52 Bin Laden and Other Thoroughly Modern Muslims

Charles Kurzman

As the United States wages war on terrorism, media coverage has portrayed the radical Islamism exemplified by Osama bin Laden as medieval, reactionary, and eager to return the Islamic world to its seventh-century roots.

In one sense this is accurate: Islamists, like almost all Muslims, regard the early years of Islam as a golden era, and they aspire to model their behavior after the Prophet Muhammad and his early followers, much as Christians idealize the example of Jesus.

Islamists seek to regain the righteousness of the early years of Islam and implement the rule of shari'a, either by using the state to enforce it as the law of the land or by convincing Muslims to abide by these norms of their own accord. Litmus-test issues for Islamists, as for traditional Muslims, include modest dress for women – ranging from headscarves to full veils – abstention from alcohol and other intoxicants and public performance of prayers. However, Islamists have no wish to throw away electricity and other technological inventions. Most have graduated from modern schools, share modern values such as human equality and rule of law, and organize themselves along modern lines, using modern technologies and – some of them – the latest methods of warfare.

Indeed, radical Islamists have much in common with Islamic liberalism, another important movement in the Islamic world. Both Islamic liberals and radical Islamists seek to modernize ...

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