As my friend Daniel Pipes wrote some days ago at National Review, the Middle East Forum is debating whether one can speak meaningfully of “moderate Muslims,” with Dr. Pipes defending the affirmative and Raymond Ibrahim the negative thesis. I respect both Pipes and Ibrahim, but I am not satisfied with the content of the debate. The first issue to be settled is what moderation might mean in the case of adherence to a religion, which is after all not a list of positions but an existential stance towards life. One can speak of a moderate Communist (e.g. Gorbachev) or moderate conservatives, but not quite as simply about moderate faith. Below is an essay I published on the subject in Asia Times in 2006 that attempts to set a theological context for the question.
The West in an Afghan mirror
Death everywhere and always is the penalty for apostasy, in Islam and every other faith. It cannot be otherwise, for faith is life and its abandonment is death. Americans should remove the beam from their own eye as they contemplate the gallows in the eye of the Muslims. Philistine hypocrisy pervades Western denunciations of the Afghan courts, which were threatening to hang Christian convert Abdul Rahman until the case was dropped on Monday.
Afghanistan, to be sure, is a tribal society whose encounter with the modern world inevitably will be a train wreck. The trouble is
that the West has apostatized, and is killing itself. There turned out to be hope for Rahman, but there is none for Latvia or Ukraine, and little enough for Germany or Spain. That said, I wish to make clear that I found the persecution of Rahman deplorable.
The practice of killing heretics has nothing to do with what differentiates Islam from Christianity or Judaism. St Thomas Aquinas defended not just the execution of individual heretics but also the mass extermination of heretical populations in the 12th-century Albigensian Crusades. For this he was defended by the Catholic philosopher Michael Novak, author of learned books about the faith of the United States of America’s founding fathers (see Muslim anguish and Western hypocrisy, November 23, 2004).
Western religions today inflict symbolic rather than physical death. One’s local priest does not like to preach such things from his post-modern pulpit, but the Catholic Church prescribes eternal hellfire for those who come into communion with Christ and then reject him. Observant Jews hold a funeral for an apostate child who is spiritually dead to them (retroactive abortions not being permitted).
The last heretic hanged by the Catholic Church was a Spanish schoolteacher accused of Deist (shall we call that “moderate Christian”?) views in Valencia as recently as 1826. Without Napoleon Bonaparte and the humiliation of the Church by the German and Italian nationalist movements, who knows when the killing of heretics would have stopped?
“Where are the moderate Muslims?” sigh the self-appointed Sybils of the Western media. Faith is life. What does it mean to be moderately alive? Find the “moderate Christians” and the “moderate Jews”, and you will have the answer. “Moderate Christians” such as Episcopalian priests or Anglican vicars are becoming redundant as their congregations migrate to red-blooded evangelical denominations or give up religion altogether. “Moderate Jews” are mainly secular and tend to intermarry. There really is no such thing as a “moderate” Christian; there simply are Christians, and soon-to-be-ex-Christians. The secular establishment has awoken with sheer panic to this fact at last. In response we have such diatribes such as Kevin Phillips’ new book American Theocracy, an amalgam of misunderstandings, myths and calumnies about the so-called religious right. 
The tragedy of Abdul Rahman also is the tragedy of Western religion. Islam differs radically from Christianity, in that the Christian god is a lover who demands love in return, whereas the Muslim god is a sovereign who demands the fulfillment of duty. Christian prayer is communion, an act of love incomprehensible to Muslims; Muslim worship is an act of submission, the repetition of a few lines of text to accompany physical expression of self-subjugation to the sovereign. The People of Christ are pilgrims en route to the next world; the People of Allah are soldiers in this one. Contrary to all the ink spilled and trees murdered to produce the tomes of Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, Christianity and Islam call forth different peoples to serve different gods for different reasons.
But the fact that Christianity and Islam educe different peoples for different gods should not obscure that one cannot be either Christian or Muslim without belonging to a People of God in flesh as well as spirit. Christianity demands that the gentile, whose very origin is redolent of death, and whose heathen nature is sinful, undergo a new birth to join God’s people. Whether this second birth occurs at the baptismal font for a Catholic infant or at the river for an evangelical adult is another matter. The Christian’s rebirth is also a vicarious death – the death of the Christian’s heathen nature – through Christ’s sacrifice. No vicarious sacrifice occurs in Islam; the Muslim, on the contrary, sacrifices himself (The blood is the life, Mr Rumsfeld!, October 5, 2005).
