Symposium: The World's Most Wanted: A “Moderate Islam”

Four top experts on Islamic theology battle it out on whether a democratic and liberal Islam exists -- or can exist.

In this special edition of Frontpage Symposium, we have invited four distinguished guests to discuss the question: Is there a moderate Islam? Our guests today are:

Timothy Furnish, a former U.S. Army Arabic interrogator, he is a consultant and author with a Ph.D. in Islamic History. He is currently working on a book on modern Muslim plans to resurrect the caliphate. His website, dedicated to Islamic eschatology, is

Tawfik Hamid, an Islamic thinker and reformer who is the author of Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam. A one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt, he was a member of Jemaah Islamiya, a terrorist Islamic organization, with Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who later became the second in command of al-Qaeda. He is currently a senior fellow and chairman of the study of Islamic radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

M. Zuhdi Jasser, M.D. is the President and Founder of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD). A devout Muslim, he served 11 years as a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy. He is a nationally recognized expert in the contest of ideas against political Islam, American Islamist organizations, and the Muslim Brotherhood. He regularly briefs members of the House and Senate congressional anti-terror caucuses and has served as a guest lecturer on Islam to deploying officers at the Joint Forces Staff College.  Dr. Jasser was presented with the 2007 Director’s Community Leadership Award by the Phoenix office of the FBI and was recognized as a “Defender of the Home Front” by the Center for Security Policy. He recently narrated the documentary The Third Jihad, produced by PublicScope Films. His chapter, Americanism vs. Islamism is featured in the recently released book, The Other Muslims (Palgrave-Macmillan) edited by Zeyno Baran.


Robert Spencer, a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of ten books, eleven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book, The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran, is available now from Regnery Publishing, and he is coauthor (with Pamela Geller) of the forthcoming book The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America (Simon and Schuster).

FP: Timothy Furnish, Tawfik Hamid, Dr.  M. Zuhdi Jasser and Robert Spencer, welcome to Frontpage Symposium.

Dr. Furnish, let me begin with you. Robert Spencer recently entered a debate at NewsReal Blog where he argued that there is no moderate Islam. What is your perspective on his argument?

Furnish: I find myself in the curious (and somewhat uncomfortable) position of disagreeing with my friend Robert Spencer, for whom I have the utmost respect and with whom I almost always totally agree. However, on this issue of whether moderate Islam exists, I think Robert may be missing something.

He is exactly right that Sunni Islam–whence comes directly Salafism, Wahhabism and jihadism–promotes violence against non-Muslims in order to make Islam paramount over the entire planet.  I have no quarrel with that stance. But I would argue that this is largely because within this majority branch of Islam the only acceptable exegetical paradigm regarding the Qur’an is a literalist one: and of course when passages such as “behead the unbeliever” [Suras 47:3 and 8:12] are read literally the good Muslim had better reach for his sword–or be rightly accused of infidelity to Allah’s Word.

However, perhaps because Robert is so well-versed in the theology of Islam, as opposed to the historical record of how that religious theory has been acted out on the stage of history, he seems to overlook the key fact on the ground that certain minorities within Islam have developed a non-literalist, even allegorical, approach to reading the Qur’an. Foremost among these moderates are the Isma`ilis, the Sevener Shi`is, whose global head is the philanthropical Aga Khan.  Isma’ilis may number only in the tens of millions (out of the total Muslim community of some 1.3 billion, second only to Christianity’s 2+ billion), but they do exist and they define, for example, jihad not as killing or conquering unbelievers, but as economic development and charity work.

In general, all branches of Shi`ism (which makes up perhaps 15% of the world’s Muslims), including the Twelvers of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, allow the practice of ijtihad, “independent theological-legal judgment”–which is decidedly not the case for Sunnism. And while this has allowed for the ayatollahs to come up with negative novelties such as vilayet-i faqih (Khomeini’s “rule of the jurisconsult”), it also leaves the door open to non-literal exegesis of the anachronistic passages of the Qur’an.

Even within Sunnism, many of the Sufi (Islamic mystic) orders are more akin to the Shi`i than the woodenly literalist Sunnis in their exegesis. (Yet I would not go as far as Stephen Schwartz, who in his book The Other Islam: Sufism and the Road to Global Harmony thinks Sufis are basically “Quakers with beards” and sees them as the antidote to jihadists.  This rosy view overlooks the historical facts of the many jihads led by Sufi shaykhs and fought by Sufi adherents over the centuries.)

Today, many Sufis are non-literalists and focus on the batini, “inner” or “esoteric” meaning of the Qur’anic verses rather than on the zahiri, “outward” or “exoteric”–i.e., literal–meaning as Bin Ladin and his ilk do.  Another sect of Islam that is rather moderate in its approach to the Qur’an is the Barelwi (or Barelvi) one in India and the U.K.

