Thursday, July 5, 2007

Could solution to Islamic extremism breed cynicism?

In an article headlined “Islam’s authority deficit,” the June 30 edition of The Economist opened with the following three paragraphs:

Governments worried by Islamist extremism ought to get the message: the only real answer lay in more Islam — deeper, sounder, more careful readings of the Muslim faith, from scholars who could use the weight of collective experience, accumulated over 14 centuries, to solve the dilemmas of life in the modern age.

Such, broadly, was the argument laid out in London recently by Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, before a gathering of Islamic scholars and pundits. And his hosts took him seriously. The case for using scholarly Islam as a counterweight to the radical, hot-headed sort is familiar in the Middle East, but this time it won an unusually clear endorsement from a Western leader, Tony Blair.

In his parting thoughts (as prime minister, anyway) on Islam, Mr Blair lauded Jordan for its efforts to make the various legal schools of Islam respect each another and stop calling each other infidels. And just like Mr Gomaa, Mr Blair said how important it was to ensure that only qualified people could issue fatwas, or rulings on how to follow Islam in specific situations. Emboldened by his welcome, Mr Gomaaa offered to help Britain set up a post like his own: state-certified grand mufti.

I worry about Tony Blair’s role, not Ali Gomaa’s role, in the discussions and possibilities mentioned above.

Those possibilities are outstanding. My concern is that any perception of Western-influenced official Islam would breed cynicism among the more conservative elements in Islam as well as the extremists. Blair and Gomaa are wise men who realize something constructive must be attempted in our time. However, isn’t the nature of Islamic extremism, and even some especially conservative elements within the religion, to be suspicious of anything that might water-down the message? Will the attempt backfire?

-Colin Burch


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