Can the West help strengthen moderate Islam?

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Thomas Friedman describes for us the political implications of our clash with Muslim countries. As only he can, Friedman identifies the complicated geopolitical issues that make our fight against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda so difficult. He notes three major obstacles to the development of a reformed Islam that could live peacefully with the West.

The first difficulty involves U.S. ties to Saudi Arabia, and our unwillingness to confront their puritanical form of Islam because of our addiction to oil. Perhaps that may be changing. At any rate Saudi Arabia has promoted a very anti-pluralistic, anti-women version of Islam, because jihadists took over Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca in 1979 and has pushed the country’s leaders in that direction.

A second problem is that the ongoing civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has caused many mainstream Sunni charities to support jihadists because of their successful fighting against Shiites. Finally, there has been a sixty-year alliance between clerics and Arab dictators which has essentially prevented any reform efforts to Islam even though many Muslims have favored reform.

Friedman also points out that there are many forms of Islam today, because there is no single religious authority in Islam, as for example the Vatican. There is a big divide within the Muslim community today over what constitutes authentic Islam. Who are Westerners then to say that this or that is what Islam actually is or should be?

One of the comments on my earlier post on Islam made the point that based on the historical record it is probably not a good idea for the pope to get involved in telling Muslims what to do. I think that is an important point and I’m pretty sure Francis is not going to be sitting down to break bread with the leaders of the Islamic State or Al Qaeda any time soon. I think there are still important ways in which the pope and indeed Christians can make meaningful contributions to strengthening moderate Islam.

There are many moderate Muslims who would be more than willing and who indeed have met with Francis to work together to address the problem of radical Muslims. In fact, a joint declaration was just made with the Vatican and four prominent French imams condemning the violence but insisting that the media must respect the religion of others.

Another reader made the point that moderate Muslims who often live next to extremists fear raising their voices against other Muslims. I believe that reinforces the need for Muslims and non-Muslims to work together to overcome the dominant force that the jihadists have become.

So again I pose the question. What can the West do to make the situation better? Thomas Friedman says that Muslims need to work this problem out for themselves. Yet his column essentially demonstrates just how difficult it will be for them to work it out on their own. I agree with Francis that as an initial step we need to respect the religion of others. Although I support free speech, like Francis, I say there are limits. If your friend tells you he doesn’t like to be called by a certain name, you stop using that name or nickname. If you meet someone and they ask you to call them by a specific name you honor that wish. If Islam asks you not to draw pictures of their prophet why wouldn’t you honor such a request?

I love satire and believe we learn a great deal by being able to make fun of each other. However, is harsh and offensive satire that is hurtful to others really preferable to a more gentle satire that reminds us of some of our foibles and failings? Remember, it is not just the terrorists who find these drawings offensive.

Being offensive may sell more newspapers, but is it worth it in the current context? I suspect that a satirical newspaper like Charlie Hebdo could still produce a powerful message without drawing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed.

Beyond respecting Islam, we also need to make a clear distinction between terrorists and moderate Muslims. We need to acknowledge moderate Muslims in our own country. We certainly don’t change the face of Islam through discrimination and alienation of ordinary Muslims living in our midst. Finally, we need to work together with interested Muslims, promoting interfaith activities and genuine friendships among our young people. We need to simply ask our moderate Muslim friends how we can further the goal of friendship and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and the West. It will assuredly not happen overnight but it can and indeed must happen.

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