The elusive Moderate Muslims

Moderate Muslims belong to four main categories: the non-practicing, the textual cherry-pickers, the impostors, and the brave.

Rafael Castro

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Mosque (illustrative)

The response of moderate Muslims in the face of atrocities committed in the name of Islam has been underwhelming. Whereas hundreds of thousands of Muslims readily rally against American or Israeli actions, demonstrations to protest jihadism have drawn far smaller crowds in European and American cities.

This apathy has given rise to voices accusing Muslims of sympathy towards jihadism. This is untrue. A strong majority of Muslims revile the goals and methods of Islamic extremists around the world. Since the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and law-abiding, the dissonance between individual peacefulness and collective lack of mobilization against jihadism needs to be explained. Light must therefore be shed on the attitudes and outlook of moderate Muslims.

Moderate Muslims belong to four main categories: the non-practicing, the textual cherry-pickers, the impostors, and the brave.

In the West, the first category consists chiefly of assimilated Muslims. Although only a minority is openly agnostic, members of this group often indulge in un-Islamic habits such as drinking alcohol, smoking, and – in the case of men – premarital sex. Nevertheless, a surprisingly large share of non-practicing Muslims is theologically fundamentalist, believing the Quran to be the literal word of God and Muhammed to epitomize human perfection.

The dissonance between lack of personal religious commitment and fundamentalist theological beliefs often has fatal consequences. Personal setbacks, episodes of discrimination and licentious behavior often motivate conversions to extremist currents of Islam to compensate for a previously irreligious lifestyle. The biography of Islamic terrorists in Europe illustrates how prior to planting bombs, ramming trucks into crowds or murdering Jews, many terrorists had been petty criminals.

The second group of moderate Muslims is that of textual cherry-pickers. That is, Muslims who are devout and practicing, yet deliberately overlook the unsavory aspects of Islam. Devout Muslims generally know that Mohammed in his fifties forced himself sexually on a 9-year old girl; that he killed critics and ordered raids against peaceful caravans whose men, women, and children were killed or enslaved.

Textual cherry-pickers claim that Mohammed’s virtue is indisputable. In addition, they argue that given their time and context none of Mohammed’s actions are blameworthy. Although it might seem hard to understand how Mohammed’s actions can be reconciled with human perfection, it is not uncommon for believers to engage in intellectual acrobatics in order to appease their reason and their conscience.

The third cohort of moderate Muslim is that of impostors. That is, communal religious leaders and intellectuals who make statements in Arabic, Turkish, Farsi or Urdu that contradict those delivered in English, French, and German.
These acrobatics are probably the main reason the voice of devout Muslims is not heard in the streets of Paris, London and New York. As unpalatable as the actions of ISIS are to most, it is hard to make an Islamic case that ISIS’ actions lack validation in Islamic history. This awareness has hamstrung the mobilization of Muslim masses to protest against jihadism.

On the other hand, Islamic masses readily mobilize against American or Israeli actions, since according to the main streams of Islam and their schools of jurisprudence, Zionism and American occupation of Islamic lands call for jihad and martyrdom. The contrast between the absolute Islamic illegitimacy of Zionism vis-à-vis the debatable illegitimacy of ISIS, accounts for the tremendous disparity in Muslim mobilization against violence in these two instances.

The third cohort of moderate Muslim is that of impostors. That is, communal religious leaders and intellectuals who make statements in Arabic, Turkish, Farsi or Urdu that contradict those delivered in English, French, and German. An illustrious specimen of this category is the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar University Ahmad Mohammad el-Tayyeb. Sheikh Al-Tayyeb delivers flowery speeches in front of European parliaments, cardinals and chief rabbis about Islam’s commitment to freedom, women rights and religious tolerance. Yet in his native Egypt he has lambasted Jews, attacked Christianity and defended Sharia-based punishments.

A European epigone of Al-Tayyeb is the Swiss-French Islamist intellectual Tariq Ramadan, who was courted by Tony Blair and rewarded with a tenured position at Oxford. The “European” Islam he marketed to non-Muslim audiences did not deter him from whistleblowing against Jews, Israel and America in Muslim milieus. Unfortunately, this third group of “moderate” Muslims wields moderation as a weapon to deceive non-Muslims and further an Islamist agenda.

Fortunately there is also a growing cohort of brave and genuinely moderate Muslims. These are unambiguous critics of Islamism, all violence committed in the name of Islam and defenders of women and minority rights in Islamic societies. An example of a devout Muslim who is uncompromisingly hostile towards Islamism is Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. President el-Sisi not only ruthlessly suppresses the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, but also addressed the sheikhs of the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Cairo urging a deep reform of Islamic religious discourse.

In Saudi Arabia, crown prince Mohammad bin Salman has also taken on the Wahhabi religious establishment, imprisoning religious extremists and granting women more rights. Although both el-Sisi and bin Salman trample freedom and human rights, it is hard to believe that respect for democratic niceties would allow them to act forcefully against religious extremism.

In the Western World, figures such Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz and Hamed Abdel-Samad risk their lives to denounce Islamism. Their outspokenness has earned them the enmity of Islamic organizations in Western Europe and the USA. As a result, they are generally ignored as interlocutors in forums for interreligious dialogue.

This is a tragedy. The relationship between the Judeo-Christian West and Islam must be based on truthfulness and reciprocity. Any dialogue with textual cherry-pickers and impostors just promotes deception and self-deception.

The experience of the last two decades suggests that exonerating Islam for the crimes committed in its name is just as short-sighted as blaming jihadism on Muslims who distort/misunderstand the peaceful and tolerant message of Islam. Such appeasement only emboldens extremists and demoralizes Muslims who care about the future of their faith.

In order for genuinely moderate Muslims to be strengthened, substantial doses of criticism are desirable. It is not a coincidence that the reformist policies of el-Sisi and bin Salman accelerated in the wake of President Trump’s inauguration. It is also no coincidence that the rise of anti-Islamic parties in Europe has promoted soul-searching inside the Muslim World about the relationship between Islam, extremism and violence.

The pursuit and mobilization of moderate Muslims will prove elusive until both Muslims and non-Muslims acknowledge that core elements of normative Islam are not moderate. This head-on recognition of reality is the premise for interreligious dialogue and coexistence to be based on respect and reciprocity. The alternative is more deceit, more hypocrisy, and more bloodshed.