Suzanne Fields

"A pessimist," a wise man said, "is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities. An optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties." That neatly sums up the divided opinion about what must happen in Iraq - and subsequently in other countries of the Middle East - now that the first of the tyrants has been toppled.

Both optimists and pessimists buffer their attitudes with interpretations from history, politics and religion. The pessimists emphasize the restraints of the Islamic religion and culture, which they see as constricted by narrow-minded traditions and claustrophobic ideas that, unchecked, dictate a theocratic corruption of political leadership.

The optimists see freedom as a liberating force, lighting the way toward democratic government, which, if nurtured patiently, will propel Iraq into the 21st century. Maybe neighboring countries will follow. Voices of both camps are heard loud and clear across a variety of Washington policy sessions, think tanks, conferences, dinners and cocktail parties.

"Islamic fundamentalists are utopian visionaries who wish to replace Western-style liberal democracies with Islamic theocracy, a fascist system of filth that aims to control every single act of every individual," Ibn Warraq told a conference on Islam the other day, sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism. "We must take seriously what the Islamists say to understand their motivation (of Sept. 11), that it is the divinely ordained duty of all Muslims to fight in the literal sense until manmade law has been replaced by God's law, the Sharia, and Islamic law has conquered the entire world."

You can't be more pessimistic than that.

Warraq excoriates Americans who naively believe "liberal Muslims" when they say their religion is compatible with feminism, human rights, egalitarianism and religious tolerance: "There may be moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate."

Warraq is as soft-spoken and gentlemanly as his words are inflammatory. When I caught up with him at a reception in his honor and asked him how he accounted for the medieval glories of Islamic civilization, he was courtly and witty as he confronted what he called the "error" in my question.

"Science and the arts came from outside the Muslim world and in spite of the Koran and Islamic law," he told me in the tone of the patient schoolteacher he once was. "Crediting Islam for the medieval cultural glories is like crediting the Inquisition for Galileo's discoveries."

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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