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Briefing: Who Speaks For Islam?

Shireen Hunter (RFE/RL) June 13, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Who speaks for Islam? That was the topic of a briefing at RFE/RL in Prague that brought together experts from the Middle East, Europe, and the United States.

The event was hosted by U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Karen Hughes.

Here is a selection of quotes from some of those who took part.

Shireen Hunter, Visiting Fellow, Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, Distinguished Scholar, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.:

"This is both very simple and very complicated. We can say this really for any religion. Who speaks for Christianity? The Catholic Church says that they are the mother church and as the Holy Father had said, [anybody] that is not Catholic is not going to go to heaven. We have different Protestant denominations, so who speaks for Christianity? In Judaism you have reform, conservative, Orthodox [branches]. We have to get this out of our mind that there is some kind of Islamic exceptionalism."

The entire briefing (about 2 hours and 15 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media

“Islam speaks for Islam. There is a holy book and in that most of the things are there. Different people interpret it differently, they put different emphasis. In addition to that, there is an Islamic tradition, for example, of warfare, what do you do in warfare, and ceasefires, there is a whole long history of Islam's interactions with other countries and governments.”

Fikret Karcic, Professor of Comparative Legal History Faculty of Law, University of Sarajevo and Professor of the History of Islamic Law, Faculty of Islamic Studies:

“In the past, in classical Muslim tradition, Muslim scholars usually never used such terms as 'the stand of Islam is such and such.' For example, in Fatwa literature, that is legal opinion literature from Ottoman times, the usual way a question was put was 'what is the position of the Hanafi school on such and such an issue?' So they confined the question to asking an individual mufti to produce one position. And only in modern times, with the excessive use of the attribute "Islam,' some people have begun to talk on behalf of Islam.”

“Whenever we deal with interpretation of religious text, there is the possibility of differences. But there is also an instrument in Islam for how to solve that, and that is the consensus of scholars. So [what counts is] what is the position of the majority of scholars.”

Saad Eddin Ibrahim , Founder/Chairman, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Professor of Political Sociology, American University in Cairo:

“The autocratic regimes have cracked down on liberals, on moderates of all kinds. So, who are the carbon copies -- or the opposite image of them? The theocrats. The theocrats have access to the mosques. I don't have access to the public square as Saad Eddin Ibrahim. But theocrats, in a country like Egypt, have a hundred thousand mosques, every Friday -- and sometimes five times a day. And these autocratic regimes, unwittingly, in fact are the greatest helper of the hard-line theocrats.”