Moderate Muslims are upset — the New York Times says so

Muslims_prayingGetReligion readers who dig into the comments pages (thank you, commentators) may have noticed that some people do not share my conviction that journalists must cover debates within Islam over the tactics — the slaughter of civilians and children, in particular — being employed by many generic “nationalists” and “rebels.”

The bottom line: Some of you simply do not believe that moderate Muslims exist or, if they do, that they have the courage to make a stand against the Islamist fanatics.

However, you must be wrong.

Why? This theme in the Beslan story is now so obvious that even the New York Times has covered it. In a John Kifner story that is painfully similar to stories written days ago in other publications, the newspaper of record has declared: “Massacre Draws Self-Criticism in Muslim Press.” It cites the much-quoted commentary by Abdel Rahman al-Rashed of the satellite television station Al Arabiya, before adding other examples of this trend. For example:

In Jordan, a group of Muslim religious figures, meeting with the religious affairs minister, Ahmed Heleil, issued a statement on Wednesday saying the seizing of the school and subsequent massacre “was dedicated to distorting the pure image of Islam.” … Writing in the Jordanian daily Ad Dustour, columnist Bater Wardam noted the propensity in the Arab world to “place responsibility for the crimes of Arabic and Muslim terrorist organizations on the Mossad, the Zionists and the American intelligence, but we all know that this is not the case.”

“They came from our midst,” he wrote of those who had kidnapped and killed civilians in Iraq, blown up commuter trains in Spain, turned airliners into bombs and shot the children in Ossetia. “They are Arabs and Muslims who pray, fast, grow beards, demand the wearing of veils and call for the defense of Islamic causes. … Therefore we must all raise our voices, disown them and oppose all these crimes.”

Meanwhile, Time magazine recently put this topic on its cover with the blunt headline, “Struggle For The Soul Of Islam.” This is a lengthy news feature package that is full of tensions and, at time, the paradoxes that show up in the daily lives of almost all believers, no matter what faith they attempt to practice.

When reading it, my find flashed back to a scene I witnessed in the Pittsburgh airport a few years ago. A Muslim family was waiting to board an airplane, in the first-class line way ahead of me. The man was in a business suit. The woman was in traditional dress. The teen-aged daughter was straight out of the local mall and the 12-ish son was a mini-Eminem, complete with cool headphones blasting rap so loud anyone nearby could hear it.

The Time cover by Bill Powell, in a way, starts with this scene in reverse, with a vivid example of anti-assimilation. This anecdote details the tensions between a father and a son. The father in Baghdad sent his son away to school in the United Arab Emirates to help him escape Saddam Hussein, only to see him return in the garb of a true believer in radical Islam.

This was no longer the carefree young man he knew, Shakr thought, the son who loved to dance and go to parties. Now whenever the music channel was on television, Omar got up and left the room. One day he sternly told his father, who works for an American company, that the U.S. was the “enemy” of Islam. Shakr’s concern deepened. Finally he told friends at work, “I have to rescue Omar. I have to bring back my son.”

This is the language of a mainstream media report on a dangerous religious cult. This is precisely the kind of imagery that most newsrooms avoid, when writing news stories about those on the other side of battles in the war on terror. Of course, Time describes this in the universal media code language of “moderates” vs. “fundamentalists” — just like a school board fight in East Texas, or something.

Time’s bottom line: This is a civil war within a faith and it must be important, because it is affecting U.S. politics. Here is the money paragraph (but I urge those with Time accounts to read the whole thing):

The outcome of this struggle does not depend solely on numbers. The vast majority of the world’s more than 1 billion practicing Muslims are peaceful citizens getting on with their lives. But interviews by TIME with religious leaders, Islamic scholars, government analysts and ordinary citizens in dozens of countries around the world reveal that the fervor of those who adhere to radical forms of Islam has intensified since 9/11. While Muslims continue to consume and even celebrate Western pop culture, hostility to the policies of the West, in particular the U.S., appears to be on the rise. It is being propelled in part by anger at the U.S.’s staunch support of Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, contempt for the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq and opposition to crackdowns on militancy carried out by previously permissive governments like those of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. In part because of their countries’ earlier experiences with European colonialism, some Muslims, from Indonesia to Iraq, perceive the U.S.’s stated desire to bring democracy to the Middle East less as a liberating force than as an unwelcome form of Western meddling.

And there is the greatest paradox at all. It is clear that many in the Muslim world want to join in the celebration of American freedoms, when it comes to entertainment and many lifestyle issues, while fearing the Western world’s commitment to basic human freedoms and essential rights. They want Disney and ESPN, but not debates and evangelism (except for all those converts to Islam).

All of these tensions need debate and mainstream coverage — for the sake of all who cherish civil liberties and, in particular, freedom of the press and religion. As friend of this blog Rod Dreher just wrote in a Dallas Morning News editorial:

In 1993, the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington caused a firestorm by pointing out “Islam’s bloody borders,” citing overwhelming quantitative evidence showing that Islamic populations are far more involved in violent conflicts with their neighbors than any other group. Wrote Dr. Huntington: “Muslim bellicosity and violence are late-20th-century facts which neither Muslims nor non-Muslims can deny.”

There was, and has been, furious denial, and not only from Muslims. It has been considered taboo of late in right-thinking Western circles to notice the role the Islamic faith plays in driving terrorism. But the Beslan atrocity seems to have been a watershed event. Let us hope so.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • greekgeek

    As the former religion writer for the local paper here, I got to know the head of the Muslim community in our area (Upper East Tenn./SW Va.). After 9/11 and since he has had to spend more of his time playing PR man for his faith (participating in forumns, talking to church groups, etc.) than actually leading. He told me once, after such a gathering, “The people who commit these horrendous acts in the name of Allah cannot be reading the same Quran I do.

  • thecosmopolitan

    Greekgeek quotes the head of the local Muslim community in East Tennessee, who told him that “The people who commi these horrendous acts in the name of Allah cannot be reading the same Quran I do.”

    Isn’t that the rub? They are indeed reading the same Quran — they are just reading it differently. Nor is the divide limited to those communities who harken for the restoration of the caliphate; liberal and conservative Christians all read the same Christian scriptures, as do Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics (to continue in a geographical vein. But they read them very differently.

    And if you mistrust the word of post modernists on this score, then pick any major metro daily, monitor for, say two weeks, and count the incidents of that kind of disconnect yourself.

    Would that all our enemies were reading from the wrong book. That is a circumstance easily remedied. The reality is much more challenging and more complicated.

  • molly

    I believe there are moderate Muslims out there; I, like Greekgeek, also know a couple.

    Yet, the western world (read:USA, because after all, it IS all about us!), have only truly paid attention to Isalm on a broad scale when our press shows us pictures of Americans being held hostage in Iran, Americans being targets of embassy bombings, and Americans dying in terrorist attacks.

    Our collective understanding of Islam is one of horrified disbelief that anyone could do anything so heinous in the name of God. You see, we also have pretty short attention spans and not many of us have taken western or church history classes……

    We believe what we see. Where are the pictures of Muslims being “moderate”?

    Not to dump too harshly on the press!

  • William Meisheid

    There are moderate Muslims and there is a reformation beginning in Islam, which is moving away from sharia law. However, as I pointed out after reading an article on the trend in the New Statesman, this will probably set off a civil war within Islam that won’t be a war of words.

  • Stan

    Is the Muslim Day at Six Flags an expression of moderate Islam? What would be the reaction if a groups would not permit Muslims to enter the amusement park on a Christian day?