Sunday, July 29, 2007

Reclaiming Islam from Extremists

Washington Post: By Tony Blair

Shortly before I left office, I held a conference on Islam in London. The purpose was to allow Islamic leaders to talk about Islam directly, without mediation, and in a rational not excitable setting. It arose, in part, out of my meetings with Muslims, especially young ones, in different parts of Britain. Their constant complaint was that the only people whose voices got heard were the extreme ones, the ones whose look and language was straight out of central casting – Islam as a militant struggle against “the infidel.” Instead they wanted the true Islam to be heard. Young women were particularly vocal, seeing the extremists as a threat to their rights to equality.

The outcome of the conference was remarkable. Some of the most distinguished scholars and clerics from round the world condemned totally the warping of Islam by the extremists, spoke of the need for more moderate Islam to stand up and be counted and even argued for change and reform within Islam itself.

None of this should blind us to the fact that there are indeed elements within Islam that foment extremism and in a sense more dangerous, elements that, though not extreme themselves, indulge the language and sentiments of the extremists.

But it should alert us to the need not to categorize Islam as one homogeneous entity, to talk of Muslims as if they, as a whole, are defined by a small and actually unrepresentative sect. It should also underline the importance of reaching out and empowering the moderates, the genuine true believers who wish to reclaim their religion from the extremists.

The threat the extremists pose is pervasive and profoundly alarming. They want terrorism to cause chaos and prevent progress, using the impact the carnage causes to make people lose hope in peace. They successfully climb on the back of longstanding disputes, shifting their direction and intensity towards conflict. In the Middle East, in Africa, but even on the streets of European capitals their presence is felt in bloodshed and division. And however reactionary their means and ends, they have a very modern understanding of global communication and how terrorism can be used to blot out any other image.

The terrorists are evil. But they are not stupid.

Defeating this evil will take many things. But one thing above all is essential. Ultimately it can only be defeated within Islam. Moderate, mainstream Islam must triumph.

One other fascinating aspect of the London conference was hearing genuine Islamic scholars speak about their religion in a way usually untold to Western audiences: how Islam was for centuries the progressive force in science and knowledge; how the Koran reveres Jesus and Mary; how the Abrahamic religions share so much common history and tradition; and how the actions of the extremists are not merely wrong, but directly contrary to the teaching of the Prophet Mohammed.

This is the authentic voice of Islam. It needs to be heard and to be listened to.

Claims, particularly those by outsiders, to identify "the authentic voice" of a religious, national, or ethnic group, tend to put me on guard for a proclamation likely to be either hateful or ultra-PC. I've come to be dubious about the existence of single "authentic voices" of large and heterogeneous entities, including those to which I belong. But certain voices, unlikely to be heard amidst the clamor of extremist rhetoric and the excitable responses it calls forth in response, may deserve and benefit from a bit of amplification.

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