In fact, the recent 600-page “anti-terrorism” fatwa that received much media adoration was written by Muhammad Tahir al-Qadri, a Barelwi.  As I observe in the “Washington Times” article, al-Qadri’s adherence to what is essentially a sect of Islam makes it very problematic that his fatwa will have any major effect on the jihadists in the short term–but, over time, if enough sectarian Muslims keep condemning the purely literalist approach to Islam’s holy book, perhaps Islam might enter into its own much needed Enlightenment, or at least Reformation.  But it’s clear from these examples that moderate Islam, not just moderate Muslims, truly does exist–even if often in a minority, often persecuted, status.”

Spencer: In all this my friend Timothy Furnish, whose work I admire, is entirely correct. That is why I am always careful to say that there is no “mainstream” sect of Islam, or one that is generally recognized as orthodox by Muslim sects in general, that does not teach the necessity to make war against and subjugate unbelievers. But I am not sure that the existence of Muslims who are generally considered heretics and persecuted for their heresy, which often consists precisely of their rejection or reconstitution of the jihad doctrine, constitutes the existence of a “moderate Islam” upon which Westerners should place any hope. The likelihood that these groups are going to stop being persecuted minorities and eventually attain mainstream status without abjuring exactly the elements of their beliefs that make them appealing to Westerners is slim at best.

FP: Dr. Jasser?

Jasser: Jamie. Thank you for including me. Let me start by addressing the premise of your initial question to Dr. Furnish regarding his opinion on Robert Spencer’s assertion that, “there is no moderate Islam.”

In my experience, there is a significant distinction globally between “Islam” as a personal spiritual faith (a personal submission to God, if you will), and the “House of Islam” which more broadly includes the entire human corpus of Islamic scholarship, knowledge (ilm) and jurisprudence (shar’iah) as espoused by leading global Islamic jurists and thought leaders (a ‘submission’ to the House of Islam if you will). As a devout Muslim I believe in the former in my personal relationship with God, but as an anti-Islamist I reject any “submission” to the latter which is human. Certainly, academe is central to understanding and effectively reforming Islamic thought against salafism. But my identification with the Islamic faith as a Muslim in no way obligates me or any Muslim to drink the Kool-aid of the Islamists even if they do control most Muslim institutions globally.

For those trying to pigeon-hole my Islamic philosophy, I am a devout Muslim raised in my youth in a conservative, orthodox, Sunni Muslim family in a small town in Wisconsin. I am neither an ideological mutation nor was I born in a vacuum. My parents escaped the despotic fascist regime of Syria in the mid-1960’s seeking the liberty and freedom of America. My grandparents were also conservative Muslims who raised their children to have a strong moral character and ethical upbringing free of corruption and grounded in Islam but not political Islam. Those values as a force for good, under God, were transmitted down our familial generations. While the specifics of our faith arose out of the Sunni tradition, the overarching ideas included some diverse Islamic  influences ranging from Sufi to orthodox to Quranist to name a few. Significant diversity existed within our family as it did among many other intellectuals from Syria. But there was also agreement on core moral principles and liberty. These modernists, moderates, and liberals have been lost in the intellectual wasteland of the battle between the likes of the secular thugs of the Assads of the world and the radical Islamists of the Ikhwan.

To pigeon-hole many Muslims into one theological construct is misleading given the lack of any Islamic mandate for a “Church” which communicates or excommunicates Sunni members. Many of the sects Tim describes have this type of regimented circumscribed Islam with fealty to their leaders that gives the sect’s thought leaders better control on the central message. However, most Sunnis I know (non-Islamists) do not have such a fealty to any specific imam or school and are profoundly decentralized.

Now certainly the Wahhabis and Salafists of the world practice takfir (defining who is and who is not Muslim) in an effort to control “membership” and ideology in the faith community. However, we, as anti-Islamists reject takfir and will not give up the domain of Islam to Islamists.

The reasons for the pre-Enlightenment fossilization of thought in Muslim majority countries are many. They include a need for deep generational reform of theology (Islamist foundations of Islam), education (illiteracy and lack of western influence),  economics (the lack of free markets), politics (the absence of democratic principles of real liberty with control by monarchs, theocrats, and autocrats), and culture (an endemic suffocating tribalism).

Many devout Muslims, like most youth, establish our moral compass of life under God within our superego long before we had the knowledge or the skill to investigate scriptural Qur’anic or Hadith exegesis. Thus, the moral lens through which we interpret our scripture is long established before we could ever fall prey to the fascist radical Islamic interpretations. But many are not immune to the supremacism of Islamism. There is a dire need for moderates to reinterpret the Qur’an and Hadith and dismiss ideas or sira not commensurate with modernity. (See Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV)

I use the same non-political, anti-Islamist construct of Islam I learned from my parents to teach my own children about our faith while preserving conservative values not in conflict with American law or loyalty. That ultimately was why we formed our American Islamic Forum for Democracy in 2003 dedicated to defeating the root cause of terrorism- political Islam.

