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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After the cold war ended in 1991, the notion of a “clash of civilizations”—simplistically summarized as a global split between Muslims and the rest of the world—defined debates over the world’s new ideological divide.

“In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame,” the Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote in a controversial 1993 essay for Foreign Affairs. “This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia.” Future conflicts, he concluded, “will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic” but “will occur along the cultural fault lines.”

But the idea of a cultural schism ignored a countervailing fact: even as the outside world tried to segregate Muslims as “others,” most Muslims were trying to integrate into a globalizing world. For the West, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, obscured the Muslim quest for modernization; for Muslims, however, the airliner hijackings accelerated it. “Clearly 9/11 was a turning point for Americans,” Parvez Sharma, an Indian Muslim filmmaker, told me in 2010. “But it was even more so for Muslims,” who, he said, “are now trying to reclaim space denied us by some of our own people.”

This year’s uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and beyond have rocked the Islamic world, but the rebellions against geriatric despots reflect only a small part of the story, obscuring a broader trend that has emerged in recent years. For the majority of Muslims today, the central issue is not a clash with other civilizations but rather a struggle to reclaim Islam’s central values from a small but virulent minority. The new confrontation is effectively a jihad against The Jihad—in other words, a counter-jihad.

“We can no longer continuously talk about the most violent minority within Islam and allow them to dictate the tenets of a religion that is 1,400 years old,” Sharma told me after the release of A Jihad for Love, his groundbreaking documentary on homosexuality within Islam.

The past 40 years represent one of the most tumultuous periods in Islam’s history. Since 1973, I’ve traveled most of the world’s 57 predominantly Muslim countries to cover wars, crises, revolutions and terrorism; I sometimes now feel as if I’ve finally reached the climax—though not the end—of an epic that has taken four decades to unfold.

The counter-jihad is the fourth phase in that epic. After the Muslim Brotherhood emerged in Egypt in 1928, politicized Islam slowly gained momentum. It became a mass movement following the stunning Arab loss of the West Bank, Golan Heights, Gaza and Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 war with Israel. The first phase peaked with the 1979 revolution against the Shah of Iran: after his fall, clerics ruled a state for the first (and, still, only) time in Islam’s history. Suddenly, Islam was a political alternative to the dominant modern ideologies of democracy and communism.

The second phase, in the 1980s, was marked by the rise of extremism and mass violence. The shift was epitomized by the truck bombing of a U.S. Marines barracks in Beirut in 1983. With a death toll of 241 Marines, sailors and soldiers, it remains the deadliest single day for the U.S. military since the first day of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam in 1968. Martyrdom had been a central tenet among Shiite Muslims for 14 centuries, but now it has spread to Sunni militants, too. Lebanese, Afghans and Palestinians took up arms to challenge what they viewed as occupation by outside armies or intervention by foreign powers.

In the 1990s, during the third phase, Islamist political parties began running candidates for office, reflecting a shift from bullets to ballots—or a combination of the two. In late 1991, Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front came close to winning the Arab world’s first fully democratic election, until a military coup aborted the process and ushered in a decade-long civil war. Islamic parties also took part in elections in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. From Morocco to Kuwait to Yemen, Islamist parties captured voters’ imagination—and their votes.

Then came 9/11. The vast majority of Muslims rejected the mass killing of innocent civilians, but still found themselves tainted by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, a man and a movement most neither knew nor supported. Islam became increasingly associated with terrorist misadventures; Muslims were increasingly unwelcome in the West. Tensions only grew as the United States launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—and the new, elected governments there proved inept and corrupt.

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