* Fifth of a Six Part Series: Tolerance and Intolerance in the Islamic World, held at the Palais des Nations during the Durban Review Conference. All members of the Panel are Practicing Muslims.

Ladies and gentlemen, having written many articles and books about the Arab and Muslim cultures, I have no doubt that Islam, or more precisely the prevailing interpretations of Islam, is the principal factor that affects and influences Arab culture and Arab environments.

So I come from the Arab culture standpoint, and I see a big difference between the word Islam, and the understanding of the interpretation of Islam. I believe that any understanding or interpretation of any religion is a cultural subject; it depends on the quality, education and the cultural level of the intermediary between the religion’s literature and the receivers, that is: People. So when somebody asks the very important question: Is there compatibility between Islam and the values of modernity, human rights, women’s rights, progress, pluralism, otherness, and coexistence? My answer is: you can say possibly no, or possibly yes. It depends on what you mean by Islam. If you look at it from a certain angle, you will come to no, they are not compatible. But I think that we do this only because we, so far, continue to accept that Islam is represented fully and solely by the prevailing Wahhabi, anti humanity, petrodollar Islam. Islam has many sects, many schools of thinking.

There are tens of interpretations. These interpretations have enormous different impacts on all these values. Today, the world makes the mistake of accepting and dealing with an extremely hard line interpretation of Islam, as if it were the only possible representative of Islam.

While scholars realize that such a harsh interpretation of Islam prevails only because of the unlimited financial resources that stand behind it and continue to mark it and advocate it in societies that have been made most vulnerable by dictatorships and corruption, the world must know that Wahhabi Islam is the only sect that (based on oil wealth) is capable of building hundreds of Islamic centers around the world—centers that advocate the most aggressive, isolated and harsh interpretation of Islam. These centers also recruit people to preach values that are totally contradictory to civilized societies’ value systems. Wahhabi Islam that monopolizes the representation of Islam advocates what is in total a clash with human rights, women’s rights and the values of coexistence.

I personally think that Islam could be presented in a way that is compatible with all the values of modern, civilized societies. Nonetheless, this depends on who represents Islam and the Muslims.

The challenge today is that the world (supported by the moderate Muslims) must not allow a single sect to claim ownership of absolute reality. It is an imperative step, however it is a rather difficult one. The Wahhabi institution with billions of dollars has been proactively playing on the theater for more than half a century. The agony is that they have been doing it in a patent clear manner for decades. Their education curricula over the past 50 years are the evidence of the crime they have been committing against humanity, Islam, and the Muslims for a long while. The world must have noticed, Europe and the USA must have noticed, and finally the UN must have noticed that a number of those countries have been spreading the seeds of fanaticism, violence, and a culture of hate via their educational programs in a manner that can only produce the most dangerous terrorists.

So we all share the responsibility of letting one school of thinking (a very extreme one) become the role model of Islam. The advocates of this model, most unfortunately, enjoyed the availability of unlimited financial resources, and managed meanwhile to establish a global network which enabled them to nearly negate the presence and role of any moderate interpretation of Islam such as the interpretation which prevailed for centuries in Turkey, Egypt and the Levant region. The marginalization of moderate interpretations of Islam was easy to realize in societies that witnessed an overall collapse of standards, with their autocracies and military juntas.

In my opinion one could say that yes, Islam could be compatible with values of modernity and progress. Yet this depends on who represents Islam: who (for instance) will be talking about the status of women, the status of minorities—being Jews, Christians or others—and coexistence in a problematic area such as the Middle East.

The core of the current challenge is to change the following picture: the hard-line Islamic group financed by endless resources spreading via cultural centers and schools its harsh interpretation of Islam, building hundreds of mosques everywhere and recruiting hard-line preachers. In parallel, the many moderate Islamic schools of thinking are being ignored and marginalized. This is the picture that ought to be changed if we want Muslims to live in peace with others on the face of earth.

There are Muslims who could surprise you with open views on equality, diversity, coexistence, pluralism, modernity and human rights. The members of such open and moderate schools would enable you to see what happened in the history of the Muslim societies that enabled the clergy to convert Muslims to caravans of followers and deprive them from the use, benefits, and dynamics of the critical mind.

So what is needed is to work for the inception of a new dialogue not with those who dominated and monopolized the representation of Islam, but with the other schools of thinking that accept to live in peace with the rest of humanity.

Last week, I was in Italy lecturing at a number of universities. Let me say a few words on Italy as an example of the catastrophe Europe might be heading to: n Italy there are slightly less than 1,000 mosques; This in itself is not a problem. But when we discover that 90% of these mosques were built by Saudi money and resourced by Imams that represent the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam (that ultimately produced the current leaders of Al Qaeda)—when we realize this, we realize how negligent the West has been. Many of these mosques bred and shall continue to breed extremely fundamentalist men and women who would never accept the values of the Italian society, and shall even endeavor to breech these values.

This Italian example is replicated in every single European country, a phenomenon that urges us to ask: why this enormous amount of negligence?

Why? ... The answer is simply three letters: O I L

If it wasn’t the oil syndrome, what would it be that led the world to close all eyes and ears before thousands of tales such as the following: Last year (2008) a female professor at one of the Saudi universities was imprisoned for committing the following crime: sitting at a public café with a colleague who happened to be a professor at her university but not her husband. The lady professor was arrested and handed to her husband after she and the husband signed a certificate stating that she would not repeat such a disgraceful and anti Islamic behavior: to have coffee with a colleague at Starbucks.

Inside the educational and religious institutions of a country such as Saudi Arabia, the seeds of destruction of the values of civilization are being cultivated, employed, marketed and globally spread.

My colleague on the panel today, from Turkey, talked to you about the moderate and nearly secular Islam that she witnessed in her own country. I, in Egypt, lived a similar experience with a very moderate interpretation of Islam, until the harsh interpretation came, some 35 years ago, on the back of the oil barrel that penetrated Egypt’s religious and educational institutions until they were mostly ruined.

It is our joint responsibility to discover, dialogue with, and promote the moderate Islamic schools of thinking that made countries like Egypt, Syria, and Turkey (for decades and centuries) embrace a tolerant and moderate interpretation of Islam that allowed diversity (in all of its forms) to prevail.

Tarek Heggy studied law at Ain Shams University in Cairo, followed by a degree from the International Management Institute of Geneva University. He taught law in Algeria and Morocco and went on to become Chairman of Shell Companies in Egypt. He has lectured at universities throughout the world.

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