First of three parts.
Next: Obstacles to moderates
NORTHWEST PUNJAB PROVINCE, Pakistan Malik Sameen, governor of the Punjab's Attock subdistrict, is on his way to a Muslim religious festival deep in the countryside. Grasping the steering wheel loosely with his right hand, he gestures out the window with his left, enthusiastically pointing out the rich villages and the poor, the old, and the new.
Passenger cars weave among gaudily decorated, eye-poppingly overloaded buses. Trucks piled high with wheat, maize, and humanity seem to defy gravity. Mosques, markets, and restaurants jam the roadside. Everyone is jockeying for space.
Sameen rounds a curve and sees a woman in head-to-toe black veils shuffling slowly across the busy highway. Even her eyes are hidden. He slams on the brakes and swerves to the right, narrowly avoiding her.
"This is not Islam, this is nonsense!" he snaps at her shrouded form, receding in the rear view mirror. "The Koran says nothing about this!"
For Sameen and hundreds of millions of other moderate Muslims, Islam is not about cloistered women, global jihad, or living by a literal interpretation of the Koran. It is about self-improvement and tolerance. About modesty and propriety, though not pressed to the fully veiled extreme. And about finding the peaceful nexus between an ancient faith and modern ways.
From Indonesia and Malaysia to Turkey and Morocco, the Islamic world teems with people like Sameen who differ sharply, on almost every issue, with the militant fundamentalists who dominate the international image of the faith. They are, by any measure, the overwhelming majority of the world's 1.4 billion Muslims a quiet, nervous majority and hold in their hands the balance of power in the Muslim world and, with it, the fate of the Bush administration's push for democratization in the Middle East.
A Globe reporter's journey among these believers through the villages, mosques, schools, and coffee shops where their views and numbers predominate found a widespread commitment to moderation and nonviolence, but also deep distrust of the United States and fear of the consequences of confronting Muslim extremists.
These moderates feel that, despite their crucial role, they are largely invisible to the West and badly misunderstood.
Most Muslims "are living under democratically elected governments, and this is hardly known in America," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a widely known Egyptian-American human rights activist. "People are fixated on a few convoluted Arab societies in the Middle East that have been the stage for violence."
In nations like Indonesia and Turkey, coexistence between Islam and democracy is well established. In others Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan some limited democratic freedoms and institutions exist. In still others Iraq, the Palestinian territories, Saudi Arabia Muslims who had been repressed by political or religious dictators are once more attempting to assert their rights to speak and act freely.
It is an uneasy activism, but they feel they have little choice. Extremists, they believe, are leading their societies, and their faith, toward disaster.
"The West doesn't know it, but this conflict is throughout the Muslim world," says Othman Al-Rawaf, a member of Saudi Arabian King Fahd's consultative council. "There is no conflict between civilizations that compares with the conflict within," he said in an interview in Riyadh, where the differences between moderates and extremists are stark and their struggle for control of Islam deadly.
"The Americans are going to Mars, and the fundamentalists are throwing stones at the Israelis," fumes a young Malaysian architect. "We have to look to the future and not the past."
But despite his bold words, he insists on anonymity out of fear of reprisals. "Islam is at the crossroads now," he said. "It can still go either way."
Similarly, Sameen, the governor of Attock, does not walk around his district publicly declaring his view that full veiling of women is nonsense. Nor does he freely voice the deep resentment he harbors toward militant Muslims who have built a radical school on land he gave them for a prayer hall.
"I do not dare," Sameen explains. "They would say I was against Islam."
Two states of mind
Sameen's destination this day is Mehera Sharif, a remote hilltop village at the end of a twisting single-lane road. It is distinguished from thousands of other hamlets and towns in the Punjab by its splendid Moghul-style shrine and mosque, and by its madrassa, a Muslim religious school.
Once a year people gather from hundreds of miles around to honor Pir Muhammad Mahmoud Hazrat Khwaja Ahmed Mairvi, a master of Islamic mysticism who died in 1899, and whose remains are entombed in the ivory, green, and brown shrine.
Many pack the shrine and an inner room containing the tomb, sitting on the floor, chanting Urdu qawwalis Islamic songs of the Indian subcontinent that meld Arabic, Hindu, and Persian influences. Others butcher an ox and gather the huge iron pots in which the communal meal will be prepared. Still others pray at the mosque, visit the camel market, or gaze upon the holy relics among them a hair of the prophet Mohammed that are the community's greatest treasures.
