The incidents are becoming too commonplace: a suicide bomber kills more than a hundred people at a volleyball game in Pakistan; another alleged attempt on the life of a Danish cartoonist by a disaffected Muslim.

I know these matters are complicated. They involve civil wars in Pakistan, convoluted national and tribal politics, not only in Pakistan but around the world in small countries, failed states such as Somalia where young men are easily recruited into Islamic radicalism.

Not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan where foreign troops, including Canada's, are seen by militants as occupiers and enemies of Islam.

Still, it is right to wonder, in your heart and your mind, what's going on here? Or perhaps, as the debaters on were asked: Can Islam be reformed?


Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author and former Dutch politician. (Reuters)

It is always a delicate question, particularly when you're dealing with more than a billion people worldwide and a religion split into branches, Sunni and Shia, in a 1,400-year-old conflict with each other.

Western leaders are always eager to assure their Muslim citizens and the world that Islam is a religion of peace.

Necessary though the platitude may be — and for the truth it expresses about hundreds of millions of peaceable Muslims — hearing the refrain can be puzzling when, in the words of the late Samuel Huntington, the "bloody borders" of the Muslim world are always aflame in some murderous conflict.

Angry folks

There are angry Muslim men around the world, surely. But there are also angry Muslim women, angry at their religion.

One is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the outspoken Somali-born author of Infidel, who had to flee Holland in fear of her life, among other reasons.

She is furious about the way she says her religion treats and, in some places, physically mutilates women.

In a meeting I attended last spring she said straight out that Islam cannot be reformed by those who run it, period. It is up to women to lead the fight from within.

Another opponent is Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-born psychiatrist who now lives in the U.S.; she is one of the FORA debaters.

I first came across her through her startling performance on Al Jazeera TV in 2006, a video that still has a significant following on YouTube.

She is one angry woman. She castigates Islam and the clerics who keep it in its medieval garb. She is disgusted by the treatment of women, by Sharia law and its violence against both men and women.

No soothing words

Like Hirsi Ali, Sultan does not believe Islam can be reformed. Nor does she believe in the possibility of a moderate Islam. On that point, she says, she is in full agreement with radical militants.

Her main job, she says, is to warn the West not to believe those Muslims who speak out of both sides of their mouth, first to a Muslim audience, then to a Western one to which they utter soothing words.

She also makes no distinction between Islam and Islamism, which is the political movement suffused with religion. She claims Islam is Islamism after all is said and done.

Islam, she tells us, is incompatible with Western values and, in her view, must be superseded by something different and modern. Though just what, she doesn't say.

She is also chilling in her condemnation of the Koran, which she says is a book filled with violence.

You can see why she calls her new book, A God Who Hates.

Over the top

Now, Wafa Sultan has her critics. Her petulant anti-Islam stance leaves no room for compromise and would seem to suggest endless, perpetual war with a religion of 1.4 billion people.

Even Judah Pearl, the father of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was gruesomely executed by extremists in Pakistan in 2002, says Sultan is "over the top."

Not for nothing does the L.A. Times refer to her as "Islam's Ann Coulter," after America's verbal bomb-slinging right winger.

Her anger seems to come out of some deep, personal core. She speaks of being "humiliated" by her religion. You don't have to be a psychiatrist to understand her fervid dislike of the way women are treated in much of the Muslim world.

On the other side of this "debate" was another contentious figure, Daniel Pipes, an American academic who heads a think-tank called the Middle East Forum and an online organization called Campus Watch, which critiques how Middle East issues are taught on many Western campuses.

Equally strident, Pipes has acquired many enemies over the years, including Muslim groups who feel he is too pro-Israel to be a dispassionate analyst.

But in the debate he was a puppy dog, essentially because this was an argument between allies.

A distinction

Still, Pipes profoundly disagrees with Sultan. His mantra, which he repeats again and again, has always been "Radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution."

Pipes notes that his PhD was in early Islamic history and that, in his study of Islam, he has seen changes occurring throughout its development.

Islamism, he says, is only 80 years old and resembles the totalitarian movements of the 1930s, which is when it also began to develop.

In the past 40 years, he says he has seen other changes, small ones, he acknowledges, but important.

For example, Turkish authorities have allowed men and women to pray next to each other at funerals. Even in Iran, a religious court allowed equal rights for a Muslim and non-Muslim in a divorce suit.

And, though he doesn't cite this, just last week 19 Canadian and American imams signed a public fatwa against the use of terror.

Be watchful

These changes must be encouraged by allies of moderate Islam, argues Pipes.

As for the Koran, it's a "supermarket," he says, quoting a Muslim scholar. There are warlike passages and peaceable ones.

Muslims, he says, can pick their favourite selections from the Koran, just like Jews and Christians can from the Bible, while they ignore others.

It is wrong, of course, to think an historical movement, a religion (even if you believe it is God-given), can't change. Human institutions are in perpetual transformation, even if the pace is not always to our liking.

Finally, Pipes offers this last point: "There is no alternative."

Pipes certainly has his critics but understands the alternative to perpetual war is patience, assistance and, yes, watchfulness towards enemies who threaten to destroy you.

In that sense, he said (before the attempted airline bombing at Christmas), he was going to say something he didn't like to say and nobody likes hearing: If you're going to be safe, you have to profile, be watchful.

Since then, as the U.S. government has put the citizens of 14 nations on a special list, newspaper editorials are saying versions of the same thing. And I suspect so are many ordinary people.