Where Are the Moderate Muslims?
by Steven Vincent
"We realize we are in competition with extremists for the soul of Islam." So says AEI scholar Hedieh Mirahmadi, an American Muslim woman of Iranian descent, who organized a recent conference in Jakarta described as "a chance for moderate Muslims to meet and discuss ways of moving forward."
In Cairo last fall, another small group of leading Islamic academics met to call for "confronting and refuting the visions of radical religious movements." They urged that Muslims should be "intensifying dialogue with moderate and enlightened elements in the Western world."
Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti bemoaned to more than 2 million pilgrims during the 2004 Hajj in Mecca that Islam's "own sons" have "spread vice on Earth, with explosions and destruction and killing of innocents."
In the United States, too, Muslims shocked by the nightly scenes of terror committed in the name of their religion are searching for ways to express a more positive vision of their faith. Groups ranging from FMCAT (the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism, claiming around 8,000 members), to the Islamic Supreme Council of America (founded by Sheik Hisham Kabbani, a leading moderate Muslim) are searching for a positive role.
Untold numbers of individual Muslims, as well, are resisting the spread of radicalism within their faith. "We can't let extremists like Osama bin Laden take Islam from us," says writer Asra Nomani. "We have to take responsibility for our religion."
That kind of talk is welcomed by millions of non-Muslims, who increasingly wonder about the nature and course of the religion that comprises one fifth of the world's population. Why is it so often linked to violence? Does a "moderate" form of the faith even exist? If so, who are the moderates? And why are they so often silent in the face of horror?
"We are all-Muslim and non-Muslim alike-facing a tremendous crisis" thanks to the intensifying extremism within global Islam, warns Hasan Mahmud, a member of the Muslim Canadian Congress. "One and a half billion people are roaring down a highway at 150 miles an hour with no driver. Unless something happens soon, a crash is inevitable."
Is there a "moderate" Islam?
"Prophet, we send you forth as...a bearer of good tiding," reads the Koran (33:44-45). Islam, properly fostered, "stresses good relations with people of others beliefs," says Mustafa Akyol, director of the Istanbulbased Intercultural Dialogue Platform. "My beliefs stress the purification of the inner self to attain the highest levels of understanding and love," Khabanni explains. "At its very core, Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance," insists Imam Senad Agic, head of Chicago's Islamic Association of Bosnian-American Muslims.
Many Muslims, however, seem uncomfortable discussing the idea of a "moderate" Islam. "I can't define my faith, I live it," says Hussain Haqqani, a writer and former Pakistani ambassador. "Trying to identify moderate' Islam is not very helpful, since 90 percent of Muslims are good, moderate folks. Militant Islam is the exception; we should focus on this," contends Kemal Silay, a Turkish-born professor at Indiana University.
Here lies Islam's dilemma. There are no hard and fast distinctions between moderate forms of the religion and the murderous variants we now see on display so often. "It's all how you look at it," Mahmud says. "Islam can be peaceful and private, or dominating and subduing. It's a mixed bag. There's always a conflict as to what the Koran says."
Feisal Rauf, imam of New York's al-Farah Mosque and author of What's Right With Islam, is even blunter. "Does Islam lend itself to violence? Absolutely. Islam involves every aspect of our lives, everything leads to God. This includes a religious obligation to struggle against unjust rulers. Every system of Islamic jurisprudence lays out limited guidelines for such circumstances. But the extremists make the step from limited, to unlimited struggle."
All religions have extremists, of course. But since 9/11, radical Islam has proven itself particularly aggressive, well-funded, and capable of horrific violence. What's more, it's relatively new. With its roots stretching back to the 1920s and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Muslim extremism germinated slowly, only to explode into visibility in the 1970s with the rise of Saudi Arabian oil money and the Khomeini revolution in Iran. Today, radical Islam takes many forms, from political groups like Hamas and Hezbollah to the Wahabi puritanism propagated by Saudi Arabia to the totalitarianism of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Most of these radicals have not hesitated to kill in the name of God.
This viper's nest has thrown the Muslim establishment on the defensive. "Over the last 30 years, moderate Islam has provided no ideological competition for radicalism," notes Hillel Fradkin, director of the Hudson Institute's Center on Democracy, Islam, and the Future of the Muslim World. "We need to take our religion back," remarks Kamal Nawash, co-founder of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism. "When I was a kid, 'Islamic terrorist' was an oxymoron-now it's the rule." Professor Silay pulls no punches: "If 'Islam' has become a dirty word because of the killing and terrorism that goes on in its name, that's the fault of nobody but Muslims," he asserts. "The religion needs a moderate doctrine, a statement of principles."
