One year after the 7/7 attacks in London, a challenge to the traditionalist, literal reading of the Koran is gathering strength. A younger generation of Muslims is seeking a less insular and more western faithby Ehsan Masood / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Click here to read Prospect’s interview with leading Islamic reformer Tariq Ramadan
It is a scene I won’t forget in a hurry: Jean-Marie Lehn, French winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry, defending his atheism at a packed public conference at the new Alexandria Library in Egypt. In much of the Muslim world, talking about atheism in public is dangerous.
But the Alexandria Library is run by Ismail Serageldin, a Muslim intellectual who has a bold and ambitious project for Egypt. This is to create a place for dissent in public life. He wants to encourage people to grow thicker skins, help them appreciate that if Muslim societies want to return to the forefront of global intellectual life, they need to be comfortable with public dispute. The library is one place where open debate can take place—although this is partly because it is protected by having as its chair Suzanne Mubarak, wife of President Hosni Mubarak.
Serageldin is not alone. In my travels across the Muslim world, I am finding that what he (and others) are trying to do in Egypt is also happening elsewhere. It is happening in places where you would expect it, such as multicultural Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as places where you wouldn’t, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is happening at the level of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (a mini-UN of 57 countries with mainly Muslim populations), which has embarked on a ten-year reform plan to try to turn Muslim states into beacons of human rights and free speech. It is also happening on our doorstep, among Muslim minorities in the west.
In Britain and the US, we have seen the emergence of a number of Islamic “rationalists” who are building a case for Muslim societies to change from within, and for Muslim minorities in western countries to change how they think of themselves in relation to wider society. They include the British-Pakistani writer and thinker Ziauddin Sardar, the philosophers Tariq Ramadan (Swiss-Egyptian) and AbdolKarim Soroush (Iranian). From the US, change is being advocated by the evangelist Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who regards himself as more traditionalist than reformer.