The Muslim world is out of control

The Muslim world is out of control. And that’s a good thing.

The control of ruthless dictators has declined markedly in less than a single year. Two brutal despots, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, are gone for good, and while it will take time for the citizens of these two states to clean up the mess left them by their erstwhile leaders, they are moving in the right direction. Others, like King Abdullah in Jordan and King Mohammad VI in Morocco, are voluntarily beginning to transfer power, incrementally to be sure, to parliaments.

The old guard running the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is failing to keep discipline among young members who are creating new break-off parties, and as of this writing the Islamist Tunisian Renaissance Party (called Hizb al-Nahda in Arabic) is negotiating with secular parties to try to form a coalition government as a result of its winning 41 percent of the vote in a fair and democratic election. Veteran Islamist popular preachers such as Yusuf Qaradawi, who used to control the media for the Muslim religious right, are swiftly losing ground to savvy young Muslim televangelists. And leaders in Al-Azhar, the bastion of the Muslim old guard in Egypt, are hoping the new government that will be formed in elections a month from now will have a secular bent that protects the rights of all minorities, including Christians.

Whatever happened to the static, unchanging, ever-rigid iceberg of Islamic backwardness?

The answer is that we weren’t paying attention. All the while that we were assuming Muslims were hopelessly stuck, they were, in fact, changing. We weren’t paying attention because it was we who were stuck in the false assumption about Islam that actually has never been true — that Islam is backward and unable to change with the times.

Never have I been more struck by the positive lack of control in the Muslim world than last week in Qatar at two conferences, the 18th Conference of the Islamic World Academy of Sciences, and the ninth annual conference of the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID). Muslim participants represented virtually the entire Muslim world, from Bangladesh to Bosnia, and from Yemen and Somalia to Norway and Sweden. The Interfaith Dialogue conference was particularly interesting because of this year’s theme of new social media and how to use it for enhancing understanding and better relations among religious communities. Not only did we experience plenary sessions and Q-and-A before an international audience of hundreds, we also had the opportunity to take workshops on the latest in the social media trade, including how to avoid its pitfalls and harmful use. And all this in an Arab Muslim state.

What particularly struck me was the openness of discourse among the participants. Not only Muslims and Christians, but a minyan of rabbis representing literally all Jewish religious movements engaged fully in the program, from delivering keynote presentations to chairing panels and even drafting the final summary conference declaration.

Islam always has honored the monotheistic religions of Judaism and Christianity, even when it has not had a consistent record of honoring those religions’ practitioners. But Islam has had a history of real trouble with polytheistic religious traditions. And yet, in a plenary session attended by the entire assembly, a Muslim religious scholar who directs an institute of Islamic studies at one of the most prominent Islamic seminaries in India called for future conferences to include non-monotheistic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and others. This would have been impossible even a few years ago.

This year’s conference was far less controlled than the earliest Doha conferences on interfaith dialogue, which excluded Jews. Since those early days, Jews from the Diaspora and from Israel have been invited and have participated, though during periods when relations between Israel and the Arab world deteriorate enough, Israelis are not invited — which is unfortunate because inviting them nevertheless would be a great step forward. OK, there is still government meddling in religious affairs, but they are light-years ahead of where they were only a short while ago, and forward-looking projects like DICID are leading the way.

The Arab Spring has given a huge push to the sea change in the Middle East and North Africa, but the region is a very big ship, and it takes a long time for a turn of the helm to move such a large vessel to a different course. That new course is one in which the old autocratic forms of leadership will lose influence and power as the culture of the region continues to move toward democracy. We need to keep in mind that it will not happen in any way that we can expect or anticipate. Still, we will see real change in our own lifetimes, something that I could hardly have hoped for even a year ago. That’s because people have been pushing the rudder for many years. The molasses seas of dictatorships have, until recently, blocked any significant turn.

Let’s not let our old assumptions remain stuck in the muck of stale thinking. Democracy is a political system that varies from state to state. Christian Democrats control the government of democratic Germany. Not secular Democrats, but Christian Democrats. And in democratic Israel, the National Religious Party and Shas have made themselves indispensable to virtually every government. So, too, will we see Muslim democrats controlling the governments of some Arab democratic political systems. That in and of itself is not cause for alarm. We need to judge by deed and not by name.

The Muslim world is not nearly so simple as we’ve been accustomed to thinking.