This is an exceedingly vexed question. Everyone wants to encourage moderate Muslims and make common cause with them, but no one is agreed on what exactly constitutes one. Most non-Muslim Westerners assume that all Muslims who are not saying or doing anything publicly to the contrary are moderate, and that they accept the parameters of Western pluralism. Maher Hawash and a myriad of others have shown this to be naive. Daniel Pipes offers some useful criteria for distinguishing moderate Muslims here, and Hugh Fitzgerald has made some important observations about moderate Muslims in light of what is in the Qur'an and Sunnah here. I myself have addressed various aspects of this question in several articles, including this one, in which I ask: "Where is moderate Islam? How can moderate Muslims refute the radical exegesis of the Qur’an and Sunnah? If an exposition of moderate Islam does not address or answer radical exegeses, is it really of any value to quash Islamic extremism? If the answer lies in a simple rejection of Qur’anic literalism, how can non-literalists make that rejection stick, and keep their children from being recruited by jihadists by means of literalism?"
Of course, as I have pointed out many times, traditional Islam itself is not moderate or peaceful. It is the only major world religion with a developed doctrine and tradition of warfare against unbelievers. (Those who claim that Christianity is equivalent should read that sentence over carefully before invoking the Crusades.) The Qur'an and Sunnah teach warfare against unbelievers until they are converted or subjugated as dhimmis. See Qur'an 9:29 (bearing in mind the traditional Islamic theology that holds that sura 9, as the last revealed, takes precedence over other Qur'anic passages that appear to counsel tolerance rather than war), Sahih Muslim 4294, etc. etc.; I explain this at length with reference to Islamic texts in my books, including the latest, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades). I have been harshly criticized for not going farther than this and denying that any peacefully-inclined Muslims even exist. Some have even claimed that such people are all deceivers, which I think is an impossible position to hold, as it claims a knowledge of other people’s hearts that no one really has. It also betrays a strange unawareness of the fact that a wide spectrum of belief and practice exists within all religious traditions.
Others have said that moderates must be either deceitful or ignorant of their own religion, since their primary texts so clearly teach supremacism and violence. While there is no doubt that the mandate that the Qur’an must be read and recited in Arabic limits the understanding of it to a tremendous degree, not only among non-Arab Muslims but also among Arabic speakers who have not mastered seventh-century Qur’anic Arabic, that is not the only source of Islamic moderation. There are some who are genuinely trying to frame a theory and practice of Islam that will allow for peaceful coexistence with unbelievers as equals. Certainly there are many more who claim to be doing this than are actually doing it or doing it as honestly or fully as they would like the world to believe, but nonetheless, the world situation and the dignity of each individual requires that every such claim be treated with respect -- and examined forthrightly and searchingly.
And now Stephen Schwartz, himself a Muslim, offers some criteria for how to identify a moderate Muslim in “What Is a Moderate Muslim?,” published at Tech Central Station. There are some useful elements to his analysis, and some not so useful. He begins by saying that “Muslim moderation is defined by attitudes and conduct, not by abstractions or historical precedents, which, as with all religions, may be interpreted to support any ideological position.” This appears to mean that Muslim moderation need concern itself only with actions, not with reforming core texts or working to overhaul the traditional understanding of those texts, since later Schwartz adds: “Moderate Muslims admit there is a problem in the body of the religion -- not in the principles and traditions of the faith, but among the believers themselves.”
So how are we to eradicate these problems from among believers? No problem, says Schwartz:
Observing and analyzing Sunni Muslims by such positive, practical criteria is extremely easy. There are more than a billion Sunnis in the world, and they are not all jihadists or fundamentalists, so telling them apart should not be difficult with a little effort.
Well, certainly they are not all jihadists or fundamentalists. Unfortunately, the world has not so far found it all that easy to distinguish those who will never turn out to be jihadists or fundamentalists from those who will – Hawash, the Lackawanna Six, Fawaz Damra, Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, and on and on. Perhaps we have not made the proper effort. Schwartz offers more specific direction as to how that effort can be made as he goes on. But almost immediately his guidance becomes problematic:
Identifying moderate Shia Muslims is harder, but one thing may be said immediately: those who follow Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Iraq prove their moderation daily, by their silent but effective support to the U.S.-led liberation coalition.
No word from Schwartz on what he thinks of Sistani’s classification of unbelievers as unclean on the level of blood, sweat, and feces. Is that a “moderate” view conducive to the peaceful coexistence of Muslims with non-Muslims as equals? I rather think it isn’t. Has Sistani changed these views? No; the list is up on his website now. Does the fact that he has supported the U.S. in Iraq mean in itself that he is moderate? Not when it is so patent that the Shi’ites have an opportunity to gain the upper hand in Iraq by means of the electoral process. Sistanti’s website shows nothing if it doesn’t show a man deeply concerned with following Islamic laws. Are we to believe that he will cheerfully acquiesce in the setting-aside of certain of those laws regarding the subjugation of women and non-Muslims in an Islamic state in order to establish a Western-style secular republic? If he does intend to so acquiesce, why did Auxiliary Bishop Andraos Abouna of Baghdad describe the situation of Christians in Iraq after the elections as a “nightmare,” particularly because Iraq is teetering on the brink of establishing an Islamic state?
