In answer to the question of who speaks for Islam, it is clear that there is no single locus of authority in the Muslim world today. While the traditional ulama have lost much of their popular credibility as interpreters of religion, neither the ruling elites in Muslim states nor the Islamists, the militant fringe, or the practitioners of the New ijtihad have yet been able to fill this role.
The cacophony of voices attempting to speak for Islam has been amplified by the constant flow of unvetted expression through the Internet. As Gary Bunt, an academic who writes frequently on Islam and the Internet, establishes in Islam in the Digital Age, the proliferation of “Islamic” Web sites has vastly increased the amount of debate in the Muslim world.51 The Internet also offers believers an anonymous forum in which to address their religious concerns. Counseling sites and online fatwas are widely accessible and increasingly popular, while the development of online sermons and Friday khutbahs has extended the audiences of numerous preachers. The authority of online religious officials, however, is open to question. Unlike the state–sponsored ulama, the “Internet Imams” are beyond the control of government agencies; at the same time, many of them have not gone through traditional training. As one would imagine, this arena of free expression is now home to a wide range of political opinions and is often used to mobilize opposition to those in power. The Internet has also been employed by extremist groups to promote their own agendas; however, it is almost impossible to verify whether specific sites speak for the groups that they claim to represent, including Al Qaeda.
It might also be said that Islamism’s current popularity is in significant part due to the slow pace of reform in many Muslim—particularly, Arab—states, as well as to what is perceived by a large majority of people in the Muslim world as lack of serious commitment by major international powers, especially the United States, to address the grievances harbored by most Muslims.52 Current events in Palestine and Iraq, which lie in Islam’s historical and political—if not demographic—heartland, resonate deeply with Muslims, accentuating the feeling of impotence across much of the Muslim world and increasing receptivity to Islamist arguments. Post–September 11 American policies have contributed to this pattern, demonstrating Washington’s insensitivity in the eyes of many Muslims. The cacophony of voices claiming to speak for Islam is also an expression of a more fundamental crisis in the Muslim world— a century–long crisis of poor governance, particularly in the Arab world.53 Since decolonization, Arab states have turned to a variety of political remedies—including nationalism, pan–Arabism, pan–Islamism, communism, and socialism—yet, with a few exceptions, all have failed to deliver widespread prosperity and good governance.
The tragedy of September 11, 2001, played a major role in bringing the crisis within dar–el–Islam to the attention of the West. At home, “9/11” and the events of subsequent years have made Muslims more concerned about their current situation and about finding ways to resolve it. Progressive Muslim thinkers are growing bolder and are taking risks to challenge the ulama as well as the Islamists. This surge of intellectual effort has resulted in a soar in the number of books published over the last few years by the proponents of a New ijtihad.
Finally, it should be kept in mind that the relationship between Islam and the West has a long and perhaps cyclical history. The crisis within the Muslim world today might be said to mirror the situation of the West during the Middle Ages, when the Muslim empire was the center of knowledge and civilization. To end its stagnation, the West entered a period of self–reflection and embarked on the Renaissance, in part by appropriating Islam’s scientific and cultural advances. The renowned 13th–century Italian theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for example, sought inspiration in the works of Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, the most revered philosopher of the time at the Sorbonne.54 Perhaps the Muslim world today, by examining its situation through the lens of modernity, will embark on a contemporary Islamic renaissance. We can only guess at how this might change the relationship between Islam and the West. What is certain at this point is that greater communication, improved understanding, and identification of the multiple—and sometimes conflicting—sources of authority within each civilization can only hasten our entry into a new phase of the history of the Islamic–Western encounter.