Moderate Islam and Its Muslim Enemies

On Sunday, July 15, The Washington Post published a landmark article in its history -- admittedly inconsistent -- of legitimizing radical Islamists.  Signed by staff writer Michelle Boorstein, it was titled "From Muslim Youths, a Push for Change".  The reporter covered a meeting, grandly titled the National Muslim American Youth Summit, and sponsored in Washington over the weekend by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC).  

As Boorstein noted, MPAC has, of the organizations lobbying in support of Islamist ideology in the U.S., gained the most substantial and consistent access to federal and other government officials.   The Post trumpeted MPAC's role as an advisor to the authorities, describing it as "having the coziest links to law enforcement and the Bush administration among the handful of major Muslim American advocacy groups."

MPAC used this inflated view of its clout to arrange meetings between participants in the "summit" and representative of the U.S. Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and State.  But while the Post text empathized with young Muslims purportedly seeking to take leadership of their community away from their elders, the article also unintentionally disclosed the extent of extremist influence present among American Muslims today. 

The fissures in the American Muslim community are not exclusively generational; the Post account of the MPAC youth summit included other curious elements.  The trainees in civil participation reveal alarmingly radical trends: 

"they have questions unique to them and to today... What is the overlap between Islam and the U.S. Constitution? Can they maintain credibility with their peers if they team up too much with an administration many Muslim and Arab Americans see as hostile?"
A disparity between Islam and the U.S. Constitution?  Since when is this an issue for anybody but the most radical fundamentalists?   Muslims have flourished under the protection of the U.S. Constitution for generations.   To assert an "overlap" between the two is to open the door to the outlook, driven by advocates of radical Islamic law, that Qur'an and sharia are superior as legal sources for America, to the founding document of the nation.    Who knows how many of MPAC's youngsters have been indoctrinated in this anti-American posture, antithetical to traditional Islam?  Obviously, enough have for it to be a topic of MPAC discussion. 

But at the center of the Post article was a truly amazing prize: controversy over the term "moderate Muslim."  Many young American Muslims, we are told, do not want to be considered "moderate."  To them, to be a "moderate Muslim" is to function as something like an "Uncle Tom" in the history of the African American community.  The Post account also embeds an essay "making the rounds" at the MPAC event and purporting to explain such disdain for "moderates."  Written by a graduate student in the United Kingdom, Asma Khalid, and titled "Why I Am Not A Moderate Muslim," this bizarre exercise in the abasement of the Muslim intellect in the West was printed in The Christian Science Monitor on April 23, 2007, and may be read here.

Asma Khalid's effusion is filled with arrogant and unproven claims.  Khalid alleges, "‘Moderate' implies that Muslims who are more orthodox are somehow backward and violent."  In reality, the term "orthodoxy" is not used in traditional, classic, and even conservative Islam, since the faith of Muhammad, prior to the usurpation of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina by the radical Wahhabi sect, had institutionalized pluralism of theological opinion.  "Orthodox" principles in Islam, if they exist, lack rigidity, but are apparently unknown to Asma Khalid, notwithstanding her study toward a Cambridge master's degree in Near Eastern/Islamic Studies.  Those interested in examining the essential principles of mainstream Islam are welcome to consult a defining summation of them, almost 1,100 years old and known as "Aqida al-Tahawiyya," accessible in English here.  One of its concluding clauses is an excellent statement of Islamic reason and moderation:  "Islam lies between going to excess and falling short...  between determinism and freewill, and between sureness and despair."

As to the rejection of "moderate" as "impl[ying] that Muslims who are more orthodox are somehow backward and violent," Asma Khalid provides no evidence for this absurd assertion, which exists exclusively in the minds of people seeking to combat moderation.  Moderate Muslims oppose the radicalism of the Saudi-financed Wahhabis and the extreme Shias because these developments are destructive of Islamic tradition.  Moderate Muslims argue over aspects of the Islam existing from Morocco to Malaysia and from Bosnia-Hercegovina to Botswana, and may seek progressive changes in aspects of the faith.  But they, not the "orthodox," represent the majority of believers, and, with some exceptions, do not fight against classical Islam.

Asma Khalid goes on to complain that "To be a ‘moderate' Muslim is to be a ‘good,' malleable Muslim in the eyes of Western society."   Does this mean that an "orthodox" Musim should be "bad" - again in the manner of some African American protest -- and refuse to adjust to the customs of the West, if that is where one lives?  Or seek to preserve an intransigent Islamism in the Muslim world?

Such views would be profoundly un-Islamic.  Islam is a religion and enjoins doing good.  Why would the good conduct of Muslims be wrong because, by opposing violence, they elicit the approval of Westerners?  Good is good, and nothing else, in all religions: promotion of peace, mutual respect for one's neighbor, and personal dignity. Further, traditional Islam calls on the Muslim immigrant to a non-Muslim land to accept the customs of the country to the degree they do not directly conflict with Islam -- and no country in the world either bans the practice of the Muslim religion, or compels people to drink alcohol or eat pork.  From the legitimate Islamic viewpoint, Muslims are required to show a positive example of themselves and of the faith if immigrating to a non-Muslim country. 