Schwartz then turns back to the Sunnis, asserting that “moderate Sunni Muslims may be recognized in person by asking a simple question: ‘what do you think of Wahhabism, the state Islamic sect of Saudi Arabia?’…If a Sunni Muslim is asked about Wahhabism and states that it is a controversial, extreme doctrine that causes many problems because of Saudi money, the respondent is probably moderate.” In contrast, “If a Sunni denies that Wahhabism exists by saying ‘there is only Islam,’ or tries to cover Wahhabism with an ameliorative term like ‘Salafism’ -- a fraudulent effort to equate Wahhabism with the pioneers of the Islamic faith -- the individual is an extremist.”
But is opposing Wahhabism enough to make one a moderate? After all, the Deobandis in Afghanistan are Hanafi Muslims, not Hanbalis like the Wahhabis — but they had no trouble making common cause in jihad with the Wahhabis. What’s more, the passages of the Qur’an and Hadith that jihadists invoke to justify their actions weren’t invented by the Wahhabis; they have always been there and were exploited by Muslims fighting violent jihads long before Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born.
After all, the primary difference between Wahhabi Islam and more traditional variants of the religion is not jihad warfare against unbelievers, but the Wahhabis’ practice of takfir, or the classification of Muslims of other sects as among those unbelievers. Schwartz accordingly eschews takfir: “Moderate Muslims may also be identified by what they do not do, to contrast them with radicals. And at the top of that list comes the practice of takfir, or declaring Muslims unbelievers over differences of opinion. Takfir also includes describing the ordinary, traditional Muslim majority in the world as having fallen into unbelief.” Very well, but what of jihad against non-Muslims? Schwartz says: “Islam is not, and never was, a radical or fundamentalist religion in its mainstream practice, regardless of the fantasies of Islamist fanatics and Islamophobes alike.” Maybe not, but I’d like to see him define “radical” and “fundamentalist.” Even the Ottoman Empire, of which he is fond, waged aggressive jihad against Christian Europe over a period of centuries. Not radical or fundamentalist? Pardon me if I am not reassured.
Not that Schwartz doesn’t attempt this reassurance:
Moderate Muslims, including Shias as well as Sunnis, also do not refer to followers of other religions, especially Jews and Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists, as unbelievers. The Koran never refers to Jews and Christians as unbelievers, but as People of the Book, worthy of respect and protection. Moderate Muslims adhere strictly to this outlook.
In fact the Qur’an does refer to Christians — at least orthodox Christians who believe in the divinity of Christ — as unbelievers: “They indeed have disbelieved who say: Lo! Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary” (5:17). The Arabic word used here is kafara, a verbal form related to the noun kafir, or unbeliever. What’s more, the “protection” to which Schwartz refers is none other than the dhimma, or the mafia-style contract of protection mandated for the People of the Book under traditional Islamic law: in exchange for the security of their lives, the non-Muslims (originally Jews, Christians, and Sabeans, with Zoroastrians and Hindus added later) accepted an onerous tax (jizya) and humiliating second-class status. As Schwartz himself has acknowledged in another piece, “The provisions of the dhimma were restrictive in some ways. They included a bar on the construction of new religious structures, whether monasteries, convents, churches, or synagogues.” While he points out that “in most Muslim dominions, this regulation was not strictly enforced,” this is cold comfort: since such laws (and others Schwartz enumerates, including the fact that “The contract also required Jews and Christians to show respect for Muslims by standing in their presence, and to refrain from dressing or parting their hair in the manner of Muslims. They could not ride horses, carry arms, or lift their hands to threaten Muslims”) remained part of the Sharia, they were always available to be enforced by any ruler with the will and means to do so.
But there is no need to be concerned. Schwartz also rejects the jihad that enables the imposition of the dhimma in the first place: “Moderate Muslims do not employ the rhetoric of jihad, including attempts to split hairs over the meaning of the term.…Jihad vocabulary does nothing to advance the cause of Islam; it creates obstacles to it.” Does that mean that he renounces all religion-based violence? No: “This does not mean moderate Muslims do not defend themselves when attacked. They do.” Although Schwartz enumerates various apparently justified struggles, he does not offer any criteria for evaluating on what basis a Muslim might determine whether a conflict is legitimately defensive or defensive in the way Osama bin Laden thinks of 9/11.
Schwartz also maintains that “moderate Muslims also do not reject allegiance to non-Muslim governments” and that “moderate Muslims do not proclaim public loyalty to such governments while privately counseling that Western governments are inferior to Muslim religious decrees.” In a jab at the Council on American Islamic Relations and other such groups, he adds: “They do not invent civil rights violations as a political means of fighting Western authorities.” This is all laudable. It would be even more so if he detailed a way for Muslims to determine which Muslim religious decrees are to be set aside in Western states, and for how long, and how they are to manage this in the face of Wahhabi opposition that presents itself as the more authentic Islam precisely because it does not set aside those decrees.
