FaithWorld

Guestview: Why “militant Islam” is a dangerous myth

koran kalashnikov

(A Palestinian gunman marches with a Koran and his rifle during a protest in Deir al-Balah September 25, 2002/Magnus Johansson )

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Dalia Mogahed is Executive Director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. mogahed

(Dalia Mogahed/ Gallup)

By Dalia Mogahed

Right-wing pundits in the U.S. and Europe sometimes argue that it is misguided to avoid religious language when describing terrorists. They point out that members of Al-Qaeda and its affiliates call themselves “jihadists”, a derivative of the Arabic noun “jihad” meaning a struggle for God. They explain that it is therefore accurate and fair to refer to Al-Qaeda and its affiliates by the same term.

These same commentators also assert that political correctness in labelling the enemy is the last thing Western societies should be worried about. In fact, they say, focusing too much on not offending others may even weaken Americans’ and Europeans’ will to defeat those who wish them harm.

Yet Gallup research paints a very different picture; an ambitious new study suggests that casting tensions between Muslims and the West in religious terms may actually weaken the ability of America and Europe to fight religiously-branded extremists. This report, which inaugurates Gallup’s Abu Dhabi Center, is entitled “Measuring Muslim-West Relations: Assessing the “New Beginning,” and presents the results of more than 100,000 interviews with citizens in 55 countries. A key finding is that those who see the conflict as primarily due to religious differences are more likely to see a clash as inevitable.

Room with a view: Orhan Pamuk explores Istanbul’s double soul

pamuk (Photo: Orhan Pamuk at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, November 28, 2009/Alejandro Acosta)

From his Istanbul window, the Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk sees a city in flux.

Gleaming steel towers that signify Istanbul’s new economic power rise in the distance, rivalling more familiar views of old mosques and palaces, home to the former Ottoman dynasty. Teeming suburbs spread across hills.

Pamuk, Turkey’s most celebrated artist, has explored his country’s struggle with tradition and modernity and its identity as a land that straddles East and West in novels infused with “huzun”, a Turkish word that refers to melancholy or spiritual loss.

Can academia help Islam’s dialogue with the West?

Prince Alwaleed bin TalalSince 9/11, studying the relations between Islam and the West have become a growth field in academia. Among its leading proponents is Saudi Arabian investor Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, a billionaire who has spent tens of millions of dollars via his Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation creating study centres at leading universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Georgetown, with the goal of fostering interfaith dialogue and understanding. (Photo: Prince Alwaleed in Kabul, 18 March 2008/Ahmad Masood)

In the wake of the Islamist attacks in Mumbai last November, the foundation’s executive director, Muna AbuSulayman said recently, the organisation is keen to set up a centre in India and also to foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

A Mumbai Jewish community centre was seized and its rabbi and his wife killed during those attacks, in which 179 people were killed in a days-long rampage by members of a Pakistan-based militant group. “What has happened in India with the shooting was a wake up call,” she said. “India and Pakistan have a history, there’s a reason they separated. We want to help them minimise that.”

Should Obama address “Muslim world” as a bloc?

President Barack Obama has just pledged to make a new start for United States relations with the Muslim world: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” he said in his inaugural address. “To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West – know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” (Photo: President Obama delivers his inaugural address, 20 Jan 2009/Jason Reed)

It’s not clear what he plans to do. One idea he’s mentioned is to deliver a major speech in a Muslim country in his first year in office. There’s already a lively discussion on the web about where he should go. During his speech, CNN showed a shot of the crowd with some people holding up signs urging him to deliver the speech in Morocco.

Before this train starts rolling, it might be useful to recall that some Islam experts don’t think it’s a good idea for him to deal with “the Muslim world” as a bloc opposed to the West. Two French experts on Islam, Olivier Roy and Justin Vaisse, argued this in a New York Times op-ed piece last month. Here is the full text and below are excerpts.

Did Muslim rumours, terrorism DVD actually help Obama?

Did the “Obama-is-a- Muslim” whisper campaign energise Muslim voters to turn out en masse for him? Did the widely circulated DVD “Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West” actually end up helping him at the polls? That seems to be the case, our Chicago religion writer Mike Conlon reports in this analysis.

“Unpublished polling data indicated that the Democratic President-elect got somewhere between 67 percent and 90 percent of the Muslim vote, probably nearer the higher end, Ahmed Younis of Gallup Center for Muslim Studies, said in a telephone briefing,” Conlon writes.

“Mukit Hossain, executive director of the Muslim American Political Action Committee, said at the briefing that support for Obama among Muslims ‘changed dramatically’ in the last three to four weeks of the campaign ‘when people started calling Obama a terrorist’ in the crowds at Republican rallies.”

Prince Ghazi fears the worst if interfaith tensions flare

“Christians and Muslims routinely mistrust, disrespect and dislike each other, if not popularly and actively rubbish, dehumanize, demonize, despise and attack each other.”
Hmmm … this doesn’t sound like your usual speech at a conference on Christian-Muslim dialogue.

