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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

October 26, 2002

The Crisis Within Islam

A lengthy amd very nice study of Islam, with focus upon historical factors that have led to the silence of the majority, thus making Islam seem a relgion of violence. Where are the moderates and why do we hear so little from the?
Islam is a religion of peace, President George Bush has declared. The imam at the local mosque has likely offered the same assurance, as has your Muslim neighbor or coworker. Yet many in the West remain suspicious that Islam is not at all a peaceful faith, and that the conflict sparked by the September 11 attacks is not just a war against terrorism but a "clash of civilizations."

It´s not hard to understand why. Osama bin Laden, who became the world´s best-known Muslim during the 1990s, declared that there is no path open to a believing Muslim except jihad, or holy war, against the United States. Islamic authorities who refuse to join him, bin Laden said, are betraying the faith. At the same time, the few prominent Muslims who have disowned the terrorism perpetrated in Islam´s name on September 11 and actively affirmed its peaceful character have been drowned out by the silence of the many others who have not, or who have in their confusion failed to condemn unequivocally bin Laden´s acts.

This strange silence does not reflect the attitude of traditional Islam but is a painful manifestation of a crisis of authority that has been building within Islam for a century. It is this crisis that allowed bin Laden, despite his lack of a formal religious education or an authoritative religious position, to assume the role of spokesman for the world´s Muslims. The crisis has undermined the traditional leaders who should be in a position to disqualify or overrule a man who does not speak--or act--for Islam.

Today´s crisis grows in part out of the structure of Islam itself--a faith without denominations, hierarchies, and centralized institutions. The absence of such structures has been a source of strength that has permitted the faith to adapt to local conditions and win converts around the world. But it is also a weakness that makes it difficult for Muslims to come together and speak with one voice on important issues--to say what is and what is not true Islam.

Islam´s structural weakness has been immeasurably magnified by a series of historical forces that have gradually compromised the authority of its traditional religious leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere. The imams and muftis (legal scholars) who once shaped the worldviews of ordinary Muslims and confidently articulated the meaning of the faith have been overshadowed by more innovative and often radical figures with much shallower roots in tradition. Hundreds of millions of ordinary Muslims feel that they understand their religion perfectly well, and that it provides no justification for the murderous crashing of airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But until Islam´s crisis of authority is resolved, these people will have no voice, and public confusion about what Islam really stands for will persist.