For such challenges are certain to come, and then if Schwartzian moderates really “recognize that radical ideology and terrorism threaten the future of Islam and must be stopped,” they will have to confront the use those radicals and terrorists make of the “principles and traditions of the faith.” It is good that these moderates reject the “perfunctory statements stating that terror is incompatible with the religion” that have been issued by the likes of CAIR; but if they really want not only to “publicly identify, denounce, and combat radicals,” but to limit their influence in the Islamic community, they will have to show that their use of the Islamic texts is wrong. Schwartz asserts that “moderate Muslims know that the foundational texts, commentaries, and legal, philosophical and theosophical works of the religion suffice as a bulwark against extremism; that is why today’s extremism is a new and radical, not a traditional or conservative, phenomenon.” However, it is the extremists, like Zarqawi, who are issuing closely-argued Islamic arguments, citing “the foundational texts, commentaries, and legal, philosophical and theosophical works of the religion” to justify their actions. I look forward to Schwartz’s refutation of such arguments.
Schwartz concludes by saying that “moderate Muslims concentrate on devotion to their religion, not on politics or public relations…” Yet traditional Islam has never known a distinction between devotion to the religion and political action: the sacred/secular distinction is unknown in Islam. If Schwartz wants to import this distinction into Islam from the Judeo-Christian West, more power to him; but he will have little or no success persuading his fellow Muslims that his point of view on this and other matters is correct unless he confronts the uncomfortable questions about the Islamic texts that so far he has answered only with insults and haughty silence.
The prospects for a change on that front are dim. “Karastjepan” (Black Stephen, i.e., Stephen Schwartz), apparently Schwartz himself, offers these ripostes to commenters on his article at Tech Central Station: “Go back and hide in your hole… Have you considered checking into a mental hospital permanently?...Don’t try driving a car when you don’t have the mental equipment to walk upright….” Renouncing the will to demean and developing the ability to discuss important issues without resorting to personal insults and attacks would be important steps forward for Schwartz and the moderate Muslim cause he so vocally avows.
ADDENDUM: An apposite illustration of the hazards of identifying moderate Muslims and distinguishing them from radicals, and of the insufficiency of a condemnation of Wahhabism as an identifying marker of moderates, comes with this morning's headlines. Sheik Fadhel al Sahlani says the Holocaust has been exaggerated -- a fair indication that his views on other matters are similarly skewed. But this is what Stephen Schwartz said about him in 2003:
Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, an Iraqi American and president of the largest Shia Muslim congregation in North America, speaks perfect English. He sits with quiet dignity in his mosque, the Imam Al-Khoei Islamic Center in Queens, New York. Middle aged and slender, with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, he is draped in robes and wears a turban. Yet his words are anything but alien--rather, they are startlingly direct, articulate, and even familiar, at least to supporters of President George W. Bush and his vision for the future of the Middle East....
I told Sheikh Al-Sahlani how much his comments resembled those of President Bush himself and of Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary and point man for the strategy of regional transition to democracy. He nodded, with a smile. "We understand them," he said....
A good start would be to bring Sheikh Fadhel Al-Sahlani, Sheikh Kedhim Sadiq Mohammed, and others like them to Washington, to meet with the men and women guiding our efforts in Iraq, and to meet with the capital's press, the better to explain the future of Iraq as envisaged by Iraqis themselves. With or without our aid, they will always march in the footsteps of Imam Hussein, ready to confront evil. Let us give them the tools that may permit them to prevail.
SECOND ADDENDUM: Elizabeth Kantor of the Conservative Book Club has alerted me to this reader review (scroll all the way down) of my book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades):
This book as in any case an example of being freely able to promote ones personal views and interpretations. Islam IS a religion of peace however due to the ingnorances of the Muslims they did conquer some of the European world not at all in accordance to the ways of Islamic Teachings. These so called Muslims were the very same Muslims who tried to destroy the true Islam via the Caliph system and they did succeed in killing the grandchildren of the Prophet in Karbala IRaq during the month of Muharram. SO yes you can blame Muslims but YOU CANNOT BLAME ISLAM. This book does a great job filled with fabrication to blame Islam. Please read it with open eyes and warning and with great caution !! Jesus teaches love this book teaches hate.
The idea that the ignorance of Muslims led them to conquer parts of Europe makes me smile. I don't doubt that religions can actually be misunderstood on a large scale; the violence committed by Christians, as well as the schisms within Christianity, attest to this. But when this happens, one may legitimately seek causes within the religion. For this writer to insist that "YOU CANNOT BLAME ISLAM," rather than searching for the cause of this "ignorance" in order to eradicate it, is absurd. And it is absurd in the same way that Schwartz's contention -- "Moderate Muslims admit there is a problem in the body of the religion -- not in the principles and traditions of the faith, but among the believers themselves" -- is also absurd. How did that problem arise? How can it be addressed? How is it that those whom Schwartz considers part of the problem make such copious use of the "principles and traditions of the faith"? These questions must be answered, not brushed aside.