On 9-11

Muslims seek a path into 21st century
Frank Viviano, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, November 11, 2001

Cairo: What do Muslims want?

The question haunts every effort to understand the turmoil in the Islamic world -- the acute internal crisis -- that has erupted in a U.S-led "war on terrorism."

The answer is not to be found on the extremes, in the nihilistic violence of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda or the medieval barbarism of the Taliban. Nor, given the diversity of a billion-strong Islamic population scattered over five continents, can there be a single answer.

But interviews across the Middle East and Mediterranean basin suggest the events of Sept. 11 have initiated an intense debate among Muslim political and religious thinkers -- not over the violent rejection of the 21st century, but over the means of entering it.

At the heart of the debate is the search for a "Muslim approach" to contemporary democracy, for political reforms that are rooted in Islamic tradition but that counter the authoritarian systems that today govern almost all Islamic nations.

"There is no question that reform is necessary," says Abdul Latif Arabiyat, secretary-general of Jordan's Islamic Action Front, "and that to be successful it must have an Islamic character."

Any other approach to modernization "will be regarded as something imposed on our societies from the outside, implanted by force, and is certain to fail, " says Dr. Esam el-Arian, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. "The way to achieve modern progress must come from the inside."

Both Arabiyat, a university administrator, and el-Arian, who holds degrees in medicine and law, are accomplished, modern professionals. Yet both are working for the establishment of Islamic states and belong to fundamentalist organizations that have been outlawed or severely repressed by their respective governments.

The reform movement within Islam has no dominant voice. It includes full- fledged political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic Action Front, and doctrinal sects that have attracted millions of disciples in recent years.

What they share, say reformers, is a conviction that Islam contains the seeds of its own modernization.

"We want to bring Islam back to its uncorrupted essentials, to its embrace of pure forms of democracy and justice," says Maha Dabbous, a spokeswoman for the dissident Ahmadi sect in London that has an estimated 150 million followers worldwide, including a very large following in India.

"You do that with the Koran, not with the sword," says Dabbous, who left a lucrative career as a civil engineer in Britain 12 years ago to direct women's programs for Palestinian Muslims in Israel.

GOVERNMENT GUIDED BY PEOPLE The "pure" democracy endorsed by the Koran -- in which, Muslims believe, the prophet Mohammed recorded God's directives for the reform of Judaism and Christianity 14 centuries ago -- lies in a concept known as shura. Its meaning,

explains Jordan's Arabiyat, "is the direct guidance of government by the people who are governed."

There is disagreement on the interpretation of the Koranic verses that mention shura, according to Mohammed el-Sayed Said, assistant director of Cairo's Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. But their thrust, he says, "is an injunction that rulers consult their colleagues and the people at large -- an assertion that human affairs should include collective engagement in governance."

Grassroots versions of shura have won wide popular support for some extremist groups. Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas -- better known in the West for their terrorist actions -- have built highly effective local organizations that encourage public discussion of issues, and offer health care and educational services to the poor.

They stand in sharp contrast to the authoritarian governments that rule most states in the Islamic world, where small wealthy elites monopolize the political process.

"It's not the ideology (of fundamentalism) that attracts people. If anything, that scares them. What support the Islamists appear to get is due to the fact that they talk about issues that appeal to the masses," says Maye Kassem, a political scientist at the American University in Cairo.


How then to explain the resort to terrorism? "In part," says Malek Chebel, an anthropologist and psychoanalyst who has written extensively on Islamism in North Africa, "because of the incapacity of Muslim rulers who have not succeeded in addressing social conflict, mass poverty and, above all, the corruption of their elites."

The cost of protesting against such abuses, even by organizations that renounce violence, is steep. Last Tuesday, Egyptian police arrested 21 men associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, charging them with illegal political activities. At press time, The Chronicle had been unable to learn if el-Arian, who has already spent five years in prison, was among them.

The best evidence that institutionalizing democracy can defuse Islamic extremism, say Chebel and others, is to be found in the large Muslim communities in Western Europe and the United States.

In a survey conducted by the French Public Opinion Institute after the Sept.

11 terrorist attacks, only 1 percent of those polled among the country's 5 million Muslims agreed that "the rejection of Western values" best corresponded to their "personal idea of Islam."


The three ideas most frequently cited in the survey were "justice," "liberty" and "democracy." Seventy percent of respondents supported the participation of France in "helping the United States uncover the terrorist networks responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks." Ninety percent said that those who perpetrated the attacks should not be allowed to call themselves Muslims.

Beyond the smoke screen of terrorism, believes Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokavar, "a new wind is blowing. The Muslim identity and modernity are reconciling."