Mehera Sharif's spiritual values also are on display: humility, hospitality toward strangers, and a heartfelt piety. Visitors are honored with admission to the innermost sanctum of the shrine, a close-up viewing of the relics, and a tour of the madrassa . During the tour of the school, Abu Bakr Alvi, its principal, boils over when he is asked about the conflicts in nearby Afghanistan and Kashmir.
"Mohammed, the last prophet, peace be upon him, predicted there would be people . . . who defame Muslims and Islam," Alvi snaps. "They twist the facts. They make people fight among themselves."
He is not talking about the Americans or Zionists, but about Islamic extremists and corrupt sheikhs.
"Osama bin Laden has personal enmity for America," Alvi continues. "Four countries have been destroyed because of Osama, and he has done nothing for Islam."
That does not mean Alvi approves of or supports the efforts of the United States against bin Laden and others who engage in violence in the name of Islam.
For him, as for many moderates, bin Laden is one extreme, America the other.
"Almost all the people, a big majority, do not like Osama bin Laden," Alvi says, his words commanding rapt attention from a clutch of shy, smiling children following him through the school. "But everyone hates America. Because of the brutalities it has committed in Muslim countries, even these little children hate America. It is the same in all the world. . . . Both are wrong."
Similarly, in Pakistan and many other Muslim countries, people are often as disillusioned with pro-US secular nationalist leaders as they are with radical Islamist clerics.
Pakistan, whose 154 million Muslims make it the second most populous Islamic country, illustrates how the competition between nationalists and Islamists mutes voices of moderation. Similar frictions between religion and the state exist in such critical US allies as Egypt and Turkey, and the balance of cultural power could tip either way.
"When Pakistan came into being, we inherited two elites: a Western elite and a religious elite," says Nadeem Ayub Khan, a retired military intelligence officer and specialist on Pakistani Islamic groups who is based in the capital, Islamabad. "From the beginning, there was an undeclared war between the two elites, the two states of mind."
When the Pakistani state was declared in 1947, modernizers, who tended to be religiously moderate and Western-oriented, dominated the cities; traditionalists held sway in rural areas.
But as Pakistan lurched through decades of shaky governance, the power of the religious elite grew steadily. Their growth was financed by grants from oil-rich Arab regimes, especially Saudi Arabia, and by government leaders who felt they had to pay off people in the religious establishment to keep the peace.
The Saudi experience
Such alliances of convenience between political and religious leadership run to the epicenter of Islam Saudi Arabia. There, the ties between the House of Saud and the religious fundamentalist movement of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab were key to the Sauds' conquest of the Arabian peninsula. Wahhabis, the most austere of the major branches of Islam, still dominate the educational and social-affairs bureaucracies of the desert kingdom.
And yet moderates and modernizers in Saudi Arabia speak out and survive, despite enormous pressures to conform to fundamentalist ideology.
The Saudi example serves as a reminder of how recently religious fundamentalism gained the upper hand in the Arab world, and of just how hard it can be for moderates to make themselves heard. "We had a pure community here," says one local official in the rugged Beni Malik hill country near Saudi Arabia's border with Yemen, referring to the 1980s. "Young boys and girls tended the flocks together and visited each others' homes."
"Then the extremists came, and the girls had to cover themselves, and the parents had to keep them in," says the official, who insists that his name not be published because he fears punishment for his comments. "They said it was in the name of religion, and that was it."
Many older men in Beni Malik still wear curved daggers in their belts and henna in their beards. Unattended camels have the right of way in their encounters with the 4-by-4s that carry residents along the region's jolting single-lane roads. Religion is deeply respected, but still many men use khat , a leafy stimulant, even though fundamentalists frown on the practice. They chew it as they sit outside their houses, target-shooting with high-powered rifles and complaining discreetly about hard-liners who over the last 20 years have enforced Wahhabi orthodoxy as never before.
Hasan Al Malki was one of those young shepherds in the prefundamentalist days. He was 21, already an imam and prayer leader, when he finished high school and left for Imam University in Riyadh. He left the region as what he calls "an extreme Wahhabi," and returned as one of the country's most daring voices for moderation and tolerance.
