European Muslim Intellectuals Chart New Course

Recent events have revealed problems that Muslims have in their relationship with secular western culture. In Europe, millions of first- and second-generation Muslims are struggling to define their identity. Some Muslim intellectuals are charting a new course, presenting an alternative that isn't often heard.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Tomorrow Pope Benedict XVI will receive ambassadors from Muslim nations. He's hoping to diffuse the anger over his recent suggestion that Islam was spread by the sword. The controversy was seen as a sign of miscommunication between Christians and Muslims. It also exposed problems that Muslims have with secular Western culture in Europe, where millions of first and second generation Muslims are struggling to define their identity.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports that some Muslim intellectuals are charting a new course and presenting an alternative that isn't often heard.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: It's widely acknowledged that Europe's multi-cultural model of separate side-by-side communities has failed. Europe's Muslims are being pressed to adapt to societies based on civil rights, religious tolerance and equality of women. The Mufti of Marseille, Soheib Bencheikh, says for Muslims to become fully a part of Europe, their religion must move beyond precepts that reflex a 7th century Arab world.

Mr. SOHEIB BENCHEIKH (Mufti of Marseille):(Through translator) We have to promote an Islam that can exist as an minority religion along side other religions in secular societies, and which is respectful of everyone's freedom of choice.

POGGIOLI: Bencheikh says Muslims must learn how to adapt their religion and the Koran to their new environment.

Mr. BENCHEIKH (Through translator): I don't know why in our sermons and prayers we shouldn't use the language of Shakespeare or of Moliere. We must show that Islam can be experienced in any culture. We must put the accent on its universality.

POGGIOLI: Europe's Muslim galaxy is not uniform. Many live in parallel societies known as Islamic islands. Most are poorly educated and unemployed. There's an underclass of young people with no links either to the host society or their country of origin, easily swayed by hate speech broadcasts on Middle East satellite TV networks and Islamist Web sites.

One of the biggest obstacles to ending Muslims' culture and social exclusion is the influence of so many imported imams, preachers who reject European cultures and languages. Some prayer halls have become havens of radicalism and recruitment centers for terror networks. After 9/11 and Islamic terror attacks in Europe, many governments began to fund institutions for the training of local European imams. Shadik El Asam(ph) is a Syrian philosopher who is pinning his hopes on Europe for a drastic reform of Islam, particularly in relation to women.

Professor SHADIK EL ASAM (University of Damascus): You have to abolish the category of woman as howra(ph). It's a something scandalous that has to be covered. This has to go, all right, if there is to be any meaning to a reconciliation of Islam and democracy.

POGGIOLI: El Asam, who teaches at the University of Damascus, also calls for the abolition of some aspects of Sharia, especially the penal code he describes as the martial law of Islam. He also calls for an end to the juxtaposition between the House of Islam and the House of Disbelief.

Prof. EL ASAM: This obsession with the outside world, non-Muslim world, full of (unintelligible) hopefully it can happen in Europe. On our side I have myself lost hope that it will be ever achieved.

POGGIOLI: Abdelwahab Meddeb is a Tunisian born university professor in Paris and author of the Malady of Islam. He defines Islam's illness using the French derived word for fundamentalism.

Professor ABDELWAHAB MEDDEB (Author, Malady of Islam): (Unintelligible) inside Islam is a kind of fascism. Islam has to make the critic of Islam. And now in Europe this speech exists, and it's very, very important for the future of Islam.

POGGIOLI: Reforming Islam is still an elitist debate, but Muslims are already adapting to changes in their daily lives. It's in Europe that the friction between Western secular culture and Islam is most intense. While it has produced a small number of extremists, it has also generated a quiet revolution of the streets, where the great majority of Muslims are learning how to cope with diversity and have daily relations with non-Muslims, including women.

But Magde Alum, an outspoken Egyptian born commentator for the Italian newspaper Coriella Della Sera, describes Europe's Muslim moderates as a large but very silent majority.

Mr. MAGDE ALUM (Coriella Della Sera): (Through translator): The problem for moderates is fear, the fear of becoming targets of extremists. For a moderate to uphold the separation of church and state (unintelligible) a death sentence. Fear deeply pervades the Muslim world.

POGGIOLI: Alum says the burden for change also lies with European societies.

Mr. ALUM: (Through translator) Muslims must be obligated to respect European laws, principle and values, and make their faith compatible with European culture. And European societies must support more perhaps who help promote a collective European identity.

POGGIOLI: Many analysts believe that despite the Muslim uproar, the Pope/Islam controversy may actually open the way to a more productive and down-to-earth debate on Islam and its relationship with Western culture and democracy. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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