Where are Those Moderate Muslims -- and How Should We Deal with Them?

Eleven months before 9/11, I heard a series of lectures from a Muslim doctor to a Protestant congregation, in which he contradicted much of what I had learned about the religion’s history and foundation when I had studied it and lived abroad among Muslims two to three decades earlier.  For example, he assured the credulous audience that Islam had never been spread by the sword, but rather that was a Western canard.  Already extremely concerned about militant Islam, I started reading updated works on the ideology.  It didn’t take me long to realize that my prior understanding hadn’t been superseded by new discoveries.  At best, the pious doctor was offering a positive spin on Islam; more likely he was actually, deliberately engaging in taqiyya – righteous deception to advance Islam.

With the attacks of 9/11, I began an extensive, deliberate effort to understand the religion and the violence that it was spewing.  I read authors across the spectrum of attitudes towards Islam, from the highly sympathetic Karen Armstrong to the implacably critical Ibn Warraq.  I also attend the lectures of Islamic scholars such as leading apologist John Esposito (“the antidote to Bernard Lewis,” one liberal minister mockingly assured me), and I interviewed pious Muslims.  I then organized my thoughts by writing them down in what eventually became a book.  One of the most significant insights I obtained from this process was that there are eight basic principles of Islam that lead to its violent aggression.  Exhibit 1 enumerates those tenets.

Each of these principles comes directly from the Qur’an, except the last.  They are all virtually universally accepted in Islam, as attested by my interviews with Muslims as well as the writings of western Islamic scholars.  These principles impel observant Muslims to struggle to advance Islam to its divinely ordained position of global dominance, and while doing so to unite with other Muslims while holding non-Muslims at arm’s length, at best.  At worst (as we have been seeing recently in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Nigeria), Muslims should force others either to convert to Islam or take one of two other alternatives: if Christians or Jews, to submit to Muslim rule while paying a tax to show their submission; or if they can’t, or are of another or no faith, to die.

Recently a Protestant minister and I led a two man panel discussion of Islam, and when we came to this exhibit, he explained to the audience that these eight tenets makes some Muslims militant.  I had to correct him, pointing out that these tenets make Islam militant and that extremists accept them explicitly.  That distinction is vital.

Since they impel the faithful to violence, these tenets raise the question: How can believing Muslims do anything other than engage in jihad?  Put another way, how can Muslims be moderate?  That in turn raises the question, what is a moderate Muslim?

Research for the book uncovered the view, widely held across the sympathy spectrum, that “moderate” Muslims accepted a series of pacifying interpretations of Islam and its scriptures.  These interpretations, which had evolved over Islam’s first five centuries, essentially toned down its harsher messages and rubbed off its sharper edges, enabling Muslims to live harmoniously with one another and, particularly since about the 19th Century, more peacefully with non-Muslim neighbors.  The difference extremists exhibited was that they took the commands of their scriptures literally and hence acted upon them.

However, seeking to understand which Muslims were moderate and how large a portion of the 1.6 billion global Muslim community, or Ummah, they represented, it is impossible to find hard numbers: The definition of “moderate” is simply too slippery.  Is a Muslim living peacefully in rural villages of Morocco or Indonesia, practicing traditional Islam but outraged that a Jewish state took land from Muslims in direct violation of shari’a, moderate?  What if he suddenly decided to act on his outrage?  What about a Muslim of Pakistani descent living near Nottingham with similar views, at least up until he decided to go to a terrorist training camp?  (This is the real story of Kasim Hafeez before he renounced violence.)  Are Muslims living in peace on the Arabian Peninsula who donate generously to Hamas -- a legitimate Islamic charity in their eyes -- moderate?  Is a Muslim doing the same thing in Dearborn or a Chicago suburb moderate?  Is a Muslim moderate if he engages in non-violent jihad, such as lawfare, in order to make Islam dominant, as practiced by members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Muslim Student Association?  Bright lines don’t exist, yet virtually everyone commenting on Islam speaks of “moderate Muslims.”  Few, however, define them.

In presentations on radical Islam, one of the conceptual devices I have employed that helps people think about the ideological differences between Muslims is Exhibit 2.

The vertical axis refers to whether Muslims read their sacred texts interpretively, as has been the practice of most Muslims for about 1,000 years, or strictly literally as the Wahhabis, Muslim Brotherhood and their various ideological offspring, including al Qaeda, ISIS, and the Iranian Shi’a Islamists, insist.  The horizontal axis measures how traditional a Muslim is in his attitude towards and practice of Islam, versus how modernized he is, in one of two ways.  “Modernized” can mean adapted to modernity, but it can also mean incorporating into Islam elements of 20th Century authoritarian ideologies such as communism and fascism, again as directed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The two dimensions are of course continua and there are no hard and fast boundaries.  In addition, one might add a third dimension, the intensity of belief.  That is probably most relevant in the upper left quadrant of traditional non-militants, where intense piety might make Muslims more likely to become militant and move downward or even to the lower right.  It is possible that among modernist literalist jihadis in the lower left there are some cynical opportunists who couldn’t care less about the spiritual aspects of Islam but are selfishly attracted to the jihad by the opportunity for power and booty.  However, such inwardly secular extremists probably represent a small portion of such militants and may be marginalized or even culled out by the true believers.