"In the University they were calling Shi'as and Sufis and even some other Sunnis kafir ," unbelievers Malki says, naming three major groupings within Islam. "I was surprised people hated Shi'as so much. . . . It motivated me to study history and hadith " the deeds and sayings of Mohammed.
By his senior year he was writing articles urging respect for the various streams of Islamic thought and criticizing some leading Wahhabi scholars, whom he called "the right wing of the right wing of the right wing" of Islam.
"The Wahhabis want the students to hate other approaches, and to hate non-Muslims," he declares. "The prophet sat with Jews. He treated non-Muslims as though they were Muslims. This is the real Islam."
Malki was expelled from the university in 1991 and reinstated a year later, after he promised to stop writing until he finished school. After graduation, he resumed his work and his writings won him a following in some government and private reformist circles.
Then, after Islamic extremist suicide bombers blew up a housing complex for foreigners in 1996, he wrote an article saying this wouldn't have happened if Saudi Arabia's Islamic scholars had been imparting a proper understanding of Islam to the youth.
The religious establishment came down hard. Malki was pushed out of one job, then another. His books and articles were banned. A sheikh popular with Islamic fundamentalists pronounced a fatwa , a religious ruling, against him. Other sheikhs followed suit.
Boldly, he pronounced his own fatwa against one of the sheikhs and called for public debate. But the pressure was starting to tell. He and one of his school-age sons were called kafir, a serious charge in an environment where some believe infidels can be slain with impunity.
"If not for September 11," Malki says, "maybe I'd have been in very bad shape by now."
But with the terror attacks on New York and Washington, other dynamics were set in motion: The United States began pushing hard for allied nations to act against terrorists and Islamic extremists. Regimes in key countries Saudi Arabia in particular began groping for ways to cope with the terror threat without appearing to be tools of America. The developments bolstered the standing of people like Malki.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, still has only limited tolerance for foreigners or for diversity, including tolerance of other streams of Islam. But there are signs of movement toward greater openness and moderation.
The kingdom has launched a series of national dialogues on socially and religiously sensitive topics. Women are participating. Local elections are being held. The religious police have lowered their profile, and Hasan al Malki is again being invited to discussions of reform and moderation occasionally, even, in royal palaces.
But Saudi Arabia remains the most austere of Islamic societies. Malki and others fret that moderates may have squandered an opportunity to make major changes.
"The liberals are whisky liberals; they don't do anything but sit around a bottle and complain," says a prince of the royal family, who operates at the upper-middle level of power, and who spoke on condition that his name not be published. "After September 11 was a good opportunity for them to lobby the top and exert their influence, and they didn't."
In southern Asia
The prevailing images of Islam in the West all but disappear in southern Asia, a region dominated by Indonesia, the Muslim world's most populous country, and by Malaysia, perhaps its most highly developed nation. Here, in the countries that account for half the world's Muslims, moderate Islam is the norm.
Few women cover their faces or wear black. Many run their own small businesses, and deal unselfconsciously with male customers. The anger and resentment that boil in Arab Muslim countries over their economic and military inferiority to the West are not much in evidence, and small wonder especially in Malaysia.
In Kuala Lumpur, the principal city, the Petronas Towers were the tallest buildings on the planet even before the attack that destroyed New York's World Trade Center. The country's new international airport and government seat are wonders of modern planning and engineering.
In contrast to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, where fundamentalist Islam has been used as a tool of political competition, here moderate Islam has become a force for peace among groups principally ethnic Chinese Buddhists and ethnic Indian Hindus brought in by the former colonial powers.
Even in Kelantan Province, Malaysia's Islamic heartland, people temper their desire for a moral Islamic environment, and their abhorrence of some Western influences, with calls for tolerance and nonviolence. They accept that some of what comes from the West is good.
"Life here is peaceful and comfortable," says Zura Mamat, 34, a mother of five with a warm smile and an open manner. She runs a fruit stand in the Siti Khadijah Big Market, a sprawling tropical bazaar in the center of the provincial capital, Kota Baharu.
"Everyone here wears the headscarf," she says of the local manner of covering women's hair, a style that meets Malaysian Muslim standards for female modesty but would be heretical in Saudi Arabia. Zura wears a flowing, chartreuse headscarf and long, green-and-lavender gown to work. Women in neighboring stands dress in similarly colorful garb.