Tim and Robert and others may view this as heresy or marginal thought in Islam. I would disagree, but also admit that it is not predominant among the thought leaders of Sunni Islam. So the crux of the question is who and what defines Islam – all Muslims or only the subset of Muslims who are clerics? I do believe that it is a majority if not a significant plurality of Muslims that reject political Islam. We do obviously have a lot of work to prove this assertion. Our ideas are harder to find than those of the Islamists—so yes, ‘Houston, we do have a problem.’

But, our anti-Islamist reform can only happen against political Islam from a bottom up (lay to cleric) approach rather than the top down (cleric to lay) approach which Tim and Robert appear to be seeking. History shows that other reformation movements in Europe occurred that way when combined with a political liberty movement. Again, attempting to pigeon-hole the Muhammad Al-Qadri’s of the world as a ‘sect’ does not help their movements and rather makes their fate sealed as marginal within the ‘House of Islam’.

The majority of the ulemaa (scholars) of the “House of Islam” are controlled by Islamists who use an authoritative shar’iah which is incompatible with the ideas of liberty and the separation of mosque and state. This is especially true for the hubs of central influence in Sunni thought in Saudi Arabia and at Al-Azhar in Egypt. Anti-Islamist Muslims do know and understand our faith. But we are in dire need of developing new platforms to get our voices heard.

An intellectual civil war within the House of Islam will be the only way to figure out which Islam and whose Islam will ultimately prevail. To dismiss all of “Islam” as immoderate leaves without a platform your greatest allies for freedom– devotional anti-Islamist Muslims who worship God. We are the only ones I believe, with a tangible viable solution that will achieve the defeat of supremacist, radical Islamism. We are the only ones with a viable treatment to the ideological disease.

Hamid: Thanks Jamie for organizing this symposium.

If we defined Islam in terms of what is being taught and promoted in mainstream Islamic books such the Tafseers and Fiqh, then Robert Spencer is absolutely correct is saying that moderate Islam does not exist. The problem is that this form of Islamic teaching is not counterbalanced by a theologically based peaceful interpretation of the religion. Until today, all main schools of jurisprudence in Islam accept violence in some way or another.

Dr. Jasser is correct is stating that many of these interpretations and jurisprudence books or Sharia are manmade. However, the reality is that this manmade version of the understanding of Islam is currently the most dominant one in the Muslim world. I agree with Dr. Jasser that there is a need for a reformation but I disagree with him that the reformation needs to occur from the bottom-up. Based on my experience within Islam, waiting for this “bottom-up” approach is likely to fail, as any small group of Muslims that starts the think differently will be considered by the majority and by leading authorities in the Muslim world as non-Muslims.

This is simply because denying some traditional ways of teachings is considered denying “Maaloom Mina AldeenBildarora’ (a fundamental belief in the faith) which make a Muslim an apostate (non-Muslim) for denying it. The change in my view needs to occur “Up-Bottom,” not the other way around. This can occur by exerting more pressure and criticism for the violent teachings that exist in mainstream theological Islam. Dr. Jasser’s view to have Islam without these authorities is very revolutionary and difficult or impractical to achieve.

I agree with Dr. Furnish that there are some elements of reform that already exist in the Muslim world; however, these elements of reform do not have a complete theological interpretation or jurisprudence that can stand against the current and dominant Salafi teaching within Islam.

My main point is that, what people generally mean as Islam (Tafseer, Hadith, Sira, Jurisprudence, Sharia) is certainly not peaceful. However, peaceful understanding of the religion is possible. Moderate Muslims such as Jasser and others do exist because they do not practice the traditional dominant theology and alternatively they have developed their own personal interpretations for the religion. Until these personal interpretations become the mainstream type of teaching within Islam, I have to agree with Robert Spencer that moderate Islam does not exist. I will only change his phrase to be “moderate Islam does not currently exist.”

Furnish: Robert Spencer makes a good point that many Muslim sectarians are considered “heretics” but he paints with an overbroad brush.  Not all Islamic sects are persecuted minorities: the Ibadis run Oman and constitute 70% of its population; the Alawis, while a minority, still run Syria; the Isma’ili minorities are certainly not persecuted in India, Tanzania or Britiain (although they are in Saudi Arabia—but who isn’t, besides Wahhabis?); and Sufis, while often at loggerheads with Wahhabis and Salafis, are popular and powerful in places like Senegal, Sudan and Indonesia.   And while the Islamic sects in toto are certainly a minority, somewhere around  7-8%  of the world’s Muslim population, that still amounts to perhaps 100 million people—twice that many if the Twelver Shi`is are included.  Luther certainly started with far fewer Christians, and yet he sparked a Reformation.

While I admire Dr. Jasser’s personal revival of Mu`tazilism (a rationalist Islamic ideology that was snuffed out in the 10th century AD), I fear his views are idiosyncratic within Sunni Islam—and my own research indicates that the closet analogs to what he preaches are found in those very sects whose degree of regimentation and cult-like devotion he somewhat overstates.  But even in those cases where a sect is at least partially predicated on charismatic leadership (the Isma’ilis; the Turkish Gülen movement; etc.), I would say that as long as the leader is telling his followers that jihad does NOT mean holy war—then that’s infinitely preferable to the “current and dominant Salafi teaching,” as Dr. Hamid so aptly puts it.

