Islam and Extremism: 'Reformation' in the Making? In the Muslim world, radicals, reformers, activists and academics are all struggling to reshape their religion. The debates often take place in cyberspace, or on Arabic-language satellite broadcasts. Some scholars say the debate is an "Islamic Reformation."
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Islam and Extremism: 'Reformation' in the Making?

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Islam and Extremism: 'Reformation' in the Making?

Islam and Extremism: 'Reformation' in the Making?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A fierce battle of ideas is taking place across the Muslim world. Radicals and reformers, activists and academics are all trying to reshape Islam. The debates often takes place in cyberspace or on satellite TV. On one side, Osama bin Laden and his sympathizers; on the other, Muslims trying to preserve their faith in the face of his extremism. Some scholars are calling this the Islamic Reformation. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS: In this farming valley of eastern Lebanon, Abul Abbas(ph), a 30-year-old soft-spoken university professor, has defined for himself what it means to be a modern Muslim. His middle-class home is stocked with religious books and the latest computer. Abbas says he more often reads about his religion on-line.

Professor ABUL ABBAS (Lebanese Muslim): (Speaking foreign language)

AMOS: He also keeps a cabinet full of cassette tapes of angry sermons. These radical preachers convinced Abbas his faith required him to fight against the Americans in Iraq, even if it meant dying in a suicide attack.

Prof. ABBAS: (Through translator) In the Koran it says you can't hide from death. We say that we would rather not die in our beds. We would rather die fighting.

AMOS: Abbas is on one side of a debate, a radical fighting moderates over the future of the faith. This battle of individual interpretations of Islam's holy text is something new. For centuries, distinguished scholars interpreted scripture and law for the Muslim community. But that authority, at least among Sunni Muslims, has eroded. Add to that, mass literacy and the rise of a middle class, says Bernard Haykel, a professor of Islamic history at New York University.

Professor BERNARD HAYKEL (New York University): Today you have large numbers of Arabs and Muslims who can pick up books, read them for themselves, and also have the consciousness and sense of sort of personal autonomy and independence to think that they can interpret these sources and texts for themselves. What that leads to is a world in which you have interpretive chaos.

AMOS: Interpretive chaos, says Haykel, has opened the way for the most radical interpretations, which selectively cite violent passages and ignore others in the complexity of the Koran.

Prof. HAYKEL: You end up with people who say, you know, I read the Koran for myself, I know what it says. And it says, you know, slay the non-Muslims wherever you find them, without knowing that verse, let's say, has a context, has a whole tradition of 1,400 years of interpretation.

AMOS: These new interpretations get wide distribution on Internet Web sites, says religious scholar Reza Aslan.

Mr. REZA ASLAN (Religious Scholar): Some of these fatwas are being issued by very legitimate authorities, and some of them are being issued by whackos who have never studied Islam in any way.

AMOS: And, says Aslan, because there is no central religious authority, it's up to individual Muslims to decide who and what to follow.

Mr. ASLAN: This is a conflict of authority. It is a conflict over who gets to define faith. And it's one that like the Christian Reformation has had profound ripples throughout the world.

AMOS: One place that has felt the profound ripple is Denmark, in the violent response to cartoons of Islam's prophet Muhammad published in a Danish newspaper last year.

(Soundbite of applause)

AMOS: That is why this group of Muslims chose the Danish capital, Copenhagen, for a gathering this summer. The conference room is crowded. Some of the men have long beards, others are in business suits. The women wear different kinds of headscarves, or none. Most are the well-educated children of immigrants, some are converts.

Unidentified Woman #1: So all they are asking you to do is, do you belong in the middle? Do people call you the moderate ones or do people call you the ultraconservatives?

They come from every corner of Europe and the United States and represent another side of Islam's reformation, striving to define their faith and rescue Islam from extremists, says Imam Faisal Raouf, one of the organizers.

Mr. IMAM FAISAL RAOUF (Organizer): The way to solve these issues is to strengthen the middle. The hardliners are drawing the lines rather rapidly.

AMOS: Naser Khader, a Danish Muslim, has his own definition of the middle that may be surprising.

Mr. NASER KHADER (Danish Muslim): I'm a democratic Muslim. I'm first democratic and then Muslim.

AMOS: Khader won a seat in Parliament last year, proving to his Muslim community that Danes would vote for him.

Mr. KHADER: A lot of Muslims all the time talking about conspiracy. Everybody is against me because I'm Muslim. But it's not true.

AMOS: But the biggest surprise of all at this meeting in Copenhagen was the guest of honor.

Unidentified Woman #2: I would like to invite Mr. Flemming Rose from Jyllands-Posten.

AMOS: Flemming Rose, the Danish editor who published the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, setting off what some called the war of civilizations.

Mr. FLEMMING ROSE (Editor, Jyllands-Posten): I did not wake up one day and said, you know, how am I going to offend Muslims today?

AMOS: But he did give offense, and some in the room, including this young woman, took him to task.

Unidentified Woman #3: Freedom of choice. I am a lawyer, and freedom of expression is very important to me, but freedom of expression is not the right to offend people. Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

AMOS: All condemned the violence the cartoons had unleashed. It was a lively debate that ended with participants lining up to be photographed with the controversial editor. Again, Faisal Raouf.

Mr. RAOUF: What we're doing here is something very cutting-edge. Even Flemming Rose said this was not only the most civil discourse he ever had about the cartoon situation, but it was also an eye-opener for him to see the diversity of opinion among Muslims themselves on the issue of the Danish cartoons.

AMOS: Historian Bernard Haykel also sees diversity in the Islamic reformation, a battle of ideas that could go on for decades.

Prof. HAYKEL: And you have a lot of creative and innovative thought going on in the Muslim world, but it happens to be much more of the dark variety that you talk about than it is of the light, I think.

AMOS: A battle that could go the other way, says Haykel.

Prof. HAYKEL: But Muslims have to feel some confidence. And at the moment there's a communal sense that they're under attack and that they're engaged in a fight for the very survival of the religion.

(Soundbite of music)

AMOS: Back in Lebanon's eastern valley, Abul Abbas listens to another taped sermon from a radical preacher. After he fought the Americans in Iraq, Abbas came home to recruit others to battle what he calls the threat from the West.

Mr. ABBAS: (Through translator) Our strength comes from our ideology. So if we can give this strength to other young people, then what? They kill one of us? We'll put 10 in their place. They kill a hundred, we'll put a thousand.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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