Rarely has a big idea gotten more lip service and less real substance than the argument that there is a war of ideas underway for the soul of the Muslim world. Do a Google search on war of ideas and Muslim, and you get more than 11 million hits. Yet, four years after Sept. 11, 2001, the real battle is only now beginning.
The Bush administration's response has been to throw former White House spinmeister Karen Hughes into the fray. The implication is that Muslims will stop hating America if we can just improve our "public diplomacy" through Hughes's new office at the State Department. Forgive me, but that idea strikes me as dangerously naive. This is not a propaganda problem, nor is it one that the United States can solve.
The war within Islam takes place every day in mosques, study groups and televised sermons. And although it's about ideas, it has deadly consequences, with hundreds dying from suicide car bombings this week in Iraq alone. It's hard for a non-Muslim such as me to fully understand this struggle, but after years of reporting on the Middle East, reading and talking to Muslim friends, I'm beginning to see some connections.
Traditional Islam is under assault from a puritanical fringe group known as the Salafists. The name is drawn from an Arabic word that refers to the seventh-century ancestors who walked with the Prophet Muhammad. For a Christian analogy to the Salafist extremists, think of the fanatical monk Savonarola, who in the 15th century burned the books of Florence in his rage at the corruption of the Medicis. The difference is that the Salafists have access to the Internet and car bombs -- and perhaps far more dangerous weapons.
An important new book by Quintan Wiktorowicz, titled "Radical Islam Rising," makes clear that the Salafists operate like a cult. They draw in vulnerable young people, fill them with ideas that give their lives a fiery new meaning, and send them into battle against the unbelievers. Combating this seductive Salafist preaching requires the same kind of intense "deprogramming" used to wean away converts from other modern cults.
Wiktorowicz researched his book by embedding himself with al-Muhajiroun, an extremist Salafist group based in London. He found that the group preyed on disoriented young Muslims -- not poor or oppressed themselves but confused and looking for meaning. Recruitment often involved a personal crisis that provided the Muslim cultists with a "cognitive opening."
"To many young Muslims, their parents' version of Islam seems archaic, backward and ill-informed," Wiktorowicz explains. Into this spiritual void march the Salafists. They provide a structured life, through a mandatory study session every week in the halaqah, or prayer circle, and a new set of life rules. Among the prohibited activities Wiktorowicz discovered in his research were "playing games," "watching TV," "sleeping a lot and chilling out," and "hanging out with friends."
Frankly, Hughes and her public diplomats aren't going to be much help in deprogramming a young Salafist. Governments can contain the violent cults by making it riskier to join -- so that the confused young Muslim must weigh the danger of deportation or even arrest before joining an extremist group. But the real battle of ideas requires theological ammunition, and that's where there are some interesting new developments.
Traditional Islam is finally starting to fight back against the Salafists and their self-taught, literalist interpretations of the Koran. One of the leaders in this effort is Jordan's King Abdullah, heir to a Hashemite throne that traces its lineage back to Muhammad. He convened an Islamic conference in Amman in July that concluded with a communique on "True Islam and Its Role in Modern Society." It reemphasized the traditional faith -- the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, the orthodox school of Shiite jurisprudence, the canon set forth over centuries of fatwas and other orthodox interpretations of what Islam means.
Rather than running scared, as mainstream clerics sometimes do when facing the Salafist onslaught, the Amman declaration was proud and emphatic. It drew together fatwas from the leading clerics in Islam, including the sheik of Al-Azhar in Cairo and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Najaf. Another backer was Sheik Yusuf Qaradawi, who has a weekly show on al-Jazeera and is probably the best-known television preacher in the Arab world.
These Islamic leaders sense that their religion is being kidnapped by Salafist radicals with a grab-bag theology, and they are finally beginning to push back. It's a war of ideas they should win, if they can make traditional Islam a vibrant, living faith. Young Muslims don't want to go back to the seventh century; they want to live with dignity in the 21st.