Sunday, October 30, 2011

Demographic Grids

Sorting things into categories is a simply skill we all learned quite young: I can sort a child's building by color - red, blue, yellow - or by shape - square, triangle, circle. I can sort them by both at once, creating a nine-by-nine grid. The same is true of people: we can sort by age (young, middle-aged, old), or we can sort by height (short, medium, tall); and we can sort by both at once.

This simple technique is put to interesting use in a complex situation by author Joel Rosenberg. Looking at the population of various Middle East countries, and analyzing the political and military conflicts there, he first found three categories based views of religion:

The Radicals, who say that "Islam is the answer, jihad is the way."

The Reformers, who say that "Islam is the answer, but jihad is not the way."

The Revivalists, who say that "Islam is not the answer, and jihad is not the way."

Each of the three groups above are a significant factor inside the various Islamic nations in the Middle East. But within each of them, further subdivisions can be made, leading to our nine-by-nine grid.
The Resisters are leaders of Muslim-majority countries who show little evidence of wanting serious social or ideological change of any kind. While Muslims themselves, they do not want the kind of fundamental, sweeping changes advocated by the Radicals, Reformers, or Revivalists. To the contrary, they resist change; generally speaking, their mission is to hold power for as long as possible.

The Reticent include leaders of Muslim-majority countries or territories who have leanings toward one movement or another but have not fully committed. They do the two-step, dancing for a season with one partner, then shifting to another.

The Rank-and-File, finally, comprise the vast majority of the world's 1.3 billion Muslims. They do not run countries. Individually, they generally have little or no wealth or power. But they are enormously important.

We see, then, that any analysis of the Middle East which accounts for fewer than nine major categories, and presumably numerous other smaller categories, will fail to do justice to the complexity of the situation.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Understanding Islam

Although we may think that the world's attention has been more directed toward Islam since the attacks of September 11, 2001, this is far from true: long before that date, the world began to consider the nature of Islam: as far back as 1979, headlines around the world announced that Americans in Iran had been taken hostage, where they would be held prisoner for over a year with no legal or diplomatic remedy. Between these two dates is a long series of bombings and attacks around the world.

In the face of this radicalism, however, author Joel Rosenberg offers a shocking opinion:

The vast majority of the 1.3 billion Muslims on the planet are not Radicals. They do not believe in waging jihad against the West. They do not condone sending their sons and daughters to be suicide bombers to kill Christians, Jews, and apostate Muslims, among others. They do not want to annihilate Judeo-Christian civilization as we know it or take over the world. They are, by and large, quiet, peaceful people. They want to raise their children in decent schools to get decent jobs and live respectable, productive, God-honoring lives.
Despite the images in the daily news of Islamic terrorists, Rosenberg is telling us that most Muslims are not fanatics who insist on following every directive in the Qur'an. This is a radically different image of Islam than that offered by, for example, U of M's Professor Ed Sareth, who writes that Islam is "fueling conflicts that could threaten humanity." Rosenberg disagrees.
Western leaders should be commended - not condemned - for affirming the peaceful nature of most Muslims. Why insult Muslims who are unengaged in jihad?
Rosenberg would side, then, with President George W. Bush's numerous comments that Muslims are peaceful friends. Bush was widely criticized in the weeks following the attacks on the World Trade Center for not voicing more anti-Islamic sentiments. But he continued to point out that millions of Muslims live peaceably in the United States; he said that our argument was not with Islam, but with terrorists. These distinctions grow more complex, however, when we remember that the difference here is between orthodox Islam, with its insistence on a literal faithfulness to the Qur'an and the physical violent jihad it entails, and nominal Muslims, who are not interested in any form of violence or terrorism at all, but rather exhibit the civil virtues that any society desires.
Critics should keep in mind that Western leaders are making these points, in part, both to build and to strengthen political and and military alliances with government leaders throughout the Muslim world who are willing to side with Western governments against the Radicals.
Cultural understanding becomes all the more complex with mixed with diplomatic agendas. Discussions of these complex interactions between religions, cultures, societies and government are necessary, while at the same time frustrating: they will, of necessity, raise more questions than they answer:
While it is certainly accurate to say that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful people, is it also true that Islam itself is an intrinsically peaceful religion? In other words, are Muslim and Western leaders accurate in asserting that Islam is a religion of peace, not a religion that calls for jihad against the infidels? Are Radicals, in fact, "hijacking" Islam and in the process "smearing" its good name? If so, how can the Radicals claim that "Islam is the answer, and jihad is the way" if there is no basis for their beliefs in the Qur'an, the guidbook for all Muslims?
The world will probably be watching the interaction between peaceful, moderate, nominal Muslims and orthodox, violent, radical Muslims for decades to come.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Moderates vs. Radicals

Although the attacks on September 11, 2001 brought a new intensity to the study of Islam, the world's attention had already long been directed to the political impact of radical Muslims: the 1972 attack on the Munich Olympics and the 1979 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iran being merely two of many examples.

One question lingers: what about the moderates? We know that there are many peaceful and friendly people in America who call themselves Muslims - people who would never dream of attacking or killing. We know that a moderate form of Islam exists in the United States. But what about in the Middle East? Is there a chance that moderates live in places like Saudi Arabia or Iran?

Joel Rosenberg, from Syracuse University, offers evidence that moderates exist, even in the Middle East:

A ferocious battle is raging for the heart and soul of the Muslim world.

One side is the theology of the Radicals, which as we have seen teachers that true Islam requires violent men to wage violent jihad against apostates and infidels in the name of Allah.

On the other side is the theology of the Reformers, which teaches that true Islam is a religion of peace, that the Qur'an is a book of peace, and that the Radicals are perverting Islam to their own fascist, power-hungry ends.

Do we believe Rosenberg? Is there a chance that moderate Muslims exist, not only in America, but also in the Middle East? Are there individuals and groups willing to depart from the militant heritage of Islamic traditions? And if they do exist there, are there enough of them to make a political difference?

The world will spend a few years pondering these questions; we don't know the answers yet, but those answers will influence the lives of millions, for good or for evil. We know that there are moderate Muslims in America. Let us hope that they exist elsewhere, and in large number.