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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?
GEF: Who is a moderate Muslim? That depends on whom you ask and what that person’s (or government’s) agenda is. Moderate is also a quite relative term, understood differently by different people. For our purposes here, let’s examine two basically different approaches to this question: an American view and a Middle Eastern view of what characterizes a moderate Muslim. Most non-Muslims would probably define a moderate Muslim as anyone who believes in democracy, tolerance, a non-violent approach to politics, and equitable treatment of women at the legal and social levels. Today, the American government functionally adds several more criteria: Amoderate Muslim is one who does not oppose the country’s strategic and geopolitical ambitions in the world, who accepts American interests and preferences within the world order, who believes that Islam has no role in politics, and who avoids any confrontation – even political – with Israel. There are deep internal contradictions and warring priorities within the American approach to the Muslim world. While democratization and “freedom” is the Bush administration’s self-proclaimed global ideological goal, the reality is that American demands for security and the war against terror take priority over the democratization agenda every time. Democratization becomes a punishment visited upon American enemies rather than a gift bestowed upon friends. Friendly tyrants take priority over those less cooperative moderate and democratic Muslims who do not acquiesce to the American agenda in the Muslim world. Within the United States itself, the immense domestic power of hardline pro-Likud lobbies and the Israel-firsters set the agenda on virtually all discourse concerning the Muslim world and Israel. This group has generally succeeded in excluding from the public dialogue most Muslim (or even non-Muslim) voices that are at all critical of Israel’s policies. This de facto litmus test raises dramatically the threshold for those who might represent an acceptable moderate Muslim interlocutor. The reality is that there is hardly a single prominent figure in the Muslim world who has not at some point voiced anger at Israeli policies against the Palestinians and who has not expressed ambivalence toward armed resistance against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Thus, few Muslim leaders enjoying public legitimacy in the Muslim world can meet this criterion these days in order to gain entry to the United States to participate in policy discussions. In short, moderate Muslimis subject to an unrealistic litmus test regarding views on Israel that functionally excludes the great majority of serious voices representative of genuine Muslim thinkers in the Middle East who are potential interlocutors. There is no reason to believe that this political framework will change in the United States anytime soon. In my view, a moderate Muslim is one who is open to the idea of evolutionary change through history in the understanding and practice of Islam, one who shuns literalism and selectivism in the understanding of sacred texts. Amoderate would reject the idea that any one group or individual has a monopoly on defining Islam and would seek to emphasize common ground with other faiths, rather than accentuate the differences. Amoderate would try to seek within Islam the roots of those political and social values that are broadly consonant with most of the general values of the rest of the contemporary world. A moderate Muslim would not reject the validity of other faiths. Against the realities of the contemporary Middle East, a moderate Muslim would broadly eschew violence as a means of settling political issues, but still might not condemn all aspects of political violence against state authorities who occupy Muslim lands by force – such as Russia in Chechnya, the Israeli state in the Palestine, or even American occupation forces in Iraq. Yet even here, in principle, a moderate must reject attacks against civilians, women, and children in any struggle for national liberation. Moderates would be open to cooperation with the West and the United States, but not at the expense of their own independence and sovereignty.