I watched an absolutely fascinating documentary on Houston PBS last night, Islam vs. Islamists: Voices from the Muslim Center. It talks about attempts to silence moderate Muslims by more extreme fundamentalist Muslims, often by death threats. It talked about the Wahhabi Muslims, who are the very extreme Muslims that want sharia law instituted which means Muslim law for all people, even in non-Muslim countries. This law includes stoning women and men to death for adultery --the documentary showed secretly captured footage (which was horrid). Yet many moderate Muslims believe in democracy, and in separation of church and state, and were interviewed and highlighted in the piece. This includes Phoenix physician Zuhdi Jasser, who leads the American Islamic Forum for Democracy.
Here's the documentary trailer on YouTube.
Apparently there was a big controversy several months back because the documentary was supposed to air as part of a Crossroads in America series on PBS, but got pulled. The reason? PBS wanted the producer to somehow say that the moderate Muslims portrayed within (who believe in democracy and live in a Westernized society) are actually not "true Muslims" but the extreme fundamentalism represents a truer form of Islam.
The irony here, and the beauty, is how parallel this is to Christianity, and to some extent Judaism. In these three religions (which I know best) there are gradations from fundamentalism and literal interpretations of Scripture, to more moderate and even liberal interpretations. Fundamentalists inevitably claim they are the only "true" believers. Ultra-Orthodox Jews take a literal interpretation of Genesis, as I understand it, and believe things like the devil planted dinosaur bones like Christian creationists.
Interestingly, the literal interpretations also seem to be more tied to political activism (at least within Islam and Christianity), probably because the leaders can control those with fear. Christians in past eras engaged in Crusades because they applied Old Testament laws to the new evangelism. Spreading the "good news" became killing others who didn't convert. It's quite similar to the current flaring of Islamic fundamentalism. They want to force everyone to follow their way, which will never happen, because once you've tasted freedom there's no going back.
The fundamentalist Islamists want to institute sharia law which came not from the Kuran but, as I understand it, from oral tradition (hadith). Christian denominations vary on whether the Bible is the sole source of authority, as do Jewish sects on the use of the Torah (Old Testament) versus the Talmud (rabbinic discussions and interpretations of the Torah and its Law).
These three religions share many similar teachings, and so it comes down to whether we interpret Scripture and religious teachings literally, or rather take the spiritual lessons meant within. You can believe the Bible, for example, to be literally true without believing that every word is literal. What about poetry? In Islam, should one interpret things like the 72 virgins one will receive in heaven as a literal truth or as a description of the ecstasy of heaven since perhaps sex is the closest ecstasy we will feel to heaven on earth? (It's no accident that Jesus called the Church his bride).
It's also ironic that there are fundamentalist Christians who tend to agree with the fundamentalist Muslims that "the only good Muslim" is one who is an extremist, and wants to force their faith on others. It furthers their own cause which is often to condemn those outside their religion, and paint Christianity as somehow different. All religions suffer the same problems. That does not make the religion itself wrong, it just shows the ways humans in their selfishness and greed and power-hunger can hijack what is truly meant by faith.
Here is an interesting interview with the documentary producer, Martyn Burke.