Message of the haj

The western world must learn to distinguish Islamist extremism from the rest of Islam.

kaaba 298.88 (photo credit: )
kaaba 298.88
(photo credit: )
It is sometimes difficult, especially in this part of the world, to distinguish Islam - the religion and civilization - from the threat posed by its militant adherents, the Islamists, who are at war with the West and our values of liberty, tolerance and individual freedom. This confusion is as understandable as it is counterproductive, and opponents of Muslim extremism have an interest in identifying, cultivating and promoting non-Islamist personalities inside the Muslim world. Such a strategy goes beyond ecumenical do-goodism and does not require our deluding ourselves about the extent to which the Islamists have penetrated the Muslim world. There are 1.3 billion Muslims. Seeking a modus vivendi with them is just plain common sense. We also need a better understanding of Islam. For instance, how many Westerners realize that yesterday was the first day of the haj, a pilgrimage every able-bodied believer is expected to undertake at least once in a lifetime? How many know that the other pillars of Islam are the profession of faith in Allah and the centrality of the Prophet Muhammad; praying five times a day, alms for the poor, and fasting during Ramadan? Islam is a proselytizing religion spread originally by the sword. But history shows that Muslim civilization has also embraced long periods of tolerance, during which bellicosity was replaced by civility and stability. It isn't for us to identify what "real" Islam should be. But why not listen to the several million Muslims from around the world now encircling the Ka'aba in Mecca? They are not obsessing about Jews, Christians or al-Qaida. As Salah Nasrawi, an AP reporter on the scene found, they are focused on personal salvation, repentance and prayer. "Facing the Ka'aba, Zeinab Abdouazizi of Bangladesh raised her voice... 'Oh Allah, give me health and strength so that I can raise my children and make them... good Muslims and obedient,' she said." How many Jews know that Muslims believe the Ka'aba mosque was built by Abraham (and Ishmael)? When Muslims pray daily they face this shrine, which they hold to be the first place God created on earth and where Allah's holy presence is most felt. For some pilgrims the sojourn to Mecca can be dangerous. Last week a hotel collapsed, killing at least 76. In 1990 a terrible stampede fatally trampled 1,426 worshipers. What motivates individual believers to make the arduous journey is their desire to be closer to God - a faithfulness hardly problematic for Jews or Christians. The West's war against "terrorism" is really a war against Muslim extremism and not against Islam. With every violent outrage - from New York and London to Baghdad and Jerusalem - the Islamists are struggling not just to defeat Judeo-Christian civilization but to to determine which of Islam's multitude of beliefs emerges paramount. It is for Muslims themselves to determine whether their faith, in this century, will be shaped by the likes of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and al-Qaida's fanaticism, or whether moderate views gain a hearing. For example, Khadidja Khali, president of the French and European Muslim Women's Association, has denounced Ahmadinejad as a "fraud." And Tarik Oubrou, chairman of France's Imam Association, says that the best tactical answer to fanaticism, rather than making blanket denunciations, is teaching tolerance within the Muslim community. Such voices may still be faint and their influence limited, but we ignore their positive potential to our own detriment. It is easy to be cynical, sure, when the final declaration read out at last month's Organization of the Islamic Conference in Mecca - where Ahmadinejad ranted against the Jews - concluded with the thought that Islam needs to "fight" "deviant" ideas and is a religion of "moderation" that "rejects extremism and isolation." Coming from Muslim leaders such as the Saudi king, such a platform seemed embarrassingly disingenuous. Nevertheless, we are witnessing a struggle for the soul of Islam where the "good guys" are not necessarily friends of the West, but nor are they outright enemies such as Iran. Which is why we see this haj season as a good time to remind ourselves of the need to welcome voices of reason and encourage Muslim theologians willing to engage Westerners in a spirit of mutual respect.