I agree with Dr. Hamid, regretfully, that Dr. Jasser’s hope for a grass-roots Islamic reformation from within Sunnism is very unlikely—another reason I favor putting our hope for such in sects. Dr. Jasser seems to forget that the Enlightenment could only take place after the Protestant Reformation had broken the monopoly of the Catholic hierarchy in Europe—and that the reformation of Christendom was in fact led by clerics (Luther, Calvin, Tyndale), NOT by layman. What Islam really needs right now are such reform-minded clerics, and these are found for the most part today among Islam’s sects, not its Sunni majority.

Spencer: There is a certain dancing-on-the-precipice feel to this entire symposium. Dr. Jasser rejects the contention that his views amount to “heresy or marginal thought in Islam,” but acknowledges that they are “not predominant among the thought leaders of Sunni Islam.” You can say that again – I would doubt that he would be able to name even one among the “thought leaders of Sunni Islam” who would accept that there is, as Dr. Jasser puts it, any “significant distinction globally between ‘Islam’ as a personal spiritual faith (a personal submission to God, if you will), and the ‘House of Islam’ which more broadly includes the entire human corpus of Islamic scholarship, knowledge (ilm) and jurisprudence (shar’iah) as espoused by leading global Islamic jurists and thought leaders (a ‘submission’ to the House of Islam if you will).” Indeed, he would be hard-pressed to find even one among those “thought leaders of Sunni Islam” who would not classify this as a heresy.

Dr. Hamid, in contrast to Dr. Jasser himself, notes correctly that interpretations of Islam such as Dr. Jasser’s are personal, idiosyncratic, and non-traditional – a fact that is all too often glossed over by his enthusiastic and well-heeled non-Muslim backers, who would prefer to pretend that he represents the dominant mainstream. Dr. Hamid is also quite correct that “_Until these personal interpretations become the mainstream type of teaching within Islam, I have to agree with Robert Spencer that moderate Islam does not exist._” He remains optimistic, however, maintaining that “peaceful understanding of the religion is possible” and changing my phrase “moderate Islam does not exist” to “moderate Islam does not currently exist.”

I don’t claim to know the future, and history is full of events that would have been dismissed as impossible by people of previous centuries. I have never ruled out the possibility that some form of Islam could one day arise that teaches that Muslims must live together with non-Muslims as equals on an indefinite basis in a state that does not establish a religion. I have simply tried to be realistic about the prospects of such an entity.

As Dr. Hamid notes, denying certain Islamic teachings makes one an apostate in the eyes of nearly every mainstream Islamic authority around the world today, and apostasy can bring a sentence of death. It was only after the prospect of such a death sentence was removed in Reformation Europe that Luther, Calvin, Tyndale and the rest were able to gain large followings and influence. But the theological foundations for such a death sentence are much stronger in Islam than they ever were in Christianity. Will, then, it one day become possible for genuine and sincere Islamic reformers to try to win over Muslims to their point of view without fear of violent reprisal? Perhaps it is already happening in the West – witness Dr. Jasser’s health and prosperity, although I daresay his influence is far larger among non-Muslims seeking reassurance than it is among his coreligionists. In any case, the murder of Rashad Khalifa in Tucson, Arizona in the early 1990s stands as a cautionary notice that the execution of those deemed heretics and apostates can and does happen even here.

Dr. Furnish, meanwhile, makes the leap from the numerical dominance of various Islamic sects in various areas to the idea that they will become the vanguard of a Luther-like Reformation. His demographic data is undeniable; however, the idea that these groups will become the leaders of a movement to create a truly peaceful theological and legal construction of Islam is belied by his willingness to include the Twelver Shias among them. Twelver Shi’ism is, of course, the official religion of the Islamic Republic of Iran – and yet the mullahs of Tehran are hardly paragons of Islamic moderation. His inclusion of the Turkish Gulen movement is also troubling: Fethullah Gulen may not wish to lead a violent jihad, but does he want to impose Sharia upon Turkey? That is undeniable. And Sharia, with its draconian punishments and institutionalized denial of rights to women and non-Muslims, is hardly “moderate.”

In any case, while I hope that truly reform-minded clerics do gain wide influence, I am afraid that the more influence they gain, and the more genuine reform they advocate, the more likely it will become that they will be labeled heretics and persecuted. I would be glad to be proven wrong in this. But I don’t think I will be.

Jasser: While I reserve disagreement on a number of the historical analogies and pigeon-holing made here about Muslims and Islam, let me address in the space I have how I believe Muslims can move forward. Let me emphasize- forward. One of the differences often between historians (agents of the past) and innovators (agents of change) is that innovators use the tools and lessons of history to think out of the box and create and promote a new and often unpopular paradigm. Often new paradigms that spend years floundering can all of a sudden propel into dominance. Some of the lessons of history are essential, but innovators refuse to pattern themselves after any previous human mindset. Today’s Islam needs innovators.

