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The Paris Tragedy and the War Within Islam

No other world faith has had as difficult a time adjusting to modernity, capitalism, liberalism, democracy, commercialism and women’s rights as Islam, especially its radical elements. The news is replete with stories of rage, violence, slaughter, war, and terrorism in Muslim lands that are manifestations of radical Islam’s tortured relationship with the modern world. From the deserts of Iraq and Syria to the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan, from the plains of Somalia to the jungles of Nigeria, Muslim militants have made headlines by trying to turn back the clock and resurrect Medieval theocracies based on strict shariah law and a world constructed in the 7th century AD by the Prophet Mohammad. Whether it be the jihadi terrorist group ISIS’s June 2014 proclamation of the resurrection of the Medieval “Caliphate,” Mullah Omar’s 1995 declaration of an “Emirate” in Taliban-controlled Kandahar, Afghanistan, the jihad of Boko Haram (whose name means “Western education is forbidden”) in Nigeria to create a theocracy, the Caucasian Emirate’s terror campaign against Russia aimed at reestablishing the “Imamate” of the holy warrior Shamil, the Shabab’s efforts to create a shariah-law theocracy in Somalia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan’s efforts to overthrow that country’s secular government through violent jihad, Ansar Dine’s efforts to create a strict Shariah Islamic state in Mali, or Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s terror campaign which led to the tragedy in Paris, Muslim radicals are clearly at war with the vision of the modern secular state that was forged in the Christian West over the last two hundred and fifty years.

The cost of these jihads to forge militant Muslim theocracies, which represent a push back against the culture of the West with its liberal views on everything from relations between sexes to the separation between church and state, has been horrific. Of the approximately 18,000 people killed in terrorist incidents in 2013, an astounding 82% of the deaths took place in Muslim Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan.

Most alarming, these terroristic movements in Africa, Central Asia, South Asia and the Middle East that have cost thousands of people their lives represent the will of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of militants who believe that violent jihad and the enforcement of shariah law are a legitimate means of expressing their Islamic beliefs and constructing a vision of Allah’s rule on earth that is devoid of the jahilyya (religious ignorance) and “corruption” of Western-secular values. Such actions as the Taliban’s shooting in the head of Malalai Joya, (the Pakistani school girl who recently won the Noble Prize for bravely standing up to the Taliban in Pakistan in defense of girls’ rights to go to school), the kidnapping of hundreds of school girls by Boko Haram Islamic terrorists in Nigeria, the suicide bombing campaign in the Russian provinces of Chechnya and Dagestan, the Taliban shooting of medical volunteers fighting the spread of polio in Pakistan, the recent slaughter of 148 school children in Peshawar, Pakistan by the Pakistani Taliban, the burning of girls schools by the Taliban in Afghanistan and their throwing of acid into the face of school girls, the murder plots following the publishing of the cartoons of Mohammad in Denmark, the death sentence fatwa (decree) against Salman Rushdie for writing his “blasphemous” book Satanic Verses, the “honor killings” of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan, beheading of aid workers and journalists by ISIS terrorists in Syria, stoning of women by Taliban and ISIS moral police, death sentences for Christians for blasphemy in Pakistan, burnings of Coptic churches in Egypt, the mass rape and enslavement of hundreds of Yazidi pagan women by ISIS fighters, the cleansing of Mosul’s ancient Christian community by ISIS fighters, the suicide bombing campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Afghanistan, and the recent massacre of journalists and Jews in Paris are all manifestations of radical Islam’s incompatibility with modern Western culture and mores. They are a direct challenge to the core values of the West that have been disseminated in the Muslim world since England and France began their colonial domination of this region over a hundred years ago.

But do these acts by tens of thousands of fanatics, which are admittedly far from isolated, represent the will of most Muslims? On several occasions I have heard pundits raise this question and ask on television “Where are the moderate Muslims as all this violence is perpetrated by believing Muslims in the name of Islam?” Or “Where are the Muslim voices standing up to the fanatical mullahs, jihadists, fetwa-issuing theologians, misogynistic Talibs, stone-throwing fanatics, suicide bombers and Islamic terrorists?”

