Why do you think Islam has turned increasingly militant?
Please avoid assigning Islam the power of agency. It is not Islam that has turned angry, rather it is some Muslims, believers and practitioner of Islam, who are angry or getting more so. The reason is well known but often ignored: it is the imposition of dictatorial, corrupt and oppressive governments upon the Muslim by colonial and post colonial Europe and America.
By denying the Muslims the right to govern themselves in a democratic manner, the West and America has relegated the great majority of Muslims into the abyss of poverty, ignorance and hopelessness. Through the use of national dictatorships the natural and human resources of the Muslim world has been seriously exploited by the few leaving the majority hungry and dispossessed. Globalization has added fresh salt to many festering new and old wounds.
Support of colonial occupation forces in the Muslim lands--Russia in Chechniya, Israel in Palestine and Lebanon, China in Eastern Turkistan, and India in Kashmir, among others-- are another reason for the Muslim anger. But it is important to note, while the grievances are many and legitimate, it does not justify terrorism as a means to combat injustices. Islam strictly forbids punishment of the innocent for the sins of others.
There is a view that many of the militant groups are a reaction to the decay in their own societies and that this is because Muslims have turned away from their religion.
The decay in Muslim societies is a fact of history. But this decay is also an important legacy of colonialism and post colonial policies of the US and European powers who have supported unrepresentative and exploitative national regimes in Muslim countries, who in the name of secularism denied their own people a proper Islamic education with relevance to the changing realities of the last century. The elite were offered a Western secular education void of any knowledge of Islam, while the underclasses got buried, when lucky enough, with parochial old madrasa "education" often innocent of knowing anything about social sciences, humanities and history and politics of the modern world. The decaying society was bifurcated into the rabid "secular modernist/Communists, etc" and the even more rabid "traditionalist" ignorant Mullahs. They are incapable of talking to each other. All politics is also personalized and the possibilities for discussing issues and ideas is impossible. The quarrels are made personal and the fights eternal-- a perfect condition for the birth of extremism and terrorism.
Why is the Quran invoked by the militants for their violent brand of politics?
Qur'an and Islam are universal messages and open to all those who are willing to turn to them. How they are used, like all other universal religious sacred texts, is contingent on the real flesh and blood individual human being. For Muslims in general, and the socially, economically and educationally deprived Muslim, these may be the only sources of guidance and solace. Religion also helps resolve individual and collective problems of meaning-- suggest answers by references to the supreme powers of the supernatural to questions that have no readily available rational responses (why death? Why me? etc); makes pain and suffering bearable; and addresses the prickly questions of injustice in this world by reference to the next. Invoking the Qura'n for a Muslim is a socially and culturally conditioned reality. The real question is, not why or whether Muslims invoke the Qur'an, but why a few of them invoke it to justify their own criminal acts. But on this question, Muslim do not have a monopoly.
To what extent has the Palestine Question added to the anti-US sentiment?
Enormously. The clear and unconditional economic, political and military support of the government of the United States for the Israeli policies of abuse and oppression against the peoples of Palestine, without a doubt plays a very important role in the anger directed against the US, especially in the Arab world.
There is a popular perception that Islam is resistant to change..
Such a perception is purposefully created and maintained by the Western media in the mind of their own people. But this is far from the truth: Muslims have for well over 200 years tried to bring about reforms, but the colonial and post colonial Western powers have consistently attempted to stymie such efforts by Muslim movements and intellectuals repeatedly. Their weapon has been local corrupt political regimes who have fought tooth and nail any possibility of bringing about positive change in Muslim societies within the framework of Islamic values. The obstacle to change in the Muslim world has not been Islam and believing and pious Muslim. Rather, the true obstacle to positive change has been the Western support of corrupt and oppressive regimes in the Muslim world. In rare cases where Muslim regimes have come to power -- e.g. in Iran-- the West has instigated every conceivable conflicts and warfare to prevent an Islamic regime from serving their Muslim people.
Does this resistance to change stem from the immutability of Quran, as well as because Islam makes no distinction between personal and public domain?
Qura'n is immutable, but its interpretation, understanding and implementation is contingent on Muslims. Only some basic tenets of faith are beyond disagreements -- personal, social and collective concerns of the community are open to wide array of interpretation, well attested by the diversity of schools of shari'a law in Muslim societies today.
What do you think are the reasons why democracy is absent in large parts of Muslim society? Why have most Muslim states been unable to separate the Church from the State?
The reasons are suggested already-- colonial legacies and their continuity with Western support of the corrupt regimes. Separation of Church and state is not essential for democracy. Its occurrence in European history is peculiar to that history. There is no necessary causal connection for governing a society justly and separation of the so called Church and State. Another aspect of the problem is the imposition of the Western model of nation-state in multi-ethnic Muslim societies which has given rise to practices of internal colonialism by the ruling groups.
Why is the condition of women in Muslim societies subservient to men? Considering Quranic injunctions--and their very narrow interpretations--about polygamy, divorce, dress code, etc., what are the ways out for women?
The answer to this question has been offered by some important Muslim women scholars such as Leila Ahmed and others. The main problem is the patriarchal cultures in much of the Muslim world which predate Islam. In Malaysia and Indonesia, with less stringent patriarchal cultures and parts of Muslim Africa south of the Sahara Muslim women do much better. If Muslim men in patriarchal Middle East, Central and South Asia learned and acted on their Muslim faith, the gender gap will diminish very soon.
(Dr. M. Nazif Shahrani is Chairperson, Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and Director, Middle Eastern Studies Program and Professor of Anthropology, Central Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Indiana University, USA)