The 20th Century History: Prelude to Global Citizenry
Throughout the 20th century, our world witnessed tremendous political and economic upheaval. Empires fell and new nation-states emerged in the aftermath of World War I. Revolutionary movements defeated royal houses and ushered in secular parliamentary democracies or fascist autocracies in many European countries. Those living in other regions under colonial rule pressed for independence and self-determination.
Following World War II, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union dramatically shaped events in Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and elsewhere. This left little room for emerging nations to direct their own organic, and difficult, process of democratization and development.
In recent decades, the expansion of global commerce and technology has further integrated the nations of the world, placing citizens of every nation in a complex web of relationships with others. Increasingly, many of us find ourselves revisiting our identities and values as citizens of a beloved homeland, as members of particular cultures, as faith practitioners, as producers and consumers of global goods and services, and simply as people of conscience. More and more frequently, we direct our attention to embracing or challenging ideas and cultural mores originating in other places. The differing levels of power that nations are able to wield often color our views of worldly and spiritual success, enlightenment and progress, fairness and injustice, and the means to secure peace.
Islamic and Western Ideals: Confluence or Conflict?Towards the end of the 19th century, Muslim religious leaders, scholars, and activists struggled to define their place in the colonial era, as they witnessed the disintegration of empire and emergence of new notions regarding the domains of religious and state power. They wrestled with the idea that a once prominent world order rooted in the spiritual and ethical teachings of Islam—that provided a strong sense of identity and purpose to Muslims in many lands—had been steadily challenged by a new worldview stemming from the European Enlightenment and validated by the military and economic dominance of European powers. Interestingly, many Muslim intellectuals of the time expressed admiration for modern Western ideas of liberty and democracy, and typically argued that Islam and Muslim tradition contained the very same principles. While at times writing in a defensive mode, and sometimes leveling critiques of Western thought, many of these authors nevertheless became well-versed in the arguments regarding rationality, “church-state” relations, and human rights, and believed in a fundamental confluence of Islamic and Western ideals.
For example, the well-known Egyptian scholar and reformer Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), often considered the founder of Islamic “Modernist” thought, emphasized the need for ijtihad (the use of reason and interpretation to formulate Islamic Law that addresses contemporary issues), and argued that Islamic procedures such as Shura (consultation) served as the basis for democratic decision-making. The Syrian scholar Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1902) wrote treatises against despotism that remains one of the writings of 18th century American and French revolutionaries. Other scholars wrote on women’s rights and suffrage, finding evidence in Islamic tradition for their social objectives.
Political Economy vs. Political AspirationsWhile this intellectual tradition has continued to mature to the present day and is characterized by rich debate, Muslim societies have unfortunately been politically and economically hampered for much of the modern period. Governmental autocracy, bureaucratic mismanagement, detrimental Western development policies and corporate actions, and long-standing poverty have perpetuated underdevelopment in many countries.
While the U.S., and more recently the European Union, along with other influential nations such as China and Russia, continue to work for the improvement of various world regions according to their vantage point, the countervailing policies and objectives of these powerful actors often result in inordinate support either for incumbent regimes or opposition groups, stifling the democratic process. Furthermore, the inability of the United Nations or other bodies to resolve long-standing issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and humanitarian catastrophes caused by war, famine, and disease, often exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions within Muslim societies and create highly volatile environments. Internal tribal, sectarian and ethnic identities often gain precedence in such circumstances, generating further instability and desperation.
Despite such circumstances, the vast majority of Muslims around the world continue to respect the United States’ constitutional principles in particular, and its unique image as a nation built by immigrants who have largely been able to pursue the dream of upliftment and seek a dignified life. Like others around the world, they consistently distinguish between the American people, whom they largely admire, and the policies enacted by the American government at any given time, with which they may or may not agree. Muslims in many countries throughout the world continue to work towards greater freedom and democratization in their own societies, often invoking Islamic teachings as people of faith engaged in the pragmatic affairs of the modern world, and appealing for support from sympathetic members of the world community.
