Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2004/11 Shevat, 5764

Wesley Pruden

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A Muslim campaign to erase stereotypes | A few brave Muslims have set out to correct what they call the abuse of what President Bush calls "the religion of peace." One of the bravest travels with a bodyguard.

Moderate Muslims — they prefer the adjective "progressive" — are at last getting their act together, to try to erase the stigma of Jew-baiting and Christian-conking that radicals, extremists and killers have attached to their religion.

"Islam is a religion of peace," says Omid Safi, an Islamic scholar at Colgate University. "These [terrorists] have nothing to do with Islam."

Nevertheless, he tells the San Francisco Chronicle, he recognizes that a network dedicated to murder in the name of Allah was growing throughout the world long before the evil of September 11 gave Islam a bad name in the West.

"We have our fanatics just like everyone else," he says. "We have to take a stand against Saudi-infected extremism."

Former JWR contributor Irshad Manji, a best-selling author who travels with a bodyguard, employs blunter language: "Totalitarian impulses lurk in mainstream Islam." Fair or not, Islam terrifies most Americans, who don't often recognize the difference between Islamic believers, most of whom are no more threatening than Presbyterians or Baptists, and radical Islamist followers of imams who preach death for everyone who isn't a radical Islamist.

Irshad Manji is easy for the Islamists to hate. She's a lesbian, a feminist and a journalist. In Islamist eyes, what's not to hate? The very title of her new best seller, "The Trouble With Islam," (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) is regarded as blasphemy by many Muslims who think there's nothing wrong with the practice of Islam just the way it is, abusing infidels included. If Mzz Manji's "lifestyle" and occupation were not bad enough, some of the most hated of the infidels, such as Islamic scholar Daniel Pipes, have praised her book. Her bodyguards can expect to earn their money.

Despite George W. Bush's bland assurances that Muslims are just as peaceful as Methodists, Jews and Catholics, most Americans prefer to trust but verify. American churchmen are often fierce partisans for their sectarian beliefs — "my G-d is awesomer than your G-d" — but none of them fly airplanes into office buildings as a mark of manly courage, or blow up women and children for the glory of G-d. The president's blank-check vote of confidence for Islam sounds like pandering for the elusive Muslim vote, a factor in Michigan but significant nowhere else. Muslim rebuke of Muslim extremism, even late, is what we've been waiting to hear.

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Her book, says Mzz Manji, was written as an act of faith. "It's not an attack on Islam, but I'm honest enough to talk about both the theology and the practice." Islam, she tells the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, must "come clean" about some of its practices. "We need to talk about our ill treatment of women, the Jew-baiting and bashing and the scourge of slavery that continues to this day in Islamic nations." She would even discard the ritual practice of facing Mecca to pray five times a day, which she says was imposed on Muslims by Arabs, who comprise only a small fraction of the world's 300 million Muslims.

Kecia Ali, a research associate in women's religious studies at Harvard, says "progressive Muslims" don't necessarily want to change the rituals. "We're not looking to stop fasting during Ramadan or praying five times a day," she says. "We are not even opposing segregation of the sexes during prayers. But we will raise the issue of how women are given the inferior places for prayer in many mosques."

For many of the "progressive" Muslims, the key to real reform is the elimination of the smarmy Saudi influence in the mosques. Given the mosques' tie to the Saudi purse, this will be easier said than done. "It's a delicate balancing act," says Mzz Ali. "We have to both defend Islam from virulent stereotypes and offer a critique that acknowledges the oppressive practices and ideas within Islam."

Muslims who escaped to America from the oppression of both government and mosque are no doubt put off by the freedom to criticize (and even carp at) whatever an American feels like criticizing or carping at. We're often at our fiercest carping at organized religion. Americans usually find Islam, with all its laws and orders, more fiat than faith, imposed by the state rather than something held precious in the secret places of the heart.

It's hard to see how Islam will ever add very much to the established Judeo-Christian traditions of the American culture, but eliminating the reason for the stereotype must be a first order of Muslim business.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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