My Muslim friends

Friday afternoon at Knotel I had three brilliant, accomplished friends in the office — Muslims — and for the first time asked them each “So what do you think about all this?”

The first one, a venture capitalist, grew up the son of a teacher mom in New York, public schools, went to high school with me at Stuyvesant, then Stanford and Microsoft and now in London. He is religious. “The terrorists are not real Muslims; they don’t even follow the basic religion. They are crazy and horrible and it maddens me that people think this represents Islam.” Fine – I have heard this before. But I also asked him: “Where is the counter movement?” It’s there and he himself organizes an annual retreat of Muslim intellectuals that thinks and talks about the collective aims for progress. But they can’t get or can’t handle some of the more hardcore folks — even educated and worldly Saudis don’t fit in. And nobody will fund it – the rich states like Qatar and Saudi are not so open.

And: The religious community around Islam is really fractured. Nobody is in charge. There are many diverging views. There isn’t a “leadership” to call on, or a common forum where these discussions can be aired and engaged.

Second: a startup founder working to help doctors to cure cancer, with his sister as cofounder. He is a former venture capitalist, studied at Rutgers and MIT, and she is an MD from the best programs. They both escaped Syria as children with their parents; today they have disappeared relatives and asylum refugee cousins. He told me how he is frozen when he hears of attacks, “please don’t let it be another one of those.” He’s not even very religious, an immigrant. But embarrassed by his “fellow Muslims”, angry at their actions, afraid for the consequences, worried for his relatives… “The Muslims and the Arabs also have lost so much.”

Interesting– he sees himself as more Arab than Muslim and that adds one more dimension. The Arab countries don’t work. The oil states are horrible. But the Levant — it was not-so-long ago a paradise of culture and learning. The Ottoman Empire. 99 years ago that began collapsing with WW1. It hasn’t recovered. While we spoke the coup began in Turkey.

So I asked him “who is in charge?” Of the right ideas I meant. Who are the scholars, speakers, priests, politicians, writers, and movement leaders of the 21st Century Islam?

He said there is no consensus, no cooperation, no leading figure and even he doesn’t think first of himself as obliged to speak for Islam. It’s a thing but I don’t own it.

Seems to me a mass of different cultures, peoples, threads in civil war. “In Syria you see Islam at war” he said — they are killing each other. And you can’t count the number of sides.

So then I spoke with a woman whose father is Egyptian, but she grew up in Germany. She lived there after college and worked in Mubarak’s Egypt. She remembers a place where women were respected, no hardline conservatives around, amazing parties like 1,001 nights. She remembers how the influence of the “men who worked in Saudi” traveled back to Egypt and started an traditionalist movement.

She was in shock and depressed about the attacks. She said her friends were all posting angrily and sad about these criminals and how they disgrace Muslims.

I asked her also: fine so who is in charge? Where is the forum of progressive, intellectual, modern Muslim people? Where do they meet, post articles, debate issues, and condemn the bad guys?

She took it as a call to action. “I have to figure something out.” The Jon Stewart of Egypt lives in the US now – banished.

The military runs Egypt. They are trying to run Turkey. There is a civil war in Syria. A rich family owns Saudi. Iraq is a civil war. Lebanon nearly same. Dictatorships rule the ex-USSR. Pakistan is a semi-autocracy.

Where will this civil society that recaptures Islamic culture come from?