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FrontPage Symposium: Revisiting the “Moderate Islam” Debate

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Posted on May 27 2010 1:01 am
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In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have invited four distinguished guests to discuss the question: Is there a moderate Islam? Our guests today are:

Timothy Furnish, a former U.S. Army Arabic interrogator, he is a consultant and author with a Ph.D. in Islamic History. He is currently working on a book on modern Muslim plans to resurrect the caliphate. His website, dedicated to Islamic eschatology, is www.mahdiwatch.org

Tawfik Hamid, an Islamic thinker and reformer who is the author of Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam. A one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt, he was a member of Jemaah Islamiya, a terrorist Islamic organization, with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who later became the second in command of al-Qaeda. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D. is the President and Founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A devout Muslim, he served 11 years as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy. He is a nationally recognized expert in the contest of ideas against political Islam, American Islamist organizations, and the Muslim Brotherhood. He regularly briefs members of the House and Senate congressional anti-terror caucuses and has served as a guest lecturer on Islam to deploying officers at the Joint Forces Staff College.  Dr. Jasser was presented with the 2007 Director’s Community Leadership Award by the Phoenix office of the FBI and was recognized as a “Defender of the Home Front” by the Center for Security Policy. He recently narrated the documentaryThe Third Jihad, produced by PublicScope Films. His chapter, Americanism vs. Islamism is featured in the recently released book, The Other Muslims (Palgrave-Macmillan) edited by Zeyno Baran.

and

Robert Spencer, a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of ten books, eleven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades)and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran, is available now from Regnery Publishing, and he is coauthor (with Pamela Geller) of the forthcoming book The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America (Simon and Schuster).

FP: Timothy Furnish, Tawfik Hamid, Dr.  M. Zuhdi Jasser and Robert Spencer, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Dr. Furnish, let me begin with you. Robert Spencer recently entered a debate at NewsReal Blog where he argued that there is no moderate Islam. What is your perspective on his argument?

Furnish: I find myself in the curious (and somewhat uncomfortable) position of disagreeing with my friend Robert Spencer, for whom I have the utmost respect and with whom I almost always totally agree. However, on this issue of whether moderate Islam exists, I think Robert may be missing something.

He is exactly right that Sunni Islam–whence comes directly Salafism, Wahhabism and jihadism–promotes violence against non-Muslims in order to make Islam paramount over the entire planet.  I have no quarrel with that stance. But I would argue that this is largely because within this majority branch of Islam the only acceptable exegetical paradigm regarding the Qur’an is a literalist one: and of course when passages such as “behead the unbeliever” [Suras 47:3 and 8:12] are read literally the good Muslim had better reach for his sword–or be rightly accused of infidelity to Allah’s Word.

However, perhaps because Robert is so well-versed in the theology of Islam, as opposed to the historical record of how that religious theory has been acted out on the stage of history, he seems to overlook the key fact on the ground that certain minorities within Islam have developed a non-literalist, even allegorical, approach to reading the Qur’an. Foremost among these moderates are the Isma`ilis, the Sevener Shi`is, whose global head is the philanthropical Aga Khan.  Isma’ilis may number only in the tens of millions (out of the total Muslim community of some 1.3 billion, second only to Christianity’s 2+ billion), but they do exist and they define, for example, jihad not as killing or conquering unbelievers, but as economic development and charity work.

In general, all branches of Shi`ism (which makes up perhaps 15% of the world’s Muslims), including the Twelvers of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, allow the practice of ijtihad, “independent theological-legal judgment”–which is decidedly not the case for Sunnism. And while this has allowed for the ayatollahs to come up with negative novelties such as vilayet-i faqih (Khomeini’s “rule of the jurisconsult”), it also leaves the door open to non-literal exegesis of the anachronistic passages of the Qur’an.

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