The dominance of conservative Islam in the Middle East reflects a fundamental reality of Muslim society. But this conservatism should not be mistaken for violent radicalism, as America, unfortunately, has done. While conservatism may claim a majority of the "Arab street" (and the Persian street), this does not mean that violence and terrorism will inevitably rule the region.
A recent study published in Damascus by the Center of Islamic Studies pointed out that conservatives make up about 80 percent of the population of the Middle East's Islamic societies. Reformers make up most of the other 20 percent. Radicals can count on support from no more than 1 percent of the population. In my view, these rough proportions have been stable throughout ten centuries of Islamic history, with slight differences.
Islamic terminology has been established to describe these differences. Radicals first emerged as Khawarij, a fanatical group dating to the first century of Islam, which used accusations of blasphemy -- and violence -- to suppress even small differences of opinion. Today's conservatives are known among religious scholars as "People of the Letter" -- those who adhere to the letter of the Islamic texts. Reformists, as they are known today, are the equivalent of "People of Intellect."
The difference between Muslim conservatives and reformists can be measured in two ways: their stance on the possibility of making personal judgments on religious matters (known in religious terms as "diligence") and their attitude towards non-Muslims.
Conservatives believe that the revealed law was settled during the glorious days of Islam, and that individual interpretation should therefore be restricted. As a result, they don't look for new solutions to the problems that Muslims now face. Banks and insurance companies are to be avoided, on the theory that their activities are usurious and thus prohibited. Likewise, head covering for Muslim women is considered a requirement.
For conservatives, Islamic law is based on the Koran and the verified sayings and doings (the Sunnah) of the Prophet Mohammed, as these are unanimously viewed by respected scholars. Thus, conservatives reject democracy, because it subjects the will of God to popular opinion. For them, the ultimate authority within a society is God's revelation to the people.
Reformists, on the other hand, argue that individual judgment -- diligence -- is permissible, and that society is empowered to make choices based on contemporary needs, regardless of the opinions of previous religious scholars. Reformists also take an expansive view of religious law (Shariah), incorporating ideas of public welfare within a continually developing legislative process.
Thus, for reformists, banks and insurance companies serve the welfare of society, and this takes precedence over a traditional reading of religious texts. They also adopt a liberal attitude toward women's head covering, as well as their political participation and travel, which should be determined individually. Finally, reformists see no contradiction between democracy and Islamic teaching, though democracy does conflict with centuries of tradition governing how Muslims actually have been ruled.
As for attitudes toward non-Muslims (or non-practicing Muslims, for that matter), conservatives believe that the coming of Islam abrogated all other religions, while reformists believe that Islam completes other religions, but does not invalidate or disprove them. Conservatives draw their proofs from the texts of the Koran, while reformists argue that the Koran mentions and recognizes both the Old and New Testaments.
In this manner, the reformists reject an Islamic monopoly on salvation, paradise, or the truth. They believe that the ways to God and paradise are numerous. Conservatives, by contrast, are unyielding on this point, believing that there is but one path to God, and that salvation comes only through following Islamic teachings.
However, conservatives do not support the use of violence against non-Muslims. On the contrary, the jurisprudential traditions of Islamic conservatism obligate Muslims to be just in their treatment of non-Muslims. Thus, conservatives and reformists agree that the rights of others should be observed and preserved.
Although radicals represent no more than 1 percent of the Muslim population, their influence is based on the widening effects of their violence and their rejection of compromise. The radicals totally repudiate the Other, and do not see a place for the non-Muslim either in heaven or on Earth. This stance sanctions the use of violence against the Other, whether Christian, Jew, or even other Muslims who do not share their beliefs.
This devotion to violence stands on two legs: radical culture and injustice. When radical culture prevails, it brings people over to violence. And the extremism of radical culture is fueled by the many inequities and grievances that face the peoples of the Middle East.
Unfortunately, Iraq has become a breeding ground for radical Islam, owing to the brutality that the Iraqi people suffered under Saddam Hussein and now at the hands of the occupation forces. But this scenario is not limited to Muslims. Radicalism threatens any society where human dignity is lost and human rights mean nothing.
Muhammad Habash, a member of the Syrian Parliament, is director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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