islam?

    That depends on a lot of factors. Only a small portion of the Muslim world are what we would call fundamentalists and only a tiny proportion take part in acts of terror.

    The vast majority of Muslims loathe what happened on Sept. 11—it offends every tenet of their faith, but unfortunately, they still don’t like American foreign policy in that region. Muslims have got to make a huge effort now to enunciate more clearly than ever before the peaceful, pluralistic elements of their faith. Everybody’s got work to do now to make sure that those hijackers don’t hijack the religion.

    Osama bin Laden has cast the U.S. attack against Afghanistan as a battle between the West and Islam. Are the two civilizations set on an inevitable collision course?

    Islam does not preach violence, it does not preach vicious holy war, it certainly does not condone terror, suicide bombing or anything of that sort.

    Well, no. Osama bin Laden talks about the Islamic world being divided into two camps, and all Muslims must choose which side they’re going to be on. Are they going to join him and his battle against the godless world, or are they going to join up with the evil forces in their own countries as well as in the West? His real quarrel with the West is that it supports a great deal of illegitimate regimes. He began his jihad against Saudi Arabia’s royal family, and he is also campaigning hard against Egypt’s secular rule, as well as Jordan and Iran. All extreme fundamentalism begins with an attack against your own people and your own co-religionists.

    Should Muslim leaders be doing more to convince their followers that suicide and acts of terror are contrary to Islamic beliefs?

    Yes. There are a few fundamentalist leaders who have supported suicide bombing in Israel, and that’s a real moral flaw, and they should all come out against that...What was remarkable immediately after the atrocity was the number of political leaders as well as religious leaders who did come out against it. Even states that we normally regard as terrorist, like Syria, Libya, Iran, all came out in horror, so what more can you say? It was a precious moment, and we must try not to antagonize this unlooked-for goodwill, which will happen if Afghan civilians die.

    The democratic principles of social justice, compassion and egalitarianism are among the most basic doctrines of the Qu’ran. Yet most Islamic countries are anything but democratic. Why?

    Democracy is part of the modernization process, but in the Islamic world, modernization is still at a fairly early stage and the majority of the population has not had the necessary education to understand modern political institutions. Looking back to the beginning of the 20th century, Muslim intellectuals were calling upon their own governments for democracy. In Iran, the progressive clergy joined with the more advanced secularists in a revolution that demanded the Shahs give them a constitution along modern lines with a parliament. Iran got its democratic institutions in 1906, but they were never allowed to function freely. The British kept rigging the elections. But [now] Iran is coming to democracy on its own terms, developing a Shiite democracy. They don’t want secular democracy, like the West, but they want their own democracy which comes in that familiar religious package that makes it more intelligible to the vast bulk of the population.

    All Muslims, regardless of faction, oppose Israel and cite American support of the country as one of Washington’s fundamental affronts against Arab interests. Why has this issue in particular united Muslims across the barriers of state and doctrine?

    In the Arab world, Israel has acquired this nimbus of symbolic value, an image of absolute Muslim impotence [against] the united powers of the West. It’s not that they had anything against the Jews when this happened—there is no tradition of anti-Semitism in the Arab world—they’ve had to borrow European anti-Semitic tracts to enunciate their new hatred. So you see the Arab Palestinians losing their homes, and 50 years of a world completely indifferent to the Palestinian issue. This has acquired the same kind of symbolic focus as evolution and abortion in the United States.

    We’ve all heard that suicide bombers believe they will go straight to heaven and enjoy a paradise of milk and honey, with 72 beautiful virgins for every martyr. Is there any religious basis for this?

    It is completely illegitimate. The Qu’ran and Islamic law forbid suicide in the strongest terms. You may not wage a war against a country where Muslims are allowed to practice their religion freely. You may not kill children or women in any war. It’s a cheapened version of it to imagine these martyrs as thinking that they’re buying a first-class ticket to heaven where they’ll enjoy all of these virgins. Martyrdom is something done to you and you must never take anyone else with you. But what annoys me somewhat [is that] none of these questions were asked in 1995 after 8,000 Muslims were killed by Christian Serbs. We knew enough about Christianity that [we knew] to say that Christianity condoned the massacre was illegitimate. The trouble is that most Western people just don’t know enough about Islam to make that correct judgment.

    Every major religion has its militant strains. But is there anything unique to Islam that would explain any aggression toward the West?

    No...What those terrorists did shocked Muslims to the core and there is nothing in the Qu’ran that could justify this any more than you can say that Jesus would have wanted anybody to go and kill doctors and nurses who have worked in abortion clinics.

    Many Muslims say that religion is more important than nationality. What are the chances of an insurrection by Muslim citizens of countries such as the U.S. and the U.K.?

    I’ll tell you a story. The BBC rang me up a few years ago and asked me if I’d like to help them with a program about a guy who wanted to do this, and about the support he had among British Muslims, for setting up a separate Muslim parliament and a separate Muslim community not subscribing to the nation. They went off to do the research in Bradford, which is a center for the more extreme Muslims, and they came back in dismay, with their program in ruins because they had only been able to find one supporter [of the plan]. One or two people in Britain were similarly in the news saying they prefer Islam to the nation state, and of course, they got far more attention than they deserved. In America, I have been impressed by communities I have visited, in which they’re bringing up their children to be good Muslims and good Americans and want to create a bridge between the home countries and the West and say, look, it is possible.

    One of the stereotypes of Islam is that it oppresses women. Is there precedent in the Muslim tradition for the way in which Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers require women to wear a head-to-toe burqa and forbid them from holding jobs or attending school?

    No. [But] none of the great world religions have been good for women. And I’d include Christianity in that. These are male-dominated religions. But Muslim feminists are now speaking against this. The prophet Mohammed was very keen on the emancipation of women—and there is nothing in the Qu’ran to insist that all women must be veiled or secluded. The Muslim women in the first community often fought beside men in battle and in the early Muslim community, the prophet’s wives had immense political power.

    Islamic history suggests a legacy of religious tolerance and Jerusalem experienced five centuries of relative peace under Muslim rule from 638 to 1099. What are the prospects for such religious harmony in the future, particularly in problematic areas such as Israel and Kashmir?

    Rather bleak, I’m afraid. But not for religious reasons. The Qu’ran as well as the Jewish scriptures speak of honoring the stranger in your land and treating him as one of your own people. The Muslims had a system of coexistence in Jerusalem that would be unthinkable today. It was the Muslims who brought the Jews back to Jerusalem. They had never been allowed to take up permanent residence in Jerusalem under the Christians. Similarly, the importance of human rights, and the respect of all peoples is firmly in the Qu’ran, but it is politics that manipulate religion, and at the moment, the leadership in these places is not looking great on either side. [/color]