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Third Letter from a Fearfully Concerned Muslim to an American-Jewish Friend

Dear Roger,

In the second half of your reply to my letter you, as you put it, get to the “uncomfortable part.” Your first question — “is there a moderate Islam?” — is the premise, the foundational question, of the questions that follow.

It is neither simple nor ahistorical. It is a question posed from the coordinates of your, and our, lifetime. It is also a loaded question. If I were to unpack the question, I could run to several thousands of words. To ask “is there a moderate Islam?” — a legitimate question — is also to imply that there is an immoderate Islam, or that Islam is mostly immoderate.

In questioning whether there is a moderate Islam, you add, in parenthesis, that Christianity at least doctrinally “renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” In this way of framing your question, you are indicating or implying that Christianity reformed so as to separate the respective worlds of Caesar and God, of the state/politics and the church/religion. This is in part the history of Europe from about the 4th century, when Christianity in effect became the state, or the official creed of the Roman Empire, to the struggles of Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Enlightenment, including Europe’s many dynastic and revolutionary wars. We are, therefore, referring to a history of much more than a millennium — one that witnessed upheavals of violence before Christianity was “tamed” along a doctrinal basis, as asserted in Jesus’s admonition, and reported in the Gospels of the New Testament.

The historical world of Jesus, the Jews, and the Romans is far removed and distant from the Western transition from pre-modern to modern. So it is distant from the contemporary West. Christians of all various denominations in our time will assert that an unbroken thread connects modern Christianity with the world in which the earliest historical Christianity took shape. But the distance is also real, and in the intervening centuries Christians and non-Christians together, in their complex relationship, brought about a mighty qualitative shift, in society, politics, and culture, from the ancient to the modern.

The late Marshall G.S. Hodgson of the University of Chicago, in his magisterial three-volume work The Venture of Islam, described this millennial shift in Europe as the “great Western transmutation.” Hodgson’s work, I believe, remains unsurpassed in scholarship, in erudition, and in the greatness of mind and vastness of heart with which he engaged in the comparative study of Islam and Muslim history. The point to note, as Hodgson indicated, is that a similar shift from the ancient to the modern has not occurred among Muslims — that the technical and ideational ground upon which Muslims as a people collectively labor remains epistemologically pre-modern or ancient.

To the question “is there a moderate Islam,” there is the verse from the Quran that I might cite as a response. The verse, variously translated, states “We made you a people of moderation,” or “We appointed you as a middle nation,” or “We made you a temperate people” (2:143). In other words, an individual Muslim or Muslims collectively should be ideally devoted to moderation, to eschew extremes, and to strive for just equilibrium between opposing schemes.
So, Roger, if one is seeking for doctrinal evidence, as you did in pointing out the reply Jesus gave to his questioners of giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s as the clue to the basis of Christianity’s eventual reform, it is not hard to find in the Quran what points to moderate Islam. But the problem is embedded in history and not in the text, whether it is the Bible (Old and New) or the Quran. The problem is with Muslims as people and how they read, understand, and practice Islam — and how they also understand the world in which they dwell.

I read the same text, the Quran, just as I read the text which is the world itself in historical time, and I share nothing, or not much, in my reading of both with the men who flew aircraft into the World Trade Center. Nor do my reading of the Quran and my belief as a Muslim have anything in common with Islamism, the ideology that motivates Muslim or Islamist terrorists, their ideological masters, and their apologists run amok in our world. Your question about moderate Islam is a political question and not a religious one, if we keep in mind the distinction between politics and religion. The pre-modern or ancient world did not make allowance for this distinction, and the vast majority of Muslims has not made the shift from the pre-modern to the modern world.

Religion and politics were inseparable in history until the separation occurred — a separation which was institutionalized in the making of the modern world with Europe as its cradle. The experience of living in society with religion and politics held apart, as in the United States, is merely a blip in time. The fusion of religion and politics meant that the dominant faith of a people was also the instrument of political legitimation for the state and its rulers. This remains so in many parts of the world — particularly in the Muslim world. It was true when Judaism was the ruling creed of the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel, when Christianity was the state religion of the Holy Roman Empire, and today in contemporary states where Islam is the state religion — Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. I am reminded here of the words of Albert Camus in The Rebel: “Politics is not religion, or if it is, then it is nothing but the Inquisition.”

From the modern standpoint, to ask whether Islam is moderate is to question the nature of politics in the Muslim world, and how this politics encloses Islam as religion. Observe the practice of Islam in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Gaza, for instance, and you conclude that Islam ipso facto is immoderate. But that would also mean that Muslims in these places generally, or in sufficient numbers, are by their nature immoderate people.

By the same token, observe the behavior of Muslims in Europe and North America who apologize for of Islam as practiced in the manner that is outrageous to modern sensibility (from gender exclusion to persecution of minorities to preaching violence against dissident Muslims and jihad against infidels in the West, Jews and Israel, and Hindus in India), or the outrageous behavior legitimated by appeal to the Sharia or Islamic legal code, and non-Muslims might well — indeed, should! — conclude that such apologetics illustrate the immoderate Islam of immoderate Muslims.

From this it should follow that immoderate Muslims in the West, including the United States and in Canada, must be held responsible for the consequences in practice of what they speak in public. If and when a breach of peace occurs and laws are violated by immoderate Muslims pushing their politics as religion that is immoderate Islam, then the full force of the law should be brought to bear. I submit, however, that “immoderate Islam” and “immoderate Muslims” do not together represent all there is to be said of Islam and Muslims.

It cannot be said that though the principle of evolution is universal, there are exceptions which do not affect its operative principle or meaning. It cannot be said that all of nature, including man and society, is subject to the evolutionary principle and yet, amazingly, Muslims — a people of diverse ethnicity — and Islam — one world religion among several — are unaffected by the ineluctable process of change that the evolutionary principle describes. In formulating such an argument, those who insist that Islam is immutable, that Muslims as a people are indefinitely resistant to change, or that history stops at the threshold of Islamic culture and Muslim lands, traffic in their own form of apologetic and ideological primitivism, if not outright bigotry. This is true be they Muslims or not.

A judicious student of history — especially one whose inquiry relates to the religious history of civilizations — is sensitive to the reality that the change from ancient to modern is not altogether a linear or straightforward process. It was not in the case of the “great Western transmutation” that Marshall Hodgson described, and it will not be in the evolution of Muslim societies and Islam.

Yet what has been taking place in Muslim lands, since the end of colonialism and the emergence of independent Muslim states, is change, under the watchful eyes of modern man. What these eyes see is frequently disturbing — even reprehensible, despicable, and distressing. But modern man is, or should be, historically minded. If he is, he will note that what he sees Muslims doing in Muslim lands reveals a process more or less analogous to that in another time, which brought about the transition of the West from the ancient to the modern.

That transition is a story we need to keep in view — it was blood-soaked and gory, and the belief that accompanied violence across the Continent and beyond was as strange and self-righteous, as full of superstition, misogyny, and bigotry as that which is being seen to take place under the labels of Muslim and Islam. The story of great civilizational transition humbles. With humility, hopefully, comes wisdom.  And such wisdom is much in need, now — to deal effectively, and forcefully when required, with a people, and with the fanatics among them, who remain bounded by a worldview that the West once shared before at last transcending it.