Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Moderate Muslims

One of the things I find disturbing lately is how many Americans have lumped all Muslims together into one monolithic group labeled “terrorists”. You hear a lot of tsk tsking over this from those of us who are inclined to try not to demonize an entire group based on the most extreme among them, but I think that masks an even more important point. Lumping all Muslims together as terrorists is not merely unfair to the vast majority of Muslims in the world, it also undermines what could be our most powerful tool in fighting terrorism in the Islamic world. The battle is not Islam vs The West. The battle is between Reactionary, Fanatical Islamic Theocrats and everyone else, including – perhaps especially – moderate and reasonable Muslims. There is no enemy quite so hated as the enemy within, and that is how the Bin Ladens of the world view the moderate majority within Islam, as compromisers with, and appeasers of, the Great Satan.

So who are those moderate Muslims? Muqtedar Khan, the director of International Studies at Adrian College here in Michigan, is a scholar at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. He has an article on this very subject and it’s very much worth reading. He points out first that it is a mistake to use the terms Muslim and Arab interchangably. After all, there are 1 billion muslims in the world and only about 200 million Arabs. He also points out the differences in the moderate and extremist traditions within Islam itself, which is obviously important for understanding the distinction within its context rather than simply imposing those labels from the outside. And the distinction that he points to is, I think, equivalent to the distinction I’ve always made that within each religion there comes a battle between modernists and anti-modernists, between engagement and war. Or within the Islamic tradition specifically, between Ijtihad and Jihad. He writes,

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 which shape their interpretation of Islam.

For moderate Muslims Ijtihad is the preferred method of choice for social and political change and military Jihad 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 being when 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, which simultaneously allows Islam to reign supreme in the heart and the mind to experience unfettered freedom of thought. A moderate Muslim is therefore one who cherishes freedom of thought while recognizing the existential necessity of faith. 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. There will be no room for political or normative intimidation. Individuals will aspire to live an ethical life because they recognize its desirability. Communities will compete in doing good and politics will seek to encourage good and forbid evil. They believe that the internalization of the message of Islam can bring about the social transformation necessary for the establishment of the virtuous city. The only arena in which Moderate Muslims permit excess is in idealism.

That this is largely a battle between modernists and anti-modernists (reactionaries) within Islam is also supported by Louay Safi in a National Press Club interview:

Louay Safi, a founding member and director of the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy in Washington and president of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists, cited a long-running debate within his religion between “traditionalists” and “reformists” over “how to adapt Islam to modern society and how to adapt modern society to Islam.”

Related to this, a growing number of Muslims who moved to the West have been seeking “how to reconcile the Muslim identity to the American identity, to the European identity,” he said.

Safi said that Muslims moving to the United States, including many who came as students, “saw they can live their Islamic values in this country, and they can participate fully in the American society.” The sort of democracy they experienced, “where you can have a voice in public policy, [and] where you can hold public officials accountable,” often differed from the “fake democracy” back home, where ruling elites retained power through rigged elections, he said.

In other words, moderate Islam is a combination of Islam and the Enlightenment ideals of freedom of conscience. It is important to remember that when Christianity was the same age as Islam is today, the Reformation and the Enlightenment were still centuries in the future, and Christianity had every bit as bloody a history as Islam has had in terms of conquering lands. Today, Christianity is a very different thing than it was in the 13th or 14th century, and that is due largely to its mixing with the ideas of the Enlightenment. In fact, Safi specifically invokes this period in time and the importance of Islam engaging it, and points to American Muslims as the forefront of that engagement:

European modern history started with the European Renaissance that took place in southern Europe at the frontier of cultural exchange between Islam and the West. It was the contrast between the self and the other that brought about the first signs of cultural change. For many of us, European Renaissance is the metaphor, a frame of reference, that guide our discussion and tickle our imagination…

Faced with oppression, lack of opportunity for creativity and growth, many Muslims found their ways to the West, seeking the opportunity to grow: academically, spiritually, economically, politically, and socially.

Muslim presence is the US as a growing and vibrant community is quite recent, and it is still too early to tell the direction to which this almost unprecedented experimentation is going. But regardless of that direction, the US provides a free, relatively speaking, environment for Islam to interact with modern society…

Muslims can provide an alternative model of society in which religion is reconciled with the modern society. In so doing, Muslim can provide new vision of how Islam can be lived in modern society to the full extent, and how religion can be reconciled with social living without relapsing into the medieval way of life.

