Consumers of mainstream news hear, from time to time, the term "Arab street" used to describe the mindset of those opposed to so-called Western values and, in particular, the policies of the United States, England and other nations involved in conflicts in the Middle East. The "Arab street" is usually described in terms of great masses of people who are poor, oppressed and, other than their anger, powerless. But is that the reality in the debates we face today? What are the key issues and who cares about them?
A recent New York Times story by Jane Perlez offered a stunning look into the reality of the debates that are unfolding in England, focusing on a London event advocating a crucial concept in Islamic history -- the return of the "caliphate" in the Muslim world. You know you are dealing with strong stuff when you see a headline in the Times like this one: "London Gathering Defends Vision of Radical Islam."
Here is the heart of the story, as a "radical Islamic party" strikes back against its critics:
The party, Hizb ut-Tahrir, calls for the return of the caliphate in Muslim countries, the end of Israel and the withdrawal of all Western interests in the Middle East. In the aftermath of the botched terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow, there were renewed calls in Parliament for barring the group, on the ground that though it officially advocates change by peaceful means, its pronouncements can encourage Muslims to turn toward terrorism.
The conference was dedicated to the return of the Khilafah, or caliphate, the organization of Muslim power that held sway for centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
Titled Khilafah: The Need and the Method, it was held at the Alexandra Palace, a 19th-century entertainment complex in grand gardens in northern London, and drew a largely professional audience -- IT managers, bankers, teachers. For hours, speakers assailed the British government for linking the group to terrorism, and for too often treating Muslims as terrorism suspects, and drummed at the theme of the need for Muslim rule.
"There is no Islam as a way of life without a Khilafah," said Kamal Abuzahra, an Islamic academic of Bangladeshi origin, earning a roar of approval and calls of "Allahu Akbar."
Note the makeup of the crowd. Is this your usual picture of the "Arab street," when you read reports about groups within Islam that advocate radical or even traditional forms of the faith? I think not. That is what makes this story so crucial.
The story even fills in some of the religious content of this debate and, here is the key, allows the people taking part in the conference to describe their own views. Why is the concept of a "caliphate" so appealing?
"If you look at the political structure in the Muslim world, it's a police state," said Mohammed Baig, 28, a second-generation British Indian who is an asset manager specializing in corporate governance and has been a Tahrir party member for seven years. "You have the public opinion underground, and then staged public opinion in the media."
Most people in the Muslim world want Shariah, the code of Islamic law based on the Koran, he said.
"Our feeling is: what gives Western governments the right to impose a set of values on a people who don't believe in them?" he said, referring to the United States and Britain pushing for democratic values in the Middle East.
And there you have it, according to the moderate Muslims I have talked with in recent months. Reporters who want to cover this debate must realize that, as one scholar told me: "It is all about Shariah." Can Shariah come to the West? Will governments in the West allow that and, if they do, are the political leaders who back that development prepared to deal with its affects on public life?
Read this Times report. Twice. (Hat tip to Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher for spotting this story.)