[OUTLOOK]Islam: A Religion of Peace, Tolerance

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[OUTLOOK]Islam: A Religion of Peace, Tolerance

Islam is a religion with roots in the ideals and values that Judaism and Christianity share. But the Western press has described Islam as an anti-Western and intransigent religion that embraces violence and terrorism. The West also has treated Islam as a bellicose religion that tries to conquer the non-Islamic world through Jihad or holy war.

The Western press has reported activities of militant groups, such as Gamaa Islamiya, Jihad, Jundi-Jundi Allah and Hezbollah, as if they were the acts of the entire Muslim population. After the Cold War era faded away and the Gulf War ended in 1991, the Islamic fundamentalist movement swept throughout Islamic countries. The Western press regarded the movement as an "Islamic threat" or "Islamic challenge." In Europe and the United States, scholars and journalists forecast that confrontation between Islam and Christianity would replace confrontation between communism and capitalism. Professor Samuel P. Huntington theorized "the clash of civilizations" between the Islamic world and the Western (Christian) world.

But Muslims explain that the Islamic revival movement is intent not on antagonizing a certain country or bloc, but on awakening Muslims who have been dormant for centuries, aimed at rebuilding Muslim societies in accordance with "pure Islam."

There are roughly three different groups of Islamic revival movement activists. First, the traditionalists wish to distance themselves from Western culture and hold traditional values. Second, modern reformists want to reinterpret Islam to adopt it to the modern lifestyle. They embrace the positive of Western culture and pursue change and development. But their reform and modernization produced pragmatists dreaming of Westernization and naive nationalists taking power after independence by collaborating with the Western powers. Third, Islamic fundamentalists aim at building an Islamic state governed by Shariah or Islamic law. They participate in elections, cooperate with the government and act within the confines of organizations.

But the problem lies in the armed Muslim forces that have sprouted as part of this fundamentalist movement. They do not accept pragmatism or secularism. They outright reject Western thinking and its way of life. They are in the minority but they train followers in secrecy and their branch organizations have become very effective as powerful armed forces. In the West, the distinction between Islamic fundamentalists and these armed forces has been blurred. Instead, they are all being referred to as fundamentalists, generating misunderstanding about Islam. Among the armed extremists, violence is allowed and deemed necessary to overthrow secular governments. Mohamed Anwar El Sadat, the president of Egypt, was assassinated at their hands in 1981, and current Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is also the object of their ire.

Their indiscriminate acts of terrorism especially since the 1990s have drawn mounting criticism from not only the Muslim world, but also from around the globe. We should understand and know that the extremists are in the infinitesimal minority among the entire Muslim population. They should not be generalized as the acts of all Muslims.

Islam is a religion of peace and justice. It is tolerant of other religions. It is a religion that embraces general brotherly love. One fifth of the world's population, or 1.3 billion Muslims, make up the Islamic culture in 55 countries. We tend to equate Arab countries with Islam, but this is a mistake in the strictest term. The largest number of Muslims live in Indonesia (180 million) and more than 20 million Muslims live in our neighbor, China. We should not make the mistake of viewing incidents and happenings related to the Islamic religion or world through the prism of violence and terrorism. We need to appreciate the difference between fundamentalism and terrorism, which are two very separate and distinct issues.

Also, we should not perceive the recent tragedy as a clash between religions or civilizations. The foundation to that argument is difficult to find. There is no reason for Westerners to antagonize the Islamic movement. Fundamen-talist movements are a religious phenomenon that can be found in the tradition of Christianity as well. Modern Islamic scholars concur in general that the West's sensitive response to the spread of the Islamic revival movement and its use of "threat," "challenge" and "clash of civilizations" stems from its excessive defensiveness.

However, another problem lies in that some Islamic countries financially support such terrorist groups. This must now be uprooted once and for all and cases of Muslim nations protecting terrorists in any form should disappear.


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The writer is a professor of Arabic studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

by Son Ju-young

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