The Struggle Within Islam

Terrorists get the headlines, but most Muslims want to reclaim their religion from extremists

The Arab Spring uprisings tell only part of the story. (Moises Saman / Magnum Photos)
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Yet militant Islam, too, failed to deliver. Al Qaeda excelled at destruction but provided no constructive solutions to the basic challenges of everyday life. Almost 3,000 people died in the 9/11 terrorism spectaculars, but Muslim militants killed more than 10,000 of their brethren in regionwide attacks over the next decade—and unleashed an angry backlash. A new generation of counter-jihadis began to act against extremism, spawning the fourth phase.

The mass mobilization against extremism became visible in 2007, when tribal leaders in Iraq, organized by a charismatic chief named Sheik Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, deployed a militia of some 90,000 warriors to push Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia out of Anbar, Iraq’s most volatile province. In addition, Saudi and Egyptian ideologues who had been bin Laden’s mentors also began publicly repudiating Al Qaeda. In 2009, millions of Iranians participated in a civil disobedience campaign that included economic boycotts as well as street demonstrations against their rigid theocracy.

By 2010, public opinion polls in major Muslim countries showed dramatic declines in backing for Al Qaeda. Support for bin Laden dropped to 2 percent in Lebanon and 3 percent in Turkey. Even in such pivotal countries as Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia—populated by vastly different ethnic groups and continents apart—only around one in five Muslims expressed confidence in the Al Qaeda leader, the Pew Global Attitudes Project reported.

Muslim attitudes on modernization and fundamentalism also shifted. In a sampling of Muslim countries on three continents, the Pew survey found that among those who see a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists, far more people—two to six times as many—identified with modernizers. Egypt and Jordan were the two exceptions; in each, the split was about even.

In the first month of Egypt’s uprising in 2011, another poll found that 52 percent of Egyptians disapproved of the Muslim Brotherhood and only 4 percent strongly approved of it. In a straw vote for president, Brotherhood leaders received barely 1 percent of the vote. That survey, by the pro-Israeli Washington Institute of Near East Policy, also found that just two out of ten Egyptians approved of Tehran’s Islamic government. “This is not,” the survey concluded, “an Islamic uprising.”

Then what is it?

It seems, above all, an effort to create a Muslim identity that fits in with political changes globally. After the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, many Arabs told me they wanted democratic political life compatible with their culture.

“Without Islam, we will not have any real progress,” said Diaa Rashwan of Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “If we go back to the European Renaissance, it was based on Greek and Roman philosophy and heritage. When Western countries built their own progress, they didn’t go out of their epistemological or cultural history. Japan is still living in the culture of the Samurai, but in a modern way. The Chinese are still living the traditions created by Confucianism. Their version of communism is certainly not Russian.

“So why,” he mused, “do we have to go out of our history?”

For Muslims, that history now includes not only Facebook and Twitter, but also political playwrights, stand-up comics, televangelist sheiks, feminists and hip-hop musicians. During Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the campaign of opposition candidate Mehdi Karroubi—a septuagenarian cleric—distributed 1,000 CDs containing pro-democracy raps.

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