Where are the Moderate Muslims?
Sara Horsfall

On March 10, the Time of India published a very short comment about the mono-cultural ghettos of radicalization that are turning what would be otherwise peaceful young Muslims into persons willing to kill themselves – and others – for the cause.

Frank Kaufmann, of the Inter-Religious Federation for World Peace, in a commentary piece published under Debate on this site, replied that the challenge posed by these “selfless” but “hateful, [and] violent ideologues” needs to be counteracted by the efforts of peaceful Muslim leaders and educators within their community.

From my limited experience abroad (several years in India, Greece and England), my assessment is that neither the approach of the Times of India, nor that of Frank Kaufmann really addresses all the facets of the situation.

Since the 1950s, Americans have earned the reputation around the world as the “ugly Americans” – people who are wealthy, somewhat ignorant, selfish, and blundering. Whether deserved or not, this undercurrent can be found in almost every foreign country. At the same time, on an individual level, Americans are welcomed openly and hospitably – with no thought as to the juxtaposition of these two simultaneously held attitudes.

Muslim young people, like many others, see Americans in that way. Their anger comes from the fact that they themselves have very little power and almost no voice in world affairs. The resentment of western (U.S. and European) dominance on the world scene – from economics to culture to politics – is very real. In the competitive, fast paced world culture that exists today, there is very little place for a different way of doing things. One reason for acts of terrorism is to bring the world`s attention to the existence of another way of life, another culture with different values. Wrong way to do it, but a good point.

A second factor to keep in mind is that apparently many Muslims don’t know a lot about their own religion, nor about the common roots of Islam and Judeo/Christianity. I refer the reader to author Nonie Darwish’s account of her youthful years in Egypt, in her book “Now They Call Me Infidel: Why I Renounced Jihad for America, Israel, and the War on Terror.” Persons who are not scholars in Islamic thought of necessity rely on interpretations of the scriptures, and often these interpretations reflect the aspirations of the interpreter. Most of Ms Darwish’s friends in Egypt were unaware that the Jews had once inhabited Jerusalem and built their temple there – that it had deep religious significance to Jews.

Her statements are hard to believe, until you remember that free speech is one of the rights that our founding fathers fought for, and education was mandatory for all children very early in our history. Religious education has always been important, as well – with nearly every Christian church having some sort of Sunday School program for children. There is neither free speech or mandatory education, nor common religious education for children in many other countries around the world.

A third factor is the appeal of fundamentalism in every religion. Many people have erroneously predicted the end of religion – starting with the Soviets who thought that if children were not taught religious tradition, it would die out naturally. In this country scholars, looking at the decline in mainline churches in the latter half of the 20th century, predicted the rise of civil religion – making political loyalty into a religion. Both the Soviets and the U.S. scholars were mistaken. The latter were taken by surprise by the popularity of fundamental and charismatic revivals and churches, which continue to grow. Fundamentalism -whether Christian or Muslim - speaks to a more personal side. It offers greater meaning, often some kind of spiritual experiences, and gives a personal place and way to participate in something larger. Traditional religions - whether Christianity or Islam - tend to focus on institutional format, which becomes laced with power, position, status, and other non-religious factors. The devout, the little person, often has no place in the grandeur of the institution.

Keeping in mind this turn to fundamentalism, it is not surprising that mosques have fundamentalists. Unfortunately, the most enthusiastic adherents may not be the most educated. Again according to Nooni Darwish, many mosques in the US, in fact, are dominated by radical Muslims, to the point that moderate Muslims either become swept into their web, or cease attending services. After a brief encounter with the fundamentalist Muslims at her local mosque, Ms Darwish not only stopped attending, she eventually converted to Christianity because of the advocacy of violence among those at the mosque.

When these items are combined, it makes sense that impressionable young people, with anger and resentment, find the radical views they hear from others in their community satisfying. All they know about Islam, about Christianity and about world politics they learn from these radical mentors. And whatever youthful anger they have is fanned into political action.

This illustrates why education is so important. Christians could also find many examples of violence in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. But most American youth know that Jesus taught love and forgiveness, a higher law than an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.

So, why don’t more `moderate` Muslims speak up? As award-winning New York journalist Mona Eltahawy says in the Opinion section on this site, “…the main target of Muslim violence is fellow Muslims in the Muslim world.” There is fear even if they live in the U.S. or Europe.

So what is the solution? Difficult to say. I’m tempted to say that what the Muslim community needs is a Mahatma Gandhi, a Martin Luther King, or a Nelson Mandela - someone who is willing to put his or her life on the line and demonstrate a higher ideal, someone who can mobilize young Muslims to a greater cause, giving voice to a community’s deeper longings. And in so doing, command the respect of the larger world community as well.

With or without such a leader, education is essential – basic reading and writing, as well as education for all Muslims in the finer, more profound points of their great religion of Islam.

Greater sympathy and understanding from non-Muslims, especially those in positions of power, would also help. And perhaps a few laws to keep the peace and prevent random violence.

And time: time to mature, time to understand, time to be heard.

This is not a problem that will be solved overnight. Nor is it a problem of “those” people. It is a problem of “our” world. And an opportunity to grow together.

Sara Horsfall is a professor of sociology at Texas Wesleyan University in Ft. Worth.