Who Are the Moderate Muslims?

February 16, 2006

Ever since the atrocities of September 11th, 2001, there has been a lot of hopeful talk in the Western press about the vast majority of Muslims who are religious “moderates.” Being moderates, they necessarily repudiate the theology of Osama bin Laden and disavow terrorism. Nor would they ever dream of killing another human being over a cartoon. Where are these moderate Muslims? How many of them exist? And how can we best empower them? These are all questions of crucial importance to the future of civilization, and they are questions for which I do not have any answers. But there is another question worth asking in the meantime: How do we recognize religious moderates in the first place?

In May of last year, a report that a copy of the Koran had been flushed down a toilet at Guantánamo Bay sparked the largest protests that Afghanistan has seen in years. At least 16 people lost their lives. These rioters were not moderate Muslims. One sign of religious moderation is not being too sure about the divine origin of any book. Moderate Muslims, therefore, will understand that all texts and doctrines should be susceptible to criticism without fear of violent reprisal. Moderate Muslims surely realize that all books are now candidates for flushing down the toilet. Even conservative Muslims should have realized that the appropriate response to this mode of Koran desecration would have been to flush one of our books down the toilet. These rioters, therefore, were not even religious conservatives by our standards. They were religious lunatics. As are the people who have gathered by the tens of thousands in recent weeks to protest the Danish cartoons of Muhammad and to call for the literal slaughter of those who printed them.

An article in last Sunday’s New York Times (“Images of Muhammad, Gone for Good”, February 12th, 2006) helpfully observes that the current furor in the Muslim world has arisen, not because the Danish cartoons were especially derogatory, but because most Muslims believe that it is a sacrilege to depict Muhammad at all. Indeed, we tend to forget that protests of this sort are not new, and not, therefore, the result of our invasion of Iraq. How many of us remember that in 1977 a Muslim group took hostages, killed a journalist, and wounded 13 people—in Washington—for the high purpose of stopping the U.S. premier of the film “Mohammad, Messenger of God”? Then, as now, the issue wasn’t the disparagement of Islam—although this is also a killing offense—the issue was the mere depiction of the Prophet. Then, as now, we allowed ourselves to be blackmailed by the petulance of religious maniacs, and the distribution of the film was halted. So let us put this fact on the table once and for all: anyone who thinks that non-Muslims should be obliged to conform to the religious taboos of Islam is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Muslim moderate.

On the subject of Muslim terrorism, what does a moderate Muslim sound like? He or she will sound something like this:

It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims… We cannot tolerate in our midst those who abduct journalists, murder civilians, explode buses; we cannot accept them as related to us, whatever the sufferings they claim to justify their criminal deeds. These are the people who have smeared Islam and stained its image. We cannot clear our names unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women. (Abdel Rahman al-Rashed “Innocent religion is now a message of hate.” Telegraph. 05/09/2004)

While intelligent people can disagree about how “innocent” the theology of Islam is, a willingness to admit the obvious is a basic requirement of religious moderation. Any Muslim who will not concede that there is a death-cult forming in the Muslim world, is either part of that cult, or an obscurantist—not a religious moderate.

How will Muslim moderates view women and women’s rights? They will feel what any person who is reasonably free of medieval dogmatism now feels. Equal rights for women is not even a question worthy of discussion among religious moderates, and it is not a subject about which moderate Muslims will have the slightest caveat. Anyone who believes that men should determine how women dress, or whether they receive medical attention, marry, divorce, practice contraception, or do anything else with their minds and bodies is not a religious moderate. He (or she) is a religious demagogue on a collision course with modernity.

According to a literalist reading of the hadith (the literature that recounts the sayings and the actions of the Prophet) if a Muslim decides that he no longer wants to be a Muslim, he should be put to death. If anyone ventures the opinion that the Koran is a mediocre book of religious fiction or that Muhammad was a schizophrenic, he should also be killed. It should go without saying that a desire to kill people for imaginary crimes like apostasy and blasphemy is not an expression of religious moderation. A moderate Muslim will see no problem with another Muslim deciding to become a Christian, or a Jew, or an atheist. The essence of religious moderation is the understanding that a person should be free to interpret the data of the universe for himself, without fearing that he will be murdered for reaching an unpopular conclusion. We should note that this is a standard of enlightened tolerance that not even the former folk-singer Cat Stevens (now Yosuf Islam) could muster in response to the publication of Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Satanic Verses:

Under Islamic Law, the ruling regarding blasphemy is quite clear; the person found guilty of it must be put to death. Only under certain circumstances can repentance be accepted…. The fact is that as far as the application of Islamic Law and the implementation of full Islamic way of life in Britain is concerned, Muslims realize that there is very little chance of that happening in the near future. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying to improve the situation and presenting the Islamic viewpoint wherever and whenever possible. That is the duty of every Muslim…

If even a Western-educated ex-hippie was talking this way, what do you think the sentiments were on the streets of Tehran? As it turns out, it matters if a person believes that the Koran literally emanated from the Creator of the universe. This belief is genuinely incompatible with religious moderation.

There are now 1.3 billion Muslims on earth, and Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. There is no question that we must give Muslim moderates every tool they need to win a war of ideas with their coreligionists. But we must be honest about what religious moderation actually entails. How else could we hope to find the moderates of the Muslim world?

February 16, 2006