Rage and Muslim Moderation
By Christophe Dicky in Newsweek
Despite recent provocations against Islam in the West, many Muslims seem weary
of the same old tit for tat.
Newsweek Web Exclusive
Updated: 11:35 AM ET Mar 27, 2008
Pope Benedict XVI, an exiled Egyptian journalist, a bleach-blond Dutch
parliamentarian and Danish cartoonists all have something in common with a
Teddy bear named Mohammed. They have been at the center of that seething storm
called Muslim rage in the last few months, and, with the exception of Mohammed
T. Bear, they appear to be testing that anger to see if it will erupt … yet
If it does, the crisis could peak just as Benedict begins his visit to the
United States in mid-April. As he preaches world peace before the United
Nations, once more we'll witness scenes of books and flags and effigies burning
in the world of Muslims. If precedent holds, rioters may die in Kabul, a nun
could be murdered in Somalia, a priest might be gunned down in Turkey. All this
is all too predictable, as provocateurs like the peroxide blond must certainly
And yet, this time the shockwaves may amount to nothing more than ripples. If
the satellite networks allow their lenses to zoom back from the book burners,
they may discover there's no raging crowd there, just the usual collection of
unemployed malcontents on any street in Karachi. And what is most important, we
may find that the Muslims of this world are just as weary of this sorry
spectacle—maybe even more so—than the Christian, Jewish and secular publics in
There are several signs of change, and not always from the usual suspects.
In Turkey, the once militantly secular government is now dominated by the AK
Party, which has Islamic roots and recently passed a constitutional amendment
that ended the ban on women wearing Muslim headscarves at state universities.
Yet the same government is supporting theological scholarship intended to
modernize—and moderate—traditional Islamic teachings. An initiative run out of
the prime minister's office is re-examining interpretation of the Qur'an itself
as well as the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. Fadi Hakura, an expert on
Turkey at Chatham House in London, recently told the BBC, "This is kind of
akin to the Christian Reformation. Not exactly the same, but if you think, it's
changing the theological foundations."
In Lebanon, Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah once was known as the
spiritual leader of Hizbullah and of its suicidal shock troops, who blew up
American Marines and diplomats in Beirut in the early 1980s. Today, instead of
calling the faithful to arms in response to perceived Western insults,
Fadlallah calls on Muslim intellectuals, elites and religious scholars to work
through the media and political organizations as well as "legal, artistic
and literary" channels.
Fadlallah tells the faithful that the goal of Westerners who commit
"aggressions against the Muslim world's sacred symbols" is to create
a rift between Muslims and Western societies—and to isolate those Muslims who
live in Western societies. He decries those Muslims he calls takfiri who claim
they are fighting heresy with violence. He says they play into the hands of
Islam's enemies. He even calls for "a united Islamic-Christian spiritual
and humanitarian front."
In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah was pushing an agenda of political and religious
moderation even before he assumed full control of the country in 2005. The
kingdom still holds to the ultraconservative Sunni religious dogmas known as
Wahhabism, and the monarchy's legitimacy is tied to its custodianship of Mecca
and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam. That won't change. But Abdullah has
fired 1,000 of the Muslim prayer leaders on the government payroll and decreed
that the 40,000 who remain must be retrained to make sure they are not stoking
Yes, there may be less here than meets the eye. When I talked to Hakura on the
phone Wednesday morning, he cautioned that the Turkish rethink of Islam is
rooted in national traditions and might be a hard sell in the Arab Middle East.
Fadlallah may be enthusiastic about reconciliation with Christians, but on his
Web site he still presents himself as an implacable foe of what he calls
Israel's "Zionist project that is based on violence, arrogance and despise
[sic] of other countries." A highly placed Saudi friend assured me the
other day the so-called "retraining" of Saudi Arabia's retrograde
imams really would be more like "a dialogue" to discuss the best ways
Islam, like any faith, has plenty of violent fools and fanatics. Certainly it
is hard to credit the judgment or intelligence of anyone in Sudan connected
with the arrest of British expatriate schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons a few
months ago. You'll recall she made the nearly fatal mistake of letting her
class of seven-year-olds in Khartoum name a Teddy bear Mohammed. To the kids, many of
whom were named Mohammed themselves, the name just sounded friendly and cuddly.
