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Muslims must win over Muslims
Scripps Howard News Service


August 03, 2005

I picked up my local paper the other day and read that a Muslim cleric had given sermons to 5,000 of the faithful in two services in a Denver mosque, telling them that Islam prohibits terrorism. He was underlining a fatwa - a religious ruling - made by the Fiqh Council of North America, a group of leading Islamic scholars in this country.

Terrorists, the council said, were "criminals, not martyrs," and this, it seems to me, is precisely the message and the language we need from Muslim leadership.

In the past, as a Muslim journalist has been quoted as saying, Muslim condemnations of terrorist acts have quickly been followed by a review of Western policies seen as having prompted the carnage, and so the message is mixed: The terrorists were wrong, but no more wrong than government policymakers.

"This is not just deviation, it is a culture," the Associated Press quotes an Egyptian columnist as having said of Muslim terrorism. The columnist reported that after the London bombings and the terrorist slaying of an Egyptian diplomat, the sermonizing he heard in a mosque was on another subject altogether: the horror of women wearing bathing suits.

Now we have this group in the United States refusing such evasions, while commentators in Egypt are insisting that fellow Muslims must be educated to understand once and for all that Islam absolutely forbids killing the innocent.

There is other heartening news, including a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project that says support for suicide bombers is declining sharply in the Muslim world. What seems to be dawning on Muslims, it's reported, is a central fact: The terrorists are mostly killing fellow Muslims, not just in Iraq, but in such places as Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Yet along with such hope-inspiring responses to the murders committed in the name of Islam is the confounding news out of Britain about a poll showing that 6 percent of the nation's 1.6 million Muslims thought the recent killings of their fellow countrymen justified and about a quarter sympathized with the motives of the killers. The poll of 500, which has attracted much comment, also found that one-third thought Muslims should work to bring decadent Western society to its proper conclusion: eradication.

What are we to make of these seeming contradictions?

We can start with those students of Islamic terrorism who instruct us - correctly, I think - that the terrorists represent a fascist faction within Islam that wants to establish one huge, world-dominating Islamic nation under unbending, medieval Islamic law. The vast majority of Muslims, we have good reason to believe, do not share this ideology or Osama bin Laden's view that it's the duty of every Muslim to kill as many Americans as possible.

But, as one learned student of Islam has stressed, large numbers of even non-terrorist Muslims feel the humiliation of the Islamic world's lost greatness, the steep decline beginning more than 700 years ago from its extraordinary poetic, intellectual and military achievements. And many Arab Muslims feel the humiliation of losing wars to Israel and the United States in modern times. There is also the immutable reality that Muslims are products of a civilization vastly different from that of the West.

As the scholar Samuel Huntington pointed out in a 1993 essay later expanded into a book, "Clash of Civilizations," the differences between civilizations are fundamental, including different ideas about God, individuality, family relations, authority and more. These are differences that trace their origins back many centuries, he notes, and won't go away soon. The "clash" he fears may not be inevitable, at least in a broad sense, but we can surely grant this much: A great many within the Muslim civilization will be more inclined to sympathize with a fanatical group of other Muslims than with victims who belong to a civilization that in a variety of crucial respects is antithetical to theirs.

The reasonable enough hope has to be that out of self-interest, repulsion at the murders of civilians in Iraq and other Muslim countries and enlightened convictions about the meaning of Islam, Muslim leaders can awaken the slumbering among their 1 billion-plus co-religionists to the evil of terrorism.

If they do not, we in the West have a difficult century or two ahead, if we get that far. We can and must defend ourselves, but given the nature of terrorism - how even a few can wreak so much calamity - we need Muslims to win the hearts and minds of Muslims.


Jay Ambrose, formerly director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and editor of dailies in Denver and El Paso, Texas, is a columnist living in Colorado.
He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)

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