WSJ:Islam's Other Radicals

The Wall Street Journal

By Bret Stephens

Islam's Other Radicals

March 6, 2007; Page A18

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- At this landmark Summit on Secular Islam,
there are no "moderate" Muslims.

There are ex-Muslims: People like Ibn Warraq, author of "Why I Am Not
a Muslim," who doesn't want an Islamic Reformation so much as he does
a Muslim Enlightenment. There are ex-jihadists: people like Tawfik
Hamid, who, as a young medical student in Cairo, briefly enlisted in
the Gamaa Islamiya terrorist group and who remembers being preached to
by a mesmerizing doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri.

There are Muslim runaways: People like Afshin Ellian, who in 1983 fled
Iran -- and the threat of execution -- on camelback and is now a
professor of law at the University of Leiden in Holland. (Now
threatened by European jihadists, he lives with round-the-clock police
protection.) There are experts on Islamic law: People like Hasan
Mahmoud, a native Bangladeshi who, as director of Shariah at the
Muslim Canadian Congress, was instrumental in overturning Ontario's
once-legal Shariah court last year.

There are even a few practicing Muslims here, such as Canadian author
Irshad Manji. Ms. Manji, whose documentary "Faith Without Fear" airs
on PBS next month, describes herself as a "radical traditionalist" and
draws a sharp distinction between Muslim moderates and reformers:
"Moderate Muslims denounce terror that's committed in the name of
Islam but they deny that religion has anything to do with it," she
says. "Reform-minded Muslims denounce terror that's committed in the
name of Islam and acknowledge that our religion is used to inspire

The difference is not trivial. For more than five years, the Bush
administration has been attempting to enlist the support of the so-
called moderates in the war on terror -- its definition of "moderate"
being remarkably elastic, to put it charitably. To take one example,
administration emissary Karen Hughes has "reached out" to such figures
as Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, head of al-Azhar theological
university in Cairo, with whom she had a "wonderful meeting" in
September 2005.

Sheikh Tantawi, adept at talking out of both sides of his mouth, had
earlier approved a fatwa calling on the Iraqi people to "defend
itself, its land, and its homeland [against the U.S. invasion] with
all means of defense at its disposal, because it is a jihad that is
permitted by Islamic law. . . . The gates of jihad are open until the
Day of Judgment, and he who denies this is an infidel or one who
abandons his religion."

Undersecretary Hughes is not at this summit, of course, nor is anyone
else from the State Department, nor is the U.S.-funded al-Hurra Arabic
TV station -- facts archly noted by the conferees. In the quasi-
official U.S. view, the speakers at this conference amount to an
exotic, publicity-seeking fringe group, with whom close association is
politically unwise.

Al-Jazeera, however, is here, suggesting that the real Arab mainstream
better appreciates the broad interest the conference's speakers
attract in the Muslim world, as well as their latent power. Perhaps
this is the flip side of the appeal of extremist Islam, an indication
that what Muslims are mainly looking for are radical alternatives to
the unpalatable mush of unpopular autocratic governments, state-
approved clerics like Sheikh Tantawi, and Saudi-funded "mainstream"
organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Radicalism, at least of a kind, is certainly what this summit provides
via Wafa Sultan. Dr. Sultan, a Syrian-born psychiatrist now living in
the U.S., came to widespread public attention last year after she
debated a Sunni cleric on al-Jazeera. "Only Muslims defend their
beliefs by burning down churches," she observed. The televised clip,
translated by Memri, has been downloaded on YouTube more than a
million times.

Dr. Sultan, whose outspokenness has forced her and her family into
hiding, is here to receive an award from the Center for Inquiry, the
summit's organizer and lead funder. She accepts it by saying: "I don't
believe there is any difference between radical Islam and regular

The view is shared by some, though by no means all, of the conferees.
"Salafists cannot imagine Islam without the killing of apostates,"
says Dr. Hamid, who also now lives in hiding. "To them, the religion
is a house of cards: Remove one element, and the whole structure
collapses." Another conferee subscribes to the Salafist logic, though
he dissents from the religion as a whole. "Truth is," he admits, "to
be a Muslim democrat you have to be a bad Muslim."

In this view, the baggage of Shariah and hadith -- the traditions in
which some of the most violent Islamic injunctions are to be found --
are as central to Islam as the Quran itself. Hasan Mahmoud disagrees.
"Most Muslims don't even know what the Shariah laws are," he says.
"The moment you actually show them what the laws are, they can
understand they're unjust." Mr. Mahmoud illustrates the point by
observing that, under Shariah, a husband does not require a witness to
divorce his wife. "But the Quran says that if you want to divorce your
wife, you need two witnesses. With Muslims, this kind of thing works

Mr. Mahmoud spreads his gospel partly by way of cheaply produced DVDs,
which seems pretty crude until one recalls that Ayatollah Khomeini,
during his exile in Paris, spread the gospel of Islamic revolution by
way of audiocassettes. Other conferees also have their Web sites:
Alamgir Hussain, from Singapore, has; Banafsheh Zand-
Bonazzi, the conference's moving spirit, puts out;
other conferees write for and so on. These
are the "frugal chariots," to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson,
that bear the Muslim reformer's soul.

A fair bit of U.S. government money is being spent on conference
security, including from the FBI. Still, it's remarkable that the
government, given the huge resources available from places like the
National Endowment for Democracy, provides no funding or support for
this conference or its various participants.

Here are two questions for the government: If Mr. Warraq, Dr. Sultan
et al. are really irrelevant to the larger Muslim debate, why are the
jihadists so eager to kill them? And if the jihadists want to kill
them, don't they deserve support as well as security?

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Bret Stephens is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial
board. He joined the Journal in New York in 1998 as a features editor
and moved to Brussels the following year to work as an editorial
writer for the paper's European edition. In 2002, Mr. Stephens, then
28, became editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, where he was
responsible for its news, editorial, electronic and international
divisions, and where he also wrote a weekly column. He returned to his
present position in late 2004 and was named a Young Global Leader by
the World Economic Forum the following year.
Mr. Stephens was raised in Mexico City and educated at the University
of Chicago and the London School of Economics. He lives with his
family in New York City.


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