In Review :: Who Speaks for Islam?

Who Speaks for Islam?
What a Billion Muslims Really Think

by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed

Gallup Press, 204 pages, 2007, $22.95

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Since 9/11, voices on all sides have expressed shrill opinions about the Muslim World that Islamic sages might describe as “all fireworks and little light.” A new book contributes real data to clear away misunderstandings and challenge stereotypes. Who Speaks for Islam? summarizes a six-year Gallup study that sampled from more than 90 percent of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims in 35  countries.

A major finding: Militant extremism is created not by Islamic principles but by political orientation. In nearly every suicide bombing attack from 1980 to 2004, the primary motive was to overthrow foreign occupation, not further religious views. According to the Gallup study, 93 percent of Muslims who condemn the terrorist act of 9/11 cite the Quran. The 7 percent who consider it “completely justified” cite political grievances.

However, most Muslims are dissatisfied with Western policy toward Islamic nations. The majority, moderate or radicalized, believe the U.S. government is insincere about fostering democracy in Muslim countries and that Western policy is rooted in desire for economic and political domination.

Despite such political frustrations, the book also reveals that most Muslims, moderate and extreme, admire Western technology and democracy. They want better relations with the West, but do not want to share in what they perceive as its moral decay.

Most Muslim men and women want Sharia to be a source of legislation but do not want clerics directly involved in crafting laws. Sharia is the timeless guidance derived primarily from the Quran and Prophetic Tradition. Interpretation of Sharia constitutes Islamic law. Repressive elements of the laws, most women in the Gallup Poll emphasized, are “not Sharia compliant” and must be challenged and changed.

The overwhelming majority of women and a majority of men, even in conservative societies, favor equal rights for women. But Muslim women insist their empowerment cannot be imported and must be consistent with Islamic values. Working within this framework, they have successfully amended rape laws, gotten fatwas issued against female genital mutilation, and overturned unfair rules for women at Mecca’s Grand Mosque. They distrust Western campaigns to “rescue” them because they have often been used to justify colonialism and occupation.

The book offers both warning and hope. It cautions that diagnosing terrorism as a symptom and Islam as the problem only confirms extremists’ beliefs, alienates the moderate majority of Muslims, and reinforces perceptions that the “War on Terror” is an attack on Islam.

On a hopeful note, the book affirms that Islam does not motivate violence, and that many problems can be solved by political negotiation and greater mutual respect. For instance, Americans who know at least one Muslim are likely to view Islam positively. And Muslims say it is their responsibility to help stop terrorism.

Muslims and non-Muslims must reach out to each other. As the Quran says, God created diversity so that we might “get to know one another.”

Jamal Rahman wrote this article as part of Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Jamal is a Muslim Sufi minister at Interfaith Community Church in Seattle.

Interested? Read Abraham to Descendants: "Knock it Off, a roundtable discussion by Sarah van Gelder in which a rabbi, a minister, and an imam, brought together by 9/11 and what followed, discover new spiritual depths from their dialogue and friendship.

Photo of Jamal Rahman
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