The long-simmering internal debate over political violence in Islamic cultures is swelling, with seminars like that one and a raft of newspaper columns breaking previous taboos by suggesting that the problem lies in the way Islam is being interpreted. On Saturday in Morocco, a major conference, attended by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, will focus on increasing democracy and liberal principles in the Muslim world.
On one side of the discussion sit mostly secular intellectuals horrified by the gore joined by those ordinary Muslims dismayed by the ever more bloody image of Islam around the world. They are determined to find a way to wrestle the faith back from extremists. Basically the liberals seek to dilute what they criticize as the clerical monopoly on disseminating interpretations of the sacred texts.
Arrayed against them are powerful religious institutions like Al Azhar University, prominent clerics and a whole different class of scholars who argue that Islam is under assault by the West. Fighting back with any means possible is the sole defense available to a weaker victim, they say.
The debate, which can be heard in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, is driven primarily by carnage in Iraq. The hellish stream of images of American soldiers attacking mosques and other targets are juxtaposed with those of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi beheading civilian victims on his home videos as a Koranic verse including the line "Smite at their necks" scrolls underneath.
I don't think that this debate is essentially about the Iraq war or provoked by it -- that's just a subset of it, and perhaps a distracting one considering that from an Arab (and international) standpoint the war was after illegal. There are, for instance, organizations in Italy (old-style communists mostly) who are encouraging the Iraqi insurgency as legitimate resistance.
But the problem to a deeper rethinking about the liturgy of Islam has more to do with a fossilized and increasingly irrelevant institutionalized Islam such as that of Al Azhar.