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Moderate Muslims Are Not the Answer

The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait recently underscored a view about Islamic militancy versus the West that is widely held on both the left and right and should be challenged. To quote Mr. Chait:

It is precisely because radicalism is so pervasive and powerful within the Muslim world that it is so vital to cultivate people like [Imam Faisal Abdul] Rauf. Cultivating dissidents within Islam against murderous sectarianism is a primary task in our fight against al-Qaeda….we are fighting a war for the hearts and minds of non-radical Muslims, and the Park 51 uproar is helping drive potential allies into the arms of the enemy. It is madness.

Are religious moderates really the key to our battle against jihadists and their sympathizers? (I’ll ignore, for now, Mr. Chait’s suggestion that moderate Muslims are so fragile in their moderation that Newt Gingrich’s triumph in the “Park 51” battle would turn them into jihadist sympathizers, eager to see Americans again vaporized and burned alive.) Are our actions—at least the “cultivation” of Muslim moderates—so pivotal in this struggle? I’m not so sure.

Islamic radicalism isn’t a new phenomenon, although the militancy that we’ve seen grow in the Muslim world since World War II has a different cause—modernity’s relentless and merciless advance—than the irruptions in the past. But the galvanizing sentiments of militants today probably aren’t that different from what drove their predecessors to rebellion. The Franco-Tunisian author Abdelwahab Meddeb, who wrote an insightful and sympathetic book about the Muslim world’s travails, La Maladie de l’Islam (“The Sickness within Islam”), put it succinctly: Le monde islamique n’a cessé d’être l’inconsolé de sa destitution (“The Islamic world has remained inconsolable about its fall”).

Whether we go back to Islam’s first rebels, the Khawarij, whose most extreme foot-soldiers, the Azariqa, murdered Muslim women and children without compunction since Muslims who imperfectly practiced the faith could be lawfully killed, or to the numerous Shiite rebellions that punctuate Islamic history like volcanoes on fault lines, or to the Christian-crushing, Islamic-high-culture-pulverizing Almoravid and Almohad fundamentalist explosions in North Africa and Spain between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, or to the Saudi-Wahhabi irruptions between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, or to the Mahdist revolt in Sudan in the nineteenth century, or to Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1978-79 and its Sunni aftershocks, of which Al Qaeda is the most lethal, we see devout Muslims who believe their world is in an ethical free fall.

What was once pure and powerful has become dissolute and subservient. A community that was once led by the Prophet Muhammad—the best of all men—is now led by despots who neither preach nor practice virtue (or most abominably in modern times, ape infidels). The most basic question for a believer in heaven and hell—salvation—has often been behind all the violence.

Although the primary material for critical periods of Islamic history isn’t what it ideally should be, we can probably safely say that the moral suasion of “moderate Muslims,” whatever they were at any given time, did not turn back Islam’s many radical movements. The armies of establishment-loving Sunni caliphs and sultans, the bloody excesses and spiritual intensity of militant causes, and occasionally the military might of foreigners have been the critical factors in thwarting the triumph of those who felt, profoundly, the pulse of an angry God. Modern times have certainly intensified the speed and depth of the circulation of ideas and, therefore, the role of intellectuals (the Islamic world, unlike the multilingual, constantly warring states of Christendom, has always had a big, powerful pump—the annual Hajj pilgrimage—pushing ideas via the universal religious language, Arabic, through the Islamic community).

But this circulation has probably worked much more effectively for those who wanted to challenge orthodoxy than those who want to reinforce it. Moderate Muslims—hereby defined as those who just want to get on with their lives—have never been intellectually compelling, at least for those who like to read and write. It’s a good historical guess that the experience of the Hajj—a believer’s contact with a sea of faithful Muslims, stripped down to the most basic white clothing and literally walking in the footsteps of the prophet—makes fundamentalism’s powerful, fraternal critique of modernity tempting to the faithful.

Having the Saudis, whose “pristine” Wahhabi doctrine is at war with the beauty and complexity of historic Islamic culture, as the rulers of Mecca and Medina also has not helped. (Meddeb’s book is notable, for it is one of the rare books written by a Muslim who explores the catastrophic damage of Saudi influence in the Islamic world.) In the past, Sufism did heavy lifting in challenging Islam’s dispensation for righteous militancy (although Sufism, too, as the Shiite Safavid triumph in sixteenth-century Iran shows, could be enlisted into rebellion).

