For Islam's fanatical 1%, devotion to violence stands on two legs: radical culture and injustice
By MUHAMMAD HABASH
From the Bangkok Post
dominance of conservative Islam in the Middle East reflects a fundamental
reality of Muslim society. But this conservatism should not be mistaken for
violent radicalism, as America, unfortunately, has done. While conservatism may
claim a majority of the Arab street (and the Persian street), this does not mean
that violence and terrorism will inevitably rule the region. A recent study
published in Damascus by the Centre of Islamic Studies pointed out that
conservatives make up about 80% of the population of the Middle East's Islamic
Reformers make up most of the other 20%. Radicals can count on
support from no more than 1% of the population.
In my view, these rough
proportions have been stable throughout 10 centuries of Islamic history, with
Islamic terminology has been established to describe
these differences. Radicals first emerged as Khawarij, a fanatical group dating
to the first century of Islam, which used accusations of blasphemy and violence
to suppress even small differences of opinion.
Today's conservatives are
known among religious scholars as People of the Letter _ those who adhere to the
letter of the Islamic texts.
Reformists, as they are known today, are the
equivalent of People of Intellect.
The difference between Muslim
conservatives and reformists can be measured in two ways: their stance on the
possibility of making personal judgments on religious matters (known in
religious terms as diligence) and their attitude towards
Conservatives believe that the revealed law was settled
during the glorious days of Islam, and that individual interpretation should
therefore be restricted.
As a result, they do not look for new solutions
to the problems that Muslims now face.
Banks and insurance companies are
to be avoided, on the theory that their activities are usurious and thus
prohibited. Likewise, head covering for Muslim women is considered a
For conservatives, Islamic law is based on the Koran and the
verified sayings and doings (the Sunnah) of the Prophet Mohammad, as these are
unanimously viewed by respected scholars.
Thus, conservatives reject
democracy, because it subjects the will of! God to popular opinion.
them, the ultimate authority within a society is God's revelation to the
Reformists, on the other hand, argue that individual judgment
diligence is permissible, and that society is empowered to make choices based on
contemporary needs, regardless of the opinions of previous religious
Reformists also take an expansive view of religious law
(Sharia), incorporating ideas of public welfare within a continually developing
Thus, for reformists, banks and insurance companies
serve the welfare of society, and this takes precedence over a traditional
reading of religious texts.
They also adopt a liberal attitude toward
women's head covering, as well as their political participation and travel,
which should be determined individually.
Finally, reformists see no
contradiction between democracy and Islamic teaching, though democracy does
conflict with centuries of tradition governing how Muslims actually have been
As for attitudes toward non-Muslims (or non-practicing Muslims,
for that matter), conservatives believe that the coming of Islam abrogated all
other religions, while reformists believe that Islam completes other religions,
but does not invalidate or disprove them.
Conservatives draw their proofs
from the texts of the Koran, while reformists argue that the Koran mentions and
recognises both the Old and New Testaments.
In this manner, the
reformists reject an Islamic monopoly on salvation, paradise, or the truth. They
believe that the ways to God and paradise are numerous. Conservatives, by
contrast, are unyielding on this point, believing that there is but one path to
God, and that salvation comes only through following Islamic
However, conservatives do not support the use of violence
against non-Muslims. On the contrary, the jurisprudential traditions of Islamic
conservatism obligate Muslims to be just in their treatment of
Thus, conservatives and reformists agree that the rights of
others should be observed and preserved.
Although radicals represent no
more than 1% of the Muslim population, their influence is based on the widening
effects of their violence and their total rejection of compromise.
radicals totally repudiate the Other, and do not see a place for the non-Muslim
either in Heaven or on Earth. This stance sanctions the use of violence against
the Other, whether Christian, Jew, or even other Muslims who do not share their
This devotion to violence stands on two legs: radical culture
and injustice. When radical culture prevails, it brings people over to violence.
And the extremism of radical culture is fuelled by the many inequities and
grievances that face the peoples of the Middle East.
has become a breeding ground for radical Islam, owing to the brutality that the
Iraqi people suffered under Saddam and now at the hands of the occupation
But this scenario is not
limited to Muslims. Radicalism threatens any society where human dignity is lost
and human rights mean nothing.
Muhammad Habash, a
member of the Syrian Parliament, is director of the Islamic Studies Centre in
A faith that frowns on personal interpretation