“With such an explosive mix, popular religious conflicts, even unto genocide, are lurking around the corner.” Um, er … the gloves are really off.

“God forbid, a few more terrorist attacks, a few more national security emergencies, a few more demagogues, a few more national protection laws, and then internment camps, if not concentration camps, are not inconceivable in some places.”

More activity on the Christian- Muslim dialogue front

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe dust had hardly settled from the Magdi Allam baptism story when Saudi King Abdullah announced he wanted to promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The World Council of Churches came out with its endorsement of the Common Word dialogue appeal after consulting member churches (many of which have already responded positively). And the World Economic Forum issued a study that says, among other things, that fewer than 30% of Muslims and Christians polled thought the other faith was sincerely interested in better understanding and cooperation. What’s going on?

The first thing to say is that these all seem to be different developments. We’ve already covered the Magdi Allam baptism story. That incident looks like a bit of unexpected turbulence that should calm down now that Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed criticised the Vatican for it and L’Osservatore Romano said the baptism was not a hostile act towards Islam. For more on this, see Nayed’s statement, his El Pais interview today (English, Spanish) and the L’Osservatore Romano editorial (Italian).

King Abdullah’s comments popped up in the Saudi press on Tuesday. He has been making positive comments and taking interesting steps such as his November visit to the Vatican and a recently announced plan to retrain Saudi imams to preach moderation. But what this latest statement really means is still unclear. It is not connected to the Common Word initiative, which has some Saudi signatories but otherwise no link to Saudi Arabia. It is not clear whether the Saudi religious establishment, which is usually more conservative than the royal family, has signed on to this. And it is not clear whether the foreign Muslims who Abdullah says he wants to lead to dialogue with Christians and Jews really want to be that close to a Saudi project. It is certainly interesting to hear the Saudi king speak of inter-faith dialogue, especially when he includes Jews in it, but there are still a lot of question marks over this plan.

Growing gap seen between Western, Muslim countries — Davos poll

High security surrounds Davos, site of the World Economic Forum, 21 Jan. 2008/Stefan WermuthMost people in Muslim and Western countries believe divisions between them are worsening and each side believes the other disrespects their culture, according to a poll released on Monday.

The Gallup poll, published in a report on Muslim-Western relations for the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos this week, reflects “an alarmingly low level of optimism regarding dialogue between Islam and the West“, WEF chairman Klaus Schwab said.

Click for the full report and our news story on it. Once you’ve read it, let us know if you think it rings true or misses the point.

Fund for films to boost West-Islam understanding

Jordan’s Queen Noor at Alliance meeting in Madrid, 15 Jan 2008/Sergio PerezThe Alliance of Civilisations is setting up a $100 million fund to make films to promote harmony between the West and Islamic countries.

Queen Noor of Jordan told a meeting of the Alliance in Madrid that the fund’s backers included Richard Branson, YouTube and the company that produced “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore.

“They say ‘perception is reality’ and that ‘seeing is believing’. So let us find a way to show the world something that will change their perceptions and ultimately their actions,” she said.

Back to the blog — first impressions after a break

Returning to news reporting after two weeks off feels like you’ve been away for two weeks. Returning to blogging after a holiday break feels like you’ve been away for an eternity. So much going on! My colleague Ed Stoddard in Dallas was minding the shop, but he was unexpectedly sent off to report the news from the campaign trail. That gave FaithWorld a very American accent, which was a timely twist given the role of religion in the Iowa vote. It’s back to the view from Paris now — here are some inital comments on recent events concerning religion around the world:

Bhutto’s upcoming bookBenazir Bhutto — The assassinated Pakistani leader will speak from beyond the grave next month when her book Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West is published. HarperCollins has announced it has brought forward to Feb. 12 the release of the book that Bhutto worked on before returning to Pakistan in October. In a statement, it called the book “a bold, uncompromising vision of hope for the future of not only Pakistan but the Islamic world. Bhutto presents a powerful argument for a reconciliation of Islam with democratic principles, in the face of opposition from Islamic extremists and Western skeptics.”

It will be interesting to see what she has to say about the role of Islam in Pakistani politics, especially after all the praise for her as a modern, secularist Muslim leader in comments after her assassination. Bhutto’s party is politically secularist and she pledged to fight against Islamist militants now challenging the Islamabad government. But let’s not forget that the Taliban emerged during her second stint as prime minister in 1993-1996 and were a key element in Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan at the time. She worked with an Islamist politician close to the Taliban then and now. It was also on her watch that, as historian William Dalrymple put it, Kashmir was turned into “a jihadist playground.” Whether she supported all this, couldn’t oppose the military people behind it or both (that’s my hunch) is something historians will debate long into the future. But it is clear that her record is more complex than some of the eulogies would have it.