Monday, December 13, 2004

ABOUT TIME - Muslim scholars increasingly debate unholy war

CAIRO, Dec. 9 - Muhammad Shahrour, a layman who writes extensively about Islam, sits in his engineering office in Damascus, Syria, arguing that Muslims will untangle their faith from the increasingly gory violence committed in its name only by reappraising their sacred texts.

First, Mr. Shahrour brazenly tackles the Koran. The entire ninth chapter, The Sura of Repentance, he says, describes a failed attempt by the Prophet Muhammad to form a state on the Arabian Peninsula. He believes that as the source of most of the verses used to validate extremist attacks, with lines like "slay the pagans where you find them," the chapter should be isolated to its original context.

"The state which he built died, but his message is still alive," says Mr. Shahrour, a soft-spoken, 65-year-old Syrian civil engineer with thinning gray hair. "So we have to differentiate between the religion and state politics. When you take the political Islam, you see only killing, assassination, poisoning, intrigue, conspiracy and civil war, but Islam as a message is very human, sensible and just."

Encouraging but I am not holding my breath about an Islamic Reformation. Voices of reason tend to be drowned out by calls for extremism especially when the latter threatens violence to the former. Moderacy can easily be deterred with a bomb or an honor killing but how to deter the extremist? Successfully seeding a relatively wealthy, secular democracy in Iraq would be a big boost by demonstrating that such an entity could grow and survive with all the forces of extremism thrown against it. It would scare the daylights out of the mullocracy to the east and, eventually, help defeat the vicious, self-defeating culture of victimization that blames the US and the Zionists for all ills afflicting the Muslim world.

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