Sunday, November 06, 2005

# Posted 11:10 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

TWO CHEERS FOR THE BBC: The first cheer is for the extensive list of podcasts that the Beeb makes available to its listeners. The second cheer is for the excellence of "The Soul Within Islam", a four-part documentary available via podcast from the BBC's Documentary Archive (Podcast URL: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/rmhttp/downloadtrial/worldservice/documentaryarchive/rss.xml)

Although Part I seems to have been lost in the sands of time, Parts II, III & IV provide excellent coverage of religious trends in Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and Morocco. The Indonesian marriage of democracy and Islam is truly inspiring. This marriage may seem natural, since Southeast Asia has a distinctive heritage of toleration and enlightenment within Islam.

Yet the freedom that democracy has brought to Indonesia since 1997 is strengthening its heritage of enlightenment in unexpected. For example, is there any Arab Islamic nation in which truly open theological debates are broadcast on public television?

I don't know the answer to that question for sure, but I strongly suspect it is 'no'.
One can only hope that the freedom of Indonesian religious discourse has a catalytic effect throughout the Muslim world.

In contrast, the Malaysian government relies on propaganda to promote its program of religious toleration. Although the government's objective is praiseworthy, one has to wonder whether Malaysian fundamentalists will gain support because of their ability to portray themselves as noble, even pro-democratic dissidents.

In light of Malaysia's tradition of tolerance, I think it would be far wiser to have a truly open debate about Islam. Yet it is hard for a quasi-dictatorship such as Malaysia to let the people speak their mind in one forum, since they would surely demand the right to speak their minds in another and another.

The one major shortcoming of "The Soul Within Islam" is its unmitigated secular bias. Instead of attempting to understand those who resist moderation and tolerance within Islam, it simply brands them as fundamentalists, conservatives and worse. For the most part, their perspectives are entirely excluded from the documentary.

The real danger here is that "The Soul Within Islam" does nothing to separate the conservative Muslims who oppose women's rights from the even more conservative Muslims who question democracy from the terrorists who murder in the name of the Koran.

In the process of fighting the war on terror, it will be necessary to align ourselves with democratic conservatives against authoritarians and terrorists. And when Muslims who are ambivalent about democracy speak out against terrorism, we must recognize them as well.

I'm not talking here about the Mubaraks, the Assads or the other nominally Muslim dictators that plague the Middle East. Rather, I am talking about various religious organizations and individuals that may remain skeptical of the American agenda of democratization, but still firmly oppose the murderousness of Al Qaeda.

We should not compromise the project of democratization in order to placate the ambivalent, but we should do all that we can to persuade the ambivalent that America has much more to offer them than Al Qaeda.
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