How do we reconcile today’s divergent voices of Islam?

With the rise of the Islamic State group, there have been questions about just who speaks for Islam and what the message should be. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talks with Manal Omar of the United States Institute of Peace and Asra Nomani, co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement, about standing up to violent religious extremism.

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    But first, since the rise of ISIS, and the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, there have been questions about just who speaks for Islam and what the message should be.

    Tonight, Margaret Warner brings together two voices for a discussion on faith and extremism.


    The recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, its perpetrators inspired by jihadist ideology, have reignited a long-running debate about the nature of Islam and its links to violent extremism.

    In his address after the San Bernardino killings, President Obama urged Americans not to scapegoat all Muslims. But he also called on Muslims to combat what he described as a dangerous trend in their faith.


    An extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities. This is a real problem that Muslims must confront, without excuse.


    The next day, leading Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a temporary ban on foreign Muslims entering the U.S. and a more watchful approach to those living here.

  • DONALD TRUMP, Republican Presidential Candidate:

    We have to look at mosques. And we have to respect mosques. But, yes, we have to look at mosques. We have no choice. We have to see what's happening, because something is happening in there. Man, there's anger. There's anger. And we have to know about it.


    Democratic contender Hillary Clinton has taken the opposite tack in discussing Islam.

  • HILLARY CLINTON, Democratic Presidential Candidate:

    Islam is not our adversary. Muslims are peaceful and tolerant people, and have nothing whatsoever to do with terrorism.


    This debate extends to the global Muslim community as well. Jordan's King Abdullah, who speaks often of a war within Islam, insists Islamic State militants are way outside the mainstream.


    These are outlaws. These are renegades. They have nothing to do of understanding what our religion is about.


    The struggle to understand and agree on what Islam represents in an age of terror is sure to continue.

    And, for more, we're joined by two Muslim American women, both former journalists. Manal Omar is associate vice president for the Middle East and Africa Center at U.S. Institute of Peace. And Asra Nomani is co-founder of Muslim Reform Movement. She's also the author of "Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam."

    Welcome to you both.

    Manal, I will start with you.

    As we just heard, President Obama speak of an extremist ideology that he said had spread in some Muslim communities and that was a real problem that Muslims needed to address. What was your reaction when you heard that? Is he right?

    MANAL OMAR, United States Institute of Peace: I think that he's right.

    I think that it's important that we recognize extremism in different forms, particularly religious extremism, is something that we're struggling with as a global community. What I was worried about was putting all that responsibility just on the Muslim community.

    Absolutely, everyone needs to play a role if we're going to succeed in combating violent extremism. And it can't just be the Muslims. We need everyone.


    How far has it penetrated, this extremist ideology?


    It's resonating with different communities. And I don't think it's necessarily tied to the religious side only.

    I think the ideology is really a social justice framework, where people feel frustrated, and they're trying to push back and they're not really finding a way to ground themselves, so they're grounding it in religion.


    Asra Nomani, how did you see it?

  • ASRA NOMANI, Co-Founder, Muslim Reform Movement:

    Well, Manal knows that there is a word in Arabic (SPEAKING ARABIC) said in Urdu, my native language, and it means duty.

    And I felt that President Obama spoke to exact — a very real duty that Muslims have to challenge this extremist ideology. And I came armed with just one thing, and that was the Saudi Koran. And it's in that Koran that we have a theology of hate, intolerance and sexism that is written into their interpretation of Islam.

    It is not the interpretation that you follow. It's not the one that I follow, but we have to challenge it. And I am reminded, just because I went to "Star Wars" yesterday, about this metaphor of the fact that we are facing a dark side. And we're in a war of our generation. It's an ideological war. And we are the resistance. We, as Muslims, have to define very clearly that we don't believe in an Islam that is one of political governance, that we don't believe in an Islam where you can beat your wife.


    But let's talk about the nature of Islam, because President Obama and many others have called it — in fact, you wrote a piece recently, a religion of peace, or a religion that promotes and teaches peace, and yet Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State, says in fact ISIS is following the true tenets of Islam.

    Which is it? How can there be two such different views?


    I think that there is more than two. You have over 1.5 billion Muslims with a lot of different interpretations.

    Violent extremism rooted in religion is one of our biggest threats. And it's not just in Islam. Like, if we turn to situation in Burma, where you see Buddhist monks quoting Buddhist scripture to incite violence, including attacking children in school buses — and I always say, if Buddhism, which is one of the most moderate and peaceful religions, can be manipulated, then no religion is safe.

    We keep looking at it from a religious lens, but I would urge people to really think about it in terms of our history of race issues, our fear of the other. I think that's what's also really coming out, particularly in the Trump rhetoric. It goes way beyond Islam. It really goes to the social structure and structural violence that is built in our nation that we have to address.


    But do you think that Baghdadi is distorting Islam?


    Absolutely, I have no doubt.

    I agree. Almost everything that Asra was saying about sexism, about really looking at the differences, it's really important that Muslims take ownership and really challenge the interpretation. It's never been a static religion. We have always challenged, we have always questioned.


    Asra Nomani, on how firm a leg is Baghdadi standing when he asserts that he has being true to the true tenets of Islam?


    Well, Baghdadi is going back to an interpretation of Islam that he believes is rooted at the birth of the faith, when he thinks that he is practicing what is the real idea of protecting Islam.

    And the very sad thing to me is Baghdadi's version of Islam is very parallel to the interpretation of Islam that the Saudis practice. We're not confronting that reality. So, just as an example, Baghdadi goes back to the tradition of sex slaves and he argues that, at the birth of Islam, we had slaves and it's written in the Koran that we did.

    They were allowed as Muslims to have sex with their slaves at that time. And, today, we have this sad tragedy of women being taken as sex slaves.


    Is this kind of ideology stronger here in the United States than it was, say, 15 years ago? And if so, why?


    Just a couple months ago, I went to the Comfort Inn in Springfield. And guess what I was at? A meeting of Hizb ut Tahrir, the extremist organization. This is a very real extremism.

    And for me, personally, in my own effort, I believe we have to have reform. It's why we founded this Muslim Reform Movement that fights for peace, human rights and secular governance.


    I don't think it's greater in the U.S. today particularly. American Muslims are at the spotlight, particularly because of the role that America plays generally in the world.

    And I would actually argue — I grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and was consistently hungry for someone who represents me and looking at — it was either men talking about Muslim women or non-Muslim women trying to save Muslim women.

    When we talk about Islam, when we talk about the origins of Islam, the first person to enter Islam was a woman. The first Sufi saint, mystic was a woman. As Muslims, we need to own that we have lost where the role of women is. And I would really argue it's the feminine energy and women stepping back into their role which will help us with this violent extremism.


    And so, finally, what more could American Muslims be doing now to combat this threat?


    This mystic that you referred to is Rabia Basri. And she said that we have to burn the gates of hell and throw water on the fire of hell. We have to challenge the theologies. That is what I believe we have to do. And it is a war of ideas and we have to win it.




    I think the American Muslim community, I think the Muslim community globally is doing a lot.

    And I think what would be nice to see is the acknowledgment, because we're attacked by both sides, by the extremists. I get fatwas issued against me just for working for peace in the region. And we are also being attacked by people who only see us as the definition of a Trump American. And we're outside that definition.

    So, I think that we need to continue challenging theology, but also really protecting civil liberties in the U.S., because we're the latest people on the chopping block, particularly the immigrants. So, I would like to invite people to think about what they can do, and not just isolate the Muslim community.


    Well, Manal Omar and Asra Nomani, thank you very much.


    Thank you.


    Thank you for having us.

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