Taking stock of radical Islam

Pastor Terry Jones's threats to burn copies of the Qur'an have sparked renewed discussion about the future of Islam, writes Anna-Liza Kozma.

"Something good, something even wonderful could come out of Pastor Terry Jones's stunt," Raheel Raza told me as I was preparing CBC Radio's Cross Country Checkup discussion about the worldwide response to the Florida preacher's plan to burn copies of the Qur'an.

"What we're really having now is a discussion about the future of Islam. It's a discussion we really need to have."

Raheel Raza, the author of Their Jihad ... not my Jihad, argues that Muslim believers living in Western democracies need to speak up for reform of what she terms "the violent political agenda of Islam that is hijacking our beliefs."

Raza, a member of the Muslim Canadian Congress, describes herself as an observant Muslim working for reform from within her faith community. 

"Without in any way condoning what Pastor Jones has done — which is hate at its worst," she said, she nonetheless believes Jones is expressing "understandable frustration" with extreme Islam.

"It is time for us to take stock — to recognize that we have a problem — and to create a dialogue."

It's a dialogue that is difficult to have. But on Cross Country Checkup, we try. Phil Little in Salt Air, B.C., called the program to express concern about what he termed "a climate of vilification against Islam" in the U.S., and to say that the public demonstrations against the building of an Islamic cultural centre near Ground Zero in New York City show that "Americans still fear Islam."

Stuart Vriesinga, a peacekeeper who served in Iraq, called Checkup from Guelph, Ont., to say he sees "a general mistrust" of Muslims in the West and "we need to examine that carefully."

According to Peter Stockland, executive director of the Centre for Cultural Renewal and former editor-in-chief of The Montreal Gazette, the problem is that we live in a world where "nobodies can ambush history." Andy Warhol's 15 minutes of fame have turned into "15 milliseconds in which it takes to go around the world with actions that will have real world consequences … when real people will really die because of them."

Jamal Badawi, president of the Islamic Information Foundation Canada and imam of the Ummah Masjid Mosque in Halifax, feels there is still much xenophobia and misunderstanding in the media about Islam. He cites misreporting in the early stories about the planned Islamic cultural centre in New York City, which did not make clear the building would be two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center attacks.

However, Imam Badawi feels the news coverage has improved recently, with "more recognition that it is a minority of Muslims who are creating violence."

The West is not the only place stereotypes exist, says. "Muslims have stereotypes of the West too."

Badawi is optimistic that a violent public outburst such as erupted in London after the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses in 1988, and the subsequent fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini a year later, no longer occurs in North America and Europe but is rather confined to Muslim countries.

"Instead, Muslims in North America are on the whole reaching out and integrating into their communities," Badawi said. "Muslims in the West have no control over those with less education, who tend to react 'emotionally.'"

Raza says she was pleased, and not a little surprised, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Defence Minister Peter MacKay joined U.S. leaders President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and General David Petraeus in calling the planned torching of the Islamic scriptures in Gainesville. Fla., a dangerous insult to Muslims around the world. However, she told Checkup that she wished political leaders here and in the U.S. would speak out as strongly about what she termed, "Muslim abuses, such as burning Christian churches and books."

Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, believes the only proven way to deal with these potentially explosive situations is to do "everything one can to diffuse and dampen sentiments … to prevent worldwide reprisals."

However, "Neither the U.S., nor any other free country, can prevent free people from doing things that cause offence to radical Muslims," he said.

Attention from the news media and world leaders on relatively small "stunts" doesn't help, he adds. Neither does it help that people in non-Western countries have limited internet and media access. Changes in news, such as the Florida pastor's decision to call off the Qur'an burning, may not reach demonstrators for many days.

The Associated Press reported Sunday, for example, that many Afghans did not seem aware of Jones's thwarted plan. On the third day of protests, Afghan soldiers in eastern Logar province fired on demonstrators, chanting "Death to America," who tried to storm a government building. Two protesters were killed.

Marshall, author and editor of more than 20 books — including Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion and Their Blood Cries Out, an award-winning survey of religious persecution worldwide believes that there is a vigorous and renewed attempt "to impose Islamic standards of blasphemy worldwide."

Many devout Muslims regard the Qur'an as "uncreated" and "divine." Desecration, intentional or accidental, can be considered blasphemy. 

Marshall has studied blasphemy accusations, which number in the millions, he says, with many of the accused being Muslims. Citing a few instances from the Afghan region:

  • In 2003, Ranjha Masih was sentenced to life imprisonment after a stone he threw hit a sign that contained a verse from the Qur'an.
  • In 2007, Afghans demonstrated after American soldiers gave local children soccer balls decorated with flags, including Saudi Arabia, which carries a Qur'anic reference.
  • In 2008, Ghaus Zalmai and Mushtaq Ahmad were each sentenced to 20 years in prison for publishing a Dari translation of the Qur'an. " The contents of this book show that its writers and editors are members of a religious pluralism movement in the West," said Dr. Sher Ali Zarifi, chair of the investigating commission.
  • In January 2010, Afghan police killed six people when they opened fire on 1,000 protestors who claimed ISAF soldiers desecrated a Qur'an.

Far more dangerous is vigilante violence, Marshall argues.

Last year, Najeeb Zafar  was murdered after being accused of desecrating a wall calendar with holy verses on it. And in August 2009, after allegations a copy of the Qur'an had been torn, 1,000 Muslims believed to be connected to the Taliban-linked Sipah-e-Sahaba militant group attacked local Christians. More than 40 homes were razed and at least seven Christians were killed, six of whom, including two children, were burned alive.