Though many believe that reactionary Islam is at war with “Western” values of tolerance and human rights — not without reason, of course — it’s also true that there is a serious battle going on within Islam between modernist, moderate Muslims and anti-modern, anti-human rights extremists. Salam al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, eloquently explores that battle:
By now we know well the opposing worldviews that characterize our struggle with extremists. The latter promote the cult of death, whereas we—the mainstream—promote the theology of life. They believe that only they know the will of God, which they can impose on people, whereas we believe that the will of God is represented by the will of the people. They believe Sharia is limited to draconian punishments to terrorize people, whereas we believe Sharia is the path to God—one defined by different groups that adhere to justice, mercy and compassion. They believe grievances are irreversible facts that should be fuel for political violence, whereas we believe grievances can be redressed non-violently, and in partnership with others who, like us, respect human dignity. They believe that recruiting young people to serve as their warriors will be their unending revitalization, whereas we believe that the mission of Islam is entrusting Muslim youth to be ambassadors of good will and future leaders.
Islamic thinkers have pushed back against extremists for years. Fathi Osman, an Egyptian and Islamic scholar who died on September 11, 2010, wrote about human rights as the fulcrum of Sharia in the 1960s. He also raised the concern that Muslim extremism was an immediate threat to Muslims. In this way he rebutted the confrontational ideology of Sayyid Qutb, who was radicalized after years of torture under the Nasser dictatorship in Egypt. Dr. Maher Hathout, a colleague of Dr. Osman and a leading American Muslim spokesperson, likewise said, with pithiness: “We are determined to win the ideological battle to discredit and isolate the extremist voices.”…As American Muslims, we can work in a united front with other Americans in leading our country out of the abyss of terrorism. We need the American public to realize our role. That realization will enhance our security, for it will make the mainstream relevant and the extremists irrelevant. Irrelevance is the nightmare scenario of any extremist group. But the mainstream’s relevance is our hope for victory.
As atheists and secularists, we should be firmly on the side of the moderates and modernists. Sure, we’d prefer that they give up their religion entirely, but so what? It is far better, in nearly every imaginable way, that Muslims opt for this more humane and decent form of Islam than that they opt for the Bin Laden version. As the old saying goes, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good.
The Muslim Public Affairs Council should get more attention. I know Haris Tarin, one of the MPAC’s high-ranking officials, and he is an incredibly thoughtful and decent man who is absolutely committed to fighting for equality and human rights. I don’t care whether he believes in Allah or not, he’s on my team.