Where is the moderation? The Christian either joins the People of God in its pilgrimage to the Kingdom of Heaven, or he does not; the Muslim either is a soldier of the ummah, or he is nothing. Religious conversion is not mere adaptation to another tradition. It is a change of people. If God is “able of these stones to raise children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9), Christians are the Gentiles made into sons of Abraham by miracle. In Islamic society, the convert to Christianity instantly becomes an alien and an enemy.
God may be able to raise sons of Abraham from stones; that is not necessarily within the power of earthly churches. European Christianity, as I have argued often in the past, made a devil’s bargain with the heathen invaders whom it made into Christians in the thousand years between the fall of Rome and the conversion of the Balts. It permitted them to keep one foot in their national past and another in the Catholic Church, under the umbrella of universal empire. The peoples revolted against church and empire and reverted to their pagan roots, and then fought one another to a bloody standoff in the two great wars of the 20th century.
In parallel to Christianity, but in a different way, Islam made its own compromise with the nations it absorbed. It would defend the pure traditional society of tribal life against the encroachment of the empires that encircled them: first the Byzantines and Persians, then Christian Europe, and now America. Traditional life inevitably must break down in the face of globalization of trade and information, and the ummah closes ranks to delay the time when the descendants of today’s Muslims will look with pity upon ancestral photographs, as they turn momentarily from their video game.
Europe’s Christians could not summon up the “moderation” necessary to tolerate their Jewish neighbors until after 1945, when Europe was conquered and rebuilt by the Americans. Once the ambitions of Europe’s peoples were crushed in the world wars, European Christianity became “moderate” indeed, so moderate that Europeans no longer bother about it. They also do not bother to reproduce, so that the formerly Christian populations of Europe will disappear, starting with the captive nations of the former Soviet Union.
No Christian People of God emerged from Europe. In a century or two, few European peoples will exist in recognizable form. Americans, by contrast, arrived in the New World with the object – at least in the case of the Massachusetts Bay Colony – of becoming a new People of God in a new Promised Land.
In a December essay in First Things titled Our American Babylon, Father Richard John Neuhaus argues that the United States itself is not the Promised Land or the Kingdom of God; it is still another place of exile. In Christian theological terms that is quite true. But the stubborn fact remains that if the English Separatists who founded Massachusetts had not deviated from Christian theology, and set out to become a new chosen people in a new Promised Land, we would not be talking about the United States of America to begin with. Christianity drew the notion of a People of God from the Jews, upon whose trunk it proposes to graft the reborn Gentiles. But the graft did not take except where radical Protestants emulated the Jews, and set out to make a new people in a new land.
Kevin Phillips, author of American Theocracy, warns that America’s religious right is “abetting far-reaching ideological change and eroding the separation of powers between church and state”, giving the Republican Party “a new incarnation as an ecumenical religious party, claiming loyalties from hard-shell Baptists and Mormons, as well as Eastern Rite Catholics and Hasidic Jews”. On the face of it, this is a nonsensical statement, for how can a coalition of Baptists, Mormons, Catholics and Jews oppose separation of church and state, a doctrine promulgated by dissenting Protestants to protect their own religious practice against the persecution of an established church?
The fact that the US boasts roughly 200 major Christian denominations, none of which can aspire to a plurality of members, ensures that no possible theocracy ever could emerge. When Phillips uses the word “theocracy”, he simply means the emergence of a religious vote on such issues beloved of the secular left as homosexual marriage, abortion, or censorship of pornography. But there is nothing theocratic in people of faith forming occasional coalitions to impose what the law calls community standards.
American Christians are migrating en masse to denominations that preach Christ crucified and the saving power of his blood, eschewing the blancmange Christianity of the old mainline sects (‘It’s the culture, stupid’, November 5, 2004). But the United States is unique among the nations, an assembly of individuals called out from among the nations, where Christian identity is compatible with a secular definition of peoplehood. Even in the US Christians find that one cannot be half-pregnant: either one is saved, or one is not.
Islam does not know moderation or extremism: it only knows success or failure. Unlike Christianity, which prevailed only through the improbable project of abandoning its old center to create a new land altogether, Islam cannot exist outside of traditional society, which by definition knows no doubt. Nowhere else but in the United States has personal conscience rather than religious establishment succeeded as the guiding principle of Christianity. “Moderate Islam” is an empty construct; the Islam of the Afghan courts is the religion with which the West must contend.
1. American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century by Kevin Phillips. Viking, US$26.95, 462 pages.