Militancy as a Betrayal of Islamic TraditionNaturally, there are those whose sense of justice or whose beliefs about the proper political order impel them to act more dramatically, justifying their violent means through a utopian vision of a better future. Such individuals, when originating from a Muslim environment, naturally communicate their vision in a language surely understood by their intended audience, fellow Muslims. Consequently, this language is largely religious in nature. Like all scriptures, the Qur’an is subject to interpretation, and Islam has a rich tradition of commentary on Qur’anic teachings. Yet individuals who espouse wanton violence (terrorism) for political ends, as distinct from war and diplomacy between state actors, typically bypass this tradition and its constraints in order to further their own agenda, selectively employing verses of the Qur’an or sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (known as hadith). Ironically, commentators who seek to disparage Islam rather than understand the tradition and the exceptional nature of perpetrators of terror with respect to that tradition, employ the very same approach to the Qur’an and example of Muhammad. In other words, a Qur’anic verse that is widely understood in the scholarly community to apply to a particular situation in the life of the Prophet Muhammad and is to be interpreted in connection with other verses and the corpus of hadith, is taken in relative isolation by Muslim militants and Western polemicists to be a permanent, universal command applicable in all times and places, without any stipulations or caveats. This is a tremendous abuse of scripture, and it behooves us to take seriously the authority of the traditional scholarly consensus, which includes the voices of leading Muslim scholars today.
Religious Rhetoric, Conventional AimsAlthough in the Western consciousness there continue to be perpetuated centuries-old assumptions about Islam and Muslims, often reinforced in popular representations, prior to the attacks on September 11, 2001, there was little need to clarify Islam’s stance against wanton violence and the killing of innocents. Since World War II, most acts of international terrorism by nationalist groups, whether perpetrated by the Irish Republican Army, the Palestine Liberation Organization, the Tamil Tigers, or any other group, even when tinged with a religious dynamic, were understood to be motivated by an essentially “secular” desire for immediate political independence from external actors. One might argue that even Al-Qaeda, a militant group that emerged in the aftermath of U.S.-directed action in Afghanistan against the Soviets, despite its extremely religious rhetoric, has in reality limited territorial ambitions, though it has embraced the role of challenger and disrupter of the West’s sense of safety and order in the context of the Global War on Terror.
Muslim Leaders Unequivocally Denounce TerrorismThe trauma of the 9/11 attacks was felt by all Americans, including Muslim Americans, as well as sympathetic people around the world. For the first time, “Islam” itself came under intense scrutiny, with public commentators espousing opinions ranging from the reasonable to the absurd. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, Muslim leaders nationwide and locally issued numerous denunciations of terrorism and clarifications about Islam’s teachings, insisting that Islam truly advocates peace and harmony between all people. Since that tragic day (and even before the attacks), Muslim organizations have issued press releases and posted statements on their websites denouncing each and every subsequent act of terrorism attributed to Muslim actors. They have also encouraged Americans to become more informed about Islam and emphasized the need to resist painting an entire community with a broad brush. They emphasize to members of the Muslim community the need to become more active in mainstream society and to promote healthy civic life among all Americans.
Muslims, and many Christians and Jews who have worked for peace and interfaith understanding, have felt frustrated that many Americans seem to repeatedly ask why Muslims don’t “speak out and condemn the terrorists,” when in fact they have done so constantly. Unfortunately, these proclamations typically receive little media coverage, and often go unnoticed in the public square. Nevertheless, it is important for Americans to lay to rest the notion of silence on the part of Muslim Americans and international organizations and leadership, and offer ample evidence to the contrary when faced with this assertion, when expressed by others.
Countering the Canard of Muslim SilenceThe following websites contain links to many public statements made by U.S. and international Muslim organizations and individuals condemning the attacks of 9/11 and other terrorism acts, offering condolences to the victims’ families, advocating peace as a fundamental Islamic principle, and authentically countering interpretations that justify this type of political violence.
Muslims Condemn Terrorist Attacks
Muslims Who Condemn Terrorism
Four Key Muslims Speak Out
Unique Site of Local New York Group Advocating for Peace and Education About Islam
Videos of Muslims Who Denounce Terrorism
Website Where Islam Denounces Terrorism