The World Wildlife Foundation recently put out the alarming statistic that the earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years. Along with the Caspian Tiger, the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, and the Pyrenean Ibex, the Moderate Muslim has also died out or gone extinct, if you listen to the current discourse on Islam and terrorism. This organism has now entered the realm of mythology, and was probably last seen circa the summer of 2001, when it was still possible to self-identify as a Muslim and not be strip-searched at the airport when attempting to board a flight for any Middle Eastern destination.
In fact, I have a poster put out by the Muslim Council of America* that shows this magnificent beast in its natural habitat, wearing a colorful scarf on her head, with her arms around a Jew on one side and a Hindu on the other. The smile on her face speaks of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, acceptance. Ah, how it makes me long for the good old days, when Muhammed was just a name for your baby, and not the name of every other character on “Homeland”.
The use of the phrase “moderate Muslim” is troublesome to begin with - as Nathan Lean so eloquently writes in the New Republic, it comes attendant with its burdens of expectation. Lean calls the idea of the “moderate Muslim” intellectually lazy because the “moderate Muslim” is shorthand for “the Good Muslim” (his words) or, “the Muslim who doesn’t want to kill us” (mine). And Muslims strive hard to fit the profile of what non-Muslims think a moderate Muslim looks like: someone who lives in America, perhaps, as opposed to Pakistan. Someone who espouses Western thinking on women’s empowerment, LGBT rights, who maybe likes to drink a little (or a lot), someone who definitely doesn’t wear the veil or grows a beard un-ironically. They have to work this hard to efface every aspect of their Muslimness that might scare non-Muslims, because their jobs, their social acceptance, and their security depends on it.
I asked Twitter, my informal pollster, what exactly the moderate Muslim is. “Spiritually ignorant, religiously apologetic, guilt-ridden, conservative about pork, liberal about vodka, confused, ambiguous” Shahjehan Chaudhry told me. “No such thing,” came another from Dream Big. “It’s just supposed to be common sense, none of the added stupidness on top.” Someone calling himself Enlightened Muslim wrote back, “Ordinary Muslims like you and me.” And Maida Sheikh, who sports a lovely grey scarf on her head in her Twitter display photo, wrote, “Me. I’m a moderate Muslim, oh wait, so are you. Isn’t ‘moderate’ a relative term?”
So in other words, everyone knows that the moderate Muslim exists, but nobody seems to really agree on what he or she looks like, how he or she acts, behaves, what she believes in, how he or she practices. Is a moderate Muslim someone who wears a face veil or a full length beard but hates everything ISIS is doing and wants nothing more than to live in peace? Is a moderate Muslim someone who goes clubbing and drinking but hates the United States for its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine? Is a moderate Muslim a man with two wives who sends his daughters to school?
Let me say it right here: the “moderate” Muslim has always been a myth, or perhaps more of a mirage, a destination just ahead in the distance, and when you think you’ve gotten there, it recedes from your grasp only to appear further ahead down the road.
Before the Heritage Foundation invites me to become its latest scholar, let me explain. I don’t mean the usual tired argument that all moderate Muslims are terrorists in vitro, ready to give up their moderate disguise at the first opportunity to commit violence, as Pamela Geller attempts to assert with her crude attempts at mixed-media artwork on the buses of New York City. Nor do I mean that moderate Muslims are a silent and voiceless majority, useless in the face of Islamist extremism, and therefore their existence as the nearly 99% of Muslims worldwide doesn’t count on the world stage, as Bill Maher has explained countless times to anyone who will listen.
These gross oversimplifications of the status of the moderate Muslim aside, there is an even deeper attempt to drive the moderate Muslim out of existence - by simply denying that the moderate Muslim exists at all. “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. In today’s world where the intellect rules all, the “moderate Muslim” corollary is “You think, therefore you are not.” The argument goes like this: nobody would be a (practicing) Muslim if they thought hard enough about their religion. After all, that little black book, the Quran, tells them to kill non-Muslims, to enslave women, to be violent as a matter of ideology. Muslims define themselves by faith - which is, in today’s times, the opposite of thinking - and so faith and thought are incompatible. Think hard enough about what you are, and you’ll find you don’t actually exist at all. To be a moderate Muslim is to not think about what your religion asks you to do.
Of course, this is an illogical argument, because it ignores what the Quran overwhelmingly requires Muslims to do: be kind and compassionate, practice charity, non-violence. The Quran asks Muslims to read the Quran and reflect on the signs around them as markers to the existence of God and the truth of the message. The Prophet instructs Muslims to tread the “middle path” - the path of moderation. There’s no need to call up chapter and verse to illustrate this - it’s all been done before by Islamic scholars and interpreters from every sect, race, gender, and geographical location. Anyone who denies that this is the greater tenor of the Quran is doing the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and saying “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”
What the Quran doesn’t do is tell Muslims how to define that path other than to “avoid extremes”. And further compounding the problem is that the goalposts of what defines “moderation” change as our world changes. One year - say in the year 2000 -- a moderate Muslim is a person who has a miniature copy of the Quran in her Volvo. The next, in 2001, it’s a Muslim who doesn’t kill people.
Islam doesn’t deny that violence or warfare exists in the world. The Quran tells Muslims they are restricted to fighting only defensive wars, and how to behave themselves during those times. This instruction, in the 7th century, was seen as an extremely moderate, if not downright progressive, stance. That there could be limits on warfare, on how to behave with prisoners, on not killing captives and on insisting that widows and orphans be protected in the enemy camp was revolutionary. Today, with our ideas of humanitarian treatment of prisoners, legal rights and Geneva Conventions (and who listens to those anyway), it seems inadequate. In the Middle Ages, with their penchant for slaughtering everyone in the most gruesome ways possible, it would have been seen as downright cowardly.
(The demand on the “moderate Muslim” is to renounce any kind of warfare whatsoever -- “give up armed jihad!” is the common refrain. I find this laughable, as nobody else in the world is told to get rid of their armies, weapons, expansionist, colonialist, imperialist, and other designs with quite the same conviction as the moderate Muslim. The “extremist” Muslims are presumably not listening, or too busy posing for jihad selfies)
So, in short, it isn’t whether or not the moderate Muslim actually exists. It is that our perception of what a moderate Muslim is is never a fixed point, because the definition of moderation is always evolving. And when it is imposed upon you by an outside force, rather than your own internal convictions, who could blame you for being “confused and ambiguous” or even, like a character in a Kafka novel, beginning to doubt if you even exist?
*This organization, too, is sadly mythological
Bina Shah, October 2014