The dominance of conservative Islam in the Middle East reflects a fundamental reality of Muslim society. But this conservatism should not be mistaken for violent radicalism, as America, unfortunately, has done. While conservatism may claim a majority of the “Arab street” (and the Persian street), this does not mean that violence and terrorism will inevitably rule the region.
A recent study published in Damascus by the Center of Islamic Studies pointed out that conservatives make up about 80% of the population of the Middle East’s Islamic societies. Reformers make up most of the other 20%. Radicals can count on support from no more than 1% of the population. In my view, these rough proportions have been stable throughout ten centuries of Islamic history, with slight differences.
Islamic terminology has been established to describe these differences. Radicals first emerged as “Khawarij,” a fanatical group dating to the first century of Islam, which used accusations of blasphemy – and violence – to suppress even small differences of opinion. Today’s conservatives are known among religious scholars as “People of the Letter” – those who adhere to the letter of the Islamic texts. Reformists, as they are known today, are the equivalent of “People of Intellect.”
The difference between Muslim conservatives and reformists can be measured in two ways: their stance on the possibility of making personal judgments on religious matters (known in religious terms as “diligence”) and their attitude towards non-Muslims.
Conservatives believe that the revealed law was settled during the glorious days of Islam, and that individual interpretation should therefore be restricted. As a result, they don’t look for new solutions to the problems that Muslims now face. Banks and insurance companies are to be avoided, on the theory that their activities are usurious and thus prohibited. Likewise, head covering for Muslim women is considered a requirement.