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Listening for Islam's silent majority

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In many Islamic countries, in fact, significant numbers of people refuse to accept that bin Laden, or any other Muslim, was responsible for the attacks, preferring to believe conspiracy theories blaming them on Israel or on other culprits.

Rare are the authoritative voices from mosque pulpits or TV studios prepared to confront Muslim audiences with the thought that "there are people in Islam who are ready to do this sort of thing, and this is where we have to start with our self-criticism," as Tariq Ramadan - a leading advocate of Islamic reform in Europe - puts it.

Mr. Ramadan, based in Geneva, argues in his books and lectures that Muslims must condemn the use of force, and embark on theological reforms to encourage a less literal reading of the Koran than fundamentalist Muslims advocate.

Only that kind of "Islamic Reformation," he says, can modernize his religion so that it embraces the scientific and social changes that have transformed the world since Islam's holy texts were written, but which extremists reject as haram, or forbidden.

In a religion that has no papacy or other central authority to lay down the law, Islamic scholars, writers, and imams in many Muslim countries have argued on and off for decades in favor of such changes, hoping they would open up their religion to broader influences.

But they have never succeeded in gathering much popular support. "The voices in favor of authentic pluralism are not nearly sufficient among Muslims," says Farid Esack, a South African Muslim theologian who was Nelson Mandela's minister for gender equality.

"Today I see a debate opening, but only among a few individuals," worries Malek Chebel, a Paris-based French-Algerian scholar whose own eclectic interests are evident from his crowded bookshelves, where a tome on Sufi mysticism sits between a biography of Jimi Hendrix and a book about war in cyberspace.

Dr. Chebel and others like him, who call themselves "moderates" or "modernizers" or "tolerant Muslims," complain that one of their problems is a lack of money and other resources.

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