This is a valid question that I set out to answer many years ago and my journeys have taken me from the war-blackened ruins of Kosovo (where Christian Serbs carried out a genocidal war against Albanian Muslims) to Russia’s Caucasus Mountains (where Russians carried out a genocidal war against Chechen Muslims) to Afghanistan, to the Himalayan Mountain province of Kashmir (where India has brutally ruled a restive Muslim population). On this long series of journeys I found a much more complex view of the Islamic world than the one posited in my mind by the media. As I traveled across Eurasia, from Kosovo to Kashmir I found a moderate Muslim world under assault from radical Islam. I found what is in essence a civil war in Islam for the soul of this faith’s 1.5 billion believers. And most importantly, I found Muslim voices standing up to the fanatics in defense of secularism, pluralism, women’s rights, modernity and moderation.

My journey began in the west in Kosovo. This scenic European Muslim country was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1389 and her people gradually converted to a mystical frontier version of Islam known as Sufism. This form of Islam, which is not the Islam most Americans think about when they envision strict Arabic Wahhabi-style Islam, is comparatively moderate. In Kosovo I found a tolerant form of Islam that incorporated local Christian traditions, alcohol was freely drunk, women were not forced to wear the burqa or hijab, there was no shariah Islamic law and relations with neighboring Christians, whom the Kosovar Albanians often shared villages with for hundreds of years, was traditionally cordial. While the rise of post-Communist nationalism had poisoned the relations between Muslim Kosovar Albanians and Christian Serbs, their conflict was not a jihad/crusade for the faith, it was more about land and nationalist claims to it.

When the 1999 conflict ended, tiny Kosovo was devastated and many Kosovar Albanian Muslim villages had been torched by rampaging Serbian ethnic cleansers. At this time, Arab charity workers arrived from the Middle East to assist their fellow Muslims rebuild their culture. In particular, the Arabs built schools and mosques. But the Arabs insisted that the Albanian schoolboys and girls attend classes in separate schools, as they did in Saudi Arabia, and that schoolgirls wear headscarves for the first time. In the glistening new Saudi style mosques they built, the Arab missionaries also began to preach a stricter, more intolerant Wahhabi version of Islam that rejected the Kosovar Albanians’ traditionally relaxed, Sufi mysticism. The Kosovar Albanians whom I met were furious at this intrusion into their ancient customs and, for all their impoverishment, many refused to send their children to the new Saudi-funded schools which were seen as incubators for intolerant Arab-style Wahhabi Islam.

From Kosovo my journey took me to Turkey, a country I have spent about a year in and whose language I speak. Turkey also happens to be the homeland of my wife Feyza and her parents who still reside in their beautiful Mediterranean coastal village of Cesme. Every summer we visit them and I encounter a Westernized, secularized, Sufi Muslim world that would be unrecognizable to those who see all Muslims as being Bin Laden-style Saudis. On the beautiful sandy beaches of Cesme, young tattooed, bikini-wearing Turkish girls (on occasion topless) hang out with their boyfriends drinking the local Efes beer, smoking cigarettes and basking in the warm sun. A popular tattoo of the beach crowd is the stylized signature of Kemal Ataturk. President Ataturk overthrew the Ottoman Empire/Caliphate in the 1920s, banned the headscarf and turban in public places, declared a war on the insular-ossified Islam of the mullahs that he blamed for the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, and created a staunchly secular Turkish republic.

In addition to secularism, the traditional Sufi Islam of the Turks is on display everywhere. For example, most cars, restaurants, houses etc. have a nazar boncuk, a small blue glass amulet that one hangs on one’s rear view mirror, wall, or bracelet to keep the evil eye away. The evil eye is about as strict orthodox Muslim as Christmas trees and rabbit’s foot good luck charms are strict biblical Christian, as are many other Turkish Sufi traditions. Once, when I got sick, in another example of Sufism, my mother-in-law walked up to me, broke a loaf of bread over my head, walked around me in a circle praying, then threw the bread into the road in order to lift a curse of ill health on me. And whenever we left my in-laws’ house to begin a trip, they threw water on the road behind us to keep the jinns (demons) away from us on our dangerous journey.

