Finding the Voices of Moderate Islam

America is no closer to identifying moderate Muslims.

By + More

John McCain recently reminded Americans that the great strategic challenge facing the West—and, indeed, the civilized world—is extremist Islam. And more important than any martial aspect of that threat, he said, is the ideological struggle between moderate and extremist understandings of Islam.

Yet going on seven years after the attacks that brought America's attention to the problem, it is hard to say that we as a nation—a government and a people—have gotten any closer to identifying, much less aiding, those voices of Islamic moderation that we hope will ultimately triumph.

In addition to the widely acknowledged failures of leadership within those U.S. agencies most responsible for public diplomacy and the war of ideas, Americans are far from arriving at any clear or secure sense of what "moderate Islam" or "moderate Muslim" means. And the reason is hardly surprising: Definitions of moderation—itself a hugely problematic word—usually reflect the ideological and political commitments of the definers. In this case, as it turns out, conservatives (or neoconservatives) tend to hold stricter, narrower views of moderation, while liberals often see more shades of acceptability. But nothing is ever quite that simple. Not when there are many on the left (including militant secularists and atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens) who see Islam as essentially inimical to moderation or tolerance. To them, the only moderate Muslim is an ex-Muslim.

This range of opinions on what defines moderate Islam is not all bad. By sparking debates, it has sometimes focused public attention on an issue that most Americans would rather simply ignore. If the historian Daniel Pipes and author Robert Spencer tend the boundaries of moderation with Rottweiler ferocity, they often provide a valuable counterpoint to the more flexible (and even squishy) interpretations of scholars like University of Michigan historian Juan Cole or Georgetown University's John Esposito. But the opposing sides often go overboard, the hard-liners seeing nothing but evil intent and the softies seeing nothing but sweetness and light.

The charges and countercharges grow particularly ferocious when it comes to controversial figures like Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born Muslim reformist scholar who now lives and teaches in England. The watchdogs say that Ramadan preaches a moderate line while secretly supporting an extremist agenda. More shamefully, they point to a recycled set of unproved charges against the man to make the case that he is a wolf in sheep's clothing. While it is easy to find fault with certain things Ramadan has said or written (and I have done so), it is hard to see how, in the balance, he hasn't had a significantly benign effect in arguing for the compatibility of Islam and liberal values. Yet several years ago, for the most specious of reasons, the U.S. government refused to allow Ramadan to enter the country to teach at Notre Dame—a decision for which the steady tirades of the watchdogs deserve at least some credit.

For their part, the softies tend to give dubious Muslims and Muslim organizations a free pass when scrutiny is called for. When spokespeople for the Council on American Islamic Relations speak harshly of Muslim reformists like Wafa Sultan or Zudhi Jasser, even going so far as to say that these outspoken critics of extremist Islam are not legitimate Muslims, we hear no criticism of CAIR from the likes of the Espositos or the Coles.

The fact is, there is a range of moderates, and it is hardly surprisingly that many Muslim moderates disagree even among themselves about who the moderates are. Furthermore, those moderates who are most likely to have any influence among Muslims in the predominantly Muslim world are also the least likely to pass the litmus test of the watchdogs or of those moderate Muslim who live in the West.

While these disagreements are often understandable, many lead to a kind of intellectual dishonesty that is ultimately hurtful to American efforts to identify and support the voices of moderate Islam. Let me give one example. I recently wrote an article about Sheik Ali Gomaa, the grand mufti of Egypt and one of the most widely respected jurists in the Sunni Muslim world. His religious legal opinions, or fatwas, have a huge influence on the popular understanding of the meaning and applications of sharia the religious principles that underwrite Islamic law. In his teaching, writing, and jurisprudence, Gomaa has made the case that the rich and varied traditions of Islamic law are the best antidote to Islamic extremism, which typically insists upon the most puritanical interpretations of sharia and its meaning. Gomaa, a Sufi Muslim himself, also rejects the efforts of the Islamist to make their religion into an all-encompassing political program and even denounces Islamic political parties on the grounds that they create divisions among Muslims.

After my article appeared, a number of bloggers assailed me for not looking into some of the more dubious fatwas and statements attributed to the grand mufti. One of those was his alleged approval of the killing of Israeli civilians by Palestinian fighters. In fact, as I determined before writing the article, the mufti issued a fatwa saying just the opposite: that Islam offers no justification for the killing of civilians for any reason. But one blogger who bothered to quote sources cited an article from an Egyptian newspaper that had Gomaa approving of Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians before he became the grand mufti in 2003. I passed on this charge to the mufti's office, and he replied categorically that the contents of the article were a fabrication. Of course, this may not satisfy all doubters, but anyone who knows about the journalistic standards of Egyptian newspapers—papers that similarly slandered the American-Egyptian Islamic legal scholar Khaled Abou el Fadl—will probably conclude that Gomaa is the more credible source.

Other bloggers charged that I did not look into his fatwa allegedly calling for the destruction of statues (including, one might infer, many of the great Egyptian antiquities). The fact is that I did look into this. And while Gomaa did say that it was un-Islamic for Muslims to own statues or to display them in their homes, he made it very clear that the destruction of antiquities and other statues in the public sphere was unacceptable and indeed criminal. He is also on record deploring the Taliban's destruction of the great Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan. But the watchdogs tend to read selectively and to rely on those sources that support their judgments.

Look hard enough, and an American reader will doubtless be able to find things in the grand mufti's rulings that don't conform to current standards of enlightened moderation. For example, he issued a long and complicated fatwa on the issue of wife-beating—a fatwa that acknowledges certain pre-modern cultural and historical contexts in which sharia was used to justify the odious practice. But he also said that since those cultural and historical conditions are not the conditions of modern societies, Muslims today cannot invoke sharia to justify any form of spousal violence. If the reasoning sounds tortured, well, it is. And it would be much more appealing to American ears to hear him simply say that Islamic law has never sanctioned such practices. But we must recall that Christianity and Judaism have been used—in ways that seemed legitimate at the time—to justify practices and institutions that we now find morally repugnant, including slavery. The mufti was guilty of being honest about the historically determined interactions between customary practices and religious principles. So how does the watchdog Spencer characterize the man? As the "wife-beatin,' statue-hatin' Mufti Ali Gomaa." Is that accuracy in labeling?

The effect of such smear tactics is cumulative and insidious. Particularly in the day of the Internet, where every opinion appears equally authoritative, careless swipes at figures like Egypt's grand mufti create the impression that there are no moderate Muslims with standing in the predominantly Muslim world. Writer Hitchens is no friend of Islam, but what he once wrote about Pipes's dour interpretation of a promising development in Iran accurately describes the default position of many reflexive watchdogs: "To put it bluntly," Hitchens wrote, "I suspect that Pipes is so consumed by dislike that he will not recognize good news from the Islamic world even when it arrives. And this makes him dangerous and unreliable."