Spirits of ‘moderate’ Islam

250px Bottle of Arak RayanAs regular GetReligion readers will know, I have a thing about that vague word that mainstream journalists keep using to describe the Muslims that America likes, or that the journalists like, or that the Taliban dislikes, or something. That word, of course, is “moderate.”

In particular, I want to know more about the doctrinal or religious content of the word. I know that it has something to do with being pro-West or pro-America. I suspect that it has something to do with the belief that one can be a good, practicing, faithful Muslim without living under Sharia law — a hot question in the Islamic world today.

So I read with interest a New York Times story that ran with this headline: “In Mixed Slice of Baghdad, Old Bonds Defy War.” It’s about the shockingly peaceful Baghdad neighborhood called Bab al Sheik:

… (It) has been spared the sectarian killing that has gutted other neighborhoods, and Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians live together here with unusual ease. It has been battered by bombings around its edges, but the war has been kept from its heart, largely because of its ancient, shared past, bound by trust and generations of intermarriage.

Reporters even feel safe there, walking and talking. We are marching closer to the crucial word, of course. Take this visit to a large Kurdish family.

Abu Nawal, the father, recounted how a group of men from the office of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr came to a local cafe, proposing to set up shop in the area. The cafe owner pointed to a sign, which stated in dark script that all discussions of politics and religion were prohibited. The men were then asked to leave.

“The guys in the neighborhood said, ‘If you try to make an office here, we will explode it,’” said Abu Nawal, a shoemaker, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for four generations.

Some time later, Sunni Arab political party members came and were similarly rebuffed. …

He said he despised the poisonous mix of religion and politics that was strangling Iraqi society, and he enjoyed cracking wry jokes at politicians’ expense. Playing off the names for extremist militias, which in Iraq call themselves things like the Islamic Army, he refers to his group of friends as the Arak Army, righteous defenders of an anise-flavored alcoholic drink.

So intermarriage and alcohol — two terrible things for traditional Muslims — are crucial. Now we have arrived at the key moment in the story.

The neighborhood has another rare asset: moderate religious men.

Sheik Muhammad Wehiab, a 30-year-old Shiite imam whose family has lived in Bab al Sheik for seven generations, was jailed for 14 months under Saddam Hussein, a biographical fact that should have opened doors for him in the new Shiite-dominated power hierarchy. But his moderate views were unpopular in elite circles, and he has remained in the neighborhood.

He feels connected. So much so that while talking on the phone one night this fall, he walked out into the tiny alley outside his door, lay down and watched the stars in the night sky.

250px Bottle of Arak RayanAnd what are those “moderate” views, pray tell?

We get some clues later in the story. We meet an anonymous Sunni cleric who seems to share these “moderate” views, although we have not been told what those views are.

The cleric, who asked that his name not be published out of concern for his safety, because of the high profile of the mosque, lovingly ticks off qualities of the 12th-century Sufi sheik Abdel Qadr Qailani, who gave the mosque its name: Intellectual. Scholar. Moral teacher.

But moderate religion is not drawing an audience on a national scale, and Qailani Mosque, one of Baghdad’s most important Sunni institutions, has fallen on hard times. Donations are down. Its long-running soup kitchen serves one meal a day instead of three. Sufi clerics cannot perform their rituals. A bomb sheared off part of a minaret in February.

So “moderates” are smart, which means that non-moderates are, well, not smart? And moderates believe in morality, but are not hung up on the actual teachings of Islam?

Then, the story ends with a long, rather strange anecdote about how positive it is when people feel free to drink lots and lots of that Arak drink. The alcohol really seems to be crucial.

This is not helping me much. It sounds like “moderate” is, again, code for Muslims with whom Western journalists feel comfortable. Did I miss something in this story?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    And similarly with “secular”. Repeating from an earlier post…

    I ran Google with site:nytimes.com (since I have trouble getting phrase hits out of their own engine).
    There were 137 hits for “secular Muslims”. . . but 2,190 for “secular Jews”. This suggests that the former may have been coined as an “equivalent” of the latter, ignoring the fact that “Moslem” is not an ethnic category.

    But “secular Christians” got only two references, one of them from a reader’s letter.

    Does this mean that the writers have enough common sense to realize that “Christians” are not an “ethnicity”; but subconsciously continue to regard “Muslim” as being a “racial” or “ethnic”, or maybe sartorial, label, even when their stories indicate clearly that Moslem/=Arab?

    I have complained before about the Yugoslavia coverage contrasting “Muslims” and “ethnic Serbs” in Bosnia, when the “Muslims” are just as much “ethnic Serbs” as anyone else. (As well as using “Serb” and “Serbian” interchangeably.)