Groundbreaking innovation starts with a meme which leads to a tipping point that creates a new platform for those that share revolutionary ideas. My own lifetime has been filled with  experiences with thousands of pietistic Muslims from almost every sect of Islam who reject political Islam. But obviously key elements necessary for a palpable Muslim liberty movement to counter Islamism are missing.

To look toward any one sect and pigeon-hole any single moderate Muslim’s modernism as a product of only that particular sect belies the diversity needed for a successful global movement against political Islam. Each sect will always have its own internecine biases about the other sect. That is not the obstacle. Looking forward we must find some overriding memes necessary to defeat pervasive Islamist collectivism. Sectarianism is always trumped by Islamism. So, looking forward, a meme of liberty can rise above political Islam and sectarianism for Muslims.

My bulwark against political Islam has always been m belief in our inalienable rights, freedom of speech, the Establishment clause, classical liberalism, and especially the separation of mosque and state. Once devotional Muslim youth believe in this, many will take these foundational ideas and mature into theologians who transform Islam away from political Islam.

Hamid misunderstands me. I agree, Islam will always certainly need to be grounded in its own sound theological scholarship, but that is a late stage not the first phase in modernization and reform.

Religious teachings of today are molded by the environment. It took Christendom 1789 years until a government led by Christians had a document which was protected by an Establishment Clause and the separation of Church and State. And even that brilliantly codified Constitution and Bill of Rights took centuries, a Civil War, and a civil rights movement to effectuate its core principles in a way that truly respected the human rights of all its citizens as the founding fathers intended.

At this time, modernization of Islamic theology can become viral. But sadly so can the scourge of pan-Islamism. A top-down change would surely fail, as it has, because there is little popular respect for innovation, individualism, or liberty among most of the products of oppressive Muslim run institutions around the world.

In fact, Tim’s reference to the ruling Alawite minority in Syria as somehow exemplifying the hope for the rights of Muslim minorities is very concerning. It disregards the toxic environment which has put political Islam into overdrive. The Assad regimes have been some of the most despotic barbaric regimes of the last century. The only example Hafez and his son Bashar Assad provide is how to systematically and generationally destroy a nation and its people. No modern anything can come from that environment let alone an enlightened Islam. Thugs like Assad, Saddam, Qaddafi, Mubarak and others use religion as a tool for oppression. They fuel political Islam when it suits them while murdering Islamists when they threaten them. The moderates are lost in the middle between the secular fascists and theocratic fascists. This battle has created an untenable foundation of corruption, tribalism, ignorance, and fear.

Look at the Green revolution of Iran or the Cedars Revolution of Lebanon- all millions strong.  It is easier to find a desire for reformist anti-Islamist movements in many Muslim majority nations like Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran where the population knows what happens when the Islamists get control. Yet their environment is missing the empowering sustenance of western liberty.

The solution forward must come from America’s safer laboratory. Many American Muslims understand how a nation can be free and pious without theological coercion from government. The seeds of change forward can be found in some scholars who are looking to the west for innovation within Islam. Just look at some of the recent work on secularism by Abdullahi Al-Na’im, Muhammad al-Ashmawy, Alija Izetbegovic, or also many of the Sufi imams mentioned already like Al-Qadri’s recent work. This is not a blanket endorsement of any one of them. But much of their writings do point forward not backward.

In this wired viral planet, no longer is an ideology like political Islam hermetically sealed in its own history and aquarium. While Robert, Tim, and Hamid look into the aquarium of “an Islam” for the Muslims they study, they ignore a broad swath of westernized Muslims who read their Qur’an, pray, fast, give charity, and supplicate devotionally to God in a purpose-driven patriotic life dedicated to liberty and Americanism who hold another Islam.

The obstacles to the predominance of modern Islam over political Islam are many– frequent death threats, blind corruptive tribalism, societal and financial power of Islamists, and Muslim illiteracy. This is not to mention the facilitation by western media and government of Islamists due to political correctness.

Change cannot be imposed upon a rotten foundation. Lasting modernization will be generational and must be built on the ground first with Muslim institutions based in a liberal education, free markets, and universal human rights.

Hamid: I agree with Dr. Furnish that Luther started with far fewer Christians, and yet he sparked a Reformation. The dynamics, however, of reformation are different between Islam and Christianity. The concept of killing apostates is not an integral part of the Gospel of Jesus. On the contrary, Redda Law that allow killing apostates is a fundamental part of the Hadith of prophet Mohamed. For reformation to happen in Islam, Muslims need first to abandon some of the Sahih (accurate) hadith. The dilemma is that while Muslims can stop Redda Law as it is not part of the Quran, denying a Sahih hadith makes a person an apostate according to the traditional teachings in Islam. The Muslims need to stop this catch 22 situation to allow for reformation to occur.

