A Peaceful Faith, A Fanatic Few

Islam: even the sound of this lovely Arabic word, which means "surrender," conveys the promise of peace, justice and harmony that comes to those who do the will of God. It is a word that defines the faith of more than 1 billion people, and embodies the aspirations of Muslim societies from the west of Africa across a wide arc to the islands of Indonesia. It also expresses the vision of the Quran, the very words of God--so Muslims believe--revealed to the last of His prophets, Muhammad. Why, then, should it inspire some Muslims to acts of unspeakable violence and terrorism?

Make no mistake. Though an act of war was committed against the United States last week, we are not witnessing regression to an era of religious warfare. The vast majority of Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike, deplore the slaughter of thousands of civilians that took place in New York City and Washington, D.C. "It violates the very foundations of Islamic law," says Imam Yahya Hendi, Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school. Nor are we witnessing a clash of civilizations. On the contrary, the United States is one place in the world where Jews and Christians and Muslims alike can live in peace with each other.

In moments of crisis like the present one, Muslims are quick to stress their bonds with Jews and Christians. Islam recognizes figures like Abraham and Moses and Jesus as prophets of the one God, Allah. Muslims study the Quran like others study the Bible, but they also look to the ahadith, or sayings and stories of Muhammad, for guidance. As Islam evolved into a great medieval civilization, various schools developed to interpret those passages in the Quran that are contradictory or unclear. Like other religions, Islam has its divisions and sects. The Shiites, for example, dominate Iran, where they have developed a hierarchy of clerical authority--the ayatollahs--roughly similar to Roman Catholicism. By contrast, the majority of Sunni Muslims are rather like Protestants in their stress on individual interpretation of the faith. And then there are the great Sufi saints and poets like Rumi who give Islam its mystical dimension.

Nonetheless, all Muslims observe certain fundamental practices such as prayer five times a day, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage to the holy shrine of Mecca. They also share the ideal of creating Muslim societies based on the Sharia, or Muslim law. In such a utopia, Islamic principles would govern every aspect of personal and social behavior. But there's the rub: since the perfect Muslim society has yet to be created, Muslim fundamentalists and other purely political dissidents can--and have--declared various modern Muslim governments illegitimate. Indeed, the crisis the United States faces is a product of a crisis of legitimacy within the Islamic world itself.

The violence that exploded over New York City began in the back alleys of Beirut, Cairo, Jerusalem--wherever Muslim extremists discerned the power of the United States behind their more immediate enemies. For nearly three decades, the Arab world has witnessed a broad Islamic revival that established Muslim governments have systematically repressed. In moderate Muslim nations, governing elites welcome Western support and the secular culture that goes with it. These elites have suppressed or co-opted the popular revivalist movements--thus opening the way for radical freelance sheiks and their terrorist networks. Experts like Daniel Pipes call the extremists "Islamists," meaning ideologues who "politicize their religion," and, like latter-day Leninists, turn the Sharia into a "blueprint for establishing a coerced utopia."

In Algeria, for example, when the Islamic Salvation Front threatened to win electoral victory a decade ago, the military government canceled further elections and imposed martial law. In Egypt, the government has used torture to suppress a similar Islamist revival. "Extremists see the U.S. government propping up states they regard as Muslim in name only," says Scott Appleby, a historian of religion at the University of Notre Dame, "and doing so to further their own geopolitical interests. They perceive this as hypocrisy on the part of a nation that proclaims democracy, liberalism and freedom." And then there is Israel, which Islamists regard as either the surrogate for American interests in the Middle East--especially oil--or a dupe for Zionist expansionism.

Islamic radicals also see the United States as a failed Christian nation. Islamist groups are bent on destroying the United States because "of our Christian faith," declared Franklin Graham, Billy's son and evangelist heir-apparent, on national television last week. But statements like his badly misjudge the issue. Extremists see Western culture as an imperialist acid eating away at Muslim virtue and values. "Islamists reject secular modernity, with its pornography, materialism, drug dependency and high divorce rate," observes Appleby. "They would respect the U.S. much more if we did not separate God from governance--if we were in fact a Christian state."

Even so, Islam has within its own history and teachings elements that are potentially toxic. Like the ancient Israelites, Muhammad and his companions had to fight for turf. The Quran is full of battle scenes and language--especially the notion of jihad, or "holy war." The word encompasses many levels of meaning. It includes the fight to control one's passions, to convert unbelievers and improve public morals in a Muslim society. It also applies to the rules of war. "It is not a license to kill," says David Little, professor of religion and international affairs at Harvard Divinity School. "Islamic theory largely limits just wars to the defensive kind." Mainstream Muslim jurists have been loath to see jihad invoked, especially against wayward Muslim governments. "Once you say you are in a state of jihad, then all the usual rules of society are suspended and the danger is that social structure will end in ruins," says Gilles Kepel, a specialist in Islamic movements at the Institute of Political Science in Paris.

That's what happened in Afghanistan when Islamists like Osama bin Laden declared jihad against the "infidel" Soviet invaders in the 1980s--with full support from the CIA. Bin Laden has no religious authority to declare a holy war but by invoking the privilege he sought to rally support throughout the Muslim world. Once the Soviet Army was repulsed in 1989, he turned his jihad against those who supported him, including the United States. "Afghanistan let the genie of jihad out of the bottle," says Kepel, "and there is no way Muslims can put it back in again."

Like other religions, Islam also reveres its martyrs. One who dies a martyr for the faith goes directly to heaven and enjoys its choicest rewards. But in its modern Islamist version, martyrdom has been expanded to include volunteer suicide in battle. In the 1980s war between Iran and Iraq, thousands of young Iranian soldiers with the shahada written on their headgear ("There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger") blew themselves up in Iraqi minefields so that their regular Army could cross enemy lines. In the same way, the glory of martyrdom inspired suicide attacks by Muslims against American soldiers in Beirut in 1983, which eventually led to the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanon last year.

In such ways have appeals to Islam legitimated terrorist tactics. The men who commandeered the jets that struck the symbols of American power--the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--are sons of Islamist fanaticism. They have turned Islam's ideal of peace and harmony on its head. The household of Allah is in disarray and the result is more than mere anarchy loosed upon the world. The United States can arm and threaten and perhaps even retaliate here and there. But only Muslims can shed Islamist extremism through self-policing. If the Quran is to be believed, Allah Himself requires as much.