Better understanding breeds goodwill and harmony

As we offer our hearty greetings to the members of the Muslim community in New Zealand on the occasion of Eid Al Fitr, we wish to record our sincere appreciation to the spirit of tolerance and harmony that they display in integrating into the mainstream of our society.

Amongst our Muslim brothers and sisters are lawyers, solicitors, accountants, engineers, businesspersons, traders and a host of other professionals who have done the country proud through their contributions to the economic growth and social progress.

Some of them have made New Zealand their home for several decades and like most others, early settlers in the community had to battle.

Varied faith

Like every great religion, Islam is, and has been for all but the first of its 1400 years, a varied and fractious faith. Muslims do not differ on essentials such as the oneness of God, the literalness of his word as voiced by Mohammed, or the duty to perform prayer, charity, fasting, pilgrimage and jihad, which means something like ‘struggle.’

There is not much debate over the first four of these duties, though quite a few Muslims choose to ignore them. However, the last, which embraces everything from resisting temptation to attacking Islam’s perceived enemies, is a much more contentious term.

Nearly all Muslims, almost all the time, lean to the softer meaning. They think of jihad as striving to perfect oneself, or to give hope to others by good example.

In short, they get on with their lives much like anyone else.

Jihad misinterpretation

When the faith is under threat, however, some may be inspired to go further, to fight to expel crusaders from Palestine, say, as Muslims did in the 13th century, or to kick Russians out of Afghanistan, as they did in the 1980s.

A few may go to greater extremes. Some, for example, follow the teachings of a 14th-century firebrand, Ibn Taymiyya, who stated unequivocally, “jihad against the disbelievers is the most noble of actions.”

Some of these, a tiny radical minority, may go so far as to plot carefully, and execute fearlessly, a suicidal slaughter of thousands of innocents in the name of Allah.

Yet such a calamitous misdirection of energy can occur only under certain conditions. The sense that the faith is under threat must be strong enough and widely enough perceived, to provoke real fear and anger.

Leaders, men with the charisma and credibility to warp the words of Islam’s founding texts to suit their own convictions, are needed to channel noble thoughts into ghastly deeds. There must be a pool of recruits who are so frustrated by, or so blinded to, the other options of this world that their minds remain concentrated on the next.

Logical outcomes

There must also be proper logistical underpinnings: easy access to transport, communications and information, and skill at using them.

In response to all these pressures, the outward nature of the faith has changed.

A religion that once included diverse strands of mysticism, and even of mild paganism, especially in countries like Indonesia, whither Islam was borne by traders, not conquerors, has begun to harden around a very rigid textualism.

Money, migrant labour and the pilgrimage to Mecca have spread far and wide the Saudis’ bleak desert version of Islam. To the dismay of many Muslims, this doctrine, one stripped of subtlety, nuance and compromise, is being presented as a new orthodoxy.

New preacher

This hard-edged modern Islam has produced a new kind of preacher. As the clerics of the Ottoman Empire foresaw five centuries ago when they banned printing, the spread of literacy has ended the professional scholars’ monopoly on interpreting religion.

Their hold, already undermined by their association with unpopular regimes, is further weakened by the dispersion of Muslims in small communities around the globe, communities that are often isolated among non-believers.

Amid the general dislocation, staid supporters of the older tolerant ways are often shouted down. The increasingly dominant voice is an angry one that sees Islam as a beleaguered faith, surrounded by enemies without and within.

Yet, the emotionally charged, electronically amplified tone of today’s mosque sermons still has only limited influence. Islam remains a diverse and broadly tolerant faith. A growing number of Muslims better educated than their forebears and far more exposed to alternative ways of life through television and the Internet, rather like much that is on offer.

The Reformation

They want a chance, naturally, to have a bigger share in the modern world’s material comforts. More important, many of them are attracted by the idea of individual responsibility, the notion that each person has the right to think his or her own way through life’s problems.

The Muslim world, in short, may be starting to grope its way towards its own Reformation.

At the same time, the painful experience of countries such as Iran, Algeria and Egypt has convinced many that excessive zeal is misguided. The Taliban’s blinkered atavism, for example, is abhorrent to nearly everyone else. Its destruction of ancient Buddhist monuments ten years ago was condemned by virtually every Muslim authority in the rest of the world.

In Arab countries generally, the ultra-radical fringe has seemed to be shrinking.

Misguiding leaders

Most Arab governments have long since recognised the threat it poses. Concerted and often brutal policing has decapitated most of the extreme groups. Some organisations that were once considered dangerously radical, such as Lebanon’s Shia militia, Hizbullah, have moved into the mainstream. Many other organisations that wrought havoc several years ago have renounced violence. To most Muslims, the contention of past leaders like Osama bin Laden and his followers that God has ordered Muslims to kill Americans is not only silly, but presumption bordering on heresy.

In all but a few cases, the inroads made by Islamism are reflected not in violent extremism, but in an increased religious consciousness.

Muslims today are in general more knowledgeable about their faith, more attuned to its demands, and more assertive about their identity.

But which direction does this assertiveness take? Does it tend to inward jihad, or offensive jihad? This is a question that must be settled, in the long run, by the people of the Muslim world themselves, and by their success or failure at making their societies better ones to live in.

If they succeed, there will be no place for the bin Ladens of this world.

Historically, Islam has reserved its greatest wrath not for outsiders, but for heretics.

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