With religion playing a greater role in public life today, it is crucial for moderate religious leaders to work hard to win support, a prominent scholar on the Middle East said yesterday.
The key, said Professor Vali Nasr, is to deliver on economic growth and ensure its benefits are evenly spread among the people.
Speaking at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies symposium on religion, he dug deep into Islam's past to explain why the allure of Islamic fundamentalism endures even now, and how moderate Muslim leaders can help to counter it.
The dean of Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who is Iranian-American, said the hunger to regain power in the Muslim world runs deep as Islam was spectacularly successful in its early years. Within the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, he noted, "this ragtag group of tribesmen had conquered all of the Arabian peninsula".
But the rise of the West and colonialism has left Muslims feeling worse off, he said, adding that while some saw this as a reason to become more like the successful West, others wanted to return to Islam's roots "where the power was", fuelling fundamentalism.
The problem of extremism in Islam is thus tied to real-world politics and power imbalances that must be sorted out, he added.
"It's important for moderates to be able to deliver. It's important for fundamentalists not to be able to deliver on their promises. It's also important to invest in economic growth and development."
Citing Turkey as an example, he said becoming a G-20 country had a big impact on the overall psychology of its people. "They saw Turkey as rising in power, rising on the back of its GDP. Too many Muslim countries are completely out of the game," he said, noting poverty was a feeding ground for extremism.
Prof Nasr also said that while a lot had been said about moderate Islam, the critical question to ask is whether being moderate leaders can address what Muslims need: "When is it in recent Islamic history that a moderate voice has actually delivered on Muslims' feelings of being emasculated, on being on the bottom rung of the ladder?"
He added that this inability to effect change makes winning support an uphill task, particularly in the "extremely masculine, power- obsessed" Arab world.
"When there's this force that operates in the name of Islamic fundamentalism and has a desire to build an Islamic state, and they perform well in battle, it's very difficult to tell Arab youth not to take that seriously and sign up with moderate leaders who, obviously, are completely powerless in this context," he said. Even in Western countries, the audacious shows of power by hardliners hold some appeal for marginalised Muslims, he noted.
Prof Nasr also spoke about how in large parts of Asia, there has been a return of religious values and conceptions to public life. The United States has also increasingly become less secular, both at an individual level and at the sociopolitical level, he said. These changes have caused convulsions around the world, and will likely continue.
Another speaker at the symposium, Professor Yan Kejia, spoke about religion's place in China.
The director of the Shanghai Association of Religious Studies said some have raised concerns about the impact of religions, such as Christianity, on Chinese identity.
But he added that the influence goes both ways, and religions are also sinicized to reflect Chinese values and culture. "This 'sinicized' religion will share with the world China's long history and profound spiritual values," he said.