Muslim Holy Leaders Denounce Terrorism at Meeting
At a meeting last weekend, Muslim religious leaders from around the world condemned Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist acts committed in the name of their religion.
Although conference organizers had already planned a joint declaration on the two issues, their stance was grimly underscored by the news that the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania had been bombed, possibly by fundamentalist extremists.
"Extremists attack us at the same time as they attack the United States," said President Aslan Maskhadov of the rebel nation of Chechnya.
"We lost thousands of our people fighting for Islam against the forces of Soviet imperialism, but (fundamentalist extremists) say we are not good Muslims."
In interviews and speeches at the Second International Islamic Unity Conference in Washington, Maskhadov emphasized that the Chechens, notwithstanding their intense Islamic faith, would never accept the imposition of fundamentalism.
"We Chechens are striving for democracy," he said.
The conference was called by the Islamic Supreme Council of America, headed by Lebanese-born Sheik Hisham al-Kabbani.
Kabbani also voiced a strong condemnation of the bombings in Africa. "Whoever is behind the terrorist act in Africa we condemn," he said. "Our religion has never called for terrorism."
The statements by the assembled leaders carry considerable weight in the Muslim world for two reasons: Those attending included some of Islam's most respected figures, and their stance both reflects and amplifies the belief in nonviolence held by most Muslims.
In addition to Maskhadov, the Washington event attracted other Muslim leaders from the Russian Federation.
A particularly dramatic statement came from Sheik Mahomed Albogachiev, supreme mufti of the Ingushetia Republic, which borders Chechnya. Albogachiev pointed out that 60 percent of his nation's residents, who now number only 300,000, had died in repression meted out by Josef Stalin. "We were killed for our faith. Yet they (fundamentalists) claim we are not real Muslims," he said.
Kabbani, the presiding figure at the conference, is a major leader in Sufism, a mystical movement in Islam that fundamentalists condemn.
The Sufi orders, which developed chanting and other forms of "dhikr" or remembrance of God through meditation and repetitive prayer, are extremely influential in the northern and eastern regions of the Muslim world, from Turkey through Pakistan to Malaysia and Indonesia.
Most of the Sufi orders follow the Sunni branch of Islam, and Sufis are credited with bringing Islam to India. They have millions of members. But they are continuously attacked by fundamentalists who claim that following Sufi leaders and venerating Islamic teachers from the past as holy figures are corruptions of Islam borrowed from the Christian tradition of sainthood.
Although the Washington gathering was called by Kabbani, it concentrated on the broadest issues in Islamic life, with an emphasis on the repudiation of fundamentalism and violence.
The conference heard repeated calls for Muslims to adapt to democracy and modernity without abandoning their faith and spirituality.
The gathering paralleled a similar event hosted by the Muslim women's organization Kamilat, with presentations boosting women's political participation, women's rights in an Islamic context, and the struggle against domestic violence in Muslim households.
Other participants included Sheik Mohammed Nazim al-Haqqani, the grand mufti of Turkish Cyprus and head of the Naqshbandi Sufi order.
Nazim has made the repudiation of terrorism a major feature of his Islamic teachings, in Cyprus and elsewhere, declaring: "Those who plant bombs and kill the innocent are not Muslims. A Muslim defends the faith by fighting face to face, not by cowardly means."
Maskhadov expressed his gratitude for the support of the Naqshbandis, to which the majority of Chechens are affiliated, during the recent war with the Russians. "I do not hesitate to say that although we lacked heavy weapons in our struggle with the Soviet empire, we had great support from Allah, strengthened by our Sufi commitment," he said.
The situation of Muslims with a long history of integration into Russia was described by a delegation of religious leaders from Tatarstan, a region surrounding the Russian city of Kazan, with a population of 4 million, about 60 percent of them Muslim Tatars.
Sheik Galiulla Gabdulla, mufti of Tatarstan, said his people had lived in peace with their Russian neighbors for more than 400 years. But he said that because of anti-Muslim racism among Russians, Tatars have been treated as an underclass.
In comments similar to those of African American Muslims, Gabdulla stressed the importance of prison ministry work. Many young Tatars have ended up in prison, he said, because of limited professional opportunities and other forms of discrimination in the former Soviet empire.
"We have programs to reach young Tatars in prison," he said. "We work with them and we believe the rate of return to prison by those we have assisted is very low."
In addition, Gabdulla said, the Tatars and other Muslims in Russia now have to deal with drug use and trading, which they never knew before.
"We are working to bring our young people back from the temptations of drugs, crime and other such problems. It is one of our most important responsibilities," he said.