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Internal conflict: the delegates at the Organization of the Islamic Conference summit in Malaysia in 2003 agreed on at least one thing: that the Muslim world was going through a very rough spell. One member said it was time for more dialogue among Muslims.

There seems to be almost as much conflict within Islam itself as between Islam and the West. There are often violent clashes between the Sunni and Shi'ite branches playing out now as a vicious civil war in Iraq. Reports of horrific brutality tell of massacres in the region where thousands have been killed as the two sides attack and counter-attack each other mercilessly.

As Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson explains, "One day (in July 2006) more than 100 people were killed in Iraq. People were dragged from their cars and shot, abducted from their homes and shot, yanked off a bus and shot. Neither the U.S. occupying force nor the Iraqi authorities knows how to stop the war."

The Times in London reported in mid-July that a devastating onslaught of suicide bombers slaughtered more than 150 people, most of them Shi'ites, around the capital.

One bomber killed almost 100 people when he blew up a fuel tanker south of Baghdad.

"Iraq's security forces have been overwhelmed by the scale of the suicide bombings--11 on Friday (14 July 2006) alone and many more over the weekend ..."

The Times recounted a 72-hour period of violence in July 2006 as follows:

Friday--10 suicide car bombers kill 26 people and wound more than 100 in apparently coordinated attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces;

Saturday--At least 107 people killed and 185 injured in five suicide bombings, including the fuel tanker explosion that left 98 dead;

Sunday--Bombers kill 19 and wound more than 14 in four suicide attacks around Baghdad.

There is also stress between moderates and extremists, with increasing numbers feeling the moderates are not doing enough to confront and condemn the extremists in their midst.

In 2004, the Muslim Council of Britain was criticized for not being forceful enough in condemning terrorism. The Council responded by asking mosques across the country to condemn violence and cooperate with the police in their anti-terrorism efforts.

Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan expresses the frustration that many Muslims feel, having to "apologize for the actions of a few."

For Muslims, she says, news of each terrorist attack "cuts like a knife. The emotional burden is threefold. First, there is the sheer horror of witnessing the carnage of terror. Second, is the knowledge that the perpetrators are Muslim. Third, is the fact that in spite of arduous condemnations, they remain a community under suspicion."

"Muslims know deep down inside that Islam nurtures mercy while encouraging its adherents to the highest standards of morality," she adds. "If only they could disown the lunatic fringe who use it as an instrument of fear."

Similarly, author and French scholar Gilles Kepel says most Muslims saw the 9/11 attacks in 2001 as devastating to Islam. Instead of strengthening the faith, he says, the terrorist strategy "has led to fitna--strife within Islam. The pitting of Shi'ite against Sunni, Arab against Kurd, has brought nothing but chaos to Iraq."

For centuries, he says, Muslim societies have been pulled between two poles that have influenced the ebb and flow of Islamic societies--jihad (holy war) and fitna. "Whereas jihad sublimates internal tensions and projects them outward toward the land of unbelief, fitna undermines Muslim society from within.

"Fitna is precisely the situation that one finds today in the Middle East. The Americans' opportunistic invasion and occupation of Iraq opened a Pandora's Box of ethnic strife out of which sprang Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni separatists; jihadists from neighbouring countries weren't far behind ..."

Mr. Kepel says it's the new generation of young Muslims in the West, who can exercise democratic rights that are restricted or forbidden in countries where Islam is the majority religion, who may safeguard the future of Islam.

He believes that, if Western societies "are able to integrate these populations and steer them toward prosperity, this new generation of Muslims may transcend both jihad and fitna to become the Islamic vanguard of the next decade--men and women with universalist perspective, emancipated from the rebellious rage that endorses violence, and offering a new vision of the faith and a way out of the dead-end politics that have paralyzed their countries of origin."

Meanwhile, many Muslim groups are driven to make statements condemning acts of terrorism as barbaric and cowardly crimes against humanity.

The Muslim Canadian Congress, The Canadian Islamic Congress, The Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations all issued statements against a series of bombings in the public transport system during rush hour in London, England in July 2005. Fifty-two people were killed and several hundred injured. After the bombings, leaders of some of Canada's Islamic organizations told The Globe and Mail many of the country's Muslims feel they must make such statements for their self-interest and protection.