As religious traditions mix with modernist ideas, those traditions moderate. But in the process, this will inevitably provoke a furious reaction from the extremists. It did so within Christianity and it is doing so within Islam today. The modernists will win eventually, but in the meantime there will be a good deal of bloodshed. And during this process of upheaval, it is important to remember that the Bin Ladens of the world view their moderate and reasonable Muslim brethren as at least as bad as, if not worse than, the American infidels. And it is important to note that moderate Muslims like Khan, even while disagreeing with much of what America and the West is doing in response to the threat of Islamic Radicalism, are striking back at the extremists. In an open letter to Osama Bin Laden, Khan wrote:

You and those like you are dedicated to killing and bringing misery to people wherever they are. God blessed you with the capacity to lead and also endowed you with enormous resources. You could have used your influence in Afghanistan to develop it, to bring it out of poverty and underdevelopment and show the world what Islam can do for those who believe in it. You chose to provoke and bring war to a people who had already been devastated by wars…

Before we rush to condemn America we must remember that even today millions of poor and miserable people all across the world are lining up outside US embassies eager to come to America, not just to live here but to become an American. No Muslim country today, can claim that people of other nations and other faiths see it as a promise of hope, equality, dignity and prosperity.

Yes, we American Muslims will continue to challenge the Bush administrations’ proposal to wage war against Iraq. We think a regime change in Washington is as necessary as a regime change in Baghdad, but that is an intramural affair. Once the war is declared, make no mistake Mr. Saddam Hussain and Mr. Bin Laden, We are with America. We will fight with America and we will fight for America. We have a covenant with this nation, we see it as a divine commitment and we will not disobey the Quran (9:4) – we will fulfill our obligations as citizens to the land that opened its doors to us and promised us equality and dignity even though we have a different faith. I am sure Mr. Bin Laden, you can neither understand nor appreciate this willingness to accept and welcome the other.

Sure at this moment out of anger, frustration and fear, some in America have momentarily forgotten their own values. I am confident that, God willing, this moment of shock and insecurity will pass and America will once again become the beacon of freedom, tolerance and acceptance that it was before September 11th. On that day Mr. Binladen, you not only killed 3000 innocent Americans, many of whom were also Muslims, but you signed the death warrants of many innocent people who will die in this war on terror and many more who will live but will suffer the consequences, the pain and the misery of war. Before September 11th, the US was giving aid to Afghanistan and was content to wait for the Iraqi people to free themselves and the rest of the world from their dictator. On that day you changed the rules of the game and Muslims in many places are suffering as a direct consequence.

You can find Khan’s syndicated columns on the web. While I disagree with him on many things, he represents a movement that is active in fighting against reactionary Islam from within. We need to build bridges and strengthen ties with these voices of reason within Islam, both in the US and abroad, and the last thing we should be doing is alienating those within Islam who are on our side. As Safi said,

“The Muslim American has become the target in many ways,” Safi said. “By becoming suspect, our ability to play the [bridge-building] role has been reduced” which he said is unfortunate because “they are the best ambassador[s] of this country to the Muslim world.”

Safi said the growth of terrorism is “really a direct result of authoritarian regimes that stifle debate in their countries, that have been using iron fist policies to silence opposition.” Such policies had the effect of “silencing moderate voices, and the only voices that we can hear today on this side of the ocean are the voices of those who can make noise through violent actions,” Safi said.

But, he argued, the larger Muslim community is definitely more interested in having a good relationship with the developed world as a means to better their conditions. “I think we have to take this opportunity to shift our support from supporting dictators and authoritarian regimes to supporting democratic movements including those who see Islam as the foundation for reform,” he said.

Safi said it would be hard to imagine a shift toward democracy in the Muslim world without Islam playing the leading role. “Turkey can probably give us some clues as how a positive Islamic reform can bring about true democracy without resorting to violence,” he said.

Folks, we are not going to drag a billion Muslims into the modern world. That can only be done by Muslims themselves. And there are many powerful voices within Islam to do that. There are hundreds of prominent voices within Islam speaking out on this, not just Safi and Khan. Mahdi Bray, Husain Haqqani, Azizah al-Hibri, Chandra Muzaffar, Tarik Ramadan, Maulana Waheeduddin Khan and many others are standing up within Islam to condemn the forces of reaction and to build bridges between moderate Muslims and the west. If we fail to meet them halfway across that bridge, we do so at our own peril.

Comments

  1. #1 red
    March 15, 2004

    Such a great point. Thank you.

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