Jun 28th 2007 | CAIRO
From The Economist print edition

Don’t count on state-sponsored greybeards to silence all awkward voices

GOVERNMENTS worried by Islamist extremism ought to get the message: the only real answer lay in more Islam—deeper, sounder, more careful readings of the Muslim faith, from scholars who could use the weight of collective experience, accumulated over 14 centuries, to solve the dilemmas of life in the modern age.

Such, broadly, was the argument laid out in London recently by Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt, before a gathering of Islamic scholars and pundits. And his hosts took him seriously. The case for using scholarly Islam as a counterweight to the radical, hot-headed sort is familiar in the Middle East, but this time it won an unusually clear endorsement from a Western leader, Tony Blair.

In his parting thoughts (as prime minister, anyway) on Islam, Mr Blair lauded Jordan for its efforts to make the various legal schools of Islam respect each another and stop calling each other infidels. And just like Mr Gomaa, Mr Blair said how important it was to ensure that only qualified people could issue fatwas, or rulings on how to follow Islam in specific situations. Emboldened by his welcome, Mr Gomaa offered to help Britain set up a post like his own: state-certified grand mufti.

Britain may never again have a leader with such a personal interest in theology. But the very fact that Mr Gomaa and similar worthies from other Muslim countries were asked to London (formally by Cambridge University, but with keen official encouragement) reflects a long-term dilemma for all Western states with growing Muslim communities.

To stem extremism, should they follow the lead of many Muslim governments and get involved in Islamic affairs—by promoting some clerics (or theologies) over others? One would-be EU member that does so already is Turkey, where a big state bureaucracy regulates mosque-building and religious education, and pens sermons. Similar political controls on religion exist in many Sunni countries. (In Shia Iran, by contrast, religion has top place: the supreme leader is always a cleric.)

So how much hope should governments in any part of the world place in the promotion of “good”—in the sense of moderate and scholarly—Muslim clerics and theologians, as an answer to the bad sort?

This much is true: many of the Muslims who are drawn to jihadist violence, or to strident forms of political Islam, are indifferent to, or ignorant of, the nuances of theology; that makes them susceptible to “amateur” fatwas. But as a French scholar, Olivier Roy, points out, it doesn’t follow that such people—when presented with sophisticated religious arguments—would change their mind. In many cases, they have a general aversion to the idea of elaborate theology.

A more basic problem is that even in states with no political freedom, no official imprimatur can drown the multiplicity of voices vying to influence Muslim hearts and souls. And the age of electronics has broadened the Muslim market-place.

Modern Muslims seeking a fatwa on a practical matter need no longer go to a local mosque, or to the state-salaried officials, or muftis, used by many Sunni Muslim countries as arbiters. (Malaysia has 14 muftis; one for each state.) They can call in to a radio or television show featuring a popular preacher, or use the dial-a-fatwa phone service that one Egyptian firm offers. Half a dozen websites in English alone (like efatwa.com, muftisays.com and askimam.com) offer online advice about everything from ablution to Zionism. A downloadable service, “FatwaBase”, can be used on handheld computers.

Much of the latest electronic guidance is sponsored from Saudi Arabia, and so reflects its conservative mores. More tolerant and mystical versions of the faith, as well as the ultra-puritanism of the Salafist movement, also compete for market share. With piety deepening worldwide, and with state clerics often seen as stooges, the faithful seek out scholarly views that are conservative enough to suit them.

Worried governments are not the only people calling for order in this noisy free-for-all. One of the star competitors—Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who preaches on the al-Jazeera satellite channel—has sponsored the creation of an international council of ulema, or religious scholars. As a scholar who is de facto spiritual adviser to the international Muslim Brotherhood, he seemingly contradicts the notion that political Islam and learning do not go together. But it remains true, says Mr Roy, that the Brotherhood’s back-to-basics ethos is averse to highbrow theology.

That aversion certainly doesn’t hurt, and it may even help, the Brotherhood as it competes with Mr Gomaa to influence Egyptians. As part of this struggle, Mr Gomaa has recently proposed a board to vet fatwas, with powers to punish those who issue incorrect or misleading ones.

Yet Mr Gomaa himself is no stranger to controversy. His own fatwas have often been challenged by a rival authority, the ancient university of al-Azhar. As a case of the bizarre effects of competition between scholars, take some recent exchanges on female circumcision. More clearly than before, Mr Gomaa laid down on June 24th (after an 11-year-old died under the knife) that it was not just “un-Islamic” but forbidden. Mr Qaradawi, by contrast, has suggested that genital cutting is permissible so long as the clitoris is “reduced in size”, not removed entirely. It says something about the mood of religious conservatism on the Egyptian street that Mr Qaradawi’s ruling was seen as “playing to the gallery”.

Abdal-Hakim Murad, an influential British convert to Islam, says the only way to promote good sense and scholarship simultaneously is to have a transnational body of greybeards, free of all political influence. But if governments look to this or any clerical body to provide them with absolute clarity on what Muslims should believe and do, they won’t get it: there are just too many interpretations.