On September 15-20, 2002, Hillsdale College held a seminar on the topic, "How to Think About Islam." Nine guest speakers, both Islamic and non-Islamic, and several faculty members offered divergent views on several questions: Does the radical form of Islam behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, represent true Islam? or is it an aberration? Is Islamic doctrine compatible with religious pluralism and constitutional democracy? How are we to think of Islam in the context of the war against terrorism?
The following remarks are excerpted or adapted from presentations at this seminar.
The microcosm of America that was destroyed on September 11—people of all races, ethnicities and religions—is everything the extremists abhor: men and women, working side by side as equals; Muslims, Christians, Jews and Hindus, together building worldwide trade and communications. America is a symbol of what can be to millions of oppressed people all over the world. America means everything to those deprived of human rights and the rule of law. America symbolizes modernity, diversity and democracy, and it is these three things which are the fanatics’ worst fears.
At this time of continuing crisis, the American people and their leaders must understand that those who would use violence and terror in the name of Islam are heretics and hypocrites. They are criminals, not clerics. Their actions contradict the teachings of the Holy Prophet of Islam, who wrote, “Whenever the prophet of God sent forth a detachment, he said to it, ‘Do not cheat or commit treachery, nor should you mutilate or kill children, women, or old men.'” And there is a specific prohibition in Islamic law that bans killing by stealth and targeting a defenseless victim in a way intended to cause terror in a society.
It grieves me that included in the list of the victims of the perfidy of September 11 is the image of Islam across the world. Our religion is not what these people preach; in fact, it is the opposite. Islam is committed to tolerance and equality, and it is committed by Koranic definition to the principles of democracy. It is ironic that despite the strong commitment to democracy in Islam, most Muslims today are living in dictatorships. The Muslim people want freedom, and they need support in their search for political, economic and social empowerment. Much like the people of the communist world of the past, the Muslim people today are hostages in totalitarian regimes that flourished during the days of the Cold War.
In the West, there is often talk about the “Muslim street.” The street most often seen here on television is the street of fanaticism whipped into a frenzy. But there is another Muslim street. It is a silent street of women who suffer discrimination in every aspect of life. It is a silent street of students who are not educated. It is a silent street of businessmen and businesswomen who are not allowed to compete freely. It is a silent street of human rights activists who are jailed, political parties that are decimated, and political leaders who are either prisoners or exiles. It is the street of the people constrained by the totalitarian powers of the state. It is the street of the future in the chains of present-day intolerance, ignorance and dictatorship. And it is the street far more likely to explode than the street of the religious extremists.
As I said, in Islam, dictatorship is never condoned. Nor is cruelty. In fact, according to Islam, those who commit cruel acts are condemned to destruction. Irrespective of the ignorance reflected in the actions of fanatics, there are three key princples in Islam that point to democracy: consultation, known as shura; consensus, known as ijmaa; and independent judgement, known as ijtihad. Today the Muslim people are searching for freedoms that exist in other parts of the world. They are searching for forms of government that are representative and accountable. Just as Christians and Jews have the Bible to guide them, Muslims have the holy Koran. The Koran makes it clear that the principal operations of the democratic process—consultation between elected officials and the people and accountability of leaders to the people—are fundamental to Islam. The holy Koran says that Islamic society is contingent on mutual advice, through mutual discussions, on an equal footing. Consultation under the Koran demands that public decisions are made by representative officials. Consensus provides the basis for majority rule. And according to Muslim scholars, the legitimacy of the state depends upon the extent to which state organization and power reflect the will of the Muslim people.
Now this is the exact opposite of the fanatical, ignorant message that is spread by bin Laden, the Taliban and their allies in hate. These despots are the enemies of all civilizations. The terrorists who attacked America were not fighting for Islam. They were fighting for themselves. Their goal is to establish interlinked theocracies of ignorance that they can control for their own political ends. They are the enemies of Western principles, and they are the enemies of all humanity. In the end, they will be defeated. And, just as something more than arms defeated Communism, the terrorists will ultimately be defeated by basic and universal human nature. In the words of the former Czech president, Vaclav Havel, in his essay “The End of the Modern Era”: “Communism was not defeated by military force, but by the human spirit, by conscience, by the resistance of man to manipulation.”
Terrorism will fail unless we fall into the psychopaths’ trap. Professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard wrote of an inevitable clash of civilizations between the West and the Islamic world. Ladies and gentlemen, this clash is far from inevitable, unless we make it so.