A Saudi parish? Last Egyptian belly dancer?

75ab351f 7c58 456f 88aa 1da878455e2aHere we go again. Newsweek has another one of those think pieces about trends in modern Islam that show movement toward a day when moderation will rule and extremists will be be disgraced as the fake Muslims that thinkers in the West hope and pray (if many Western thinkers pray) that they are. It's a good piece, in many ways. Here's the opening, which details the problems that Osama bin Laden has had getting Muslim theologians to back his point of view.

Back in the mid-1990s, Osama bin Laden had a problem, and it was Islam. He wanted to say the Qur'an gave his followers license to kill innocents -- and themselves -- in the cause of "jihad." That was how he could justify his global campaign of terror. But that's not what the Muslim holy book says, and that's not the way it was interpreted by any of the great scholars and preachers of the faith.

So bin Laden set about spinning the revelations contained in the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Hadith, which provide much of the context for actual religious practice in the Muslim world. The Saudi millionaire wrote a diatribe that he called a declaration of war and then a fatwa, or religious edict, cherry-picking quotations from Islamic Scripture and calling on dubious scholars to back him up. The tracts were political propaganda, not theology, but for his purpose they worked very well. The apocalyptic notion of holy war he promoted -- and the reality of it that he demonstrated on 9/11 -- became the dominant vision of Islam for those with little understanding of the faith, whether in the West or, indeed, the Muslim world. Even many religious scholars were intimidated.

Now that's starting to change. Important Muslim thinkers, including some on whom bin Laden depended for support, have rejected his vision of jihad.

Do you see the problem?

Once again, there is only one valid form of Islam, which is the exact opposite of another -- accurate, I might add -- message that the mainstream media have been sending post-Sept. 11, which is that Islam is not a monolithic religion with one pope or college of cardinals that shape the faith. There are many views of Islamic doctrine, many schools of Sharia, many views of "jihad," etc. etc.

Newsweek tells us that Osama cherry-picked himself some "dubious scholars" to back his point of view, yet, a few sentences later, we are told that "important Muslim thinkers" who once supported him are now changing their minds. So is there an official movement out there for dubious, yet important, Muslim scholars and thinkers?

I am not downplaying the importance of the trend covered in the article, which is a major centrist school of Muslim thought is developing in Turkey. Then again, the article does little to tell us that current trends in Turkey face strong opposition from secularists and ultra-traditional, and thus "dubious," Muslim leaders. Meanwhile, leaders of religious minorities in Turkey are not seeing major signs of progress on religious liberty.

Here is a sample of how the Turkey project, which is linked to the ruling AK Party, relates to one very practical issues -- women driving automobiles. One of the leaders is Mehmet Gormez, a theology professor at the University of Ankara:

Mehmet Aydin, who first conceived the Hadith project four years ago, when he was Turkey's minister of state for religious affairs, says it is obvious that in the seventh century, the time of the Prophet, life was very different. One Hadith, for instance, forbids women from traveling alone. In Saudi Arabia, this and other sayings are given as a reason women should not be allowed to drive. "This is clearly not a religious injunction but related to security in a specific time and place," says Gormez. In fact, the Prophet says elsewhere that he misses those days, evidently in his recent memory, when women could travel alone from Yemen to Mecca.

Interesting information. But, again, tou have to ask: Do all of those scholars and thinkers in Saudi Arabia, the ones linked to so many new mosques and academic think tanks in the West, know that they are "dubious," when it comes to taking part in these debates?

BellyDance4There's important info in this piece. But can we trust Newsweek and its decree that there is only one valid Islam, one valid point of view on these issues that are causing such fierce and often fatal arguments in places like, oh, Egypt and Pakistan?

Here's an idea: Watch and see if the Roman Catholic Church gets to open that one parish in Saudia Arabia, the one Pope Benedict XVI is using as a test case for progress on religious liberties in the land of Mecca.

Or -- this might be more fun -- you can watch to see what happens in Egypt, where a sidebar to that Newsweek piece says that some of the more edgy forms of art and culture are under attack. Try to imagine Egypt without belly dancing.

What is happening?

Egyptians deplore what they call the Saudization of their culture. Egypt has long dominated the performing arts from Morocco to Iraq, but now petrodollar-flush Saudi investors are buying up the contracts of singers and actors, reshaping the TV and film industries and setting a media agenda rooted more in strict Saudi values than in those of freewheeling Egypt. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the biggest problem in the Middle East right now," says mobile-phone billionaire Naquib Sawiris. "Egypt was always very liberal, very secular and very modern. Now ..." He gestures from the window of his 26th-floor Cairo office: "I'm looking at my country, and it's not my country any longer. I feel like an alien here."

At the Grand Hyatt Cairo, a mile upstream along the Nile, the five-star hotel's Saudi owner banned alcohol as of May 1 and ostentatiously ordered its $1.4 million inventory of booze flushed down the drains. "A hotel in Egypt without alcohol is like a beach without a sea," says Aly Mourad, chairman of Studio Masr, the country's oldest film outfit. He says Saudis -- who don't even have movie theaters in their own country -- now finance 95 percent of the films made in Egypt. "They say, here, you can have our money, but there are just a few little conditions."

You get the picture. Stay tuned. There appear to be multiple ways to read the Koran on these issues, no matter what Newsweek says. You can also watch the status of those beheadings in Saudi Arabia, too. But that won't be much fun.

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