Muslims Against Jihad

Here is President George W. Bush on Islam: “Its teachings are good and peaceful, and those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.”

It’s hard, though, to understand Islam as a “good and peaceful” religion when its headline-grabbers in this generation are the likes of Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (Usually overlooked in this roster is the Islamic Salvation Front of Algeria, which has literally butchered tens of thousands of Muslim countrymen in civil war since the early 1990s.)

Yet anybody who has known Muslims personally, as many Israelis have, understands that there are Muslims out there who are spiritually shattered by the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. They’re mortified that these attacks were committed in the name of their religion.

Whether these lately stricken Muslim masses account for an overwhelming majority of world Islam, a less-than-overwhelming majority or even a substantial minority, is hard to say. But they are legion, and they don’t make headlines because they don’t blow up anything, don’t take over countries, and, in fact, generally make a point of keeping religion separate from politics.

They might be called “Muslims without jihad,” or “Muslims against jihad.” They note that Muhammad said the highest form of jihad is not holy war, but the moral and spiritual struggle within oneself.

They are not, by any means, all alike. Some are Western-oriented liberals; some are Islamic fundamentalists. Some try to explain bin Laden as an aberration of Islamic society; some see him as the ultimate expression of what’s wrong with it. However, one should not expect to find pro-Zionists among them, or supporters of the Israeli side in the intifada.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is head of the Faculty of Arts at Al-Quds University in East Jerusalem. An abstract painter whose doctorate is in anthropology, he was raised in a tolerant spirit of Islam, and in recent years has adopted Sufism, an Islamic stream that he says gives shape to the things he always believed.

On behalf of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Qleibo wrote a letter to the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem saying the attack on the World Trade Center was “an attack on the key symbols of free enterprise and democracy, which we consider the main elements of humanism.” Liberal Muslims, he says, do not merely sympathize with American suffering from a distance, but “feel the threat personally. We identify with this suffering; this is our suffering, our grief.” To Qleibo, Islam is “a religion of ease, of comfort; it exists to serve man. It has an easygoing quality, a flexibility, a certain amount of rational adaptability.” God, for Qleibo, is “love, compassion, mercy.” While there are few liberal humanists among Palestinians, Qleibo believes there are likewise few supporters of the World Trade Center assault. The TV footage of Palestinians handing out baklava and jumping for joy on Sept. 11 was a gross distortion of public sentiment, he says.

The cameras failed to focus on the Palestinians who were not celebrating, and these are the “silent majority” of local Muslims, he contends. “Their main concern is paying their bills, sending their children to school. They’re not politically active. Moreover, they’re afraid,” he says — afraid to buck the spirit of the street, afraid to be seen as a collaborator. “Many other people just don’t care,” he adds.

The Palestinian celebrants were mainly young hotheads, and one “crazy woman who the cameras showed over and over again,” he says. “Everybody I talked to was embarrassed by them.”

Israel’s Islamic Movement is known mainly by its radical “northern” wing, which has produced the handful of Israeli Arab terrorists who have been caught or who blew themselves up in recent years. This is the wing that seems ideologically indistinguishable from Hamas.

But Israel’s Islamic Movement was founded about 30 years ago by a more moderate figure, Sheik Abdallah Nimr Darwish of Kafr Qassem, who recently stepped down from the leadership of what is known as the movement’s “southern wing.”

Followers of the two factions play down their differences, but, in fact, they are crucial. For one, sympathizers with the northern wing have been turning up in suicide terror cells, while Darwish has been imploring sheiks in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and abroad to “retract their fatwa [calling for] suicide terror. But there are people in Cairo, Damascus, Amman and Gaza who brand me — and not only me, but also many great sheiks in the Muslim Brotherhood — as heretics.”

On the Friday after the World Trade Center attacks, Darwish says his sermon to a large gathering, including many Israeli Arab leaders, described the attack as “a crime of the first order. Whoever kills citizens at work, whoever destroys places where people work to earn a livelihood, whoever destroys someone’s livelihood or kills innocent civilians — he can claim whatever he wants, but he has no place in Islam.”

“Not only must the White House search its soul and correct much of its foreign policy, but many sheiks and interpreters of Islamic law must also search their souls, and realize that a word or a sentence or a fatwa sometimes causes destruction no less than guided missiles or jets,” Darwish says.

He believes that if the United States provides proof that bin Laden was behind the attacks in New York and Washington, then the Taliban should “hand over bin Laden to the Americans immediately.” Even without such proof, Darwish says, the Taliban should send him back to Saudi Arabia. “Why are they helping him? Islam must turn away from terror,” he says.

Asked how he would react if the United States launches a military assault on Afghanistan, Darwish replies that if Afghan cities are bombed, if “civilians end up lying dead under the rubble,” then there will be an uproar in the Muslim world, and he will join it.

“But if they go after the bases of terror, if there are pinpoint attacks on [bin Laden’s] organization,” he says, “then no one in the Muslim world will raise an outcry.”

In 1989 the Sharia (Islamic Law) and Islamic Studies College became Israel’s only accredited Israeli Arab teacher training college for instruction in Islam. “When we first started, some people saw us as collaborators, but with time that changed,” says administrator Dr. Mohammed Essawi. Now some 500 Israeli Arab teachers are trained in Islam and Arabic instruction, and teach math, computers and English.

The college’s policy is “not to deal with politics, politics screws up religion,” says Essawi, whose doctorate is in management. The college seeks understanding with Jews, conducting Muslim-Jewish study sessions with Machon Oranim and other liberal Jewish religious institutions. He thinks Israeli Muslims have allowed themselves to be led by people whose agenda is far more militant than that of the mainstream.

So it would be an insult even to ask Essawi if he condemns bin Laden and the World Trade Center attacks. This is a given; the only questions have to do with how this strain of Islam developed, and how to counteract it.

“The problem isn’t religion, it’s sociology,” he says. “Violence grows where there is poverty and ignorance. The children of doctors, engineers and teachers don’t become terrorists, and those who do are exceptions to the rule. In Canada there are a lot of Muslims — why isn’t there any violence there? Now look at Afghanistan — the people go barefoot, they have nothing to eat. If the people in Afghanistan had a decent standard of living, would the Taliban succeed? I don’t think so.”

The answer to Islamic militancy, whether in Israel or Afghanistan, he maintains, is education and economic progress. “The world has got to wake up,” Essawi says. “Give these poor, disadvantaged people some support. Lift them out of the swamp of terror.”