Sudanese authorities claimed Gibbons was inciting religious hatred and
insulting the Prophet. Eventually she apologized and they released her—against
the wishes of the mob calling for her death.
But even with many qualifications and reservations, in my view the conciliatory
trends in Islam make an interesting contrast with renewed provocations coming
out of Europe.
There's no use wasting much space on the Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders,
the dyed blond with ugly roots who is promoting a film he says will prove his
belief that "Islamic ideology is a retarded, dangerous one." What to
say about a politician reminiscent of Goldmember in an Austin Powers film who
claims the Qur'an should be banned like Adolph Hitler's "Mein Kampf"?
No Dutch television network will show his little movie, and it seems nobody has seen
it, but Wilders promises he will put it on the Internet before the end of this
month. I suggest he wait until April Fools'.
Danish cartoonists and editors previously unknown to the wider world garnered
international attention when they published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad
in 2005 that brought on bloody riots in several Muslim countries in 2006.
Having sunk once again into obscurity, the editors decided to publish one of
the cartoons again last month, reportedly after the arrest of an individual
plotting to kill the cartoonist. Great idea. Take one man's alleged crime and
respond with new insults to an entire faith.
The most problematic event of late, however, was Pope Benedict's decision to
baptize the Egyptian journalist Magdi Allam in Saint Peter's on the night
before Easter, thus converting a famously self-hating Muslim into a self-loving
Christian in the most high-profile setting possible. Perhaps Benedict really
thought, as the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano opined, that the baptism
was just a papal "gesture" to emphasize "in a gentle and clear
way religious freedom." But I am not prepared to believe for a second, as
some around the Vatican have hinted this week, that the Holy Father did not
know who Allam was or how provocative this act would appear to Muslim scholars,
including and especially those who are trying to foster interfaith dialogue.
Ever since 2006, when Benedict cited a medieval Christian emperor talking about
Islam as "evil and inhuman," and the usual Muslim rabble-rousers
whipped up the usual Muslim riots, more responsible members of the world's
Islamic community have hoped to restore calm and reason. And now this.
"The whole spectacle, with its choreography, persona and messages provokes
genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's
advisers on Islam," said a statement issued by Aref Ali Nayed, a spokesman
for 138 Muslim scholars who established the Catholic-Muslim Forum for dialogue
with Rome earlier this month.
Bishop Paul Hinder, the Vatican's representative in Arabia, was reluctant to
criticize the pope, of course, but when I reached him in Abu Dhabi Wednesday
morning he clearly had reservations about the way Allam was received into the
Church. He said that local Christians took him aside at Easter services and
asked him "why it had to be done in such an extraordinary way on a special
night." Hinder contrasted Allam's conversion to Catholicism with former
British prime minister Tony Blair's, which "was done in a private
"What I cannot accept is if it is done in a triumphalistic way," said
Hinder. That is, if Allam were not declaring only his personal beliefs but
intentionally demeaning the faith of Muslims. Yet it is hard to read the
spectacle of his conversion otherwise, because that's exactly the tone in which
Allam writes. He has made his career portraying Islam as a religion that
terrorizes. Allam says he has lived in hiding and in fear for years because of
reaction to his columns in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Serra, which
regularly denounce excesses by Muslims and praise Israel. Allam converted to Catholicism,
he says, as he turned away from "a past in which I imagined that there
could be a moderate Islam." Speaking as if for the pope, Allam told one
interviewer in Italy, "His Holiness has launched an explicit and
revolutionary message to a church that, up to now, has been too prudent in
Allam claims he is hoping his public embrace of Catholicism will help other
converts to speak out in public. But that hardly seems likely. The more
probable scenario is that others will feel even more vulnerable, while Allam's
books, like many Muslim-bashing screeds that preceded them, climb the
Unless—and this really would be news—the Muslim world just turns the page.