Where's the Outrage? 

Muslim leaders offer nothing but lip service against the violence of extremists

Muslim leaders offer nothing but lip service against the violence of extremists

The sameness of the bitterly sad news from London last week—another indiscriminate, jihadist massacre, just like Madrid, just like the Tunisian synagogue, just like Nairobi and Tel Aviv and the homicide bombs every day in Iraq—made me think of just how much is different since the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

Back then, in an amazing display of national solidarity, Americans mostly rushed to embrace the Muslims of this country. The predictable (and predicted) backlash never materialized. George Bush went to a Muslim house of worship. Here in Nashville, Christians and Jews delivered messages of support to the city's major mosque.

It feels different in 2005. If there were an attack next week on an Atlanta subway or a D.C. bus or a New York tunnel, the support of 2001 would be replaced by a broader anger than before. And my fellow angry Americans would have a point.

For four years, I've defended Islam against those who view the faith itself as an implacable enemy. Citing Koranic texts about beheading infidels no more proves that Islam is not a religion of peace, I've told them, than the divinely sanctioned genocide in the Book of Joshua proves that Christianity and Judaism are not religions of peace. That Baghdad was once the world's greatest seat of scientific learning, I've told them, proves that Islam is no more incompatible with modernity than, say, Kansas. The enlightened treatment of Christian and Jewish minorities by Muslims for centuries, I've told them, should shame the Christians of the West.

But, increasingly, it feels like the Muslim world has not reciprocated. What discourages—and, to be honest, angers—me is what remains mostly unsaid from the Muslim world today. Four years after 9/11, Salman Rushdie still lives under a sentence of death for writing a few satirical lines in a book. But not a single Muslim religious leader has imposed a fatwa, not even a non-capital one, on Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist leader.

I'm waiting to hear that the word has gone out consistently from leading mosques during Friday prayers that those who perpetrate wholesale slaughter in the name of Allah are not destined for some virgin-surrounded spot in paradise but instead for eternal damnation that makes Gitmo look like Club Med. Just once, I'd like to hear that an imam who preaches violence, instead of being kidnapped by American or Italian agents, has been kicked out by fellow Muslims for infidelity to their faith.

Instead, I hear lip service to the notion that violence is wrong. But it seems to get drowned out by continuing pronouncements from Islamic religious leaders in the Mideast and Europe denouncing the evil, Zionist West. Two years ago, the imam of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, an appointee of the Saudi government, denounced all Jews as "monkeys and pigs who should be annihilated." Yet this same cancerous fanatic was welcomed with open arms by the same Islamic leader in London who condemned last week's subway attacks. Sure, there are extremist Christians, too. And they get shouted down when they venture into a forum of public opinion. I hear little or no such outrage at religious hijackers from Islam today.

But I hear lots of equivocations, like "Terrorism is not Islam." It doesn't sound much more convincing than George Bush's statements about torture at Abu Ghraib: "This is not America." Really? It may not be a side of America we're proud of; it may represent only a small, wicked slice of America; but there's no getting around that it happened and we own it. Islam has to acknowledge owning terrorism.

Not long ago, my wife decided to take a free course on Islam from a local Muslim instructor. She wanted to learn more about the faith and its history. She began reading sections of the Koran through an American's culturally tolerant eyes. She enjoyed the course until the last session. As his finale, the lecturer presented what was essentially an apologia for Muslim hostility toward the West.

I saw the PowerPoint. It chronicled Western oppression from the Crusades forward. It pointed out many examples of Christian terrorists, from Timothy McVeigh to the IRA. While never sanctioning what Islamic terrorists do, it deflected attention from those acts and defensively turned the spotlight back on the objects of the attacks. It did not say what I hoped it would say: "these people are apostates, and we will help you fight them."

Even though it's terribly disturbing that so many of the recruits for suicide bombings in Iraq appear to be Westernized, European Muslims, I remain as certain as before that only a small minority of Muslims think such terrorism is justified. The vast majority want to live peacefully with the West.

Yet, when I consider what I hear and what I don't hear, I start wondering whether I've been listening too much and failing to ask hard questions—like why the Islamic response to Islamic terror seems to be so timid, especially among Muslims who live in the West and share with us the common bond of freedom.

Despite what I really believe, I inevitably find myself asking whether Islam is somehow intrinsically incompatible with the modern West. I wonder why Islam never produced a Palestinian Gandhi or MLK, whose nonviolent resistance would have brought about a Palestinian state years ago.

I know that many Muslims fear that speaking out against the extremists could place them at risk—especially in European societies where, unlike the U.S., there is no shortage of extremists. Even non-Muslim critics in Europe must take care, lest they wind up like filmmaker Theo van Gogh, with his throat ritually cut like a slaughtered animal.

Part of the problem, too, is that the Koran is only beginning to undergo the kind of textual scrutiny to which Christian and Jewish scholars have subjected the Bible for the past 250 years. Some Koranic scholars, for example, suggest that the infamous passage promising scores of virgins for martyrs has been badly mistranslated. It goes without saying that none of this scholarly work is happening within the Muslim world itself, where it would be denounced as blasphemy. Eventually, though perhaps not in the foreseeable future, Islamic scholars will help Muslims reinterpret the bloodier verses of the Koran in the same way that Christians and Jews no longer take literally the Bible's passages that call for putting disrespectful children to death.

In the end, though, neither of these reasons for the Muslim predicament is an excuse for Muslim inaction.

Four years and so many deaths after 9/11, one thing about Islamic terror should be clear. It is not going to end unless Muslims themselves take a leading role in stopping it. We cannot take back their religion for them. The overwhelming majority who detest it will have to drive out the real infidels who are trying to pervert their faith. They will have to wage a real jihad, in the original, "inner struggle" sense of the term.

It will be dangerous for them to act. But the alternative is even more dangerous, for all of us. If they don't root out the terrorists, Western societies will react—crudely, prejudicially but inevitably.

For those remaining in the Muslim world, access to the West will disappear. Muslims here will become marginalized, viewed not just with suspicion but hostility. In Europe, with so many more Muslims already living in relative poverty and on the margins, the backlash will be even more severe. And the civilizational conflict that Osama bin Laden craves, and that most other Muslims oppose, will surely come to pass.


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