Sunday, January 11, 2015

Islam's Quiet Revolution: How to Be an Ally to Muslim Reformers

Today, leaders from around the world met in France and marched in solidarity to support the freedoms of western civilization.

And even while this is happening -- less than a week after radical Muslim terrorists stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo magazine and murdered 12 people -- a quiet revolution is bubbling in the Muslim world.

No, this doesn't mean that countries such as Egypt are ready to accept a culture of liberty lock, stock, and barrel. But a recent speech by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi indicates that not only is he well aware that the ecclesiastical mania of radical Islam is inciting the world's hostility against Islam. And while more moderate Muslims may not condone the actions of radical Islamists, they do all-too-frequently seem to condone the mania itself.

al-Sisi seems to be recognizing this is a problem. " We have to think hard about what we are facing — and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (Islamic world) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!" he told Muslim clerics. "That thinking — I am not saying 'religion' but 'thinking' — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world."

We cannot expect religious or even political reforms in Egypt overnight. It's important to remember that Egypt remains part of a global bloc of Islamic countries pushing at the UN for the adoption of global anti-blasphemy laws.

But we can at least hope for Islam to take small steps along the road to reform. And we should be supportive -- however tentatively -- of any Muslim sect that is willing to make such reforms. The least we could do is not actively undercut them.

Which is what brings me to the following image:

It's worth remembering -- in fact crucial to remember -- that there are plenty of Muslims who have already made the leap beyond the ecclesiastical nuttery that led to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. If the example of Ahmed Marabet wasn't enough for you, the actions of Lassana Bathily -- who saved as many hostages as he could by hiding them in the basement -- should underscore the point. It can be done, has been done.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is: what can we do to help?

As I previously noted, we could at least start by not undercutting them. There is one thing the religious convictions of the Hebdo killers had in common with the religious convictions of Ahmed Marabet:

They both believed in a concept called "Jihad." The difference being that Marabet's concept of Jihad was a peaceful one. He died practicing it. Bathily's concept of Jihad is also a peaceful one. He risked his life practicing it.

If he'd been caught he likely would have been a victim of the Hebdo shooters, whose concept of Jihad Marabet and Bathily would both denounce as false.

So for us to refer to the Hebdo shooters as "Jihadists" seems like a rather strange way to thank them. So long as any concept of Jihad that is not-violent exists, to use Jihad as a blanket term for Islamic terrorism is literally an attack on the religion itself. That's a bad idea. It's also a great way to shoot the reform efforts being called for by Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in the foot.

After all, if we call the actions of Muslim terrorists "Jihad," we're helping to give them premise to call it that themselves. And that grants them the aggrandizement they desperately crave and actually helps them recruit other Muslims to their cause.

Some people may mistake this for political correctness. It's not about political correctness. It's about tactical correctness. More specifically, correctness in rhetorical tactics. Rhetorical tactics may not seem important on a battlefield in which unarmed westerns are so often having to fight for their lives against armed extremists. Rhetorical tactics don't deflect a bullet or kill a terrorist. This is true.

But effective rhetorical tactics can help sway younger, more impressionable Muslims away from these actions in the first place. An enemy who never takes up arms is an enemy you never have to fight, over here or over there.

If we don't constrict the rhetorical space they have to work within Muslim reformers will win the battle against Islamic terrorism for us. It may take a long time, but it's the only possible way to win that battle. This doesn't mean that we refrain from criticizing Islam when it's necessary -- in fact our criticisms should stand as a beacon of specific reforms they need to pursue -- but it certainly means that we shouldn't wound our allies before they take the field.

Unless we stop doing that we can expect this to get a lot worse before it gets any better.

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