History of Islamic Extremism?

Historically, extremist groups have always been marginalized and rejected by mainstream Islam as heretical aberrations. But now a major change has occurred. The magnificent Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages has crumbled, and traditional institutions that once sustained and promulgated Islamic theology - and marginalized extremism - have been taken over by State institutions.

A thousand years ago, at the height of Islamic power, the tradition called Ijtihad - the spirit of discussion, debate and dissent - flourished, and was presided over by a class of religious scholars, independent of the political system, called jurists. From the 8th to the 12th century, some 135 schools of Islamic interpretation existed, as well as 70 great libraries. Divergent opinions and schools of thought were not only tolerated, they were celebrated. (There was discrimination, and it was hardly an interfaith utopia, but historical evidence indicates that Jews living under Islam experienced much less persecution than the Jews living in European Christendom.) Science and art thrived, and Islamic civilization laid the groundwork for the Renaissance.

But in the centuries since, following the Crusades and the later invasions by Genghis Khan and his successors, as well as the inevitable internal political intrigues and challenges as opponents battled each other for power in a vast empire, the world has seen the demise of this high civilization, the stifling of Ijtihad, the closing of schools, the repression of critical independent thought, as the duty of the jurists has been co-opted by nationalistic politician - technocrats serving as self-appointed arbiters of faith - who limit debate and interpretation, rather than expanding it, all to prop up their cultural and political goals and maintain the status quo. Now Muslims in these countries are silenced by relentless propaganda telling them that Unity means Conformity, Debate only causes Division, and Division is synonymous with criminal Heresy, so you'd better keep your mouth shut!

Many people in this situation have been beaten into submission, which is what the powers-that-be want. No doubt, many others continue to have questions and divergent opinions, but dare not speak out for fear of the response.

Fanatic groups, like al-Qaeda and the Taliban - originally supported by the West as allies in our battle with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, but now turned virulently anti-American after witnessing so much carnage - are still intellectually and sociologically marginalized in Islam. But their highly visible acts of violence command the public stage.

Nonetheless, I believe these fanatics will not achieve their ambition to remake the religious landscape of the Islamic world in their narrow image. There are too many rival traditions. The desire for freedom is too strong. And as Walter Russell Mead notes, against the drive for a more closed and narrow view of Islam, "the Internet is making the great works of Islamic scholarship available to tens of millions of Muslims, including women, who can and will be free to draw their own conclusions about what their faith means and how it should be lived. Theological diversity within Islam seems bound to increase.