Islamic Democracy and Moderate Muslims The Straight Path Runs through the Middle

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M. A. Muqtedar Khan



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?

MAMK: The term moderate Muslims/Islam is becoming highly contested. What do we really mean when we brand someone as a moderate Muslim? Indeed, the more interesting question is what does the word mean to outsiders looking into Islam, and to Muslims looking out from within Islam? As one who identifies himself strongly with the idea of a liberal Islam and also advocates moderation in the manifestation and expression of Islamic politics, I believe it is important that we flesh out this “religiopolitical identity.” Today, identity is politicized and identity construction and sustenance has become a major political goal. In this era when who we are determines what we do politically, it is imperative that we clarify the “we” in politics. The American media often uses moderate Muslim to indicate a Muslim who is either pro-western in his/her politics or is being self-critical in his/her discourse. Therefore, both President Karzai of Afghanistan and Professor Tariq Ramadan wear the cap with felicity, the former for his politics the latter for his ideas. Ramadan, who is critical of intolerance in Muslim communities and a strong advocate of the Europeanness of European Muslims, as well as a major voice in the articulation of the emerging form of European Islam, in many ways embodies both categories: He is prowestern as well as self-critical. In spite of his impeccable credentials as a prominent moderate Muslim, the American government, citing vague reasons of national security, recently revoked his work visa. This decision sends the dubious message that when these two criteria, pro-westernism/pro-Americanism and self-critical politics clash, the government chooses the former and civil society chooses the latter. His visa was cancelled because, in the government’s perception, he could pose a national security risk. Interestingly, there was uproar of discontent from civil society, and strong voices condemning this decision were raised by the government, particularly within the American academic community. In general, Muslims do not like using the terms moderate, progressive, or liberal Muslim, for they understand it to indicate an individual who has politically sold out to the “other” side. Others insist that there is no such thing as moderate or radical Islam; there is “only one Islam” – the true Islam, and all other expressions are falsehoods espoused by the munafiqun (the hypocrites) or the murtaddun (the apostates). Of course, the unstated politics behind this dogmatic position is: “My interpretation of Islam is obviously the true Islam, and anybody who diverges from my position is risking their faith.” In some internal intellectual debates, moderate Muslim is used pejoratively to indicate a Muslim who is more secular and less Islamic than the norm, which varies across communities. In the United States, a moderate Muslim is one who peddles a softer form of Islam – the Islam of John Esposito and Karen Armstrong – is willing to coexist peacefully with peoples of other faiths and is comfortable with democracy and the separation of politics and religion. Both western media and Muslims do a disservice by branding some Muslims as moderate solely on the basis of their politics. In general, these people should be understood as opportunists and self-serving. In this conversation, Esposito refers to them as “professional Muslims.” That leaves intellectual positions as the criteria for determining who is a moderate Muslim, and especially in comparison to whom, since moderate is a relative term. I see moderate Muslims as reflective, self-critical, pro-democracy and pro-human rights, and closet secularists. Their secularism is American in nature; that is, they believe in the separation of church and state, but not like the French, who oppose the exile of religion from the public sphere. But who are they different from, and how? I believe that moderate Muslims are different from militant Muslims, even though both of them advocate the establishment of societies whose organizing principle is Islam. The difference between moderate and militant Muslims is in their methodological orientation and in the primordial normative preferences that shape their interpretation of Islam. For moderate Muslims, ijtihad is the preferred method of choice for sociopolitical change and military jihad is the last option. For militant Muslims, military jihad is the first option and ijtihad is not an option at all. Ijtihad, narrowly understood, is a juristic tool that allows independent reasoning to articulate Islamic law on issues where textual sources are silent. The unstated assumption is that when the texts have spoken, reason must be silent. But, increasingly, moderate Muslim intellectuals see ijtihad as the spirit of Islamic thought that is necessary for the vitality of Islamic ideas and Islamic civilization. Without ijtihad, Islamic thought and Islamic civilization fall into decay. For moderate Muslims, ijtihad is a way of life that simultaneously allows Islam to reign supreme in the heart, and the mind to experience the unfettered freedom of thought. A moderate Muslim is, therefore, one who cherishes freedom of thought while recognizing the existential necessity of faith. He/she aspires for change, but through the power of mind and not through planting mines. Moderate Muslims aspire for a society – a city of virtue – that will treat all people with dignity and respect (Qur’an 17:70). There will be no room for political or normative intimidation (Qur’an 2:256). Individuals will aspire to live an ethical life for they recognize its desirability. Communities will compete in doing good, and polities will seek to encourage good and forbid evil (Qur’an 5:48 and 3:110). They believe that internalizing Islam’s message can bring about the social transformation necessary for establishing the virtuous city. The only arena in which moderate Muslims permit excess is in idealism. The Qur’an advocates moderation (2:143) and extols the virtues of the straight path (1:1-7). For moderate Muslims, the middle ground, the common humanity of all, is the straightest path.

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