Got News? What’s a moderate Muslim?

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (L) listens to his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in Kuala Lumpur August 9, 2010. The sacked former deputy prime minister is standing trial for alleged sodomy. Anwar says the case is a political conspiracy. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad (MALAYSIA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)

We’ve seen quite a bit of coverage of the Cordoba mosque project near ground zero. Most in-depth questioning or investigative journalism seems focused on opponents of the mosque project. Most discussions of the backers of the project assert that they are “moderate.” But what is a moderate Muslim? What does the phrase “moderate” mean, much less imply? And this is putting aside the fact that there’s plenty of information out there about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf that makes one wonder what the modifier “moderate” means in his case any way.

I really enjoyed this Wall Street Journal editorial page symposium that decided to ask the question “What Is Moderate Islam?

The question is asked of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s opposition leader (pictured); Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton; Ed Husain, co-founder of a counterextremist think tank; Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operative and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Tawfik Hamid: a former member of the Islamic radical group Jamma Islamiya, Islamic reformer and a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani ambassador to Britain and chair of Islamic studies at American University.

They each look at the question differently and give plenty to ponder and fight about. Ibrahim writes:

Yet Muslims must do more than just talk about their great intellectual and cultural heritage. We must be at the forefront of those who reject violence and terrorism. And our activism must not end there. The tyrants and oppressive regimes that have been the real impediment to peace and progress in the Muslim world must hear our unanimous condemnation. The ball is in our court.

Mr. Lewis talks about how the seeds of tolerance are contained within Islam before noting how global communications have increased the power of intolerant strains within Islam:

For the moment, there does not seem to be much prospect of a moderate Islam in the Muslim world. This is partly because in the prevailing atmosphere the expression of moderate ideas can be dangerous–even life-threatening. Radical groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban, the likes of which in earlier times were at most minor and marginal, have acquired a powerful and even a dominant position.

But for Muslims who seek it, the roots are there, both in the theory and practice of their faith and in their early sacred history.

Husain says that he doesn’t like the phrase “moderate” and prefers normal or normative Muslim. And Ahmed says he thinks the term “moderate” implies a value judgment of good vs. bad. He prefers to use “mystic, modernist and literalist” categories. The former radical Hamid takes a different approach:

In regards to Islam, the words “moderate’” and “radical” are relative terms. Without defining them it is virtually impossible to defeat the latter or support the former.

Radical Islam is not limited to the act of terrorism; it also includes the embrace of teachings within the religion that promote hatred and ultimately breed terrorism. Those who limit the definition of radical Islam to terrorism are ignoring–and indirectly approving of–the Shariah teachings that permit killing apostates, violence against women and gays, and anti-Semitism.

Moderate Islam should be defined as a form of Islam that rejects these violent and discriminatory edicts. Furthermore, it must provide a strong theological refutation for the mainstream Islamic teaching that the Muslim umma (nation) must declare wars against non-Muslim nations, spreading the religion and giving non-Muslims the following options: convert, pay a humiliating tax, or be killed. This violent concept fuels jihadists, who take the teaching literally and accept responsibility for applying it to the modern world.

Moderate Islam must not be passive. It needs to actively reinterpret the violent parts of the religious text rather than simply cherry-picking the peaceful ones. Ignoring, rather than confronting or contextualizing, the violent texts leaves young Muslims vulnerable to such teachings at a later stage in their lives.

Finally, moderate Islam must powerfully reject the barbaric practices of jihadists. Ideally, this would mean Muslims demonstrating en masse all over the world against the violence carried out in the name of their religion.

Moderate Islam must be honest enough to admit that Islam has been used in a violent manner at several stages in history to seek domination over others. Insisting that all acts in Islamic history and all current Shariah teachings are peaceful is a form of deception that makes things worse by failing to acknowledge the existence of the problem.

No one got terribly much room to dig into the texts but this is a wonderful beginning to an important conversation. I wish other media outlets would use this Cordoba project controversy as a means to discuss some of these important questions about Islam. A symposium is a great way to handle it but I’d like to see some news pages outside of the editorial section approach the topic, too.

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  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    A moderate Muslim is a Muslim the writer favors.
    A militant Muslim is a Muslim the writer disfavors.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    “A moderate Muslim is a Muslim the writer favors.
    A militant Muslim is a Muslim the writer disfavors.”

    I think this is adaptable. Does the following seem reasonable too?

    A moderate Christian is a Christian the writer favors.
    A militant Christian is a Christian the writer disfavors.

  • vinvin

    according to the koran, if you dont war for allah, aka: the fictitious one, you are not a muslim.
    conclusion, no such thing as a moderate.
    and what the dhimmi liberal media call radicalism, is actually normalise.
    islam is islam is islam, violent, aggressive, oppressive, juts like the last 1400 years
    get a clue.