Separating the Mosque from the state in Islam as Dr. Jasser suggests is certainly considered a form of heresy according to the standard Islamic theology as refusing to implement some Islamic laws and replacing them with secular laws is considered “Kufr” (act that makes a person an Infidel) according to traditional understanding of this Quranic verse (Al-Ma’idah [5:44]). Reinterpretation of this verse is needed first to allow for Jasser’s view to work. This is certainly possible since the verse was talking about the Jews who refused to apply the Torah.

I agree with Robert Spencer that the current situation in the Muslim world and the historical and theological depth of the problem in Islamic teaching should not make any person very “optimistic”. However, the use of the Internet and the speed of communications that we witness today gives me some hope that a change in the Muslim world can happen.

I can see the view of Dr. Jasser that the theological stage should not be the first phase in modernization and reform, but I have a completely different view about this issue. Any trial for modernity in Islam will always face resistance because of the current theology. For example, you cannot teach equality of women while the teaching in Islam teaches that women are half of a man as a witness or that men can beat their women. Removing the obstacle first is fundamental for making the change or in other words changing the theology is pivotal to facilitate the process of modernity itself.

I also disagree with Jasser’s view that “A top-down change would surely fail”. Generally speaking, Muslims feel much more comfortable to accept a change in religious theology when it is approved by the leading Islamic authorities such as Al-Azhar University. Accordingly, “A top-down change” is, in my view, imperative for a reformation in Islam to occur. Some elements of reformation can still happen at the grass root level but their impact and effect will be minimal compared to the top-down change.

FP: Ok, last round and final thoughts gentlemen.

Furnish: Again, I agree with Mr. Spencer regarding the inherent violent strain of mainstream, historical Sunni Islam (which, I must stress, stems from a literal reading of the violent passages of the Qur’an) regarding not just apostates but non-Muslims in general;  however, to equate “mainstream” with existence per se is ahistorical.   And of course sometimes, even today, Islam’s apostates and heretics are executed—the plight of Ahmadis in Pakistan and Indonesia is a case in point. But such persecution has not even come close to wiping out that group, and they stand as a living rebuke to those who would employ Qur’anic teachings to do so.

Mr. Spencer finds ironic (if not contradictory) my adducing of the Twelver Shi`is as reform-minded, based on the neo-fundamentalism fervor regnant in Tehran since 1979.  However, vilayet-i faqih, the “rule of the [Shi`i] jurisprudent” devised by Khomeini, is by no means universally accepted even within Twelver Shi`ism; in fact, the modern world’s two most prominent Shi`i ayatollahs—Iran’s recently-deceased Montazeri, and Iraq’s al-Sistani—both are on record as opposing the Khomeinist system and regime.  The salient point is that Shi`ism, unlike Sunnism, allows for _ijtihad_—and thus contains at least the seeds of new approaches to the Qur’an and Hadith.  And Robert and I simply disagree about Gülen and his movement—I think his neo-Sufism is truly moderate, not a shari`ah Trojan Horse.

I will reiterate my respect and support for Dr. Jasser in his efforts to drag the Islamic world kicking and screaming into the 21st—or at least the 16th—century.  But I simply disagree that “sectarianism is always trumped by Islamism.”  That may largely be true for parts of the Arab world, but it’s certainly not the case in Africa, where sects and Sufi orders are often more respected and more legitimate than the Wahhabis, Salafis and jihadists. As to my adducing of the Alawis of Syria: I was not referring to the undeniably brutal, repressive al-Assad family regime that runs the country, but to the theological beliefs of the neo-Shi`i sect that truly is Alawism, the syncretistic (and borderline Christian) teachings of which are far afield from strict, _shari`ah-_based Sunnism. Just as the Khomeinist regime does not represent the totality of Twelver Shi`i thought, neither does the Alawi clique in Damascus speak for all Alawis.

I totally agree with my friend Zuhdi that “change cannot be imposed upon a rotten foundation.” Yet many Muslims, Sunni and sectarian, blanch at rebuilding Islam upon a Western, especially American, foundation—which is why I propose that working with, and drawing ideas from, the Shi`is (Zaydis and Isma’ilis, as well as Twelvers), the Sufis, the Barelwis, et al., might very well provide a sounder, Islamic foundation, after which the rest of the revamped Islamic domicile could be built with more Western materials.

Dr. Hamid is entirely correct (as was Robert) that the New Testament does not promote killing apostates, and that this made a Christian Reformation markedly easier than would be the case in Islam, wherein Hadiths considered Muhammadan sanction such killing.  And in fact, I don’t think Dr. Hamid goes far enough—not just the traditions of Islam, but the Qur’an itself, justifies and indeed mandates killing of “unbelievers, as most famously in Sura al-Tawbah [IX]:5: “when the sacred months have passed, kill the unbelievers/idolaters wherever you find them…capture, besiege, ambush them….”  But, at the risk of redundancy, the problem here is reading the text literally, as mandated in Sunnism—and as NOT adhered to by, for a prominent example, the Isma’ilis.

