The free world is in dire need of texts that can mount a challenge to the Islamist ideology.
Dr. Zuhdi Jasser’s A Battle for the Soul of Islam and The Illusion of the Islamic State by several Indonesian authors, including former President Abdurrahman Wahid, are unused weapons in the ideological battle. Western governments, interfaith groups and activists should use these books to guide their choices of Muslim partners.
The two books have different but complimentary styles. Dr. Jasser’s book tells his story, helping readers grasp the Islamist ideology and why he turned out differently. He addresses the Islamist interpretation of numerous Islamic passages. This is a book that touches you on the personal level.
The Illusion of an Islamic State is more of a policy paper than a book. It is the end product of a study where 27 academics traveled across Indonesia and interviewed nearly 600 extremists in order to define the motivations, strategies and weaknesses of Islamists. The authors’ stated goal is to confront the Muslim Brotherhood, Wahhabism and Hizb ut-Tahrir and turn Indonesia into an ideological launching pad against them.
One of the contributors leads Nahdlatul Ulama, a 40-million-strong organization founded in 1926 in response to the Wahhabist conquest of Mecca and Medina. Another author led Muhammadiyah, another anti-Islamist group with 30 million members.
The book, published in Indonesia in May 2009, but has had a tremendous impact. The project was funded by a single American donor and a Swedish government grant. The Gulf governments, in contrast, spend billions promoting Islamism.
The success of The Illusion of an Islamic State is frustrating in a way. If a relatively small expense could do so much good, then what would happen if real money and support was put behind it?
The authors lament that they lack the resources to turn their momentum into an organized civil society movement and are disappointed that the U.S. and other Western countries are dropping the ball.
The common theme of the two books is that sharia is meant to be a spiritual path based on an individual’s relationship with God, not a system of governance that actually stands between man and God.
Both books promote critical thinking and questioning the teachings of imams. Islamists believe only the imams are qualified to tell you what God wants for you.
From a young age, Jasser was taught to examine the texts independently as his father spoke classical Arabic and made his own translations. He was taught that imams aren’t political authorities and to be aware when their spiritual instruction crosses that line.
One major problem is the treatment of Muslims as a single entity, an obstacle Dr. Jasser partially attributes to the influence of Arab tribal culture. Muslims who speak out against those within the ummah often become outcasts, much like would happen in a tribe.
This has negative effects when it comes to security. The Fort Dix terror plot was foiled with the help of a Muslim informant working for the FBI. Instead of being celebrated, he was out-casted because, as he describes it, “For Muslims, we are all brothers, and I betrayed a brother.”
The most powerful moment for me in Dr. Jasser’s book was his story of how his family wanted to construct a mosque in Wisconsin, but public opposition stalled it. After they went to the media, the attitude changed and it was built. Rather than showcase the incident as proof that Muslims are oppressed in American society, as CAIR would, Jasser’s family marveled at how American liberties allowed them to win.
“My parents always told us that the struggle and uncertainty about Muslims were human but their victory for religious freedom was American,” he writes.
One of the barriers to Islamic reform is opposition to ijtihad, the independent interpretation of Islamic doctrine. The general consensus is that the “gates of ijtihad” were closed by 1258 A.D. when it was declared that the qualified Islamic scholars had answered all the necessary questions. New questions are to be answered through analogical reasoning.
The result is, according to Professor Ziauddin Sadar in IslamForToday.com, “three metaphysical catastrophes: the elevation of the Shari`ah to the level of the Divine, with the consequent removal of agency from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the State.”
Tunisian professor Dr. Muhamed Al-Haddad likewise writes, “Daily life has evolved radically since the last millennium, but there has been no accompanying development in mainstream Muslim legal theory.”
Middle East expert Harold Rhode argues “For the foreseeable future, the answer seems to be a resounding no” to the question of whether the gates can be reopened. However, there are Muslims arguing for the revival of ijtihad and there are Muslims who argue that they were never really closed to begin with.
Malcolm Jardine, for example, wrote a paper arguing that the belief that ijtihad has ceased “needs to be contested vigorously.” Irshad Manji has started Project Ijtihad to promote critical thinking and cites the Nawawi Foundation’s Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s paper that argues that Islam “never had a doorkeeper to close it in the first place.”
Former Islamist Tawfik Hamid reported in January 2011 that a group of 25 scholars, including some from Al-Azhar University, had called for the formal continuation of ijtihad. They listed 10 points in need of re-examination including jihad, separation of mosque and state, women’s rights and relations with non-Muslims.
It is Muslims like Dr. Jasser and the now-deceased Abdurrahman Wahid who need to be upheld and promoted. Interfaith groups would be wise to seek out those like them, rather than working with the more easily-accessible Islamists that spout their ideology and promote feelings of victimization, separatism and identity politics that undermine bridge-building.
This article was sponsored by the Institute on Religion and Democracy.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. To invite Ryan to speak please contact us.