By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
Being a liberal/moderate Muslim is not easy. Non-Muslims often don’t bother about the qualifiers: for them you are plain and simple Muslim. And Muslims only look at the qualifiers: for them you are not Muslim enough. But the case for keeping the moderate movement alive cannot be overstated. Mr Sultan Shahin’s recent article “Coping With Critics of Moderate Islam” passionately defends this movement against its detractors.
At the same time, the article and the comments it has generated also show that the moderate movement faces a number of inherent dilemmas and inconsistencies it is yet to resolve. Too often, I fear the criticism of the moderate movement stems from these dichotomies. More importantly, these issues severely curtail the impact that the moderate movement can and should have. If moderate Muslims―including myself―want our thoughts, our ideas, our conception of how Islam ought to be perceived and practised, to have greater reach and impact, we cannot ignore these challenges for too long.
1. What is Islamism?
Ambiguity over the term “Islamism” is a long-standing and multifaceted issue. First of all, what is the need for such a term when the adjective “Islamic” already exists? I myself use Islamism―and validate its usage by others―by arguing that while Islamic refers to notions that are truly related to Islam, Islamism denotes the appropriation of Islam to justify ideas and actions that actually have nothing to do with the religion. In other words, Islamic relates to “moderate” Islam while Islamism relates to its “extremist” interpretation―which, to me and others of my ilk, isn’t really Islamic.
But I can easily see that this is a very subjective approach. Secondly, this is not just a matter of semantics. Even if the argument is accepted, the bigger concern with Islamism is: what exactly is an extremist interpretation of Islam? Is it the espousal of socially conservative values, such as beards for men and burqas for women, restrictions over watching cinema or listening to music and so forth? Or is it the call to “defend” Islam by violent means―i.e. terrorism?
We need to remember here that being socially conservative and being a terrorist is not one and the same thing. A number of socially conservative mullahs in India and around the world have repeatedly voiced dismay with terrorism and termed it anti-Islamic, while many Muslim terrorists are social libertarians, for whom wining and womanising are part of the day’s job. Of course, there are those who happen to be both, but the point is that these categories are not exactly the same.
Liberal/moderate Muslims may differ with both kinds of “Islamists”. But lumping them all under the same label is not only unhelpful but also self-defeating. If, for instance, our goal is to wean people away from terrorist tendencies, then we shun a very important ally in socially conservative but anti-terrorist mullahs by bracketing them with terrorists. I am, of course, not arguing that we wholeheartedly embrace social conservatism, but we do need to think about this distinction.
2. Who to Blame for Muslim Terrorism?
A number of liberal/moderate Muslims today are ready to point their fingers at elements within the Muslim community―ranging from Saudi sheikhs and Iranian ayatollahs to local imams around the world―for instigating fear and alarm among Muslim youth and turning them towards terror to serve their own political ends. Some of us are even willing to blame portions of the Islamic religious canon―particularly the concocted Hadees and even a few Quranic verses―for helping terror recruiters mislead gullible minds.
But scratch the surface a little and the picture gets murkier. It’s not too hard to discern the hand of the “West” behind the Saudi sheikhs, or to trace “Western” machinations in Afghanistan and Pakistan that spawned people like Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, the Haqqanis, perhaps even Syed Salahuddin. “Petrodollar” Islam is as much about American dollars as about Saudi petrol. Even the Islamic Revolution of 1979―which spurred Shia militancy in parts of the Middle East and elsewhere―was incited mainly by Anglo-American meddling in Iranian affairs. And we haven’t even begun to talk about attitudes and policies towards Israel and Palestine yet.
The meddling and the machinations are not a thing of the past―they continue as we speak. To be sure, liberal/moderate Muslims (including myself) do not deny this, yet we choose to focus on “internal” rather than “external” causes of terrorism. We have a perfectly good reason: terrorists themselves keep harping on these external issues and blowing them out of proportion to antagonise Muslims against the West, so dwelling too much upon them doesn’t help the moderate cause. Also, blaming the “other” can reinforce the “us versus them” divide, which moderates certainly want to avoid.
Nonetheless, common Muslims, who are not terrorists and often appreciate a lot of other aspects of the West, are well aware of this murky political history. And they do not take kindly to arguments that present one side of the picture while ignoring the other. They are inclined to consider it biased, “pro-West”, even “anti-Islam”. NewAgeIslam, its editor and other contributors often receive comments and letters levelling such charges against them and accusing them of dividing the Muslim community. These accusations may be baseless, but they do suggest that the moderate argument is completely lost on such Muslims.
In discussing the causes of terrorism, liberal/moderate Muslims are yet to find the right balance between highlighting internal factors―which must be dealt with if we are to defeat this scourge―and external factors, which are also significant and need to be acknowledged if only to ensure that fence sitters jump on to our side.