While the quadrants have equal areas, they most definitely do not represent equal proportions of the Ummah.  The upper left quadrant contains the vast majority of Muslims.  That would include Muslims not just in traditional Islamic societies from the Maghreb through South Asia and into Indonesia, but also in sequestered Muslim communities in the West.  When Muslims from that quadrant become radicalized by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots, or to drive out infidel Russians or Americans, they descend, at least initially, into the lower left quadrant.  Some might then move to the lower right.

Those in the lower right are the highly radicalized, militant Muslims that are most aggressively pursuing the Third Jihad.  Some, such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Khalifa Ibrahim, come from traditional, pious, even scholarly Islamic backgrounds, and have apparently imbibed inebriating amounts of the Muslim Brotherhood’s radicalizing ideology.  However, it appears that most of the older leaders came from more modern, even Western backgrounds, perhaps even indifferent to Islam early in life.  When these people first became serious about Islam, they read it literally, often with the guidance of other radicalized Muslims, and hence adopted its purest, harshest meanings.  Radicals of this sort include Osama bin Laden, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, Mohammed Atta, and Major Nidal Hassan, among many others.  Dr. Daniel Pipes recognized this phenomenon 20 years ago, and has since commented on it frequentlyMany others have noted it as well.  Increasingly, we are seeing young Muslims who have been deliberately radicalized by their elders, whether in Islamic countries, at radical mosques in the West, or simply online, including the Boston bombing brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

We haven’t yet addressed one quadrant, the upper right.  This holds the still practicing but interpretive, open-minded, modernized, often Westernized Muslims, whether they live in Chicago or Cairo, London or Lahore.  Widely recognized examples are Fareed Zakariah, King Abdullah and especially Queen Noor of Jordan; lesser known but still prominent ones include Tarek Fatah, Irshad Manji, Dr. Qanta Ahmed, and Dr. Zuhdi Jasser.  Some, such as Dr. Jasser, take the unusual position that the Qur’anic commands to violence and aggression were meant for 7th Century Arabia, not the 21st Century world, but most appear to have a more conventional view of the scriptures and simply interpret them more peacefully or choose to ignore the more violent commands.  They may be the Muslim equivalents of cafeteria Catholics.  Muslims in this quadrant are the ones most Westerners encounter in their daily lives as neighbors, friends, and coworkers.  Importantly, the population in this quadrant is probably quite small, but may seem representative to the typical Western, non-Muslim observer because they are the types of Muslims most Westerners encounter.  Whether there are more of them than the extremists in the lower right is debatable, but they probably have less influence on Islam overall because of the threats they face for speaking out.

So which are the elusive moderates?  While most Westerners would view those in the upper right as moderate, most pious, practicing Muslims would probably consider them liberals.  Indeed, the extremists in the lower right view those in the quadrant above not as Muslims at all, but as apostates whom they declare takfir (excommunicated) and target for “reversion” to the true Islam, or extermination.  It is no wonder that so many modernized Muslims keep their heads down and their mouths shut about militant Islam.

The inescapable conclusion is that the moderates to whom so many non-Muslims look to for support against the radicals are primarily traditional interpretists in the upper left.  They have not yet become comfortable with the West and perhaps not even to modernity.  Given the demographics of Islamic countries, they are largely young and low income, with limited educations, and high rates of illiteracy.  They are not the natural allies of the West.  While they are not radicalized and motivated to join the jihad, the radicals are explicitly trying to ignite that motivation.  Presuming a normal distribution of Muslims along the literalist/interpretist dimension, if the radicals are successful, then the rate at which the Muslim population would join them would rapidly accelerate, as depicted in Exhibit 3.

An important question to consider is what happens to traditional interpretist Muslims when they and Islam are pressured by outside forces.  Evidence over the past thirty-five years from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria indicates that many will become radicalized and violent in defense of Islam.  This is a direct expression of pillars #3 and 5 from Exhibit 1; they become impelled to defend Islam, in the “hivish” behavior of bees rallying to defend their hive, to use a term coined by noted psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

If we use the matrix in Exhibit 2 to suggest how the West should handle the different categories of Muslims, it is clear that those in each quadrant demand a different approach.  These are summarized in Exhibit 4.

The West cannot idly hope that the traditionalist, non-militant Muslims will work to eliminate the radicals.  The literalist radicals have the words of their scriptures, including the purported words of Allah in the Qur’an, on their side.  Instead, we in the West have to do our best not to trigger, or at least to counter, their “hivish” reflex to rally to the aid of the radicals whom the West must degrade and destroy, and to enlist the support of reformers to keep these traditionalists out of the fight.  Conversely, the West must aggressively combat the violent radicals and also expose and neutralize those affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime who are active in the West and pretend to be peaceful, such as CAIR.

Unfortunately, it has become evident that as radical militant groups come to believe that they are close to precipitating the end time of their eschatology, they become outrageously violent, as Graeme Wood recently described and upon which I elaborated.  Exhibit 5 lays out the pattern that emerges from arraying various prominent Islamic groups along one dimension that describes how imminent they believe Islam’s end time is (and hence how able they might be to precipitate them) versus how peaceful or violent they have become.

If this perspective has any predictive value, then the world will have hell to pay if the Obama Administration enables Iran to develop a nuclear arsenal.  At that point, provoking the hivish reflex among moderate Muslims may become inevitable.  So stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons should be the lynchpin of any strategy to deal with Islamic militancy, followed by defeating the militants while cooperating with the liberals to contain the moderates.

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