Many Malaysian Muslims share with their Arab counterparts an aversion to Western styles and values, but they readily recognize that some good influences also come from the West, including women's rights.
"We should also follow the teachings of the prophet so that men and women have equal rights," she says.
From Zura's local market to the upper reaches of Islamic business, political, and educational circles, the primary emphasis is on personal conduct.
"You want to sell this?" she asks, selecting a luscious orange from her pile. "Don't take too much profit. Be sincere. To take too much profit is forbidden. It will grow bitter fruit for your children and grandchildren."
But even in Malaysia, the balance between moderate instincts and Muslim law has been hard to strike. For 13 years, Kelantan's people have given a mandate to the Pan-Islamic Party of Malaysia, which is dedicated to enforcing shari'a , the Muslim code of law. Under the party's rule, Kelantan's nightclubs and cabarets have closed, gambling has gone underground, and businesses willing to sell liquor to Muslims have disappeared.
Enthusiasm for Islamic rule has spread to neighboring provinces. Four years ago the Pan-Islamists added Terengganu Province, to the south, to the territory under their governance. Last year Islamists expected, and other Malaysians worried, that the party would further expand. But the party miscalculated by moving too swiftly to enforce shari'a in Terengganu. Voters rebelled. The party's clout plummeted.
Adherence to Muslim moral standards "is a good thing," says Nor Aisha, 30, a Kota Baharu curio dealer, who feels the Islamist politicians have gotten out of step with the people. "If you have a bamboo, you must mold it to follow in a good path. But you can't be very rigid."
Also balancing the power of the fundamentalists in Malaysia is a class of influential businessmen and educators who openly condemn religious extremists. Foremost among these are the members of the Bukhary family, whose wealth comes from mining, shipping, and energy enterprises.
"I know a man who has his whisky-water every day, who does more for people than many people who pray five times a day," says Asmine Al Bukhary, one of the family leaders.
Extremist ideology that makes holy martyrs out of suicide bombers is un-Islamic and "must be dismantled," Bukhary says. In the coastal town of Setar Alon, where the family patriarch is based, the Bukharys have built a fabulous complex that includes an orphanage, senior-citizen housing, a health center, and a fledgling university, among whose first foreign students are angry young Palestinians who have grown up under Israeli occupation.
"Our goal is to create a human being who does not complain," says Halim Hassan, director of education at the complex. "That is what Islam is about. I can see how the Palestinians' experience could cause them to take a wrong, negative interpretation of jihad . . . Jihad is not about fighting."
More than any other issue, fundamentalists' use and misuse of the concept of jihad troubles the moderates of the Muslim world. Nowhere is this more true than in Pakistan, where radicals' recruitment of students as holy warriors has blackened the reputation of the 10,000-plus madrassas offering free education to the poor.
The problem is particularly acute in Lahore, a city of 5 million in eastern Pakistan, near India, which has served as a recruiting ground for jihadis to fight in Kashmir as well as Afghanistan.
Because Lahore is a city where people are regularly murdered for being members of the Shi'ite branch of Islam or for belonging to Sunni Muslim sects disliked by radicals, it takes real courage for someone like Masoom Hussain Naqvi to set up schools that teach that the jihadis are dead wrong.
"A small minority have made jihad into a business," says Masoom, chairman of a charitable trust that now runs eight madrassas for 1,000 students in and around Lahore. "That is why we started these madrassas to educate people who are backward and susceptible to these tricks and will go out to die. . . . Not a single line [of scripture] gives you the right to bomb bus stations or railroads or people in their offices."
In an interview in the presence of a rapt student body, sitting cross-legged in the prayer room of a school in Lahore, Masoom is by turns stern and light-hearted. He sharply criticizes both the United States and Muslim religious leaders who he said "play with the emotions of simple people."
Strengthening true religion, Masoom says, in a display of humor rare in the current, charged environment, is like running a good pastry shop.
"The main aim is to sell the product," he says. "You don't close other shops with the sword or the gun. You don't say, `I should be the only one.' You try to convince people that yours is better. . . . You preach your religion, we preach our religion, and on the day of judgment you will know who was right and who was wrong."
Charles A. Radin can be reached at email@example.com