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OUTSPOKEN, MUSLIM -- AND MODERATE

By Jeff Jacoby, Globe Columnist
Copyright 2002, The Boston Globe

May 16, 2002

The Taliban may be no more and Osama bin Laden may be dead or in hiding, but Islamism -- the militant, extremist wing of Islam that plotted and carried out the crimes of Sept. 11 -- is alive and well and still spewing its hateful rhetoric.

The Saudi Arabian ambassador to Great Britain, for example, recently published a poem extolling suicide bombers on the front page of a leading Arabic newspaper. (Saudi Arabia is the world's foremost purveyor and funder of Islamist fanaticism.)

"Tell Ayat, the bride of heaven," he wrote, referring to Ayat Al-Ahras, who murdered two Israelis and wounded 25 others when she bombed a Jerusalem supermarket, "she kissed her death while smiling with good tidings. . . . Paradise opened its doors for her."

Less lyrical but no less repellent was the column Fatma Abdallah Mahmoud wrote for Egypt's leading newspaper. His subject: the Jews.

"They are accursed in heaven and on earth. They are accursed from the day the human race was created and from the day their mothers bore them. . . These accursed ones are a catastrophe for the human race. They are the virus of the generation, doomed to a life of humiliation and wretchedness." And so on through many paragraphs, climaxing with a lament to Adolf Hitler: "If only you had done it, brother."

Sadly, there is no shortage of this poisonous stuff; you can find these and other examples at www.memri.org, the web site of the Middle East Media and Research Institute.

It is important to be aware of what the Islamists and their allies are saying -- after all, they are the enemy in our war against terrorism. But it is also important to hear the voices of Muslim moderates, who reject the fanatics' views but do not get nearly the attention they deserve. Unlike the Islamists, who smear any criticism of Muslim extremism as "Islamophobia," the moderates insist that honest criticism is exactly what is missing in modern Muslim life. And where the extremists seethe with hate for America and Israel, the moderates call for peace and tolerance.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian Muslim, was a journalist in Cairo before moving to America. "Moderate and progressive Muslims must speak out," she wrote in The Washington Post earlier this year. "It is no longer enough for the clerics to issue tired platitudes on how Islam means peace. . . . Where were they when Osama bin Laden and his coalition of terrorists vowed to target every American man, woman and child? We have to look inward and ask ourselves: What in Islam, what in the way it is practiced today, allowed bin Laden to promote his murderous message?"

Another Muslim writer -- decidedly nontraditional -- is Irshad Manji, a Canadian television personality. She published "A Muslim plea for introspection" after a terrorist bomber murdered 26 Israeli Jews as they sat down to their Passover seder.

"Instead of acknowledging that there's a serious problem with the way our religion is practiced," Manji wrote, "even in cosmopolitan Canada we romanticize Islam. . . . It's time to question publicly whether Islam lends itself to fundamentalism more easily than other world religions." (You can read the essay online at www.newsandopinion.com/0402/manji.html) Weeks before Sept. 11, when Islamist dictators still ruled Afghanistan, she publicly denounced "the silence of Muslims in the West toward the woman-stoning, kite-banning, execution enamored Taliban." It was precisely that silence that made Manji's outspokenness so exemplary.

But when it comes to outspokenness, not to mention courage, no Muslim moderate comes close to Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi.

Unlike Manji and Eltahawy, Palazzi is a notable Muslim leader and a Koranic scholar; he holds a doctorate in Islamic sciences from Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Since 1987, he has been an imam for Italy's Muslim community and serves as secretary general of the Italian Muslim Association. He is a rarity among the Muslim clergy: a defender of Israel and a vocal enemy of Islamist terror.

More than 12 months ago, under Palazzi's leadership, the Italian Ulema -- council of Muslim scholars -- excoriated the Palestinian exploitation of children for suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. "In defense of a wicked regime, innocent ignorant children are sent to be killed in criminal actions," the Ulema proclaimed. "This regime" -- Yasser Arafat's autocracy -- "even dares to declare that Islam approves of these criminal acts." The council condemned "the criminals who spread Jew-hatred among Muslims" and ruled that so long as Israel does not impede Muslims in the practice of their religion, violent attacks against it were forbidden by Islamic law.

Far from regarding Israel as an alien presence on Muslim soil, Palazzi points out that the Koran itself (in Sura 17:104) openly anticipates the Jewish return to the Holy Land. "Many of us are now ready to admit that hostility for Israel has been a great mistake," he says, "perhaps the worst mistake Muslims have made in the last 50 years." His plea is "for Jews and Muslims to recognize each other once again as . . . brothers descended from the same father, Abraham. . . . The more we discover our common roots, the more we can hope for a common future of peace and prosperity."

Palazzi's is the voice of genuine, admirable Muslim moderation. It deserves to be heard far and wide.

Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe
His E-mail address is -
jacoby@globe.com
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