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Moderates Start Speaking Out Against Islamic Intolerance

October 28, 2001

Moderates Start Speaking Out Against Islamic Intolerance


Outrage, it seems, has helped shatter the silence.

After years of quietly watching a harsh, puritanical strain of Islam enter America, many moderate Muslims are speaking out in favor of a more tolerant form of their faith. They are emboldened by their sense of anger at the Sept. 11 attacks and embarrassed by what they see as a distorted vision of their religion.

In the past, many kept silent, or moderated their zeal. Perhaps they did not directly come into contact with conservative Muslim leaders, or perhaps they thought it was better not to criticize fellow Muslims in the interests of unity. Perhaps they were Muslims from outside the Arabic- speaking world, and felt intimidated by Arab clerics, native speakers of the language of the Koran.

"It's a bad analogy, but I feel like I can come out of the closet and criticize these guys," said Emran Qureshi, an independent scholar and software designer who lives in Ottawa. "I cannot go to a mosque where these people hold sway. You end up seething, you end up getting very depressed, you end up alienated." In an essay he has submitted to newspapers, Mr. Qureshi denounces mainstream Muslim organizations for failing to condemn extremist Islamic governments.

Many of the newly rebellious are young, many are women, many are assimilated and many are educated. They have long chafed against what they see as a tyrannical form of Islam that is not only present in their lives, but also exists as images in the minds of non-Muslims — the veiled women who cannot drive, the harsh punishments, the anti-Jewish rhetoric.

It is impossible, of course, to say how many among the nation's Muslims, estimated variously at two million to six million, are vocally distancing themselves from conservative Islam, though it is probably a small minority.

A majority of Muslims, perhaps, do not even give the issue much thought. But anger is stirring, filling up e-mail boxes and Internet discussion groups.

Last weekend, an advocacy group of progressive Muslims met in San Francisco to discuss ways of addressing intolerance in Islam.

Those who speak out are striking a responsive chord. Progressive Muslim thinkers say they have been inundated with requests to speak to Islamic groups or with visits to their Web sites. But it is not just the young and the liberal who are taking action.

Muhammad Shamsi Ali is the imam of the al-Hikmah mosque in Long Island City, Queens, which caters mainly to Indonesians.

Imam Ali has quietly been meeting with fellow imams in New York and speaking at mosques. "I tell them, 'You are coming into this country, you have to show Islam as it is,' " he said. "You cannot bring your own culture and say, 'This is Islam.' "

The object of much of the criticism by moderates and liberals is the austere, almost harsh brand of Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia, which, because of its oil wealth and custodianship of Islam's holiest places, Mecca and Medina, has enormous influence in the Muslim world. This branch of Islam is often called Wahhabism.

It is the vision that has helped shape the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

"One aspect of the view is it shows a hard face of Islam," said Michael Sells, a professor of religion at Haverford College in Haverford, Pa., and an authority on the Koran and Arabic literature. "It obscures what those who know Muslims see so deeply — which would be the joy, the subtlety, the tenderness, the humor and the suppleness of the tradition."

The al-Hikmah mosque displays the moderate side of Islam.

It posts its financial accounts on the wall, opens its doors to Muslims of all persuasions and welcomes nonbelievers. At prayers one recent Friday, an invited speaker, Syahrir Wahab, did not blame America or Israel for the World Trade Center attack, as some extremist Muslims have. Anti-Muslim feeling must be answered with faith in Allah and an attempt to teach Islamic beliefs, Mr. Wahab said in his sermon.

The rigid cast of some mosques has long alienated many American Muslims.

Aisha Y. Musa, a graduate student in Arabic and Islamic studies at Harvard University, converted to Islam in 1979, married a Palestinian Muslim and began attending a mosque in Portland, Ore.

Soon, the leadership told her husband to grow a beard, rid their home of the television set and keep Ms. Musa at home. She was ordered to cover her head. "I was really shocked by it," she said. "I couldn't live that way."

Now she studies the Koran and prays at home.

American Muslims "need to realize there are really extremist elements that need to be countered openly," she said.

Their membership in a minority religion has also helped keep a lid on divisions among American Muslims. But linen-washing is exactly what is needed, said Farid Esack, a visiting professor of Islamic studies at Auburn Theological Seminary in Manhattan.

"Progressive and modernist Muslims are telling the traditionalists, 'Your hands are dirtier than this,' " said Professor Esack, a South African. "Progressive Muslims also see an opportunity in the current crisis to say, 'Look, we honestly have to reconsider our tradition, our legacy.' "

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