In her 2004 book The Trouble with Islam, (ISBN: 0312326998) Irshad Manji focuses on the need to reform Islam to bring it into the 21st century. She says she hopes the faith revives its tradition of self-criticism and introspection.

On her website (, she agrees that reform starts in the West "because it's here that we enjoy precious freedoms to think, express, challenge, and be challenged without fear of state reprisal ..."

Ms. Manji describes herself as "a hugely ambivalent Muslim because of what's happening 'on the ground'--massive human rights violations, particularly against women and religious minorities--in the name of Allah.

"Liberal Muslims say that what I'm describing isn't 'true' Islam. But these Muslims should own up to something: Prophet himself said that religion is the way we conduct ourselves toward others. By that standard, how Muslims actually behave is Islam, and to sweep that reality under the rug of theory is to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for our fellow human beings."

One Muslim scholar, Tariq Ramadan, says the Islamic penal code, sharia, is one area that needs to change. In an article in The Globe and Mail in March 2005, he says the practices of corporal punishment, stoning, and the death penalty applied in several countries in the name of Islamic law have to stop. Some say sharia is an essential part of Muslim society, which should be adhered to strictly. Others believe it has no place in contemporary Muslim societies.

Tariq Ramadan's message appeared in 60 countries, acknowledging that his proposal would meet with opposition from all sides: the West would say it's not enough, Muslims would see it as "treason to our scriptures."

But, he argues that because there is disagreement on the issue even among scholars, the practices should be suspended while an open debate searches for consensus.

He writes that "The height of these injustices is that these penalties apply mainly to women and the poor--doubly victimized--never to the rich, the governing, or to the oppressors. Hundreds of prisoners have no dignified legal means to defend themselves."

There is tension between those who support a secular form of Islam such as those in Turkey and Pakistan and those who want strict theocracies to govern as in Iran.

In its mission statement, the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society (ISIS) says Islamic society has been held back by an unwillingness to subject its beliefs, laws, and practices to critical examination. ISIS adds that a lack of respect for the rights of the individual, and also by an unwillingness to listen to other viewpoints or to engage in constructive dialogue have also damaged Islam.

"ISIS promotes freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, freedom of intellectual and scientific inquiry, freedom of conscience and religion--including the freedom to change one's religion or belief- and freedom from religion: the freedom not to believe in any deity."

A 2005 ISIS article by Ghassan F. Abdullah ( says that, while secular ideas are not new to Islamic countries, a movement of secular writing in Arabic has been gaining strength and depth over the last 15 years.

An article in the New Humanist by Ziauddin Sardar ( also says the movement to separate religion from politics began early in Islamic history.

"In classical Islam, it was the rationalists, who tended largely to be philosophers but also included scientists, poets, and administrators, who desired a respectable distance between religIon and politics," he wrote in 2004. "Known as the Mutazalites--literally the Separafists--these thinkers were against strict, legalistic faith based solely on the notion of a Divine Law (the sharia) and worked to transform Islam into a more humanistic religion. They argued that with reason alone one could know how to act morally ... there was no necessity to combine religion and statecraft ..."

Another group, the Asharites, thought otherwise. They rejected the idea that human reason alone can determine morality and argued that it was beyond human capability to understand the unique nature and characteristic of God. "The state, the Asharites argued, had an important part to play in shaping the morality of its citizens; hence religion and politics could not be separated.

"To a very large extent, the history of Islam during the classical period, from the seventh to fourteenth century, can be seen as one gigantic struggle between the Mutazalites and the Asharites."

The author also says that he discovered through travelling to the Middle East that secularism in the Muslim world is associated with oppression and suppression of tradition and religious people. Another problem he observed was that traditional Muslims often equated secularism with Europeanization. So, to embrace secularism was to become "an appendage of western civilization ... standing up to secularism was seen as a necessity for cultural survival and for preserving certain cherished notions of Muslim identity."

Mr. Sardar also tracks a change in Muslim attitudes towards secularism to the beginning of the 1990s. "The failure of the theocratic state in Iran, and the Islamic movements in general, led many Muslim scholars to rethink their position on secularism. Writers and thinkers in Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey began to argue that secularism had a role to play in Muslim societies. But, if Muslims were to accept secularism, both secularism and religion had to be reformulated."

