Moderate Muslims A Mainstream of Modernists, Islamists, Conservatives, and Traditionalists

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John L. Esposito



The Debate
Question 1: Various commentators have frequently invoked the importance of moderate Muslims and the role that they can play in fighting extremism in the Muslim world. But it is not clear who is a moderate Muslim. The recent cancellation of Tariq Ramadan’s visa to the United States, the raids on several American Muslim organizations, and the near marginalization of mainstream American Muslims in North America pose the following question: If moderate Muslims are critical to an American victory in the war on terror, then why does the American government frequently take steps that undermine moderate Muslims? Perhaps there is a lack of clarity about who the moderate Muslims are. In your view, who are these moderate Muslims and what are their beliefs and politics?

JLE: Our human tendency is to define what is normal or moderate in terms of someone just like “us.” The American government, as well as many western and Muslim governments and experts, define moderate by searching for reflections of themselves. Thus, Irshad Manji or “secular” Muslims are singled out as self-critical moderate Muslims by such diverse commentators as Thomas Friedman or Daniel Pipes. In an America that is politicized by the “right,” the Republican and religious right, and post-9/11 by the threat of global terrorism and the association of Islam with global terrorism, defining a moderate Muslim becomes even more problematic. Look at the situations not only in this country but also in Europe, especially France. Is a moderate Muslim one who accepts integration, or must it be assimilation? Is a moderate Muslim secular, as in laic (which is really anti-religious)? Is a moderate Muslim one who accepts secularism, as in the separation of church and state, so that no religion is privileged and the rights of all (believer and nonbeliever) are protected? Is a moderate Muslim one who accepts a particular notion of gender relations, not simply the equality of women and men but a position against wearing hijab? (Of course let’s not forget that we have an analogous problem with many Muslims whose definition of being a Muslim, or of being a “good” Muslim woman, is as narrowly defined.) In today’s climate, defining who is a moderate Muslim depends on the politics or religious positions of the individuals making the judgment: Bernard Lewis, Daniel Pipes, Gilles Kepel, Stephen Schwartz, Pat Robertson, and Tom DeLay. The extent to which things have gotten out of hand is seen in attempts to define moderate Islam or what it means to be a good European or American Muslim. France has defined the relationship of Islam to being French, sought to influence mosques, and legislated against wearing hijab in schools. In the United States, non-Muslim individuals and organizations, as well as the government, establish or fund organizations that define or promote “moderate Islam,” Islamic pluralism, and so on, as well as monitor mainstream mosques and organizations. The influence of foreign policy plays a critical role. For some, if not many, the litmus test for a moderate Muslim is tied to foreign policy issues, for example, how critical one is of American or French policy or one’s position in regard to Palestine/Israel, Algeria, Kashmir, and Iraq. Like many Muslim regimes, many experts and ideologues, as well as publications like The Weekly Standard, National Review, The Atlantic, The New York Sun and media like Fox Television, portray all Islamists as being the same. Mainstream and extremist (they deny any distinction between the two) and indeed all Muslims who do not completely accept their notion of secularism, the absolute separation of religion and the state, are regarded as a threat. Mainstream Islamists or other Islamically oriented voices are dismissed as “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” What is important here is to emphasize that it is not simply that these individuals, as individual personalities, have influence and an impact, but that their ideas have taken on a life of their own and become part of popular culture. In a post-9/11 climate, they reinforce the worst fears of the uninformed in our populace. The term moderate is in many ways deceptive. It can be used in juxtaposition to extremist and can imply that you have to be a liberal reformer or a progressive in order to pass the moderate test, thus excluding more conservative or traditionalist positions. Moderates in Islam, as in all faiths, are the majority or mainstream in Islam. We assume this in regard to such other faiths as Judaism and Christianity. The Muslim mainstream itself represents a multitude of religious and socioeconomic positions. Minimally, moderate Muslims are those who live and work “within” societies, seek change from below, reject religious extremism, and consider violence and terrorism to be illegitimate. Often, in differing ways, they interpret and reinterpret Islam to respond more effectively to the religious, social, and political realities of their societies and to international affairs. Some seek to Islamize their societies but eschew political Islam; others do not. Politically, moderate Muslims constitute a broad spectrum that includes individuals ranging from those who wish to see more Islamically oriented states to “Muslim Democrats,” comparable to Europe’s Christian Democrats. The point here is, as in other faiths, the moderate mainstream is a very diverse and disparate group of people who can, in religious and political terms, span the spectrum from conservatives to liberal reformers. They may disagree or agree on many matters. Moderate Jews and Christians can hold positions ranging from reform to ultraorthodox and fundamentalist and, at times, can bitterly disagree on theological and social policies (e.g., gay rights, abortion, the ordination of women, American foreign and domestic policies). So can moderate Muslims.

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