Aug 6th 2009 | CAIRO
The Economist Time, London
In an ideological contest between radicals, populists and moderates, speaking out can still carry a heavy personal cost.
WHICH trend will prevail among the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims—violent confrontation or peaceful coexistence? Will Islam aspire to political power, or will more mystical or pietistic versions of the religion win out? People whose job is to wrestle with those questions, be they theologians or strategists, always keep a close eye on Egypt: the home of Sunni Islam’s greatest university, al-Azhar, and the country where political Islam, in many different forms, was incubated.
And the good news, from Islam-watchers in Egypt, is that the appeal of the most violent kind of Islamist radicalism has been waning for some time. That decline is also noticeable in many neighbouring countries—and indeed in most Muslim places, apart from bloodstained peripheries like Pakistan’s Swat Valley.
It is not just Osama bin Laden who has been holed up in remote exile. His ideology of global jihad has also retreated. Stung by public disgust with nihilist terror, and seeing the radicals’ failure to consolidate tangible gains, some prominent preachers of endless jihad have repented their ways.
Jihadist ideology has also been facing what may prove to be bigger threats than those posed by military setbacks or defections. Clerics from the broader ideological mainstream of Islam, where most Muslims put themselves, are condemning nihilist extremism with greater boldness.
Also, at the opposite end of the spectrum, there are Muslim doubters, revisionists and reformers, who have had to mute their voices for fear of being branded apostates. Some of them are again speaking out, though it still takes a lot of courage.
If ultra-radicals are in retreat, and bold moderates are finding their voice, that reflects several converging factors. There is a fading of the anxiety, which reached a peak under the Bush administration, that Islam itself was the target of a concerted Western campaign. Barack Obama’s outreaches to Muslims, and America’s intent to withdraw from Iraq, have reduced the pressure on clerics to posture as tough defenders of the faith who excuse jihadism. Also, the spread of freer media in some places has emboldened modernisers and exposed a wider public to their thinking.
The strongest recent critique of global jihadism has come from a figure who is himself controversial in the West: Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an 82-year-old Egyptian who lives in Qatar, and a familiar figure, through his broadcasts, to Muslims across the world. He is a canny, theologically conservative populist, whose scathing references to Jews and homosexuals have made him persona non grata in America and, as of 2008, Britain.
The range of reactions that Mr Qaradawi evokes is vast. At a meeting of Muslim scholars in Istanbul last month, he was idolised, outshining establishment figures from several countries. People queued to have their photographs taken with him and gushed with delight when he regaled them with songs during a boat trip. But for sceptical Western observers of Islam, his justification of suicide attacks in Israel makes him an odious figure.
The author of scores of books, the sponsor of a popular Islamist website, and the star of religious programming on the Arabic-language al-Jazeera satellite channel, Mr Qaradawi takes full advantage of his scholarly stature and his bully pulpit.
In a hefty new book, titled “The Jurisprudence of Jihad”, Mr Qaradawi restates his belief in the right of Muslims to resist “aggression”, and “foreign occupation”. But he castigates al-Qaeda’s notion of global jihad as “a mad declaration of war on the world” that seeks to “drive believers shackled towards paradise”. Repeating his call for a “middle path”, away from either defeatism or destructive zeal, Mr Qaradawi suggests that the best arena for today’s jihad may be the “realm of ideas, media and communication.”
Within Islam, these are not new positions: most mainstream clerics blasted the 9/11 attacks, even as they praised “resistance” in Iraq, Palestine and other conflicts seen as pitting Muslims against alien invaders. But coming from Mr Qaradawi, they put a seal of orthodoxy on the rejection by many ordinary Muslims of all-out worldwide jihadism. Guerrillas inspired by al-Qaeda may fight on in the wilds of Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and Algeria, but in the slums and universities that once supplied fodder for jihad, fashions are trending elsewhere.
For some Muslims, the rejection of global jihad has led to a more individualistic, pacifist fundamentalism that emphasises “Islamic” behaviour in everyday life. But personal piety has been growing for a generation, and some are jaded by it; they are looking for new ideas.
Significant, in this light, is the recent award by Egypt’s culture ministry of a prize to one of the country’s most combative secularist writers, Sayed al-Qimani. The Egyptian authorities would hardly have dared to offer such a prize a decade ago. Beleaguered then by Islamists and a tide of public piety, the ostensibly secular government was prone to posing as a defender of orthodoxy. Book bannings, charges of blasphemy, and death threats against secularists (one of which, against the writer Farag Foda, was carried out by Islamist militants in 1992) all served to silence criticism of the conservative line.
Globalvoicesonline.org Qimani, eyes nervously on the prize
Mr Qimani, the pugnacious son of a provincial cleric, has himself been subjected to death threats, to the point where, fearing for his safety, he publicly repented of his purported sins in 2005, and abandoned writing for some years. Several of his dozen books, most of which are daringly revisionist accounts of early Islamic history, have been banned at al-Azhar’s orders, despite Mr Qimani’s protests that he remains a believer, albeit of a relatively non-doctrinaire sort.
Predictably, the prize has left Islamists fuming, with several filing lawsuits demanding that it be rescinded. Mr Qimani says his life is once again in danger, after a chorus of denunciations from several different strands of Egyptian Islam, ranging from establishment clergy to radical ones.
Such threats have worked in the past, most notoriously in the case of Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, a Koranic scholar who fled Egypt after a court decreed him divorced from his wife, on grounds that his revisionist views rendered him an apostate, and therefore ineligible to be married to a Muslim woman. Yet so far the government has stood unusually firm on Mr Qimani’s side, partly because intellectuals have rallied to his defence, but perhaps also in a sign that it senses growing public impatience with the Islamists’ cries of blasphemy. More unusually still, Mr Qimani has been invited to air his views on television, including on one programme where he challenged any cleric to an open debate. None took up the offer.
In a land where pious words saturate airwaves and canonical texts fill bookshelves, the prominence of relatively secular types like Mr Qimani marks a trend.
Their following may be tiny compared with the adulation enjoyed by Mr Qaradawi. But it may be that on his declared jihad-ground of modern communications, the preacher will be facing not infidel crusaders, but fellow Muslims who want change and refuse to be intimidated.
Source: The Economist Time, London