Arab World: An emerging moderate Islam?

Arab world upheaval may soon determine whether Islam is a religion like all other creeds, or will continue to regard the rest of the world as inferior.

Koran 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Koran 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the questions looming in the wake of the current upheavals in the Arab world is the status and role of the Islamic movements in the involved countries, and what kind of role they might assume in the materializing new realities. With religious freedom having been kept under tight control by Bashar Assad’s and Hosni Mubarak’s regimes, Muslim movements are now slowly beginning to raise their heads – first and foremost in Egypt.
Is the West’s fear of radical Islam taking over parts of the Middle East founded? Might there be a hope for moderate Muslim movements to take the fore in the new constellations? Different perspectives on the region and Islam appear to result in different approaches.
“Would you consider the Muslim Brotherhood extreme?” challenged the head of Haifa University’s Jewish- Arab Center, Prof. Yitzhak Weismann, an expert on radical Islam and Islamic movements.
“You must differentiate between Islamic movements, most of which are peaceful, and only the minority promote the dissemination of Islam Dawah,” or hold proselytization as the most fundamental religious command, he said.
The situation is not different within Israel, Weismann noted, where one can see the difference between the northern and southern factions of the Islamic Movement – the southerners recognize the State of Israel and talk of peace, while the northerners will have none of that.
“Our problem is that even those considered moderate in the Arab world are hostile to Israel and Zionism,” he continued.
“These movements have many names. As far as the moderate groups go, the bulk of them are the Muslim Brotherhood. There are more radical groups, such as the Salafis, which can be compared to Jewish haredim, with the Brotherhood being more similar to the national-religious Jews. Among the Salafis you can find jihadist groups, such as al-Qaida,” he noted.
“Radical factions did, however, stem from the Muslim Brotherhood, such as Hamas, which during the first intifada in 1987 underwent a switch to violence. But also more moderate movements came from the Brotherhood, such as the Wasatia, which developed in Egypt and includes not only Muslims, but also Copts and Christians,” Weismann went on.
“The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries is the power of the people, and a very important element,” he added. “They are more hostile toward Israel than some of the secular forces at work.”
At the same time, Weismann said, “one needn’t be pessimistic. This doesn’t mean that if the Muslim Brotherhood takes control in Egypt, they will cancel the peace agreements with Israel. There is still realpolitik, other considerations to take into account. When you are in the opposition, you can say what you want.”
WHILE IN Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is a movement of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in Syria it was brutally crushed by Hafez Assad 1982, when he massacred thousands of Sunni Muslims in the city of Hama, Weissman said. Their Syrian leadership remains in exile. In Jordan, for instance, the movement is more prominent and maintains good relations with the current and former monarchs. While they criticized the peace accord with Israel, they never went as far as making it a casus belli.
“These religious groups did not initiate the movement to democracy in the Arab world, but eventually jumped on the bandwagon when it became clear where the wind was blowing,” he said. “In some states – certainly Egypt – they are a force to be reckoned with.”
But to Prof. Joseph Ben-Dak, one cannot really consider moderate Islam a dominant force in the Arab world.
Ben-Dak, a Galilee-based sociologist and expert on Islam, terror and applying social sciences and business management to sustainable society, spent many years traveling Muslim and Arab countries, first and foremost in his capacity as the UN’s top official in science and technology from 1991 to 1999.
“I don’t think that nowadays there is a moderate Islamic movement, excepting the Wasatia, which doesn’t have significant sway, due in part to the fear of being considered heretics,” Ben-Dak said of the Muslim movement promoting centrism and moderation in religion. The Egyptian branch of the Wasatia movement, he noted as an example, was nowhere to be seen in public life during Mubarak’s reign.
“Islamic theses like the Wasatia haven’t become established in any part of the Middle East,” Ben-Dak said. “People who used terms like ‘moderation’ – such as [late Egyptian author] Naguib Mahfouz and Muhammad Abduh [the Egyptian scholar considered the founder of Islamic Modernism] – were intellectuals rather than religious leaders, who dealt with modernizing their society. They were not talking about Islam. And even if they used religious terms in their discourse, it is primarily a result of their background and upbringing.”
Ben-Dak added that “there is a slightly more moderate Muslim theology in existence, active, but in a silent way. I wouldn’t say that they have great influence. There has always been a tradition of extreme Islam, such as the Salafi movement that regards any infidel as less worthy and refuses to accept the notion of regarding them as equal in religious rights or close to coreligionists.”
Ben-Dak, who has been active for years in interfaith dialogue forums with Muslims and Christians from around the world, pointed out that Muslims from different regions do not necessarily agree on what is the most authentic representation of their religion.
“One must keep in mind that Arab Islam is considered in other parts of the Muslim world as problematic, at times even to the extent of Middle Eastern Arabs [being] regarded as straying from the true way of the faith,” he said.
Ben-Dak noted that while the religious movements were not behind the current uprisings in the Arab world, “they are waiting for the opportunity to take control and establish a Muslim rule. In Egypt, they now have to deal with the military. But there are already many cracks in the regime there, and the Muslim movements are seeking to expand them.”
According to Ben-Dak, “the main problem will arrive at the second stage [of the regime changes in the Arab world], when Islam for the first time ever will have to decide whether it is a religion like all other creeds, or continue regarding the rest of the world as inferior.”
This issue “will face the Sunni majority in Syria soonest, who, if they come to power, will face the choice of leading a modern democracy, or crushing those who are different – the Alawite minority that currently rules the country – and doing to them ‘what they deserve,’” he said.
“Will the Muslim religion enable its believers to support, help and invest in other practitioners as equals? Until that does happen, one cannot talk about moderate Islam,” he continued. “Allowing the development of creating a universe of action and understanding between and among non-coreligionists is an imperative criterion for worthy moderation.
It exists in the work of innovators like the Imam Halima Kraussen” – a religious woman Muslim leader in Western Europe – “or Prof. Muhammad Dajani in Jerusalem, but islands of outstanding integrity do not yet make it a true working reality of a good and healthy outlook for humanity.”
Ben-Dak noted that such a movement toward a moderate Islamic rule could be seen to a certain extent in countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
“But Middle Eastern Islam is different – there are many questions of Arab nationalism involved, while the Far East Islam can be more universal,” he said.