October 15, 2003 | Op-ed
Change needed from within
By Jeffrey Azarva
Islamic Awareness Week at GW recently drew to a close, yet it remains clear that the religious intolerance of Islam persists in the post 9/11 world. Despite the week-long events, sponsored by the Muslim Students' Association and designed to foster religious tolerance, understanding and support on GW's campus, many in the United States fail to grasp the overarching concept that the country is not at war with Islam, and that Islam is an inherently peaceful religion.
Recently appointed by President George W. Bush to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute for Peace, Islamic scholar Daniel Pipes asserted, “Militant Islam is the problem, and moderate Islam is the solution.” While Pipes' claim is sound in theory, it faces numerous hurdles.
Militant Islam constitutes an immensely skewed proportion of Islam's voice. Islamists continue to proselytize radical strains such as Wahhabism and to commit terrorist acts in the name of Islam. So it is certainly understandable that Westerners perceive Islam as monolithic in this regard. But while Samuel Huntington, author of “The Clash of Civilizations,” predicted that conflict between the West and Islam would be predicated on differences in civilization, it appears that the problem actually lies within Islam. This begs the question: Where is the voice of moderate Islam?
Noted scholars have suggested that increasing oppression and intimidation by jihadists have forced moderate Muslims into retreat. In a sense, Islamists have hijacked the religion of Islam, taking it captive in a desperate attempt to keep closed a civilization that has long been isolated from modernity. If the current War on Terrorism is to achieve any meaningful success, it needs to destroy the global terrorist infrastructure and bring about the restoration and guidance of Islam.
It is clear that moderate Islam cannot undertake this daunting challenge alone; it requires the aid of democratic governments and the repudiation of Islamists by the mass media. It must be noted that initial efforts for reform must come from within Islam – Muslims must desire democratic institutions, humanitarian rights and individual freedoms themselves.
While anti-Islamist Muslims are the majority, there is no credible secular opposition. This is due in part to a lack of financial resources and ineffective organizational tactics regarding the establishment of schools, mosques and local clinics. Dr. Malek Chabel, an Algerian scholar, commented on this phenomenon, saying, “We (moderates) express ourselves in books and universities, but not in the street. We have to reform our methods. If we are not heard, it is partly our own fault.” Clearly, Islamists' presence on the street has resonated more strongly in the international community.
Perhaps one encouraging example is that of Turkey during the 1990s, when Islamic terrorist organizations sought to establish an Islamic state based on sharia, Islamic law, similar to Iran. Groups such as Islamic Jihad targeted the secular institutions of the Turkish government, which was initially met with little resistance from authorities. As the terrorist atrocities mounted, the Turkish population engaged in street demonstrations, a strong media and public relations campaign and proactive counter-terrorism efforts.
The tide of radical Islam in Turkey has been stemmed, but its presence has not been entirely eradicated. Nonetheless, Turkey may just serve as a model for the Muslim world, showing that a modern and democratic country can coexist based on humanitarian rights, political and economic pluralism and the rule of law while maintaining its Islamic identity.
Ultimately, if the answer to militant Islam is, indeed, moderate Islam, the efforts of secular moderates in Turkey during recent years must serve as a template for others seeking human rights, democratic reforms and a policy of general openness toward the rest of the world. Perhaps, more importantly, they are striving to restore the proper place of Islam as a peaceful religion, a notion that has been largely distorted by a radical few.
Thus, while Islamic Awareness Week here at GW and other college campuses has engendered some support for Islam here in the United States, any significant reform will require grassroots efforts throughout the Muslim world. The silent majority must find the courage to combat the scourge of Islamism and terrorism motivated by fundamentalist ideologies.
Jeffrey Azarva is a sophomore majoring in international affairs, and an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.