Islam, Islamism, and Moderation

Bangladeshi author of Women in Islam and former Muslim Abul Kasem does not think so. “Is there such a thing as moderate Islam? For the existence of moderate Islam/Muslims, there must be a ‘moderate’ Qu’ran, since the life force of Islam is the Qu’ran.” But the Koran, he points out, advocates violence in passage after passage and cannot be safely moderated. “Introducing innovation in Islam is a serious crime ... subject to Islamic punitive measure, which is death.” Discounting the actual practitioners of terror, the majority of Muslims, Kasem explains, amounting to about 90% of the ummah, or community of believers, are Muslims in name only and have little idea of the Koran, ancillary writings such as the ahadith or even shari’a. A smaller group consists of what he calls “pretend Muslims,” and a third, even smaller number, who shrink from becoming martyrs but are sympathetic to the cause of worldwide dominion, comprises those who embrace “philosophical terrorism.”

Thus for Kasem, “there is no such true thing as moderate Muslims.” The real enemy, he concludes, “is not the terrorists. Rather, it is Islam. As long as the world does not internalize and comprehend this truth, and as long as wrong, PC policies are pursued this war will continue and the defeat of the non-believers is guaranteed.” Which is Kasem’s way of saying that our shallow belief in the efficacy of “moderation” is what may eventually do us in. Leslie S. Lebl of the American Center for Democracy agrees: the basic problem is “an ideology fundamental to ‘traditional' or ‘moderate' Islam as much as to its ‘radical variant.'” In other words, the Koran is seamless and its prescriptions hold across the board. Moreover, moderation is also a perfect cover for immoderation as well as its fecund seedbed and its sustaining medium. For Kasem, as is the case too with former Muslims like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Ibn Warraq, what we call “moderate Islam” is the water in which the sharks swim and seek their prey.

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It is only fair to acknowledge a number of important dissenting voices. Director of the Middle East Forum Daniel Pipes famously believes that “if radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution.” In The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji cites the principle of ijtihad, or democratic consultation and interpretive flexibility, as a crucial factor of Islamic life. David J. Rusin, director of Islamist Watch, cites a number of anti-jihad imams and “moderate” Muslim organizations, concluding that “the resurgent jihad is a conflict between an authoritarian interpretation of Islam and a more spiritual, secular interpretation.” Similarly, political commentator Barry Rubin, who argues that conservative Islam is at war with “revolutionary” Islam, considers that believing Muslims “can always find ways to ignore or reinterpret” their foundational texts. Rubin has recently interviewed Zeyno Baran, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and editor of The Other Muslims: Moderate and Secular, who agrees with her interviewer that a “civil war” is ongoing between Islamists and “traditional Muslims.” Baran believes that “the ideology of Islamism is…the root cause of the violence” and affirms that “Islam is not just about the written text but the living tradition"

Salim Mansur, author of Islam’s Predicament, adds the rider that “For Arabs, Islam is custom sanctioned by religion as doctrine. This does not hold for non-Arab Muslims, and problems arise when non-Arab Muslims, such as Pakistanis or Malays, pretentiously strive to outperform Arabs as fake Arabs.” Mansur’s focusing on normative Islam as custom first and theology second (or first-and-a-half) surely applies to many practicing Muslims, and perhaps not only to Arab Muslims, as he believes. But given the parietal atmosphere of threat, coercion and almost daily bloodshed, as well as the political and psychological hegemony of the Koran, whose fissile core is always ready to be activated, one may suspect that the more aggressive version of Islam may ultimately prevail over its more nuanced and presumably benign competitor. Certainly, its eruptive potential cannot be dismissed or extenuated.

A house revolt by “moderate Muslims” (assuming Kasem is mistaken) would plainly be a move in the right direction and might do something to reduce the incidence of terrorist attacks. But terrorism and religious discord will likely stay with us, whether overtly, latently or intermittently, so long as Islam remains literal and unemended. The issue is whether re-interpretation is possible. Egyptian physician-scholar Tawfik Hamid insists that without an “alternate approach” to the Koran, moderation is a dead letter. Presently engaged in preparing a new and different reading of portions of the Koran, Hamid clearly believes that such a reformulation is possible and that behavior modification may consequently be achieved.