Monday, April 09, 2007

A Model of Muslim Tolerance

Bret Stephens, WSJ, has an enlightening interview with the former president of Indonesia, who offers another approach to Islam, "A Model of Muslim Tolerance". Mr. Wahid studied in Egypt, at Al-Azhar, the preeminent Islamic institution there, (which was instrumental in the recent jailing of one of its students) and Iraq:
These old sheikhs only let me study Islam's traditional surras in the old way, which was rote memorization," he recalls, speaking in the excellent English he learned as a young man listening to the BBC and Voice of America. "Before long I was fed up. So I spent my time reading books from the USIS [United States Information Service], the Egyptian National Library, and at the cinema. I used to watch three, four movies a day."

As Mr. Wahid saw it, the basic problem with Al-Azhar was that the state interfered in its affairs and demanded intellectual conformity--a lesson he carries with him to the present day. In 1966 he left Cairo for Baghdad University, where he encountered much the same thing: "The teaching [suffered from] conventionalism. You were not allowed to go your own way."

Here Mr. Wahid digresses into Islamic history. "In the second century of Islam, the Imam al-Shafi'i began remodeling the religion," he says. "He put into place the mechanism of understanding everything through law [Shariah]. Now people can't talk about that anymore. We cannot attack al-Shafi'i."

Mr. Wahid is working for more tolerance within Islam to challenge the Sharia straightjacket. (here's another like-minded Muslim thinker, who warns against Sharia, and the politically correct enablers of the West.) Mr. Wahid also cautions against secularist intolerance as the other extreme:

But Mr. Wahid's critique is not just of formal Islamic education. He also attacks the West's philosophy of positivism, which, he says, "relies too much on the idea of conquering knowledge and mastering scientific principles alone." This purely empirical and essentially soulless view of things, broadly adopted by Indonesia's secular state universities, gives its students a bleak choice: "Either they follow the process or they are outside the process."

As a result, Western-style education in Indonesia has come to represent not just secularism but the negation of religion, to which too many students have responded by embracing fundamentalism. At the University of Indonesia, for example, an estimated three in four students are members or sympathizers of the "Prosperous Justice Party," or PKS, an ultra-radical Islamic party.

There are implications as well for the US. (Also here.) We need to nurture respect for individual rights of citizens, and religious freedom. Mr. Wahid sees democracy as the solution, and is working through these groups:

the Wahid Institute, run by his daughter Yenny, and Libforall, an Indonesia- and U.S.-based nonprofit run by American C. Holland Taylor.
And this last Easter weekend, there is another model of interfaith tolerance, between Chicago Christians and Muslims originally from war-torn Sudan.

UPDATE: Related article on Iran by Dr. Walid Phares, author of the new book, The War of Ideas, Jihadism vs. Democracy

UPDATE: Fighting for the Soul of Islam:

The outcome of this clash will bear directly on the course of the war on terrorism by answering the most fundamental question: Is mainstream Islam compatible with democracy and basic rights and freedoms established by international law?

While the stakes of this struggle are enormously high, American and European efforts to make sense of it have so far proved to be inadequate. A new Rand report, only the most recent such critique, charges that the U.S. government-almost six years after 9/11-still lacks a "consistent view on who the moderates are, where the opportunities for building networks among them lie, and how best to build the networks."

And some suggestions:

Some liberal Middle East experts say that we should be asking the Islamists to be more clear on what exactly they stand for. In a policy paper, three Carnegie Endowment associates, Amr Hamzawy, Marina Ottaway, and Nathan Brown, call for clarification in six "gray zones": application of sharia, violence, political pluralism, individual freedoms, minorities, and women's rights. So, for example, engaging the Brotherhood in Egypt should mean getting clear answers on whether it supports full tolerance of Coptic Christians and on what it means by sharia-a set of general ethical principles or a narrowly restrictive code of rules and punishments.

Turkish political economist Zeyno Baran, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Eurasian Policy, supports that kind of "engagement for a purpose," but she still fears that emphasizing Islamists can further imperil the plight of moderate, secular Muslims, who are feeling squeezed from every direction. "

UPDATE: Madrassa parents in Pakistan voice concerns over their girls' education. And in Saudi Arabia, women can now go to law school. But will they be able to help Saudi women stuck in legal limbo anytime soon? WSJ:

It can't change soon enough for Fatima Mansour. While the young law students in Riyadh live their dream, Ms. Mansour sits in jail in the city of Dammam with her 1-year-old son, caught in a Saudi Catch-22.

After her father died a few years ago, Ms. Mansour's half-brothers declared themselves her guardians, even though she was married. They accused her husband of lying to the family about his tribal background before the marriage. As her guardians, they took her to Islamic court and persuaded a judge to force her to divorce her husband.

He has the couple's other child, a 4-year-old daughter, and Ms. Mansour wants to rejoin him. But to do so, now that they have been divorced, would make her guilty of adultery, a grievous crime here. She refuses to go back to the home occupied by the half-brothers who ended her marriage, and there is no other place for the court to send a woman for her protection. So even though there are no charges against the 33-year-old Ms. Mansour, she waits in jail, caught in a system that seems to offer her no escape other than going to her half-brothers, who she fears might kill her.

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