Struggle for the soul of Islam

What a time in history for the Middle East! Each nation is now slowly experiencing only a prelude to their new chapters in history unfolding before all of our very eyes. The exact details yet to be revealed; no one can deny that change is afoot and President Bush’s axiom of “freedom being on the march” is right on the money. Iraq held its elections. The Palestinians and Egyptians held their own. The Lebanese puppet cabinet of Syria resigned en masse this week. Only to be followed by comments from Syria’s despot, Bashar Assad, that he may in fact be withdrawing his troops from their 15-year occupation of Northern Lebanon in the next few months. With this Big Mo, the unfortunate reality is that it is but only a humble beginning to a wholesale transformation among Arab and ‘Islamic’ nations which will need years and generations to fortify. This change is volatile and without prudence especially early on can yield to only an exchange for radical theocracies which the Arab despots have conveniently fomented in their midst. We must keep our eye on those who are against theocracy. However, the era of denial is over for many in the media and naysayers on the Iraq war. It’s about time to start focusing on those Arab groups who are moving towards freedom, those Muslim groups in the Middle East who are moderate and pluralistic, and those who have a chance at moving the majority beyond tolerance toward true pluralism. Rather than the occasional sound bite of freedom, it’s time to genuinely turn the collective media attention on the future Vaclav Havels of the nations emerging from the glasnost of the Middle East. Now is the time to fertilize the future of a moderate, secular, and pluralistic Middle East and spray the ideological pesticide on theocracy. Progress can be ahead. The media can play a vital role in turning up the heat on the despots of the Middle East. This tide of change is not a coincidence. Never underestimate the influence of seeds of genuine change within a culture. Not only is this the beginning of the possible liberation of the Arab and Muslim world, but it will be a grand step to improving our security from the scourge of terrorism. It will not be a short road, and change may not lead to toward moderation. That is the precipice over which we stand – either these nations will fall toward pluralism and openness or they will be turned over to doomed theocracies. Lebanon has a bright future with one can hope enough pluralism in faith to inoculate it from the stranglehold of religious zealots such as Hezbollah and their ilk. Egypt must foster true reforms beyond the ballot box, liberate Al Azhar from radical clerics and Mubarak’s government while rendering the Muslim Brotherhood impotent. Iran is a clinic for failed theocracy posing hope for secular liberation, but currently far from it. And Syria has been sealed so tight over the last decades that its liberation will need time and the mobilization of such networks as that generated by the Reform Party of Syria (www.reformsyria.org) or the Syrian Human Rights Committee (www.shrc.org). In the end, the greatest impact upon reform in the Middle East will come when we begin to hear and see a genuine and potent movement of moderate Muslims in America and the west openly declaring a frontal ideological war on al-Qaida and all associated militant Islamist organizations and their theological incubators. When the soul of Islam is wrested away from theocracy and toward the separation of religion and state, terrorist networks will dissolve and pluralistic democracies will grow exponentially. This column originally appeared online at the Arizona Republic at this link.

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