The Spectacle Blog

Is There Really A ‘Radical’ In ‘Radical Islam’?

By on 4.16.08 | 3:01PM

I have previously praised the Intelligence Squared debates here in Manhattan at length and these lively, at times contentious, gatherings have not diminished in my estimation, but, rather, only become more interesting as the series goes on. The proposition put to the panel at last night's debate was: Islam is dominated by radicals. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (author of My Year Inside Radical Islam), Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute and Asra Nomani, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and well-known opponent of fundamentalist Islam in the U.S., argued for the motion. No god But God author Reza Aslan,

ColumbiaUniversity professor Richard Bulliet and Edina Lekovic of the Muslim Public Affairs Council took the opposition position.

Intelligence Squared allows the audience to vote on the proposition both before and after the debate. My initial vote was against the proposition, despite having seen for myself some of the disturbing radicalization around newly-minted Saudi-funded mosques in Africa, in large part because of trends Amir Taheri pointed out in a Wall Street Journal piece a couple months back, entitled "Islam at the Ballot Box": "So far, no Islamist party has managed to win a majority of the popular vote in any of the Muslim countries where reasonably clean elections are held. If anything, the Islamist share of the vote has been declining across the board." (And, yes, he addesses the Hamas victory in Gaza.)

By the end of the evening, however, I had been reluctantly sold on a "Yes" vote, mainly as a reaction to the statistics presented by the "for" team regarding the spread of apostasy and blaspheme laws in nations with Islam as the state religion--the death penalty for converting away from Islam, women counting as half a witness in disagreements with a man, legalized honor killings, etc--as well as the fact that the strain of faith now primarily being propagated around the world by the Saudis and Iran is undeniably totalitarian and anti-human. Nomani's tales of how fundamentalism seeping into the West had affected her ability to practice her own faith as an equal was riveting as well.  

In the final analysis, I really was more sympathetic to the "against" panelists, who argued, correctly in my estimation, that many of the negative things attributed to Islam are cultural and political issues (mis)expressed through the prism of religion. (Of course, I'm one of those people who believe the world would be much better off if adherents of all the major religions treated faith as more as a book-of-the-month club with the same book every month than as supernatural carte blanche to lecture and meddle in others' lives.) My personal hope, somewhat backed by Taheri's piece, is that the problems Islamic extremism promises to address are problems it can't possibly solve, and it's appeal for actual people will eventually wane. They kill Bhutto and the people vote for relative secularists, not Islamists. And that's in Pakistan.

The debate, however, wound up turning on how one defines "domination." To call Islam dominated by radicals is not the same as calling anything approaching a majority of Muslims radical. The Islamic power structure--those with the cash and the initiative--as it stands on balance now, however, is dominated by radicals. At the end of the lively, at times contentious, debate, the crowd apparently agreed. Our initial voted was 46 percent "for," 32 percent "against," and 22 percent "undecided." Post debate those numbers swung to 73 percent "for," 23 "against," and 4 "undecided."  

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