Outside View: Islamic 'Martin 'Luther' issues his proclamation

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator

HERNDON, Va., Jan. 28 (UPI) -- During late January, two high-profile personalities took actions -- one outside the United States and one within -- that couldn't be any farther apart in terms of their global impact.

Due to irresponsible media coverage, the first story -- with major global impact -- went unreported while the second -- involving an out-of-control, spoiled 19-year old kid -- kept grabbing daily headlines.


Starring in the latter was Canadian entertainer Justin Bieber whose drinking, drugging and reckless driving binge in Florida was ended by police, fortunately before he killed anyone. The other action starred Egyptian leader Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who made the bombshell announcement it is time for Muslims to reform Islam, bringing it into sync with modern times.

Bieber's story became the subject of a media feeding frenzy in the United States; Sisi's earth-shaking pronouncement didn't.


Once again, the Fourth Estate demonstrated a lack of its "raison d'etre" as originally envisioned by the founding fathers. It irresponsibly kept reporting on that which will have zero effect on Americans' future well-being while failing to educate them on what could have a major impact upon them.

One would have hoped the media had learned its lesson. After ignoring a little-known terrorist's 1998 declaration of war against the United States, the media only reported on it after Sept. 11, 2001, when the same terrorist made good on his declaration. That declarant was Osama bin Laden. Upon retiring in 2004, veteran news reporter Tom Brokaw chastised his industry for failing to "connect the dots on terrorism" prior to 9/11.

As to the United States' current double nightmare -- Bieber and Islamism -- a quick resolution of the first is possible; the second requires considerable more time.

The quickest way to rid ourselves of the Bieber nightmare is for the U.S. judge involved simply to declare him "persona non grata," deporting him back to Canada to become the United States' northern neighbor's nightmare.

While the United States' Islamic nightmare seems unending, time will have to tell whether Sisi's declaration will have its intended Martin Luther-esque effect on the religion.


Sisi delivered a speech, saying, "Religious discourse is the greatest battle and challenge facing the Egyptian people, pointing to the need for a new vision and a modern, comprehensive understanding of the religion of Islam -- rather than relying on a discourse that has not changed for 800 years."

The "800 year" reference was to the year 1258 -- allegedly when highly qualified Islamic scholars of the day ("mujtahids") declared, through "ijtihad" (independent reasoning), they had officially resolved all disputes about religious doctrine. Therefore, the "gates of ijtihad" were closed to future debate as no scholar could ever again qualify as a mujtahid -- obviously a somewhat short-sighted position to assume.

For Sisi to suggest reopening ijtihad "to improve the image of this religion in front of the world" is the equivalent of Martin Luther defiantly nailing his proclamation (known as "The Ninety-Five Theses") to a church door in 1517, seeking to reform self-promoting Roman Catholic religious practices.

Exercising his "independent reasoning" within these 95 theses, Luther challenged existing church doctrine such as that suggesting the road to heaven was paved with monetary donations. He found the church's "marketing jingle" -- "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs" -- repugnant, teaching instead that heaven's road was paved with good deeds performed for others.


Sisi has thrown a gauntlet at the feet of Islamic extremists embarked upon a journey of violence, chastising them for their "destruction around the world, due to the crimes falsely committed in the name of Islam."

The Muslim world will pay more attention to the general's message than has the West. It will be intriguing, however, to see whether an undercurrent for reform exists under the surface due to dissatisfaction with the high-profile violence extremists strive to maintain.

While Egypt is a Sunni nation, one can expect criticism quickly to come from Shiites, especially the Iranian mullahs who recognize any such debate on Islam sounds their death knell.

Thus, the mullahs may find themselves in a footrace with Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida Sunni extremist leaders, whose power also depends upon followers' blind allegiance, in seeking to blunt Sisi's call for reform before it gains traction.

Sisi seeks to slay a giant, much as Don Quixote did in "The Man of La Mancha."

However, a significant difference exists.

Myopia blurred Quixote's perception of the threat he faced. While what he thought he saw off in the distance were "giants ... (with) arms nigh 2 leagues in length," they were windmills. Despite a warning by Quixote's sidekick, Sancho Panza, they weren't giants, Quixote ignored it, charging forward to take on a fight he simply could never win. Quixote's fantasy gave rise to the idiom "tilting at windmills."


Unlike Quixote's imaginary threat, Sisi's peril does exist in the form of violent Islam. The issue for him then is whether, despite the threat being real, Sisi will ultimately find he too is "tilting at windmills" -- i.e., trying to slay a giant that has survived for more than 70 generations by infecting Muslims with such a violent mindset. In the end, will Sisi's giant also prove un-slayable?

By taking such a courageous position in a regional hotbed of Islamic extremist activity, Sisi may well find himself a marked man. He knows the fate suffered by an earlier Egyptian leader who dared cross Muslim Brotherhood extremists. President Anwar Sadat paid the price for doing so in 1981 when he was assassinated by Muslim Brotherhood offshoot group members.

Only time will tell whether Sisi's proclamation turns over a new leaf for Islam or simply initiates yet another violent phase in its history. The former guarantees him a respected place in history; the latter, a violent death.


(A retired U.S. Marine, Lt. Col. James Zumwalt served in the Vietnam War, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He has written "Bare Feet, Iron Will -- Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran -- The Clock is Ticking.")



(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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