Came across this Amir Taheri piece on Islam, written in 2001. Thought it might give some insight into the differences within Islam.
UNDERSTANDING OF ISLAM IN THE WEST By Amir Taheri, Arab News Staff GulfWire 8/12/2001
"It is time that Muslims started a debate among themselves." "Muslims need to raise and answer a number of burning questions."
These are some of the catchphrases that pepper many editorials and columns in leading Western newspapers. Inspired by the tragedies of Sept. 11 in the United States, the advice is often offered with a mixture of condescendence and ill-concealed anger.
The problem with that advice is that it ignores the fact that the Muslims have been debating among themselves right from the very beginning. The history of Islam is full of theological and political upheaval, doctrinal schisms, violent acts, and even civil wars. Political opponents assassinated three of the four Well-Guided Caliphs, starting a tradition of political murders that has continued to this day. According to the best scholarly estimates available, Islam has witnessed the emergence, and often the demise, of hundreds of different schools, paths, persuasions and denominations.
The problem is that most Western commentators see Islam as the counterpart of Christianity. However, Islam must be seen as the counterpart of Christendom, not of Christianity. When we speak of Christianity we speak only of that faith. But when we speak of Islam we speak of everything: religion, politics, government, culture, art, science etc.
Now the difficulty is that, unlike Christianity, there are no established and universally accepted mechanisms for excommunication in Islam. Anyone who says he or she is a Muslim and pronounces the "two testimonies" (Shahdatain) must be regarded as one. During a television debate a few weeks ago, I was taken to task by a new Muslim convert from the United States for insisting that both Osama Bin Laden and Mulla Muhammad Omar should be regarded as Muslims. We may not like the two men, and I certainly don't, but we do not have a Muslim pope or archbishop to excommunicate them.
This openness of Islam is, of course, a source both of strength and of weakness. It also baffles non-Muslims who find it hard that Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda gang belong as much to Islam as the "flower-and-love" Sufis of the semi-clandestine zawyiiahs and khaneqahs. The American pop star Madonna, who has become a fan of Rumi, putting some of his immortal poems to song, cannot get over the fact that her beloved Persian poet of the medieval times and the present-day cavemen of Afghanistan belong to the same broad Islamic universe. Without going deep into Islamic history, anyone with any knowledge of recent Islamic history would know that Muslims have been engaged in a robust debate over modernity since at least the middle of the 19th century. All the modern ideologies and political schools of the West, from liberalism and democracy to socialism, communism and even Freemasonry have had their own adepts and advocates in the Muslim world. There were times when large Western-styles political parties dominated the political and cultural scene in such key Muslim nations as Egypt, Turkey and Iran.
What is at issue is the question of who the Western media choose to focus on. Since the mullas seized power in Tehran in 1979 and held American diplomats hostage, the West has focused more on the advocates and practitioners of violence than their opponents in the Muslim world. Western scholars have churned out scores of books about superficial activists like Abul Ala Maudoodi, Hassan Al-Banna, Ayatollah Khomeini, Sayyed Qutb and a few others of similar ilk than about the more serious Muslim thinkers of the past century or so such as Ismail Agha Gasprinski, Mirza Ibrahimov, Akhund-Zadeh, Muhammad Abdoh, Jamaluddin Assad-Abadi (Al-Afghani), Mirza Malkam Khan, Abdul Rauf Fitrat, Ahmad Danesh, Sadreddin Ayni, Taha Hussein, Ahmad Kasrawi, Muhammad Iqbal, Ahmad Fardid, Malek Ben-Nabi and countless others. As for today, hardly any attention is paid to people like Nur Khalis Majid, Dariush Shayegan, Abdul Karim Sorush, Muhammad Saleh Al-Ashmawi, Fereydoun Hoveyda, Muhammad Abed Al-Jaberi, and countless others from Indonesia to Morocco. There are also many Muslim political figures who would be in a better position to reflect the mood in present-day Islam.
The impression created is that the Muslim world is a political desert in which the only plants that grow come in the shape of radical mullas or Al-Qaeda warriors.
Part of the reason is the masochism of some Western intellectuals. They prefer those who advocate violence and terror against the West. Many Western intellectuals reflected that masochism even after the Sept. 11 tragedies. The Western media, for its part, is often more interested in "hot" and sensational utterances rather than cool and pondered analysis. One chief editor of a leading American television channel told me how disappointed he was that all the Muslim thinkers that I had recommended for interview were clean-shaven and wore neckties. "Give us some beards, too," he pleaded. "We must put on some of those who say they want to kill everybody in the West." It would be as if one made a TV program in which British skinheads, German neo-Nazis and a few American psychopaths were presented as spokespeople for Christendom against Islam.
Today, there are 53 Muslim states with a variety of social and political systems. Any sweeping generalization about them will necessarily create more problems than it solves. A robust debate is taking place at many levels in most of those states. In some, it amounts to what one may call "a civil war of ideas." In some, Algeria or Afghanistan for example, there are those who cut the throats of people rather than debate with them. But this is not always the case.
At the center of the debate is the same questions that was first raised in the 19th century. Why did Islam, once a builder of civilizations, become so weak as to be reduced to the level of a mere observer in the world, and, more importantly perhaps, what is to be done to make Islam a subject rather than an object of history again?
The answer provided by the mullas and Al-Qaeda, that Muslims should go and blow themselves and everyone else up, is just one of many answers. If the West is interested in other answers, it needs to ask its intellectual and media to work harder and search deeper.
"Where is the explosion?" a senior American TV editor asked me over the telephone last week. He was referring to the "explosion" that was supposed to come from the Muslim street against the US-led campaign in Afghanistan. The fact is that there were a total of only 17 anti-West demonstrations, nine of them in three Pakistani cities, few of which attracted more than a few hundred people. And, even then, there were more anti-American demonstrators in London than in Peshawar. In Tehran, many young Muslims demonstrated in sympathy with the United States.
The fact is that there are some elements in the Muslim world that feel an intense hatred of the West, especially of the United States. There are, of course, some elements in the West, too, who share that intense hatred. But a majority of Muslims have no such prejudices. They disagree with the US on some issues and agree with it on others. In other words, they treat the matter as political not religious. Then there are those in the West who pretend that unless we agree with them on everything all the time, we should be regarded as hostile. Such a position is the mirror image of our mullas and Al-Qaeda criminals, and is as reprehensible.
I had hoped that the Sept. 11 tragedies might encourage a better understanding of Islam in the West. Now I fear that the opposite may come to pass. The torrent of information about Islam has mainly focused on small areas of present-day Islamic existence. Knowing more about something does not necessarily mean knowing it better when the information consumed is either partial or wrong. http://www.arabnews.com/Article.asp?ID=11130 http://helios.unive.it/~arabic/arabiyat/isl_occ1.htm