Continuing with her anti-moderate polemic, Khalid states, "True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to adhere piously to a religion's tenets."   It thus becomes clear that Khalid has no conception of basic Islamic beliefs.  No Muslim except a radical speaks of "true" Islam, because the judgment as to whose Islam is "true" was always believed to rest with God, not men.  This is why, in its classic period, Islam fostered pluralistic debate and discouraged accusations of heresy.  In two of the best-known hadith or oral comments, the Prophet Muhammad himself compared the illumination of Muslim scholars to the heavenly bodies in the night sky.  He said, "The simile of the scholars of knowledge on the earth is the stars in the sky by which one is guided in the darkness of the land and the sea."  He also said, "my Companions are equivalent to the stars in the sky; whichever of them you point to, you will be guided, and the differences among my Companions are a mercy to you."

In addition, the call for "piety" in Islam represents a non-mainstream conception.   Since the time of the 11th-12th century Islamic thinker, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, considered the greatest Muslim theologian after Muhammad, Muslims have recognized that intentions -- the beliefs of the heart -- are superior to punctilious observance of religious rituals.  Asma Khalid demands to be called "orthodox," not "moderate," and such a message is complacently conveyed to the Western public by mainstream media like The Christian Science Monitor, but the arguments presented in her anti-moderate op-ed are those of a fundamentalist, not of a traditional Muslim.

Deterioration of Muslim discourse is further visible when Asma Khalid.writes, "The public relations drive for ‘moderate Islam' is injurious to the entire international community. It may provisionally ease the pain when so-called Islamic extremists strike."  Islamic extremists are merely "so-called"?  Does this mean they do not exist?  Khalid blares on, repeating her tortured and illogical claim that moderate Islam "indirectly labels the entire religion of Islam as violent."  These exercises in mental acrobatics become, eventually, tedious.  How could distinguishing the category of moderates within a religion label the entire faith?

Khalid wants it both ways, suddenly announcing, "The term moderate Muslim is actually a redundancy.  In the Islamic tradition, the concept of the ‘middle way' is central. Muslims believe that Islam is a path of intrinsic moderation, wasatiyya. This concept is the namesake of a British Muslim grass-roots organization, the Radical Middle Way."  Here we proceed from truth straight to disinformation.  It is quite accurate that Qur'an defines Islam as seeking moderation.   Why then, attempt to disavow the term "moderate"?  But the infamous "Radical Middle Way" project, which was financed by the British government, consisted of a roadshow in which "ex-radicals" and other fundamentalists attempted to ameliorate extremism among young Muslims.   A laudable goal - but why define it in terms of a self-contradictory title like the "Radical Middle?" 

Asma Khalid also exhibitionistically describes herself as "hijabi," i.e. a woman who covers her head.  But hijab is a practice among those who go out in public, not a matter for boasting about in print.  Ideas, including Islamic ideas, should not he defined by the garments around the skull, but by the contents of the mind. 

Khalid concludes with an emotional endorsement of Sheikh Abdallah Ibn Bayyah, a Mauritanian participant in the "Radical Middle Way" hoax alongside alleged "moderates" like the well-known Tariq Ramadan and the ultra-extreme speechifier-turned-"Sufi" Hamza Yusuf Hanson.  Ibn Bayyah is Mauritanian by origin, but now teaches in Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Wahhabi bigotry, enthusiasm for Al-Qaida, and incitement to terror in neighboring Iraq.  Concluding a maudlin evocation of the sheikh, Asma Khalid declares, "The sheikh, not bin Laden, is the authentic religious scholar. But to call him a moderate Muslim would be a misnomer."   Still, to emphasize, what of the many respected Muslim scholars, from the North Africa to Indonesia, who choose that title for themselves?
Since Asma Khalid, with her chatter about "orthodoxy" and "piety," and her self-advertising hijab, turned to the Mauritanian-born Ibn Bayyah for guidance, let me conclude by citing Tierno Bakar, one of the greatest of the West African Sufis, born in 20th century Mali: 
"the conduct of which I most disapprove and for which I have the most pity is that of the ridiculous hypocrite.  Such are those individuals who, with turbans carefully wound eight times around their heads, and a miniature copy of Qur'an in a fine case around their necks, walk with unnecessary dependence on the shoulder of a disciple and wave a cane that appears more like a fetish than a pilgrim's staff.  Such a person pronounces the declaration of faith with more noise than fervor, and preaches with an ardor motivated by nothing so much as immediate attention.  Such an individual corrupts the spirit and perverts the heart.  He is a thousand times worse than the murderer who only kills the body." 
Haters of Islamic moderation may not slay Muslims or non-Muslims physically, but they may kill the soul of a great world religion.

Stephen Schwartz is Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism.

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