Taking a religion back
For most Muslims, these principles are obvious: the rejection of violent jihad (or, at the least, defensive jihad only), and a commitment to pluralism and mutual respect for other religions. Stephen Schwartz, author of The Two Faces of Islam, notes that Mohammad himself called for "a community of moderation." Many Muslims find further support for non-violence and toleration in the Koranic verses like "There shall be no compulsion in religion" (2:256), and "We have our own works, and you have yours; let there be no argument between us" (42:15).
Lack of education is part of Islam's problem. "Muslims are generally unaware of their own religion," says Imam Feisal. "Over the last century, colonialism and secularization weakened traditional Islamic scholarship." As a result, "loose-canon" clerics, half-educated imams, and fatwa-issuing terrorists have felt free to interpret the Koran any way they wish.
Take, for instance, these passages, often used by extremists to justify violence: "Strike off [the infidels'] heads; strike off the very tips of their fingers!" (8:12); or, "When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters whenever you find them" (9:5)." Imam Agic emphasizes that "one must understand the historical situation in which those verses took place. Those passages are meant for Mohammed's followers in specific battles in history-they are not meant for Muslims today." Or as Mahmud puts it, "Lines that control the lives of millions of people must be very clear. But, unfortunately, the Koran is not-that is why we need scholars to interpret it."
The same holds true for the hadiths-the hundreds of thousands of sayings and actions not in the Koran that are attributed to Mohammed and treated as a model for devout Muslims. While many of these anecdotes reflect well on the Prophet, others are ludicrous (warnings that the devil takes root in one's nose during sleep) or embarrassing (instructions on what to do if you pass gas during prayer) or chillingly bloodthirsty. Argues Kabbani, "There are 52 different kinds of hadiths, some strong, some weak, some forgeries. You wouldn't go to a pharmacy to select drugs on your own, the same is true with these scriptures. But in Islam, someone goes to prison, learns a few verses and hadith in the mosque, then becomes an imam teaching people extreme views. We need to better educate the people."
Some would do more than educate; they would also begin a subtle process of renewing-and perhaps reappraising-Islamic doctrine through a process called ijtihad, in which Muslims debate how to apply scripture to current situations. "Allah put His word in practice in the seventh century, today we must do that for the twenty-first," Akyol stresses. He advocates "a new canon, a new reflection" on Islam, derived from "discussion amongst ourselves to build a world view. We simply can't emulate Mohammed-instead, we should endeavor to put a Muslim view on modernity. If we put out a compelling idea, it will still attract people."
Many, however, are too impatient for Akyol's gradualist vision of ijtihad as a way to renew Islam. Instead, some younger Muslims are ready to jettison whole aspects of the religion, particularly the clotted, confusing, and highly intrusive hadith. "Mohammed himself didn't want people to write down those stories," contends Sami el-Behiri, cofounder of FMCAT. "Islam is the only religion that asks you to follow the tiniest detail of the founder's life," argues Mahmud. "Unlike Christianity, our religion is trapped in the actions of its founder. Our leaders must take us out of the cruelties of Mohammed's life."
Is zealotry woven into Islam?
But would that still be Islam? At what point does the moderate's "renewed" or "reappraised" vision of the creed part with the intentions of its founder? It's a question that troubles many Muslims.
Women, frustrated by the inferior status they frequently suffer in Islam, face particularly soul-searching questions. "When I consider the rights denied to us, I have to ask myself, is there a place for me?" wonders Nomani. "Is Islam as originally conceived, acceptable? If not, I need to sign up with the Methodists or Unitarians."
"In North Africa, a woman can't marry outside of the Muslim faith. In Palestine, there are two honor killings a day," notes Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam. "Women constitute a deep and abiding issue for Islam-and a huge hurdle for moderates to get over," states Fradkin.
The intertwining of religion and tradition in the Muslim world yields sharia-Islamic strictures based on the Koran, hadith, and tribal customs. This code of religious law is especially onerous for women, granting men rights of polygamy, divorce by repudiation, and double the inheritance of women, while denying females the ability to choose husbands, travel freely, or be seen in public without full cloaking. The Shia's version of sharia even contains allowances for mutaa, or "temporary marriages," which permit a married Muslim man to pay an unmarried woman in property or cash in return for conjugal benefits over a set period of time.
Someone who knows about sharia all too well is Mona Darwich-Gatto, an Egyptian woman raised by a strict Muslim father. When she was 12 years old, her father tried to marry her off to a 35-year-old man. Although she avoided that fate, her father forced her to wear complete black hejab, including a face veil and gloves. A follower of the austere Tablighi sect, he forced the family to eat on the floor without utensils, as Muslims did in Mohammed's day. Eventually she rebelled and married an American Marine who had converted to Islam. "I warn any woman who wishes to marry a Muslim man to make sure he is not an extremist."