This easy going, secular-Sufi world has come under assault in recent years as the new Islamist president Recep Tayip Erdogan has rolled back Ataturk’s liberalizing secularist reforms. Women from his Islamist Ak Party now wear headscarves in parliament (this was formerly banned), the new government has built 17,000 new mosques, dozens of journalists have been arrested for decrying the creeping Islamization of Turkey, Turkey’s traditionally pro-Israeli foreign policy has been jettisoned for support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and there is more and more Islamic content in education and laws. Turkey’s secularists feel that their world is under assault and this helped contribute to the riots that took place in Istanbul in the summer of 2013. Clearly Turkey is experiencing a culture war similar to that in America which pits its religious conservatives against liberals.

From Turkey, my journey took me to Egypt where I spent time hanging out with my friends Muhammad and Ali. Muhammad and Ali showed me around Cairo’s ancient Khan al Khalili bazaar, introduced me to the local Stella beer, took me to watch belly dancers and decried the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam in general (even though they were Muslim). Like their Turkish secular counterparts, they felt that their world was under threat by the bearded mullahs who wanted to overthrow the secularism that Egypt’s autocratic rulers and generals had long defended. The 2011 Arab Spring overthrow of President Mubarek and subsequent rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power fulfilled their worst fears.

But the July 2013 overthrow of the Muslim brotherhood by the Egyptian military and its leader, General Abdel Fatah al Sisi, gave them hope. In a move that encouraged Mohammad and Ali, President Sisi then declared war on jihadi militants in the Sinai desert and last Christmas made a symbolic visit to a church belonging to Egypt’s embattled Coptic minority. In a clear rebuke to the Islamists who want to make Egypt more Islamic, Sisi proclaimed to Copts “Let no one say ‘what kind of Egyptian are you!’ ” The fact that Sisi (a Muslim) was willing to lend his symbolic support to Christians is telling and shows that the Arab world’s most powerful leader was willing to defend an embattled religious minority at a time that ISIS is cleansing Christians from its territory in Iraq.

From Egypt, my journey took me to the plains of Kazakhstan where I spent several months living with my friend Aslan (his name means lion in Turkic-Mongol Kazakh, as in Aslan the lion in the Chronicles of Narnia). Aslan and his brother Murat were Sovietized Muslims who knew the words of Marx better than those of the Prophet Mohammad. Although Muslim, the brothers rarely attended mosque, drank vodka like Russians, freely dated Kazakh women, and were alarmed by the new construction of mosques by Turkish missionaries funded by the Ak Party in Turkey. These brothers, whom I consider to be more homo Sovieticus than homo Islamicus, were Muslim in the cultural sense, but found something sinister in the foreign Islam being propagated by the Turks who came to this ex-Soviet republic to reclaim lost souls. The two brothers refused to enter Turkish mosques and, as we made toasts in Russian while drinking vodka, swore that they were opposed to everything from headscarves to jihad to beards.

From Kazakhstan I made way down to Afghanistan to live with a larger than life Taliban-killing, Uzbek (Mongol Muslim) warlord named General Dostum. Dostum and his pro-US horsemen made headlines in 2001 when they teamed up with US Green Beret special forces to overthrow the fanatical Taliban regime. Dostum was a life-long secularist who had been fighting against jihadis ever since the 1980s, back when America was supporting the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. With the overthrow of the Taliban, he had built girl’s schools and opened a television channel called Aina which beamed Western-style shows into the rooms of millions of Afghan homes (recall that the Taliban had banned televisions).

When I sat with Dostum in his compound in the desert shrine town of Mazar i Sharif, he asked me why it had taken the 9/11 attacks for America to finally come join him in his lonely war on radical Muslims. “Hoja (professor), if there’d been no attack on your towers of glass and steel the Americans wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help the women and oppressed Muslim ethnic groups living in the Taliban’s prison camp” he told me. This was a new spin on the war on terrorism that few Americans had ever considered. Moderate Muslims, who were at war with the jihadi terrorists, decrying the lack of US involvement in their pre-9/11 counter-jihad. If one wanted an example of Muslims standing up to the fanatics, this was as good as it got.