Finally, I agree with Dr. Hamid, contra Dr. Jassser, that a top-down reforming of Islamic teachings could possibly work better than a grass-roots one.  Yet I disagree, based on a close reading of Islamic history, that this imposed (new) paradigm should be a Westernized, desacralized, frankly idiosyncratic “Sunnism Lite”—which would not only taste bad to most Muslims outside America, it would certainly be less filling than reformist ideas with legitimate Islamic ingredients, as is certainly the case with the Isma’ilis, Barelwis, Ibadis and Haqqani Sufis.

Spencer: I find the disagreements among the panel interesting. Dr. Jasser thinks “a top-down change would surely fail,” while Dr. Hamid believes that a “top-down change” is “imperative for a reformation in Islam.”

Dr. Jasser finds “concerning” Dr. Furnish’s “reference to the ruling Alawite minority in Syria as somehow exemplifying the hope for the rights of Muslim minorities.” Dr. Furnish defends his including the Twelver Shia as among the “reform-minded” in Islam, pointing to their acceptance of the concept of ijtihad, as opposed to the Sunnis who generally reject it. But the Twelver Shia, like the other sects mentioned in the course of this discussion, have been around for over a thousand years and yet with all that time to practice ijtihad they have not managed to come up with a version of Islam that is not supremacist and does not teach that unbelievers must be subjugated as inferiors under the rule of Islamic law.

This is not to say that nothing can happen except what has happened before. Islamic reform certainly could happen, and Dr. Hamid’s point about modern communications media making it more likely than ever before is well taken. But the disagreements among the most optimistic of the present panelists shows that Islamic reform circa 2010 remains largely an abstraction, a postulate, an intellectual construct. No one has ever actually seen it, and so everyone imagines it in a different way. Islam has been around for 1,400 years, and yet there is still no mainstream sect or school of jurisprudence that teaches the separation of mosque and state, the equality of rights of women with men, the freedom of speech, the freedom of conscience, or the equality of rights of unbelievers with believers.

Will such an Islam ultimately appear? I would never say that something could not happen; history is full of too many surprises for that. But so much of American foreign and domestic policy is based on the assumption that such an Islam not only will appear, but already exists, and is the Islam of the broad majority of Muslims. The consequences of investing so much in this erroneous assumption grow more apparent with every Nidal Hasan and Faisal Shahzad.

Dr. Jasser points optimistically to “a broad swath of westernized Muslims who read their Qur’an, pray, fast, give charity, and supplicate devotionally to God in a purpose-driven patriotic life dedicated to liberty and Americanism.” Great – but insofar as such Muslims actually reject the material in the Qur’an and Sunnah that forms the basis for political, supremacist, and violent Islam, they will find themselves under threat. It was again Dr. Jasser himself who summed this up: “The obstacles to the predominance of modern Islam over political Islam are many– frequent death threats, blind corruptive tribalism, societal and financial power of Islamists, and Muslim illiteracy.”

I wish that weren’t the case. I hope that some genuine Islamic reform ultimately succeeds. But let’s not kid ourselves as to its prospects, or about how much non-Muslims can or should actually depend upon it.

Jasser: In the end, Robert Spencer here seems to agree with me regarding the major obstacles I listed to genuine reform. Yet, he concludes a bit dismissively, “let’s not kid ourselves as to its prospects, or about how much non-Muslims can or should actually depend on it.” I can somewhat understand the sense of frustration- since that is my daily battle against the forces of political Islam. However, without a coordinated strategy to overcoming those obstacles to genuine Islamic reform, then what are we left to do as a nation? How do we, moving forward, sustain security against the growing militant Islamist threat? Is that not the purpose of this discourse? These discussions matter little in the absence of a strategy.

I do certainly part with Robert on many of his ideas (not covered in this symposium) with regards to accounts of the morality of the Prophet Muhammad and many conclusions about the faith, the Qur’an, and spiritual path of Islam I and my family have chosen to embrace.  However, ultimately, my deeper more relevant quarrel, is with my own coreligionists—and some of their ubiquitous Muslim sources that provide supremacist Islamist narratives.

I do believe as most Americans do, that all of us agree on the goal which is the intellectual neutralization of the supremacist agenda of Islamists and their political Islam. Simple kinetic neutralization alone against militants will never be enough. My strategy, our strategy, at the American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) is transparent and built upon a need forward for a liberty movement by devotional Muslims within Islam against Islamism. We must have a positive outlook for the victory of liberty rather than a pessimistic one basically based in a narrative of an impending global clash between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Even pessimists need to have a strategy. Disagreements on history matter a lot less than a discussion on strategy and where we think our nation and counter-radicalization work should head. In fact there are strong indications that the pessimistic narrative is fodder for radical Islamists and helps Islamists attract impressionable youth who want to believe that America is at war with Islam and Muslims. Rather, I believe the ideologies we promote at AIFD to be the type that ultimately can drive Muslim youth away from Islamism toward a modern Islam rooted in American nationalism and Constitutionalism toward a victory for freedom.

