Articulate Muslims have realized in recent weeks that once-acceptable alibis for suicide murder are no longer taken seriously. Responding to the London bombings and the atrocities in Egypt, scores of imams have been lining up to condemn violence. The recent bombings have shaken them, and made them newly concerned about Islam's reputation.
Whatever their private opinions, their public statements now sound a different note. They no longer glibly dismiss the possibility that there may be something flawed in Muslim life. They have begun to exhibit a self-questioning moral seriousness that was hard to find in their statements even two months ago.
Reformists, challenging Islam's conventional wisdom, are also making themselves heard with more clarity. After the first bombings, an Egyptian columnist, Muna Al-Tahawi, writing in a London paper, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, summarized what seems to be a growing opinion: "The time has come for us to declare that the claim heard whenever Muslims stage a terror attack ('George Bush made me do it') is stupid." She said it's time to stop rebuking others: "We all know the extent to which extremism has increased in our societies."
It is this fact, this known-to-everybody fact, that requires recognition. It is moving (very slowly) to the centre of discussion.
Still, Muna Al-Tahawi says that Muslim intellectuals on Arab TV channels continue to speak as if Bush and Blair themselves went to Leeds, brought the young people to London and set off the bombs. "Of course, all this was said in Arabic. Intellectuals believe this is what the Arab world wants to hear." She argues, on the other hand, that Arabs have suffered greatly from violence and want an end to it.
Mamoun Fandy, a columnist for Arabic-language papers in Cairo and London, suggests that words spoken in public by Muslim leaders often differ from their true opinions. He wrote this week that he knows many Muslims in the West, often described as moderate, who denounce violence in the press but say in private conversation that the West deserves to suffer from terrorism. This week Fandy wrote that the term "mosque" should no longer be applied to places used to prepare bombs. He finds Islamist opinion on TV hypocritical and pathetic: Middle-aged Egyptian writers and politicians "take political Viagra and feel intoxication and lust when they curse the U.S. and applaud the terrorists."
A different view emerges from polls of British Muslims, who appear angrier and more self-righteous than we might have hoped. Politicians as different as George W. Bush, Jean Chretien and Tony Blair have made it their urgent business to explain, with the utmost confidence (almost as if they knew what they were talking about), that killers and their sympathizers constitute no more than the tiniest sliver of the Muslim population, so small as to be barely measurable, so inconsequential that no one should for a moment think of them as a significant section of Islam.
But if we believe recent surveys in Britain and accept that Muslim opinion is likely to be similar elsewhere, then Bush, Chretien and Blair are dead wrong -- and so are the multitudes of pious editorial writers and columnists who accept the same optimistic premises.
Certainly, the situation in Britain looks far worse than most outsiders have guessed. Working for London's The Daily Telegraph, the YouGov polling firm interviewed 526 Muslim adults across Britain during July 15-22. An amazing number of them support the suicide bombers. About a quarter of those who were polled sympathize with the motives of the killers. Half of them understand "why some people behave in that way." About a third see Western society as decadent and want to bring it to an end. Only a few more than half of them believe Muslims should live within Western society, imperfect as it is. Six per cent say the bombings were justified -- which represents, if the poll is anywhere near accurate, close to 100,000 people.
Most striking of all, 1% of the survey, indicating perhaps 16,000 individuals (of 1.6 million Muslims in Britain) said they are willing to use violence against the "decadent and immoral" West. That could be a polling error, except that another poll, taken separately by the government and leaked to The Times of London, came up with the same chilling number, 16,000 "engaged in terrorist activity."
Anthony King, professor of government at Essex University, interpreting the numbers for Telegraph readers, came up with the astounding conclusion that the results are "at once reassuring and disturbing." He didn't say where he found the reassuring part.