  • http://davidkearns.com/ Kearns

    I don’t think you missed anything. I rather dislike the usage of “moderate”, “orthodox”, “fundamental” and other modifiers on Muslim that the Western press likes to put there. It seems their goal is to relate the Muslims in question to what Americans are used to in terms of religion, but the simile is always always very poor.

    A Muslim who drinks is not, in any way shape or form, “moderate”. Since one of the core central teachings of Islam is moderation, I would argue that good Muslims, who follow the traditions of the Prophet (peace and blessing be upon him) to the best of their ability are “orthodox” (meaning they follow to the letter of the law), “fundamental” (meaning following the core fundamental traditions of a creed), and “moderate” (meaning taking nothing to extreme). Muslims who drink alcohol are just bad Muslims.

    However, I should point out, that intermarriage isn’t necessarily a forbidden thing. Muslim men have the right to marry Christian or Jewish women to differing extents depending on the Islamic tradition that they follow (Sunni, Shi’a, etc.).

  • Lizz

    I think, generally speaking, the media really hopes that all people of faith should aspire to be moderates. In their view, those who are a little too serious about their faith are dangerous — and in the case of Islam, this is probably true. However, those who hold a view that “this might be true for me and not for you and that’s OK” don’t truly stand for anything and therefore the media doesn’t have to fear having their worldview challenged or, in more extreme cases, their life threatened.

  • http://optimus-stoo.livejournal.com Stoo

    “Moderate” can be ill-defined. I guess it comes down to some combination of:

    -not trying to push views on others
    -not trying repress freedoms
    -not trying to hold back social progress
    -not preaching hate andor violence

    Depending on context. However then there are questions of whether or not “moderate” is mutually exclusive with “orthodox”, and is “orthodox” the same thing as “fundamentalist”.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    This is what I am trying to figure out, Stoo.

    Is the MSM saying that the only good Islam is a bad Islam? If someone on the right said that, everyone would freak out (with good cause).

    What is the doctrinal content of the word “moderate”? That is the heart of the question. What does a moderate Muslim believe and how does he/she act in the Islamic world and in the Western world?

  • Ivan Wolfe

    There needs to be a Muslim version of the tmatt trio.

    I say this because I occasionally see “moderate Christian” in the media, and what it usually means is “liberal Protestant” – or i.e., Christians the media likes. It’s the same thing. A Muslim version of the trio would help sort this out.

    Not that I know enough about Islam to try to create such a trio myself, though it might include “Is Muhammad really the last prophet?” or something like that.

  • Jerry

    Yes, I think you missed something that I believe is significant to Muslims but might be missed by others:

    “Muslims are the ones to be blamed,” he said, sitting in an armchair in his quiet living room. “They have given them this picture.”…

    Sheik Wehiab’s friend, a Sunni cleric, holds a similar view.

    “The greatest jihad is the jihad of yourself,

    First, there’s the recognition about what is causing the impression Islam is giving to the world: the recognition that violence by Muslims is a cause of the problem.

    The second speaks to the heart of what Islam is asking from its adherents. I think this is similar to what a Christian should do to live Matt 7 (beam/mote). The greater struggle(jihad) is against one’s lower nature (nafs).

    This does not mean, as the MSM implies, laxity in religious observance, but speaks to the focus of that observance. Someone can be dedicated fully to removing the beam from one’s eyes or engaging in the inner struggle against one’s lower nature.

    What to label those fixed on the motes in other’s eyes or overly focused on the “lesser” jihad is another question.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    No, I saw that statement and grasped what it was saying. But that statement is so vague that it has no practical impact on the details of life and doctrine. It is a purely spiritual statement and, while it rejects violence (perhaps), it does not address the other flashpoint issues.

    “Moderates” never have trouble with spiritual language. It’s the tough doctrinal questions that split people.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    It’s like the media-bias surveys that ask journalists if spirituality is important in their lives. Lots of journalists say YES.

    But if you ask them, let’s say, if they think that adultery is always wrong, you get a totally different picture of how these people relate to religious authority.

  • Michael

    But that statement is so vague that it has no practical impact on the details of life and doctrine.

    According to whom? Would it be vague to someone who is Muslim? Would it be vague in the context of someone who speaks Arabic and understands Islam and the Koran? Is the Western concept of “jihad” and all of its baggage the same as a Sunni cleric’s understanding of the word “jihad”?

