Monitor Board of Contributors: Waiting for a Muslim Francis

Last modified: 8/23/2015 12:05:02 AM
Thoughtful people worldwide are caught up in an agonizing dilemma regarding the emergence, in the 21st century, of violence and terror perpetrated by fundamentalist Islamic sects, goaded by radical imams, and inspiring deranged or naive individuals to commit acts of murder.

How do we respond with dignity, respect and compassion to the vast majority of adherents to Islam who live peaceful, decent lives, and who practice their faith while respecting the faiths (or lack thereof) of their fellow citizens? And how do we join with such good people to confront those who preach and practice absolutist doctrines that define anyone who doesn’t agree with them as “infidels” or “heretics” – and then go about killing, abducting and enslaving them?

Our helpless outrage at recent reports of the supposedly Quran-sanctioned sexual slavery and rape of helpless female prisoners and religious hostages by ISIS is only the latest instance of the world’s impotence in the face of such unmitigated evil. What would we do, one wonders, if these fanatics were to concoct a doctrinal dispensation for the killing and eating of “infidel” babies?

As well, the seemingly unending series of bombings of mostly Shia mosques and marketplaces by Sunni extremists must be especially troubling to Muslims of good will everywhere. Retribution by Shia militias, leading to ethnic strife such as was seen in Iraq several years ago, could plunge the Islamic world into further chaos. Is there no end in sight for the escalation of such savagery?

The Christian world experienced much the same during the wars between Catholics and Protestants in France and elsewhere in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, at a time when religious toleration was widely supported throughout the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, there was no one like Pope Francis available to contain the mayhem. But this is the 21st century; one would hope we have learned something in the interim. There appears to be no one like a Pope Francis for Muslims to turn to. Are we, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, helpless bystanders to our current catastrophe?

Thoughtful analysts like Thomas Friedman and others trace the rise of Islamic extremism in recent decades to several factors: The failure of most Arab states to offer pathways to economic achievement and political enfranchisement to young people in their societies; the relinquishing by panicky potentates of their education systems to radical religionists; the refusal of those in power to allow women to exercise their rights as equal citizens.

As a result, certain young men (and some women, too) blocked from aspiring to the fruits of modern civilization are drawn toward a comforting chimeric orthodoxy that promises surcease from ambiguity, stagnation, economic failure and a realization that their world (and their religion) is being left behind by more successful non-Muslim societies.

The allure of such absolutist delusions has begun to attract confused and naive young people living in Western societies as well.

Roger Cohen, writing in the New York Times, believes that “freedom” itself, has provoked such extremism:

“Western societies have been going ever further in freeing their citizens’ choices – in releasing them from ties of tradition or religion, in allowing people to marry whom they want and divorce as often as they want, have sex with whom they want, die when they want and generally do what they want. There are few, if any, moral boundaries left.

“In this context, radical Islam offers salvation, or at least purpose, in the form of a life whose moral parameters are strictly set, whose daily habits are prescribed, whose satisfaction of everyday needs is assured and whose rejection of freedom is unequivocal. By taking away freedom, the Islamic State lifts a psychological weight on its young followers adrift on the margins of European society.”

This threat to the peace and well-being of humankind is exacerbated, in my view, by the lack of a central authority in the Islamic world that can speak truth to intolerance, denounce ethnic hatred, condemn violence and terror as manifestly un-Islamic. Leaving the moral pulpit to radical imams who preach violence at the village level is the contemporary equivalent to leaving civil administration to the Ku Klux Klan in the post-Civil War South, with similar horrific results, actions that were justified in the eyes of the perpetrators as a response to unspecified threats from “outsiders” to undermine a deeply racist culture.

Then as now, powerful economic interests secretly supported and condoned lawlessness and murder by criminal gangs. Decent people, then as now, were silenced by the threat of retribution.

Imagine if there were available for Muslims someone like a Pope Francis, a person of high moral authority both within and outside of the religion who could gather millions together to celebrate love and charity toward our neighbors regardless of differences. But if such a wish seems far-fetched, cannot the non-Islamic world at least expect of Muslim societies one or more of the following:

∎ A public renunciation, by leading Muslim clerics from throughout the Islamic world, of religiously inspired violence as being emphatically un-Islamic, accompanied by a “fatwa” denouncing those who pervert Islam for political ends. There have been isolated statements by peace-loving Islamic clergy but no widespread declaration.

∎ An iteration, parallel to the United Nations’ “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” with specific reference to responsibilities of Muslims to fellow Muslims and to those of other faiths. This could be debated by representatives from many predominantly Muslim nations and communities in a worldwide gathering held in a nation, like Indonesia, that is both predominantly Muslim and yet tolerant of other religions.

∎ A gathering of Sunni and Shia religious leaders to work out a modus vivendi memorandum between Islamic factions and a condemnation of acts of terror against members of either community, along with tolerance for other sects, such as Bahai and Yazidi followers.

∎ A series of marches and demonstrations, in cities and in small towns, celebrating the life-affirming precepts of Islam and calling for joint Muslim local councils to protect religious minorities.

∎ A joint military task force, made up of soldiers from various nations in the Middle East, to specifically confront ISIS and to declare to the Islamic world that such extremist violence must be eliminated lest it lead to regional catastrophe beyond what has already been seen.

In the absence of any or all of these actions, it will likely fall to the West to confront ISIS and other extremist Islamic forces, eventually involving “boots on the ground,” as is being called for by a number of irresponsible politicians. That is manifestly a no-win situation. The West cannot “solve” the problem of Islamic extremism. Only peace-loving Muslims can. Their silence and inability to coordinate a response is perhaps the greatest danger we face. I only wish they had a voice, like Pope Francis’s, to lead them.

(Robert L. Fried of Concord is a retired educator who is now a writer, gardener and tinkerer. He can be reached by email at


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