March 17, 2003 © New York University. All Rights Reserved.

The Real Battle of the 21st Century is Within Islam

By Anouar Boukhars
Global Beat Syndicate
NORFOLK, Virginia —
The decisive battle of the Twenty-First Century is not one that pits Fukuyama's Western Last Man against Hobbes's backward and brutish First Man. The real decisive battle is taking place within a Muslim civilization in severe internal crisis.
In most Muslim countries, two forms of order coexist. One is rooted in virtual anarchy and holds out the bleak prospect of what Benjamin Barber referred to as a "retribalization of large swaths of humankind"; the other is progressive, moderate and modern. This bifurcation has led to a fierce battle between groups that really want to modernize their societies and ensure that their faith is not driven off-course by fanatic, supremacist Mullahs and a second group that refuses to abide by anything but what they perceive as the "true" religion of God."
It is this duality that shapes responses to the horrendous events of September 11.
None of this points inevitably to a cataclysmic spasm of self-destruction —although such an outcome is possible. But it does point to a new era of friction that will, at times, manifests itself in bitter, protracted violence between the modernists and the medievalists. Beleaguered Algeria is an example of a Muslim country caught in the grip of exclusionary and intolerant Mullahs intent on controlling the whole society by their absurd reductive logic, opposed by a corrupt junta that rules despotically. Many Muslims across the globe are caught in this civil war within Islam.
While this conflict rages and the malaise continues, a simmering anger is reaching the boil among Muslim youth. They are sick of the corruption of their leaders, the impracticality of their political and economic systems and the perception that they are being humiliated by an arrogant America that supports their corrupt leaders and is totally indifferent to the suffering of Palestinians.
There is nothing new about these grievances but they seem to be taking a new form. The voice of the moderate majority voice is being squelched not only by authoritarian regimes but by obscurantist religious groups as well. Each is trying to claim ultimate authority on religious issues. The result is that extremism and tyranny reign supreme in most, if not all, Muslim societies.
In the longer term, there may be hope for a better outcome.
At present, the attacks of Sept. 11 and the U.S. war in Afghanistan, plus the impending war against Iraq have intensified the struggle for the soul of Muslim believers. The good news is that "the essential lesson taught by Islamic history" as Khaled Abou El Fadl, professor of Islamic Law at UCLA, rightly points out, "is that extremist groups are ejected from the mainstream of Islam; they are marginalized, and eventually treated as heretical aberrations to the Islamic message."
The fundamentalists have unfortunately wasted their opportunity to provide inspiring moral trajectory. It is now up to all Muslims who care about the current dismal state of their affairs to reclaim the integrity of a faith that has been hijacked by Islamists hardliners, whose insular comprehension of Koranic verses have distorted the meaning of Jihad and turned it into Holy War.
As Amina Wadud, professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University puts it, "The puritans construct their exclusionary and intolerant theology by reading Koranic verses in isolation, as if the meaning of the verses were transparent, [and] as if moral ideas and historical context were irrelevant to their interpretation."
The burden of restoring the "democratic spirit" that reigned in the early days of Islam rests with contemporary Muslims, who must denounce unequivocally all forms of terror and promote what Abou El Fadl calls "the Koranic message of tolerance and openness to the other."
The United States can do much to help prop up Islamic moderates. Then-Secretary of State George C. Marshall said it perfectly 55 years ago: "Our policy is not directed against any country, but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos. Democratic principles do not flourish on empty stomachs."
Applying Marshall’s approach to the Muslim world today would likely go a long ways in helping make the Islamic world and ours safer and prosperous. It would be unfortunate to squander this unique historic opportunity by failing to take advantage of the extraordinary opportunities that have arisen following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Anouar Boukhars is a doctoral candidate in international studies at Old Dominion University.


© 2000 New York University. All Rights Reserved. The Global Beat Syndicate, a service of New York University's Center for War, Peace, and the News Media, provides editors with commentary and perspective articles on critical global issues from contributors around the world. For more information, check out

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