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Scholars Debate Reform in Islam, Muslim States - 2002-10-22

Interest in Islam has increased significantly in the wake of last year's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. For Islamic scholars in the west, the question of religious reform has also sparked vigorous debate, with many asking whether it's the religion that needs reform or the governments that act in its name.

Former Pakistani diplomat Akbar Ahmed warns that those who target Islam for reform are missing the point.

"Let us not be so obsessed with the notion of a liberal Islam. Let us talk of a liberal society. Let us talk of an open, tolerant, democratic, Islamic society, said Mr. Ahmed, who teaches Islamic studies at Washington D.C.'s American University.

At a recent conference on Islam, he acknowledged that many Islamic states have fallen short of that goal. But, he says, do not blame that on religion, stressing the need for dialogue and political reform. But most of all, Mr. Ahmed said, the key to reform is education.

"I believe education is at the base of any attempt at helping the Muslim world rediscover its own sense of destiny, of compassion. And that is through education," he said.

Mr. Ahmed complained that Islamic schools that teach the Koran through memorization are a disservice to Islam. He said discussing the principles set forth in the Koran would highlight Islam's flexibility, not its rigidity.

University of Richmond Law Professor Azizah al-Hibri says a better understanding of Islamic principles could empower people to question how their government may be corrupting those principles.

"The state in the Muslim world should not, although it does this today and that's the corruption of the state," she said. "It should not be able to impose on its populous a choice of religion. Why? Because the Koran says there is no coercion in religion. And yet today, because of modernization and the lack of deep knowledge of Islam, we have states that define themselves as Hanafi or Malaki and states who try to extend Islamic law to non-Muslim minorities."

Professor al-Hibri said such practices distort the teachings of Islam.

"This is wrong," she said. "This is not wrong because the west says so. This is wrong because the Koran says so, because traditional Islamic jurisprudence says so."

Islamic scholars like Professor al-Hibri also complain about what they see as a distorted image of Islam in the West, especially after last year's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

Professor Muqtedar Khan of Adrian College in Michigan says the gap of understanding between Islam and the West clouds the real issue for Muslim societies which, he says, has little to do with religion.

"Even if Muslims were to give up Islam completely, the inequities, the oppression, the injustices that are so institutionalized in the Muslim world will make their life uncomfortable and unworthy of living," stressed Professor Khan.

Mr. Khan listed election fraud, harassment of human rights groups, economic and political corruption as examples. He says radical Islam in part rises from frustration with the status quo and a lack of legitimate political space for dissent.

Mr. Khan adds that demonizing Islam in the West undermines reform efforts underway in many Muslim societies.