Islam’s tolerant face

MAX BOOT is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

GIVEN THE monstrous crimes perpetrated in the name of Allah, it is easy to despair about the future of the Muslim world. Nonstop news about bombings, beheadings and general bedlam will no doubt lead more and more Westerners to conclude that we are at war with an entire civilization.

In reality, Islam has no fixed identity. Like other religions, it is based on vague generalities whose application varies widely across time and place. A thousand years ago, the Muslim world was a center of learning while Europe was mired in the Dark Ages. Today, the positions are nearly reversed. But there are many different rooms in Dar al-Islam (literally, “house of submission”), and no two are alike. I recently visited two Muslim countries -- Malaysia and Qatar -- that each show, in their own way, that Osama bin Laden does not speak for more than a small minority of his co-religionists.

Although Islamist extremists have traditionally viewed elections as apostasy, Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy, albeit one in which a single party has maintained power continuously for more than 40 years. It is also a country that values technical education more than madrasa learning; over the last 20 years it has become a top high-tech manufacturer.


Malaysia’s record on political and journalistic freedom is spotty, as seen in the fact that some newspapers have been closed recently for reprinting the Danish anti-Muhammad cartoons. But it is doing better. Its high court in 2004 struck a blow for judicial independence by overturning the conviction of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on trumped-up charges of sodomy.

Malaysia is not totally free (neither is its non-Muslim neighbor, Singapore), but it is a bastion of religious liberty. Although the majority Muslim population is forced to follow the dictates of religious Sharia courts in family law, Malaysia has substantial minorities of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Confucians who are free to worship as they please. Alcohol is available, and few women are veiled, at least in Kuala Lumpur. Some Muslim extremists who have formed vigilante squads to crack down on “sins” like teenagers necking in public have been arrested by police. Although tensions exist among different ethnic and religious groups, Malaysia has for the most part been a showcase of ethnic and religious toleration.

Qatar is further behind on the road toward democracy. Despite a new constitution that creates an elected parliament, power remains in the hands of a hereditary emir, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani. But Qatar is a relatively benign autocracy. Although it is one of only two Wahhabi states in the world (Saudi Arabia is the other), its people are not terrorized by vice squads wielding a puritanical interpretation of the Koran. Liquor is available, and lots of women go around unveiled. The emir has even set aside land for Christian congregations to build churches, and they are allowed to import Bibles -- something that is forbidden in Saudi Arabia. The emir’s outspoken wife has became a high-profile champion of women’s rights, and not long ago, Qatar became the first Persian Gulf Arab state to appoint a female cabinet minister.

Hamad, a graduate of Britain’s military academy, Sandhurst, has also pushed for greater freedom of expression. He started the freewheeling satellite news channel Al Jazeera. It has infuriated American officials by providing a forum for jihadists, but it has equally exasperated the rulers of Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other states not used to any critical scrutiny.

None of this is meant to suggest that Qatar is a liberal paragon. Criticism of the government remains hard to find, and, unlike in Malaysia, political parties are nonexistent. But no one visiting Doha, with its sleek high-rises and large expatriate population, would mistake it for Taliban-era Kabul.

Ostensibly unified by religious belief, the Muslim world is in fact deeply divided by culture, ethnicity, sect and geography. Most Qataris and Malaysians have no interest in joining an anti-Western jihad; they are too busy getting rich trading with the West.

For our part, we should resist the temptation to label Islam the enemy or to lash out against moderate Muslims in places like Dubai. A more tolerant brand of Islam, of the kind practiced in Malaysia and Qatar, could be our most potent weapon in the struggle against the suicide bombers.