We will also need to breakdown walls of deep denial in the west rooted in political correctness if Muslims are going to get the long overdue major nudges toward modernity and reform. But, then what? Does Tim Furnish want us to believe that some of the more modernized minority sects or those more amenable to modernization will win out in the war of ideas? How would that happen and from which sect or sects? Does Dr. Hamid want us to be confident that there will be a post-modern imam or scholar who will arise to marginalize political Islam? How will that transpire in the current environment?

I do hope readers leave here, however, understanding that not only does the solution need to come from devout Muslims within the “House of Islam”, but we all desperately need to develop a coherent, cooridinated, and constructive domestic and international strategy to defeat political Islam- no different than we did in the Cold War against the global spread of communism. Therefore, it stands to reason that all intellectuals in the west should do whatever they can to facilitate the authentic and moderate Muslim allies of the United States who are working tirelessly to break down those obstacles.

That makes a lot more sense than sitting back and watching, like a car accident, the marginalization or demise of genuine, credible, and devotional Muslim reformists. Dr. Hamid and I agree on some but do disagree as to whether the reform will begin from the top or the grass roots. I have no faith at all in those “leading” inherently corrupt institutions like Al-Azhar University in Cairo or the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ever completely purging themselves of their deep rooted intellectual and economic foundations in political Islam and salafism. The only solution I see lies in building new honest Muslim institutions founded in genuine classically liberal academics, free markets, and morally sound Islamic teachings. This reform will only be authentic if it remains separated from government and integration into national legal systems (shar’iah). Thus, the primary protection for Muslims against Islamist supremacism is a belief and enforcement of the same ideas that created the Establishment Clause of our Constitution. This new paradigm or meme –the separation of mosque and state– will need generational change just as the Muslim Brotherhood has spread its ideas in the last century. It is time for the ideas of liberty to take the offense! And we can do this neither alone, nor with those who firmly believe that there can be no modern Islam.

I and my family and many other Muslims have lived and believe in an Islam and modernization of the message of the Prophet Muhammad that is not in conflict with our oath to the U.S. Constitution. I believe that the only winning strategy is to develop those ideas of liberty within an Islamic consciousness through the separation of mosque and state – our Muslim Liberty Project. This project is the Muslim counter-narrative, the offensive for the ideas of liberty and against the ideas of the Brotherhood Project. While I may be proven wrong, and I have absorbed significant critique of my own lifetime of understanding of Islamic history, I do not believe I have heard here any other convincing alternative winning strategies in the long term against political Islam. After the critique of my vision or anyone’s vision, how do we move forward? That’s what we are doing every day. How are you providing alternative visions that can neutralize the ideas that threaten our security?

Hamid: It is good that Furnish mentioned the Ahmadeia example as the situation of Ahmadeia in the Muslim world illustrates the fact that one of the major problems that the Muslim world faces is that it cannot tolerate any new or different interpretations of its religious texts. This represents a major obstacle for reformation. Teaching the Muslim world the concept of tolerance to other views is vital to assist the reformation of Islam.

The verse that Furnish used to indicate that the Quran supports killing Apostates is not traditionally used to justify killing apostates. In most approved Tafseers and Interpretations the rule of killing apostates is based on the Hadith rather than the Quran. Recently, some Salafists tried to use this verse to justify killing apostates mainly to prove that the Quranic groups - who disagree with killing the apostates - are wrong. Traditionally, Redda Law is based only on the Sunna.

I may only partially agree with Furnish that in some areas in Africa, Sufi orders are often more respected and more legitimate than the Wahhabis, Salafis and jihadists. However, we have to admit that Salafies are gaining ground, e.g. in Somalia and Sharia-controlled parts of Nigeria. This is partially due to the lack of strong theological foundations for many of the Sufi practices and the tremendous support of Salafism by the wealthy Wahhabists.

I support the view of Mr. Spencer rather than Furnish that the Twelver Shi`is are not truly reform-minded - as their belief system still accepts the violent edicts of Sharia. However, I can say that this particular group has more potential to reform than Sunnis as they still allow Ijtihad.

I also agree with Mr. Spencer that the current situation of Islam is not very promising. Removing the obstacles to reformation such as lack of the separation of mosque and state, inequality of rights of women with men, religiously based suppression on the freedom of speech, lack of the equality of rights of unbelievers with believers may mean for some the end of Islam.  Despite this I still see hope that Non Literal teaching of Islam can make a real reformation within Islam.

The efforts of Dr. Jasser in American Islamic Forum for Democracy (AIFD) to promote a liberty movement by devotional Muslims within Islam against Islamism must be saluted. The concept is great and I will add only that giving a strong theological base to the views of this organization will be very helpful. Asking Muslims to separate between Mosque and Church and adopt secularism while traditional Islamic text teaches the opposite is a major obstacle to the progress of these secular views. Giving a theological base for secularism within Islam is needed.

FP: Timothy Furnish, Tawfik Hamid, Dr.  M. Zuhdi Jasser and Robert Spencer, thank you for joining Frontpage Symposium.