Islam in the new millennium

Veteran reporter Robin Wright of The Washington Post has written a sprightly and encouraging article for Time about Muslims around the world who "do not want either an Iranian-style theocracy or a Western-style democracy." Instead, "They want a blend, with clerics playing an advisory role in societies, not ruling them."

An impressive online photo gallery accompanies the report. Wright begins with the story of Dalia Ziada, who was subjected to female circumcision at age 8 and is now a human-rights activist in Cairo. Ziada is not a woman who backs down:

She now champions everything from freedom of speech to women's rights and political prisoners. To promote civil disobedience, Ziada last year translated into Arabic a comic-book history about Martin Luther King Jr. and distributed 2,000 copies from Morocco to Yemen.

Now 26, Ziada organized Cairo's first human-rights film festival in November. The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada doorstopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theater was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night -- waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie.

Wright also describes how much a difference a blogging dentist can make in his homeland:

The soft revolution's voices are widening the Islamic political spectrum. Mostafa Nagar, 28, an Egyptian dentist, runs a blog called Waves in the Sea of Change, which is part of an Internet-based call for a renaissance in Islamic thinking. Yet Nagar belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest Islamist movement in the Middle East. His blog launched a wave of challenges from within the Brotherhood to its proposed manifesto, which limits the political rights of women and Christians. Nagar called for dividing the religious and political wings of the movement, a nod to the separation of mosque and state, and pressed the party to run technocrats rather than clerics for positions of party leadership and public office.

When Nagar and his colleagues were urged to leave the Brotherhood, they decided to stay. "As a public party," he says, "its decisions are relevant to the destiny of all Egyptians, so their thoughts should be open to all people." And indeed, his blog -- and other criticism from the movement's youth wing -- has caused the manifesto to be put on ice.

Some of this territory will be familiar to believers of any religion who navigate through a world of global news networks, dizzying technological change and inescapable pop culture. Some of the language in Wright's article may remind Western Christians of the emergent movement. She quotes Kaswara al-Khatib, a former producer of a TV show, Yallah Shabab (Hey, Young People): "It used to be that you could be either devout or liberal, with no middle ground. The focus had been only on God's punishment. We focused on God's mercy."

The story of this soft revolution will transpire country by country, and I expect it will be measured more in decades than in individual years. Nevertheless, Wright has provided an excellent preview of what could become an Islamic Reformation.

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