Article for the Cape Times
by Jaamiah Galant
August 2005

How do progressive Muslim scholars today respond to the onslaught on Islam? Are they limited to making those in the West feel more at ease with the masses of Muslims living amongst them, by showing for example how Islamic teachings incorporate the highly valued Western ideals of democracy and human rights? Are these scholars suggesting, in turn, that Muslims should seek to assimilate themselves into Western societies? Can the progressive Muslim intellectual respond in defence of Islam, and at the same time be critical of a Western worldview that perpetuates inequality in its pursuit of global capitalism? What perspectives can progressive Muslim scholars provide on the actions of suicide bombers that go beyond joining voices in the West to condemn them?

These are questions raised in the wake of New York 9/11, and now London 7/7, and the perpetrators have again been identified as Muslims, or rather, 'fundamentalist' and 'extremist' Muslims. And so we have in this aftermath, responses from the 'non-extremist' and progressive Muslims, who feel renewed pressure to defend and justify their faith, to declare Islam a religion of peace, and to condemn the actions of suicide bombers as contrary to the teachings of Islam.

For example, on July 26 2005 the Fiqh Council of North America, supported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), issued a fatwa (religious decree) which stated: "There is no justification in Islam for extremism or terrorism. Targeting civilians' life and property through suicide bombings or any other method of attack is haram - prohibited in Islam - and those who commit these barbaric acts are criminals, not 'martyrs'". This fatwa follows a similar one issued by the Muslim Council of Britain endorsed by 500 Imams, and that of Shaykh Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi of Egypt and Shaykh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais of Saudi Arabia.

One can understand why it is necessary for Muslims to be heard to distance themselves from such acts of terror, because of course we know that not all Muslims are potential suicide bombers, and there are millions of Muslims living in Western societies, especially in North America, Britain and Europe, who want to continue to live peaceful lives as 'ordinary' citizens in those countries.

And yet, Muslims who are at pains to present Islam as a faith that is peaceful and tolerant, and compatible with the values of democracy and human rights, still have to explain the fact that the suicide bombers and their supporters also claim to draw 'courage' for their actions from Islam. They could argue that fundamentalism is not unique to Islam, and that all religions experience the conflict of different groups who provide alternative interpretations of religious texts to support their extreme or moderate positions.

But the current global context poses a particular challenge, because it is not just about Muslims debating these interpretations amongst themselves. It is about Western interpretations and perceptions of Islam, where Islam is increasingly personified by the face and voice of extremist Muslims. And it is the quieter moderate and progressive Muslims who feel compelled to defend Islam to the West.

If progressive Muslims claim that Islamic teachings incorporate the concepts of democracy and human rights, why is it that these concepts are seldom articulated from within Islamic discourses? Does Islam not provide a very particular perspective on these issues that might well provide an understanding and interpretation of them that contrasts with Western discourses?

The next Harold Wolpe Memorial Trust forum meeting will host Professor Farid Esack, who poses challenges for progressive Muslim intellectuals in his talk: "Human rights, Muslims, and the war on terror'". Farid is a South African Muslim theologian who is currently the Besl Professor in Ethics, Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati. He has taught in universities locally and abroad, and has published on Islam, gender and liberation theology, amongst others. The talk will be held from 6pm - 7.30pm on Thursday, 18 August 2005, at the LS 3b Leslie Social Sciences Building, Upper Campus, University of Cape Town. Drinks and snacks will be served afterwards. RSVP [email protected] or 021 424 7543.

Jaamiah Galant is a social researcher and writes in her personal capacity.