But Sufism then was deeply mystical and paid homage to believers’ never-ending love affair with magical men, whose guidance brings transcendence. Sufism today, as Feisal Abd Al Rauf’s Sufi-lite writings clearly reveal, has lost much of its beauty and mysticism (unless you visit a New Age Western book shop, where Sufism remains as appealing as herbal tea).

The real truth about Rauf is that—despite the best efforts of his American champions and detractors—he is irrelevant. It’s a good guess that if Rauf’s writings become better known in the Muslim world, and the controversy surrounding the proposed Ground Zero mosque propel him from obscurity to literary fame, he’ll become irrelevant and disliked. His occasional theme about an American Islam saving the Muslim world from its many maladies may make him popular among Muslim Americans, who probably didn’t need Rauf to enumerate the advantages they have in the United States, but it’s unlikely to gain friends in the Middle East, where Muslims tend to be a bit proprietary about their faith.

Rauf has redressed an idea that became popular among European intellectuals in the 1990s that a more moderate European Islam would spread from the Continent across the Mediterranean and through Turkey into the Islamic heartlands, eventually paving the way for a less troubled integration of Islam and modernity. This theory hasn’t so far panned out, and European scholars who once believed in the possibility of such a mission civilsatrice for Muslim immigrants were always careful about expressing such views at colloquies and dinner parties among Muslims over there.

Fortunately, there are powerful moderating forces within the Islamic world. Probably the three most important are:

(1) Fallen radical Muslims. Moderate Muslims may not be intellectually competitive for those who are tempted by militancy and jihad, but fallen radical Muslims are. As more and more militants renounce their former passions—and we’ve got a rivulet among the Sunnis and an ocean among the Shiites—they develop a critique that translates well across borders and languages. And the Iranian example, here, is illustrative: The United States’s principal contribution to Iran’s war of ideas, which has produced a second intellectual revolution among Iranians (the Green Movement is a political byproduct of this astonishing religious transformation), was to just stand firm against Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamism and to offer refuge to Iranian dissidents. This was not an insignificant contribution to Iran’s internal tumult; lay and religious Iranians, however, did most of the heavy lifting. Iran’s fallen revolutionaries are creating a society that ruthlessly critiques itself. Although not dead for the country’s ruling elite, jihadism has vanished among most of the country’s faithful, who were once the most committed holy warriors in the region.
(ii) The spread of democratic ideas throughout the Middle East. The appeal of democracy in the greater Middle East has not diminished with the end of the Bush presidency. Among both Muslim liberals and fundamentalists, it has become the standard for challenging the status quo. Democracy among faithful Muslims is a complex and at times contradictory discussion, but the competitiveness inherent in democratic discussions has had a significant effect on how Muslims in the Middle East conceive of the idea of legitimate government. Osama bin Laden and his more intellectual sidekick, Ayman Al Zawahiri, loath democracy among Muslims. They should. Once it takes hold, once Muslims as a religious community start debating ethics and governance, their critique of the world becomes nonsensical.
And last but not least, (iii) America’s wars in the Middle East, but especially the war in Iraq. There has probably been no single event, including September 11 and the subsequent bombings in London, Madrid, and elsewhere in the Middle East, that has caused more moral indigestion in the Arab world. The horrors unleashed by Al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies, especially the slaughter of Shiite women and children, have made many Sunni Arabs reflect seriously on jihadism, which had an abstract appeal to many secular and religious Muslims when the casualties were primarily Americans and Israelis (or just Jews in general). Iraq and to a lesser extent Afghanistan (Afghanistan is geographically and culturally far away from the Arab Middle East) have made the abstract more real since Muslims, even if disreputable Iraqi Shiites, have been the main victims. Historically, it has been wars and civil strife, not elderly white-haired intellectuals having feel-good interfaith dialogues with middle-class Westerners and Arabs, that have probably done the most damage to the call of jihadists. When George W. Bush invaded Iraq he most certainly did not intend to break Al Qaeda’s back, but this war, more than anything else, has helped to neutralize the appeal of bin Ladenism, at least among the Arabs.

For a variety of reasons, it’s good to read Rauf’s books and to debate his message and the propriety of the “Park 51 mosque.” But among those reasons should not be an assumption that moderate Muslim intellectuals are an essential element in our battle against jihadism. Good men and women that they may be, they are just too far from the furnace that forged our enemies.