The final step in my journey through the moderate realms of Islam took me to the beautiful mountainous land of Kashmir. Kashmir was a Himalayan kingdom inhabited primarily by Muslims that was annexed by India in 1947. Since the late 1980s, the Pakistanis had been sending jihadi terrorists across the border into this scenic land to wreak havoc and try conquering it. When I arrived in Srinigar, the capital of Kashmir, I found an idyllic floating city of houseboats on a crystal clear mountain lake. My host, whose name I will not share to protect his identity, bemoaned the arrival of the “fanatics” from Pakistan who brought jihad to his beautiful mountain vale.

As we watched the sun set over the snow-capped Himalayan mountains surrounding Sringar’s Lake Dal from his wooden houseboat, my Muslim Kashmiri host spat with fury as he described the gradual encroachment of Pakistani jihadi fanatics into his village. The foreign extremists he claimed brought nothing but a nihilist war for the sake of Allah into a relaxed Sufi land that had always had peaceful relations with its Hindu minority. But those days were gone forever and now Kashmir’s lucrative tourism industry had collapsed and been replaced by a bloody jihadi insurgency complete with suicide bombings, beheadings and suicide fedayeen attacks. Sadly, one of the bravest voices who had stood up to Pakistan’s culture of nurturing and exporting jihadists, which she called a “cancer,” former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, had been killed in 2007 by these very jihadi terrorists.

I have many other similar stories in places like the Muslim Tatar villages of the Crimea, the mountains of Kyrgyzstan’s nomadic Muslim horsemen, the tribal regions of Pakistan, the green hills of Bosnia, the Palestinian West Bank, but you get the idea. As this journey clearly indicates, there are many Muslims (the vast majority) who are moderates and find in Islam a path to making sense of the universe/creation and passing on a sense of shared values to their families.

Sadly, these sorts of average Sufi or secularized Muslims are rarely the newsmakers. Their voices are drowned out by those of the Kouachi brothers in Paris and their terroristic ilk in places extending from the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing to the burnt girls schools of Pakistan. But I found, in all of these moderate Muslims I met, a worldview that was shared by many Muslims across the globe, and one that I found myself sharing. Those Muslims whom I met in my journeys were as disgusted by politicized Islam as I was by politicized Christianity. They were as embarrassed by the radicals from their faith as I, a Christian, was by the Westborough Baptist church protests at the funerals of slain US soldiers, the burning of Korans by a Florida pastor, the banning of women’s rights to abortion or prevention of gays from getting married by intolerant American religious conservatives.

Now I don’t want to take the relativizing too far (American Christian fundamentalists are not engaged in militant-terroristic holy wars using suicide bombings, beheadings, acid, stoning, ethnic cleansing, mass rape etc. to create harsh Medieval-style theocracies) but I and the Muslims I met in my journeys all shared a belief in the importance of keeping religion at home, or in the temple, and out of the halls of political power.

As I reflected on my journey among moderate, Sufi, secularized Muslims and watched the recent unity parade of over a million people in Paris on my television, I was touched by the scenes of marching French Muslims carrying placards saying ‘Je suis Charlie’, and most extraordinary, ‘Je suis Juif’ (I am Jewish). Among those marching in solidarity in Paris on Sunday was Mohammad Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority (PA). His presence was a powerful statement that the secularist PA, which is in a low level war with the Islamist Hamas terror organization, supports free speech and condemns Islamist terrorism of the sort utilized by Hamas.

So the next time you hear a television host paint in broad brush strokes and decry the lack of moderate Muslim voices in the Muslim world, remember that there are millions upon millions of believers in the Muslim world, many of them secular or Sufi, who believe in a peaceful version of Islam that is not at war with the West or modernity. Many of them are indeed standing up to the extremists as General Dostum and President Sisi have done (just google the Muslim anti-extremist on-line group: # Not in My Name for another example of Muslims standing up to extremists).

Far from being a unified monolith dominated by jihad-supporting fanatics at war with America and the 21st century, Islam is a complex mosaic made up of many diverse parts and many of them are actively confronting the very Islamic radicals that have attacked our own Western society and its cherished secular values.


For photographs from Professor Williams’s journeys from Kashmir to Cairo to Kazakhstan see his website. For the story of Dostum, the Muslim Uzbek warlord who stood up to the Taliban see, Brian Glyn Williams, “The Last Warlord. The Life and Legend of Dostum, the Afghan Warrior who Led US Special Forces to Topple the Taliban Regime.”