  • http://www.biblebeltblogger.com Frank Lockwood

    Truth Unites…And Divides: That’s the general idea. For many reporters, “moderate” is shorthand for “good” and “militant” or “fundamentalist” is shorthand for “bad.”

  • Ann

    An American Muslim group that is attempting to spread a message of what appears to be “moderate” American Muslims and their efforts to address extremism.

    “One of the public service announcements features Hisham Tawfiq of the New York Fire Department, tearfully recalling how he learned his firefighting colleague was missing after the attacks on the Twin Towers.

    “I’m a New York City firefighter and I responded to 9/11 and I am a Muslim,” he said in the ad.”

    http://ethicsdaily.com/news.php?viewStory=16617

    The organization (Muslim American Society) that sponsored the ad:

    “The Straight Path Initiative, Combating Extremism and Radicalization in American Muslim Communities.”

    They have programs that target Muslim youth ages 15-30. “The initiative seeks to pinpoint the roots of extremism, the ways in which individuals are radicalized, and the tools needed to address these challenges.”

    http://www.masnet.org/main/

  • Jerry

    My first thought was: “Is an Episcopal a moderate Roman Catholic”?

    there’s plenty of information out there about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf that makes one wonder what the modifier “moderate” means in his case any way.

    I would state that exactly oppositely to say that there’s plenty of evidence, including President Bush’s administration’s use of him, to indicate he is a “moderate”.

    That the word “moderate” is meaningless can be illustrated by commenting on one group in the Middle East that insists on a vote of the people for any peace agreement between Israel and Palestine and that pro-democracy group is Hamas and while it’s true that agreement was short-lived, it’s an illustration about the complexity of people and groups. http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5hgAJ_p60yKFDMhmGEzQgK9ihA2AwD9HVVC400.

    Then, from another perspective, would a moderate be someone who is OK with women wearing a Hijab rather than a Burka and with women professionals but also blows himself up in a suicide attack against us?

    Then there is a comment today http://edition.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/09/02/muslim.community.crossroads/index.html about how the Islamic community needs to address what it stands for not just what it is against.

    So I think the WSJ was way off base to even call their symposium one on “moderate” Islam and by using that word they show they don’t understand the situation. Ed Husain’s comments were along that line but he was politer than I’m being.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jerry,

    Sure, Rauf is also someone who blames the U.S. for 9/11, says the U.S. has more innocent blood on its hands than al-Qaeda and refuses to disown the genocidal agenda of Hamas . . .

    But I think that we agree it’s better to explain what “moderate” means, exactly.

  • Geoff King

    There is no moderate Islam. All Islam follows same Koran.
    There ARE moderate Muslims,but NO moderate Islam.

    Muslims exploit this confusion by labeling those who critisize Islam (ideology critique is acceptable) as being anti-Muslim (anti-people is bigotry) The difference is subtle but Muslims are milking this for all it’s worth.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Folks,

    Keep comments focused on journalism and only journalism. Back up all assertions, too. But mostly, keep comments focused on journalism.

  • Jon in the Nati

    My first thought was: “Is an Episcopal a moderate Roman Catholic”

    No, an Episcopalian is a lapsed Catholic. Get it right!

  • Jerry

    Sure, Rauf is also someone who blames the U.S. for 9/11, says the U.S. has more innocent blood on its hands than al-Qaeda and refuses to disown the genocidal agenda of Hamas …

    His comments about 9/11 as I read them were about how we had armed and trained the Taliban and now they had attacked us. He’s not the only one that said our support of them to attack the Soviet regime led to their biting the hand that had helped them.

    He also was correct when he compared our killing of civilians with 9/11:

    The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians. But it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets.

    And he could have included the genocide of the Native Americans.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feisal_Abdul_Rauf

    What I see going on is “terrorism political correctness”. If a Muslim is not willing to denounce terrorism in the politically correct way, he’s a “terrorist sympathizer” which absolutely reminds me of the HUAC communist witch hunts.

  • Jon in the Nati

    What I see going on is “terrorism political correctness”. If a Muslim is not willing to denounce terrorism in the politically correct way, he’s a “terrorist sympathizer”

    This is an outstanding observation, and on which I have been trying to figure out how to voice as well as you just did. It NEEDS to be further examined, and I cannot think of any better way to do so than on Get Religion.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jon in the Nati, Jerry — has Rauf denounced Hamas in any way, including an “incorrect” way? I’ve missed that news.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com Dave G.

    The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians. But it was Christians in World War II who bombed civilians in Dresden and Hiroshima, neither of which were military targets.

    The difference there, and that which appears to be misssed, is that the bombers in WWII didn’t yell ‘For Jesus!’, it was a nation, a political entity, that did it. That they were or weren’t Christian was not the point. The 9/11 attackers did it all for Allah. That is a massive difference. And if folks who say 9/11 may have something to do with Islam are being portrayed as bigots, doesn’t that make the good Imam a bigot, too, for suggesting that anything done by anyone in the West has to do with Christians (were all the pilots and bombers in WWII Christian? Any Jews? Any atheists?)?