3. What is Islam?
Liberal/moderate Muslims defend Islam as a religion of peace and harmony. The word “Islam” itself, we point out, means peace and submission to the will of God. We simultaneously say that Islam is not the only such religion: pretty much all religions propagate similar values of love and harmony. Islam, according to this ecumenical argument, is not superior to any other religion. All religions are but different paths to the same end. Some of us have even contended that Islam is not just “similar” to other religions but the “same” as other religions―a continuation of the eternal Divine Message also known as Judaism or Christianity. Muslims, therefore, should not view themselves as “different” in any essential way from people of other faiths.
On the other hand, liberal/moderate Muslims (including me) rue the fact that a large number of Muslims are leaving Islam and turning to Christianity and “other” faiths―mainly because extremists have taken over our religion and are now defining what Islam means and stands for. If, however, Islam is similar or the same as other faiths, why should this be a concern for us? What is wrong with Muslims turning Christians or Jews―or, for that matter, Buddhists or Jains or Hindus―if all these faiths are similar paths to the same God? Again, I don’t think we have found an answer to or even thought through this dichotomy.
4. Why Defend “Moderate” Islam?
Liberal/moderate Muslims argue that Islam must not be viewed as a violent faith and Muslims must not be singled out as terrorists, because we are not. And yet, we often ourselves single out sections within the Muslim community―Wahhabis, for instance―as the people on whom the entire burden of terrorism should be dumped, exonerating the rest of us. Again, I am as guilty of this tendency as anyone else.
Granted that the very idea of Wahhabism is extremist, puritanical and steeped in violence, is that enough to call all Wahhabis extremists―knowing that many Muslims are Wahhabis simply by chance of birth? I personally know Wahhabis who are perfectly integrated in the multicultural societies they live in, who never pray or fast, and some who even sympathise with the “godless” communist ideology. They are not “Islamists” no matter how we define the term.
That is why we need to ask: what motivates liberal/moderate Muslims to so vehemently defend Islam as a “moderate” faith? Is it the fact that we consider ourselves―as individuals―to be modern, secular, peace-loving people, and therefore cannot stand being viewed otherwise (as we are, by association, when Islam becomes known as a violent faith)? Is the moderate movement primarily impelled by this selfish impulse for “impression management”? That would explain why we are sometimes happy to blame a subgroup of “zealots”, even accept their mass murder (along with their families and neighbours’) in the “war on terror”―so long as we “moderates” can escape the blame. Or is there some other higher motivation behind our stoic defence of Islam as a liberal faith?
5. How to Defend “Moderate” Islam?
Just as there is no clarity over what it means to be an “Islamist”, so there is little certainty about what exactly is a “moderate”―or how moderate Islam can be defended. Different moderates propose ideas that are not just different but even at odds with each other. Some say that Islam has lost its way because Muslims have lost touch with the essential teachings and the spirit of the Quran―mainly because of its misinterpretation and the onslaught of concocted Hadees. So the best way to defeat Islamism is to return to the original message of the Quran―getting rid of all the interpretive biases that have accumulated over centuries.
Some other moderates, while agreeing with the criticism of misinterpretation and concocted Hadees, do not think it possible or even desirable to simply return Islam to how it was revealed 14 centuries ago. Doing this, according to them, would mean obliterating the history of interaction with diverse cultures that Islam has enriched―and been enriched by. It would be antithetical to the ideals of plurality and inclusiveness that moderate Islam stands for. These moderates believe that Islam, instead of aiming to return to the Quran of 14 centuries ago, should embrace the regional flavours and meanings it has developed around the world.
Yet other moderates espouse large-scale Ijtihad―a complete reformation of the entire Islamic religious canon, including the interpretations of the various schools of Fiqh, the Hadees as well as portions of the Quran―by modern-day scholars of Islam in association with experts in natural and social sciences. This is the only way for them to bring Islam in tune with the modern world and rid it of the medievalism that blights it and breeds its terrorist tendencies.
All these moderates agree with each other that there is a problem with the way Islam is commonly perceived and followed today. But their understanding of the nature of this problem is starkly different, and therefore the solutions that they offer are radically dissimilar.
These, then, are the challenges facing Muslims who consider themselves liberal/moderate and want to live in a peaceful and pluralist world. And they are all closely interlinked. Assessing the distinction between social conservatives and terrorists is crucial if we are to better explore the dynamics of the internal and external factors that lead to Islamism. Similarly, without thinking about why we, as individuals, want to defend moderate Islam, we may not be able to answer if or how we can accept Islam as a distinct faith when compared with Christianity or Judaism. All these questions, in turn, play into what it means to be a moderate Muslim and what moderate Islam should look like.
There are no easy answers. At least I cannot see any. Indeed, these issues may be still more complex than I have made them out to be. But I think it is important that moderate Muslims grapple with them if their movement has to gain momentum and Islam, as we conceive it to be, has to outlive the millennium or even the century.
Saif Shahin is a doctoral research scholar in political communication at the University of Texas, Austin, U S