His friend Iftikar Malik, a British political scientist and historian, and author of Islam and Modernity, suggested that a Muslim secularist could be a devout believer and equally respectful of all religions: secularism wouldn't replace religion, only help to reinterpret it.

And Turkey, says Mr. Sardar, might lead the way: "Many in the Muslim world look towards Turkey as an ideal democratic, liberal, secular, and Islamic state."

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, an international movement that The Economist says calls for the "Islamicization" of society, wants such things as separate hours at public swimming pools for girls. An article (October 2004) on Muslims in France comments that the Brotherhood is at odds with the secular tradition among the country's five million Muslims, the largest population of Muslims in Europe.

However, a more recent BBC report described secularism as a doctrine that all the country's Muslim groups profess to support. A 2004 poll suggested that 68 percent of French Muslims regarded the separation of religion and state as "important," and 93 percent felt the same about republican values.

Nevertheless, jihadism is seen by some as a threat to the country even though militants form only a tiny minority of Muslims in France.


Secularism is the concept that many human activities, such as government or education, should be free from religious interference. In a secular society such as Canada's the individual may follow any religious belief, or no belief, she or he chooses without it having any effect on civil or human rights.


In France, which has banned Muslim headscarves and "conspicuous" crucifixes in state schools, 2005 marked the country's centenary of the law that separates religion and the state.

The first International Congress on Islamic Feminism was held in Barcelona, Spain in October 2005.


It's impossible to discuss divisions within Islam without again dealing with the rights of Muslim women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is one fierce women's advocate famous for her fight against the oppression of women. Born in Somalia, the author, film maker, and critic of Islam was a member of the Dutch parliament from January 2003 until May 2006. Her Dutch citizenship was cancelled because of false information she gave authorities when she sought refugee status in 1992. (According to reports, she was fleeing an arranged wedding to a cousin from Canada who had made a deal with her father.) Her critical views of some aspects of Islam led to death threats. For example, her film Submission, a controversial story about the mistreatment of four Muslim women. made her a target of extremists. (The film's director, Theo van Gogh, was killed by a Muslim extremist for his works.)

In a move to advance women's rights in Canada, Raheel Raza be came the first Muslim woman in this country to lead publicly announced prayers in the backyard of a Toronto home in April 2005. In the words of Tarek Fatah, co-founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, "This is a landmark event because it crosses yet another threshold of conservatism ."

Although many traditional Muslims believe that women-led prayers are heretical and un-Islamic, Mr. Fatah says "There are many ways of expressing Islam. And I think this is the way the Prophet would have appreciated it, had he been alive today."

Among those at the prayer was Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter on a Muslim Women's Freedom Tour to promote women's rights within Islam.

In an article in The Washington Post, Ms. Nomani said conservative Muslims see Islamic feminism as an insult. However, many moderate Muslims think the movement "fits with the religion's early teachings and offers one of our best hopes for countering extremism. Indeed, those of us who have joined the movement since it emerged in the 1990s have come to understand that Islam needs to go back to its progressive 7th-century roots if it is to move forward into the 21st century."


1. Shortly after the London attack, more than 170 of the world's leading Muslim scholars from about 35 countries gathered in Jordan's capital, Amman. As The Economist reported, they "agreed to mimmize their own (previously sharp) differences and work together to promote what they regard as 'good theology' over some superficial, violence-promoting interpretations of Islam that have circulated, electronically and in print, all over the world." They also agreed to a "mutual recognition" of Islam's eight main schools of legal interpretation, implying a mutual respect among rival versions of Islam that The Economist says hasn't existed since the Fatimid Empire a millennium ago. It didn't stop the current carnage however. Research that period in history when a more harmonious state existed among Islamic followers.

2. In June 2006, six Islamic groups asked Canadian politicians to help them arrange a meeting of community organizations, youth groups, and imams in an effort to prevent the radicalization of young people. Find out if anything has been done to safeguard Muslim youth from the radical elements within their communities.


Centre for Inquiry

Conclusions of the First International Congress on Islamic Feminism--

Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Society--
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Title Annotation:ISLAM--WITHIN
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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