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What is a Truly Liberal Muslim to Do?

By Carlos Alberto Montaner

Is there a liberal Islam? Liberal International is betting that there is. In mid-November, several hundred representatives from some 90 liberal parties and institutions worldwide met in Marrakesh, Morocco, to talk about democracy and development. However, while not proclaimed out loud, there was another, delicate underlying purpose: to strengthen the weak liberal tendencies that exist in Muslim nations.

Liberal International

Twenty-nine parties from the Islamic world were represented in the event, in addition to the Moroccan hosts. The delegates came from countries such as Egypt, Iraq, Turkey and Indonesia. There was even an invitee from the Palestinian Authority.

It was the 54th Congress of Liberal International, a federation of classic liberal politicians and thinkers from 80 nations created in London in 1947 to defend liberty, individual rights and the market. Their purpose was to prevent a resurgence of fascism and the then-furious imperial spasms of the Soviets.

The current Liberal International president is Lord John Alderdice, a brilliant psychiatrist and politician from Northern Ireland who has worked successfully for peace in that contentious region of Britain.

Alderdice harbors no doubt: Only liberal, tolerant and democratic Muslims can persuade the fanatical masses and stop the fundamentalist Muslims. That is a battle that must be waged inside Islam. The West can do very little from the outside.

Israel's right to exist

Something similar happened to Christianity. Slowly, in the course of almost one thousand years of intellectual confrontation and violent wars fought on battlefields, Christian fundamentalism lost its power and attributes until the notion of the lay state and freedom of conscience broke through. Left along the road were millions of corpses and an awful history of barbarity and injustice that reached the peak of abjection and fury with the Inquisition, the burning of witches and the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The intention is very good, and Liberal International's strategy is correct. But the possibilities of success in the short or middle run are very limited.

A truly liberal Muslim would have to:

Fight for the equality of women and for an end to the use of the Koran as the fountain of the law, especially by eliminating its function as a penal code.

Face the brutal fatwahs of imams who condemn dissenting writers to death.

Denounce the warmongering nature of a religious creed that consecrates the virtue of the jihad (at least to the fundamentalists) and separates the world into two halves: the half that already has submitted to Islam and the half that must be conquered.

But not even those heroic battles constitute the hardest part of the immense task facing liberal Muslims. The bitterest swallow, but an inevitable test, is to:

Lead the defense of Israel's right to exist as an independent and peaceful nation alongside an equally free and peaceful Palestinian state.

That is the Gordian knot. That is the factor that today poisons relations between the West and Islam and feeds the more dangerous and destructive fundamentalists. It is true that some countries -- like Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon -- de facto acknowledge the legitimacy of the Israeli state. But the key to peace lies in persuading the rest of the Arab societies and governments, primarily the Palestinians.

Then there is the serious problem of the pressure of time. There's not much of it left. Iran is ruled by an enlightened despot, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who keeps repeating that Israel must be ''wiped off the map,'' while he frenetically builds a nuclear arsenal. By eliminating Saddam Hussein and turning power over to the Shiites, the United States liquidated Tehran's Iraqi adversaries and installed in Baghdad a government that may potentially be an ally of the Persians.

Say your prayers

The nuclear conflict in the Middle East is not a remote possibility. It is there, in plain sight, and the fuse is in the hands of the Islamic fundamentalists. Who can wrest it from them and put it out? Maybe the liberal Islamists. If they fail, the holocaust this time will end the lives of tens of millions of people and will destabilize half the planet. May God, Jehovah and Allah have mercy on our souls.

©2006 Firmas Press


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