It is sometimes important to talk about things that are tempting to be silent about. It is important to shed light on the intricacies, complexities, and nuances of the religion of Islam as well as the contemporary social, political and economic traditions linked to this faith and the uncontrolled rise of extremism.
I used to be a devout follower of Islam: one of the few who actually read the Qur'an word for word and tried to follow the rules in detail.
The penalty for renouncing Islam, it is also crucial to note, is death. It is legally administered in Islamic societies by governments, Islamic courts, and even individual Muslims who desire to fulfill their duty prescribed by Allah, the Qur'an and Muhammad.
These Islamic laws, of course, create fear about telling the true story.
A Muslim, you see, believes that the Qur'an contains the exact words of Allah. The Qur'an does not tell stories about God, as does the Bible; it is viewed as the very word of God, similar to the Ten Commandments. They therefore must be implemented without reservation, regardless of time and place.
According to some Islamic teachings, the reward for killing an unbeliever or apostate -- someone who leaves Islam and renounces Allah and Muhammad -- will receive the best place in heaven.
If you have been indoctrinated by Islam from your earliest childhood and all your life have been a follower of Islam, abandoning or criticizing it is not going to be easy. This indoctrination evolves into a deep-seated fear of even questioning, let alone leaving, the rules of Allah and Islam. Once you become the slave of Islam, it kills your courage to leave it.
Deciding to be free and independent -- liberating yourself from being the slave of the rules of Allah and the chains of Islam -- becomes inconceivable, out of question.
Islam can provide a powerful language and tool to commit the worst crimes, while at the same time the perpetrators of those attacks feel blessed, privileged, rewarded and on the winning side.
Unless we gain a better understanding of the nature of Islam -- its reliance on Qur'anic verses, as well as its values, principles and ideology, we will not be capable of addressing this threat. The challenge before us is no longer just a Muslim issue belonging solely to the citizens of Muslim countries. The threads of fear and cruelty in Islam infest every country. It is a challenge that needs to be dealt with by everyone, the whole world. Otherwise, Islam will only continue to spread in various forms: al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Jabhat Al Nusra, Hamas, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Islamic Jihad, individual terrorists, and many others.
Islamic teachings provide powerful tools, both psychological and materialistic, that influence ordinary men to commit their crimes. The psychological tools include receiving rewards in Heaven, satisfaction from Allah, imams, the fear of disobeying Allah's rules, and so on. The materialistic tools include blessings in this world, and financial support from the Islamic community and charities, among others.
To someone who was born in the Islamic Republic of Iran and worked in Muslim societies, as I was, it is clear that the most serious threat to the current world order -- to Western democratic values, universal human rights, the rule of law, social justice, gender equality, civilized society and all of humanity -- does not come from nuclear bombs, chemical weapons, or other military capabilities. It comes, rather, from ideology -- contemporary Islamist doctrine and the growing popularity of fundamentalist Islam. The threat also comes from the deep social, political and economic differences between democratic Western societies and Muslim societies.
When I first came to the United States a few years ago, before most of the terrorist attacks, I tried to warn people that attacks were inevitably going to happen, and happen in the name of Islam.
The fear-based culture of many Muslim countries is now threatening to permeate the rest of the world. Once that happens, there is no opportunity to overcome it.
It is therefore the responsibility of the silent Muslims, the so-called "moderate" or "reformist" Muslims of the middle class, as well as Western Muslim scholars, to speak out against these dominant Islamist and fundamentalist frameworks. Unfortunately, many hesitate to do so out of fear of the benefits they might lose, so have lost the will and courage to abandon Islam. There is, further, the fear of the consequences, such as being denied visas to Muslim countries to visit their families or to conduct the Hajj.
As many fundamentalists hold the purse strings of powerful influential people, many Muslim scholars fear that their funding from powerful Muslim countries will be halted or that powerful Muslim schools will not publish their books.
If current Islamic teachings, thoughts and education do not go through a fundamental religious reformation from within the religion itself, the future will bring more colossal tragedies, ones that will make previous terrorist acts --- such as the beheadings of Steven Sotloff and James Foley, the Boston marathon bombing, burnings-alive, drownings, crucifixions, slavery, the tragedy of displaced persons in Syria, America's 9/11, London's 7/7 transportation attacks and the Madrid train bombings -- seem infinitesimal.
As someone born in the Islamic Republic of Iran under the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and having spent much of my youth in Syria under the rule of Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad, it is easy to see that the challenge of the 21st century is fundamentalist Islam: its underlying character contradictions, the Qur'an, Muslim leaders, the silent Muslims, and the underlying principles of Islam.
The Qur'an has confined the religion of Islam with such unbending social and legal restrictions that growth is made impossible, and the religion becomes more and more incompatible with Western civilization. Many scholars and imams have been arguing for a long time that Islam will change; their arguments have repeatedly failed.
Other religions have adapted to modernization, social justice, and civil liberties, but Islam has been imprisoned in its own unyielding character. The Qur'an has so restricted and surrounded the ideology of Islam that reformation would mean the collapse of Islam altogether.
The inflexible nature of Islam is the major impediment to progress and social advancement in Muslim countries.
While the rest of the world is modernizing, Islam -- thanks to powerful imams and Islamic governments, which enforce the verses of the Qur'an from 1,500 years ago -- has been moving in reverse. Islam leads its followers to believe that they are the "chosen," superior. But what we have all been seeing in Islamic societies are disturbing patterns of dominance, cruelty, and complete disregard for human life.
There is also a predominant pattern in the Western media to refrain from criticizing Islam or anyone in it, apparently in an attempt to be "politically correct." In an already inflamed racial environment, the media appear careful to avoid treading in the relatively unknown territory of Muslim culture and chooses instead to embrace the more colorful aspects of the religion and its traditions.
It is urgent therefore to raise awareness of what is happening in the extremely shielded and silent corners of fundamentalist Islam. It is imperative that the American people be educated about extremist Muslims who view them with such intense hatred and contempt. Why has their war on democracy been allowed to grow this fiercely? Why does it continue to grow?
With around 1.6 billion followers, or 23% percent of the world's population, Islam is currently the world's second-largest religion after Christianity, and the fastest-growing religion.
Violence and injustice stand on the opposite pole from peace. If Islam is the religion of "peace," as Muslim leaders and scholars argue, Muslims need to speak out when injustice and violent terrorist acts are repeatedly committed in the name of Islam. Simply stating that Islam does not have to do anything with these violent acts is not constructive; it is just a way to avoid tackling the problem.
As Muslims, we need to accept the fact that there exist some parts in the religion of Islam that give social, political, religious, and cultural legitimacy to violence. Otherwise, these Islamist groups would not have flourished. Muslims need to oppose those Qur'anic verses and Islamic teachings that give social, political, religious, and cultural legitimacy to some groups and individuals to operate freely, recruit and brainwash youths, and commit violence and terrorism.
It is important to inform as many people as possible of the day-to-day reality that people no different from you are faced with. My intention is not to be derogatory; my only goal is to provide a clear understanding of the very real danger that the spread of fundamentalist Islam and its modern transformation pose not only to the United States, but to the world -- a warning of what will come if the voices of democratic nations do not rise in unison to stop it.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist, author, and Harvard scholar, is president of the International American Council and serves on the board of Harvard International Review (Harvard University). He is author of the book, "The Muslim Renegade: A Memoir of Struggle, Defiance, and Enlightenment." He can be reached at Dr.Rafizadeh@post.Harvard.edu.