    While it may be presumptuous to call someone a “moderate” without understand the context of the label, it seems equally presumptuous to assume something is “vague” when in fact it could have deeper meaning and a basis of truth for someone who practices he faith and speaks the language.

    Journalists owe it to readers and listeners to be careful about how we use “jihad” and “sharia” and what kind of assumptions we have when we toss around those terms. They are loaded political terms when they spill out of the mouths of Westerners and journalists need to realize that how Westerners use “jihad” and “sharia,” for instance, may have little relationship with how they used or understood by Mulsims or Arabic speakers.

  • str1977

    A few remarks regarding terminology:

    it is already incorrect to equate “secular” with “non-religious” as in “secular Jew”. But to speak of “secular Muslims” is completely nonsense.

    But “orthodox” does mean “of the right belief”, not “following to the letter of the law”. This “letter of the law” spirit can also often be found in “moderates”, i.e. those lingering on in religious customs without sharing the actual faith.

    “Moderate” on the other may not only be equated with

    - not trying to push views on others
    -not trying repress freedoms
    -not trying to hold back social progress
    -not preaching hate andor violence

    Especially not item #3 (whatever “social progress” might be).

    It can also mean:

    -not caring to fight against injustice (hence my scepticism above)
    -not standing up for those pushed around

    Moderate IMHO means middle ground between two poles, but it also has a ring of passivity, inactivity, of being of no consequence.

  • str1977

    Is the MSM saying that the only good Islam is a bad Islam? If someone on the right said that, everyone would freak out (with good cause).

    Of course, tmatt, that is what the MSM is saying. And as usual, the good ones are the ones that don’t make a fuss about their faith.

  • Jerry

    But that statement is so vague that it has no practical impact on the details of life and doctrine.

    From my perspective, the statement is not vague at all and has great practical impact on life. At least it should determine what people say and do. Especially in Islam, I also see a direct tie to doctrine, especially in Islam as googling fatwa jihad can illustrate.

    I do agree that doctrinal questions are most likely to be divisive.

    But if you ask them, let’s say, if they think that adultery is always wrong, you get a totally different picture of how these people relate to religious authority.

    What necessary relationship is there between one’s opinion on adultery and religious authority? It’s even possible to decide that, for example, adultery is always wrong from a secular humanistic perspective because of the psychological impact on those that commit that act.

    Also, if you meant the authority of the Church, there’s the authority of the Bible, depending on how you view the authority of the Bible.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Another might be “Is the Koran direct from God?”… as the doctrine of the preexistence of the Koran sets Moslems apart from other scriptuaries.

  • Stephen A.

    Might I suggest, instead of moderate, use “non-mass-murdering Muslim”? Too long? Too on-target?

    As noted, clearly, “moderate” is a problematic word, and implies passivity rather than a positive action.

  • Lou.

    tmatt —

    “Moderation” seems to be a code word for “Sufism” (or Sufi-like” or even “Sufi-lite”). The mystical bent of that approach appeals to some circles. Alas, it does not seem attractive to most of the Islamic world.

  • str1977


    not at all. Just because someone does not commit mass murder does not make one “moderate”.


    I don’t think the article in question here had Sufis in mind.

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (from Edinburgh)

    I’m trying to think of equivalents which point out how bad this labelling of groups can be. What about ‘moderate Kurds’? If you saw this description, what would it say about those people? Options might include:

    - they are Kurds but don’t require other people to be.
    - they are mixed-race Kurds.
    - they speak Kurdish and retain some of the trappings of that people group, without necessarily carrying their genes.
    - they live in Kurdistan but don’t mind people who don’t.
    - they are pro-Turk, pro-Arab, pro-Western, pro-everyone (except BAD people).


    It seems to me that the press have got themselves in an almighty pickle with this, backing themselves into a corner where they CAN’T define ‘moderate’ because of the kettle of fish it would open up. Can you imagine it? One paper defines ‘moderate muslims’ as ‘muslims unlikely to commit terrorist offences’, and in a matter of hours that will be inverted, declaring that non-moderates (ie. ‘the ones who practise Good Islam’ in a lot of people’s eyes) are more likely to be terrorists; their beliefs are BAD and must be conquered. What knock-on effects would THAT bring? Far more than any cartoon, I would guess …

    It’s all very well asking for ‘moderate’ to be defined, but I get the feeling that it’s an intentional silence, because it’s too dangerous! If it did happen widely, I can see little chance of it not leading to a media blacklisting of orthodox Islamic beliefs, that would be way more far-out in its potential outfall than the way in which ‘non-moderate’ Christianity has become used to being treated – more interesting maybe, but far more dangerous.