Muslims account for one-fifth of the world's population, but most Americans
know little about their faith, Islam, which continues to be one of the fastest growing religions in the United States and
around the world.
What does it mean to be a Muslim today? Does Islam deserve its reputation as a patriarchal, authoritarian, and anti-Western religion? What is the role of Islam in movements for political and social change?
FRONTLINE explores these and other questions in "Muslims," a special two-hour film examining the different faces of Islam's worldwide resurgence and the
fundamental tenets of the faith. Reporting from Iran, Nigeria, Egypt,
Malaysia, Turkey, and the United States, and drawing on the perspectives of leading
scholars of Islam, this program tells the stories of Muslims struggling to
define how Islam will shape their lives and societies.
The journey begins at Cairo's Al Azhar Mosque, the oldest extant university in
the world. Sheik Muawith Mabrook Abbas, an Islamic scholar, staffs the phones
of Al Azhar's Fatwa Committee, responding to Muslims wanting to know what is
right and wrong under Islamic (or Sharia) law. The sheik encourages Muslims to
hold fast to the traditions of Islam. But the influence of Islamic institutions
such as Al Azhar has waned, while daily pressures have risen, and people have
been forced to look elsewhere for guidance. For some, the answer has been in
more traditional interpretations of Islam, while for others it is in a more
contemporary understanding of their faith.
In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar, a feminist Muslim activist, questions her
religion's repressive views and treatment of women and heads a group working
for modern interpretations of Islamic texts. Despite the rising influence of
Malaysia's Islamic Party, which encourages women to veil themselves and put their family
before career, Zainah is adamant that Islam is not a patriarchal religion.
In secular Turkey, Muslims are in another kind of struggle. For over
seventy years the government has strictly separated Islam from politics,
viewing political Islam as a threat to Turkey's modern, democratic society.
But with the revival of Islam -- in 1996 a Turkish Islamic Party won over 20 percent of
the vote -- Turkey has cracked down on Islam's most visible symbols, such as head
scarves on women. Secularists see head scarves in public leading to further
inroads on the nation's strict separation of religion and state.
There's little struggle over Islam and modernity in the predominantly Muslim north
of Nigeria. "Muslims" shows how an increasing number of states in the region
have reintroduced full Sharia law, with its harsh penal code that includes amputations,
floggings and executions. Supporters of this movement, such as attorney
Muzzammil Sani Hanga, defend Sharia as a way to establish morality and
order in a society where values have eroded. And for Hanga, Westerners'
opposition to Sharia highlights the sharp differences in how Westerners and
Muslims see individual freedoms vs. communal values and harmony.
And how do American Muslims define their Islamic culture and identity in the
open, multicultural society of the United States? For years, Muslims have been learning how to carve out a Muslim identity in a diverse society. However, particularly since Sept. 11, they
also have had to face confrontations with other ethnic and religious groups.
"Muslims" traces the stories of several Americans, including Yasemin Saib, a New York City marketing professional who was raised in Saudi Arabia, and Dr.
Aminah McCloud, an African-American convert to Islam who works not only to
resolve misunderstandings between American Muslims and non-Muslims, but also to
improve relations between African-American Muslims and Muslim immigrants.
Modernity, globalization, and immigration are proving to be key fault
lines for Muslims everywhere, as their effects force many to redefine their
faith and its place in their daily lives.
Perhaps nowhere are the fissures and tensions greater than in the Islamic state
of Iran. "Muslims" travels there to examine the question facing many Islamic
societies -- can democracy, modernity and Islam mix? Iran's repressive theocracy
of hard-line ruling clerics is determined to adhere to the strictest
interpretatons of Islam. But Iran's secular and religious reformers are
relentlessly pressing for changes, despite imprisonments and threats from the
regime. The paradox of tradition and modernity is illustrated in
the personal story of Ayatollah Mahdi Hadavi Tehrani, a professor of
jurisprudence at Qom Seminary. While he teaches and lives by traditional Islamic values and practices, he allows his
wife to work as a college teacher and hopes that his daughter will one day attend
university and have a career.
Believing that Islam is a religion that can blend tradition and
modernity, Muslims like Malaysia's Zainah Anwar -- the feminist fighting for women's rights
in Malaysia -- remain optimistic about their religion's future in the 21st century
"Islam can be interpreted in different ways by different groups," she says.
"This is one reason why Islam as a religion survives to this day and is the
fastest growing religion in the world -- precisely because of the flexibility of
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