My Islam

By Mona Eltahawy

Thursday, January 3, 2002; Page A17

I am a Muslim. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 shook my faith to its foundation. I am angry and ashamed that Muslims will forever be remembered for such horror.

But being angry and ashamed is not enough. Muslims must ask ourselves, how did we get here? We are long overdue for a healthy dose of introspection. We've heard many times how the U.S. government must reexamine its foreign policy and about the list of corrupt dictators it calls friends. It is just as important for Muslims to do our own soul-searching.

For starters, liberal, moderate and progressive Muslims must speak out. We've been quiet too long, and I blame us for the sad state of affairs of the Muslim Umma (community) as much as I blame the clerics, whom, I must admit, I gave up on long ago.

It is no longer enough for the clerics to issue tired platitudes on how Islam means peace and surrender. Where were they when Osama bin Laden and his coalition of terrorists vowed to target every American man, woman and child?

We have to look inward and ask ourselves what in Islam, what in the way it is practiced today, allowed bin Laden to promote his murderous message? And, please, those of you out there penning letters to tell me Islam is nothing but a bloodthirsty religion of the sword or that the Sept. 11 attacks were a Zionist conspiracy that had nothing to do with Islam -- save your ink and close those e-mail messages. I have no time for either camp.

I belong to a third camp that refuses bin Laden's options of being on his side or with the "infidels." I am fed up with the self-pity and self-denial that for too long have paralyzed Muslim thinking. By constantly blaming Western conspiracies for our ills we fuel our own helplessness. Strength is the essence of introspection.

We must make that introspection public. We should not be ashamed to question out loud. Muslims love to remind the world that the Islamic empire at its height stretched from Morocco to China. That we gave the world Avicenna, Averroes and the concept of zero. That at its founding, Islam gave women more rights than any other religion or social system.

All that is true, and I have shared in that pride. But by pointing to our achievement and not to our shortcomings we give in to what I call the Pyramid curse. I am from Egypt, home to the Great Pyramids of Giza. When I lived in Cairo I would swell with pride whenever I saw those magnificent structures. But that pride was often tempered with sadness that their magnificence was a reminder of what Egypt used to be. They are three gauntlets thrown down nearly 5,000 years ago by a golden dynasty whose splendor we strain to understand, let alone better.

Some may question who I am to speak for Muslims. My answer is who is bin Laden? He received no formal religious education but took it upon himself to represent us. He does not represent me. I am a Muslim woman who is wrestling with her faith and questioning its meaning for me today. It is equally my right to speak out.

About 10 years ago, I went through a crisis of faith that swept away lazy answers and made me realize how much work it takes to keep my faith viable. For inspiration I turned to Muslim scholars whom I considered revolutionaries. They were reinterpreting Islam by looking at it squarely with modern eyes. They dared to utter the R-word -- reformation.

One of these books was "Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law," by Abdullahi An-Na'im, an Emory University law professor. I recently turned once more to his book and wrote to Prof. An-Na'im to seek his advice.

He wrote back to tell me that he was about to oversee a new program that includes supporting nine fellows over the next three years to promote human rights in their own communities from an Islamic perspective.

Muslims in America are fortunate because we are free to debate without risking our lives. Prof. An-Na'im's book presents and builds upon ideas of Sudanese Muslim jurist Mahmoud Mohamed Taha. The Sudanese government publicly executed Taha in January 1985. Many Muslims consider Taha's ideas controversial because of their espousal of reform, but they offer a welcome alternative to the fundamentalists, whose ideas too often go unchallenged.

Kevin Hasson pointed out in his Dec. 27 op-ed article how religious freedom in America had influenced the Catholic Church. American Jewish friends have told me how their faith has evolved in America and given birth to the Reconstructionist movement. Muslims in America have the chance to lead the way for the Umma.

The writer was a journalist in Egypt for 10 years. She now lives in the United States.

2002 The Washington Post Company