"The question of how to interpret sharia is crucial to Islam, and a key to reversing radicalism," says Eric Brown, a research scholar at the Hudson Institute. "It's a major part of the theological iron curtain we face with Islam." In Darwich-Gatto's case, after intense inner debate, she decided to stay with her faith. "I still believe; I still wish to be Muslim." And she is not alone in wishing to stay with her religion. "I have a profound love for the Prophet," says Mirahmadi. "I have a problem with what Muslims have done with his teachings."
But are such individuals denying a fundamental aspect of Islam? Are they wishfully trying to modernize the religion into something it isn't? Not at all, contends el-Behiri. "Back in the days of Mohammed, women had equal rights; they fought alongside men and even preached in mosques. Gradually, though, old ways reasserted themselves." It's a view heard commonly among moderate Muslims: Mohammed is not to blame for sharia. The problem, rather, is the influence of archaic social customs and traditions-in short, tribalism.
The Arab Bedouin from whom Islam descended followed a crude tribal ethos of family, honor, and revenge. "Mohammed attempted to free the Arab people by putting a restraint on tribalism," notes Zuhdi Jasser, founder of the Phoenix-based American Islamic Forum for Democracy. "But degradation set in after the death of Imam Ali in 661 A.D., and tribalism crept back into the religion." It is actually Arab tribal norms that demand the covering of women, for instance, according to Fradkin, and those enforcing the norms simply use Islam to justify their rules. "Ninety-five percent of sharia is not Koranic, but tribal," Akyol agrees. "God wants to liberate women."
Radicalism must be fought
Those, then, are the views of Islam's moderates. But questions remain. How many extremists are there within the Islamic faith? Why did the moderates remain silent for so long? Why aren't more of them speaking out now?
"I don't understand why so many Muslims are in denial about terrorism," Agic complains. "They don't see that if your computer catches a virus, you can throw it away, but you can't throw out a religion. The extremists will corrupt Islam, and it won't recover."
One explanation for the silence of Muslim moderates is the fact that they have only recently recognized the threat. Sheik Kabbani became one of the first Muslim clerics to sound the alarm when he addressed the State Department on Osama bin Laden. That was in 1999. By then, bin Laden's Wahabi ideology, fueled by Saudi petrodollars, had had nearly 25 years to spread unchallenged. "Money is power," Mirahmadi says. "You take a small village in Thailand where a Wahabi cleric is slaughtering oxen every day and distributing the meat to the villagers. He becomes the power in the village; no other clerics can compete with him."
For most Muslims in the West, the extremist threat was so distant, so alien to their notion of Islam, they felt no need to challenge it. "There was no leadership on our side," Kabbani says. "Meanwhile, Wahabi extremists were developing clerics, paying them, equipping them with what they needed, corrupting others." Today, Kabbani claims, out of 3 to 5 million Muslims in the U.S., 5 to 10 percent are extremists, and fully 80 percent of U.S. mosques are under Wahabi domination.
This infiltration of Islamist ideology forces some Muslims to become inadvertent revolutionaries. Relates Nomani, "In the early 1970s, my family belonged to a community in New Jersey where men and women intermingled freely. We moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, where, starting in the late '70s, the leadership there began segregating the sexes and by 1980, men and women were strictly divided. When 9/11 happened, Muslims I knew just watched passively." Alarmed, Nomani took a stand against the increasing radicalism of her community by sitting with the men during services. "I created a huge uproar, but I refused to back down, and I keep praying among the men in an effort to force our community to open its doors to women."
This kind of takeover of Muslim institutions by extremists is the rule, not the exception. Kabbani states that the leadership of the Muslim Student Associations at Georgetown University, the University of Chicago, and Berkeley tried to prevent him from speaking. An extremist-led boycott of advertisers forced his group to stop publishing its magazine. The highly visible U.S. Muslim advocacy group CAIR (Council for American-Islamic Relations), constantly criticizes Kabbani for speaking out against extremism. "The Wahabis want to take over this country," he warns. "They want to establish sharia over the United States."
Fear is another factor that has paralyzed Muslim moderates. In the Middle East, reform-minded Muslims are routinely murdered and harassed by both terrorists and governments. Even in America, violence is a threat. "When I first started speaking out, people told me to be careful," says Nawash, who has made Muslim arguments against terrorism on CNN, FOX, alJazeera and al-Arabiya. Irshad Manji has had threats against her life, and Fradkin notes that people participating in his program have received warnings. "I couldn't send my kids to the grocery store after 1999, we got so many threats," says Kabbani.