    Oh, and the ‘genocide’ of Native Americans is based on an interpretation of historical facts, not on a simple reading of the facts based on the definition of what a genocide is. But that’s for another discussion.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    I would have to say Vinvin’s comment is the type of thought process that hinders moderate Muslims.

    By his logic, to be a true Christian you would have to stone witches and hack non-believers because these are commanded in the Bible.

    Of course, modern theologians will explain that these are not injunctions on us today. The Bible is different than the Qu’ran, but Hamid is right that all works are understood in context, and that there are ways to deal with every passage of the Qu’ran.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Before journalists can hope to discuss moderate Islam, they need people to understand Islam at all.

    The Qu’ran is not the Muslim Bible. To claim that the Book of Mormon is to Mormon’s what the Qu’ran is to Muslims is even more off base.

    It has been written that if to Christians Jesus was Godincarnate, to Muslims the Qu’ran is God enverbate. The Qu’ran is the earthly representation of the Holy, pure Qu’ran that has existed from the beginning.

    In a lot of ways this means that Vinvin’s claim about what the Qu’ran requires is not refutable by citations of the old testament for Christians or even citations of the Torah for Jews.

    However, the Hadith (sayings of Muhammad) are neccesary to fully understand and implement the Qu’ran. These are open to interpretation, as is the actual meaning of some passages in the Qu’ran (especially their rendering in English).

    However, as I said the Qu’ran is not equivalent to the Bible and until reporters adequately explain this we will have problems.

    I do not think I have ever seen a news article about Muslim rage over desecration of the Qu’ran attempt to explain the rage. In general it always seems to take the general tone “these Muslims just take religion way to seriously”. I have seen very few places where there has been an exploration of the intrinsic differences between the Qu’ran and the Bible in the way in which they are understood by believers.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    If there is a real desire to see if Muslims are religious moderates, we need to ask them the right questions.

    These would be religious, not political questions. You can think Hamas is a terrorist organization and still support it.

    The questions to ask are things like “is it acceptable to kill an apostate from Islam”. “What do you teach should be done to apostates from Islam”.

    It still seems odd the media praises Rauf as an advocate of dialogue in articles he refused to be interviewed for.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Mollie,
    Of course Rauf has not denounced Hamas. His friends even funneled money to it.

    The whole bringing up of HUAC just shows that this is a continuation of trying to malign those who are not willing to sit back and accept that there is a moral equivalency between the Holocaust and anything, let alone that the Allied actions in World War 2 made the Holocaust non-existent.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    Dave G.,
    Thus my comment that the Armenian Genocide is not a Islamic crime.

    I still think coverage of the Ahmadi is needed.

    Husain’s terms normal and normative make no sense to me. They just give most people a headache. I still think Hamid hit the nail on the head.

    Of course, as I have said before, just because Rauf is not an enemy of terrorists and just because he will not denounce Hamas does not mean that he can or should be blocked from building a mosque.

    It is essential to a functioning democracy that we do not use the government against our ideological opponants. However, pretending that Rauf is anything but the Muslim equivalent of Norm Chomsky, a promoter of anti-US hate, takes a lot of innovation.

    In light of his anti-American remarks, why does the state department sponsor his trips abroad?

  • Paul of Alexandria

    Finally, moderate Islam must powerfully reject the barbaric practices of jihadists.
    The Islamic method of waging war is not to kill innocent civilians.

    What is interesting about this story, and journalist’s handling of Islam in general, is that it shows our modern view of religion as divorced from any aspect of history. Nowhere in any of the coverage of this topic does any reporter bring up the 1400 year history of Islamic conquest or Islam’s traditional treatment of people in conquered territory (Dhimmitude, conversion, or death). Nowhere does it explain how a “moderate” Muslim copes with the history of Islam. Nowhere does it look at how a “moderate” Muslim gets around the traditional interpretation of the Qu’ran (which definitely does call for violent jihad). For a “moderate” Muslim to claim that the entire history of Islam can be swept away by “actively” reinterpreting the violent parts of the religious text is exactly analogous to those who would justify homosexual “marriage” through Paul’s statement that under Christ there is no master, slave, etc. Widely done, but wrong.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    #16 John Pack Lambert says:
    I have seen very few places where there has been an exploration of the intrinsic differences between the Qu’ran and the Bible in the way in which they are understood by believers.

    Very true. By and large, of course, the journalists concerned are miserably ignorant of any religious matters and neither know nor care about the context of any religious work. The other problem, of course, is that they have a predetermined goal in mind when they write and will not do any research that might lead them away from that end.


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