There are other inhibiting factors. Moderation, by its very nature, observes limits. "I certainly had no intention of being a revolutionary," remarks el-Behiri, who says he was drawn toward activism despite his quiet nature. Nomani echoes these thoughts, "We are hesitant to declare someone as un-Islamic, for that could make us just like the radicals." Understandably, the efforts of Islamic moderates to engage the public lack the impassioned fervor of the extremists-how do you aggressively promote a doctrine of non-aggressive, peace-loving tolerance?
Change the culture to soften the faith
But in talking to Muslims-especially those in the West-one senses another, unspoken, reason for their silence: a feeling that many of their religion's problems stem less from the faith itself than from the political and cultural realities in Islamic nations. The dysfunctional nature of the Muslim world is a hypercharged subject, and one of daunting scope. "We can't change Islam. That promises to be a bloody theological struggle," as Mahmud puts it. "What we can and must do is change Muslim culture. But we can't do this alone, we need the help of the world."
El-Behiri agrees. "The solution to the spread of extremist Islam is to liberalize four countries-Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq-and to settle the Israeli-Palestinian question and get those images of suffering Palestinians off al-Jazeera." The struggle for Islam thus becomes partly a political-military project, where the U.S. Army, State Department, and White House can assist in helping moderate Muslims.
"Dictatorial governments use Islam to control their people," affirms Jawad Hashim, former Minister of Planning under Saddam Hussein in the 1970s. (In 2004, he co-signed a letter to the U.N. demanding an international treaty banning the use of religion as an incitement to violence. So far, 2,500 people from 23 countries have signed it.) "Muslim countries, therefore, must divide religion from politics. And the best way to do that is through democracy. Compare India and Pakistan. India has more Muslims, but since it is a democracy, you don't see Indian mullahs preaching terrorism."
With a less retrograde politics, not only the Islamic religion but Muslim culture in general would have a chance to be revitalized. "We must save Islamic civilization from the Lslamist disease," says Professor Silay. "When I see the extremists, I see no interest in music, art, literature, nothing of the civilizing aspects of Muslim civilization. They simply open a medieval book and pick out the passages they need."
"Many people think Islam needs a Martin Luther to usher in a Reformation," says Schwartz. "I believe instead we need a Leonardo da Vinci to restore and renew Islam's traditions of pluralism." In other words, "Islam needs a man of art and culture, not another religious reformer with a legacy of intolerance, bigotry, and war."
A politicized religion
But is it possible to separate Islam from politics and oppression? Many express doubts. "We've seen so many apologies for Islam, especially from an intellectually bankrupt 'reformist' impulse," argues Daniel Pipes, America's high-profile critic of radical Islam. "Historically speaking, Islam has always been highly political. It has always had jihad, oppression of women, and slavery. We have to have an honest interpretation of the religion." As for the strength of moderate voices, Pipes opines, "It's a whisper, not an upsurge. The extremists dominate."
Others scoff at the claim that Islam's relatively pure message has been corrupted by imperfect followers. Argues Hashim, "This idea that the Koran is somehow a perfect text misinterpreted by Muslims is ridiculous. That's like saying Karl Marx wrote a book, but when people put it into practice, that's when the evil began." The Iraqi émigré Hashim is also highly critical of what he perceives as the hypocrisy of many moderate Muslims. "I went to the house of a famous surgeon in California-a Shia Muslim-and his wife of 25 years. During the evening, women stayed in one room, men in the other. Then the men ate, and afterwards, the women came in to eat whatever was left."
The biggest problem, however, may be something few liberal Muslims want to consider: that many of their co-religionists across the world may not want Islam "moderated." "I haven't seen a change in the majority of Muslims over the years," Hashim asserts. "When you see people following a demented person like Moqtada al-Sadr, you have to wonder."
The vast majority of Muslim moderates live in the West. What about the hundreds of millions of Muslims who live beyond the perimeter of democracy and education, in areas where tribal and religious strongmen still dominate illiterate populations? "They are being made to live in an unreal world by their leaders," Mahmud says. "They still believe that Muslims are the leaders of the world. It's what a child believes."
"Islam," Mahmud continues, "has a much stronger sense of its own superiority than other religions. We do not have enough food to eat, yet we feel we are the chosen people, part of the greatest nation on earth. The local clergy lives on this pride, keeps their people living in fantasy and tells them 'Just do jihad, jihad, jihad.' How can we compete with this grandiosity at the base of Islam?"
To Hedieh Mirahmadi, the answer is simple. "Give us time. We've just started. The extremists have a 30-year head start on us."
"Muslim countries must separate religion from politics. And the best way to do that is through democracy."
Copyright American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research Apr/May 2005 |
Steven Vincent, who has filed wartime reports from Iraq for TAE, is author of In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq.
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Islamic Pluralism.