Against the Term "Moderate Muslims"
by Abdennur Prado
Several months ago, an English sociologist told us that she was commissioned by her government to conduct a survey of "moderate Muslims." The survey was about what a score of Muslim leaders in Great Britain thought about the fight against terrorism, the place of Islam in Europe, religious fundamentalism, etc. According to the sociologist, not a single one of them accepted being pigeonholed as "a moderate Muslim." And that despite the English government considering them as such.
Equally interesting is the fact that there are other Muslims who, yes, willingly accept the said label and even use it as a sobriquet. A notable example is Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to whom his acolytes always refer with the formula "the moderate scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi." But Qaradawi doesn't exactly fit into the English government's notion of a "moderate Muslim," and in fact he is denied entry into the United States on account of being thought of as "extremist." Therefore, we are confronted with the following paradox: those who are designated by outsiders as "moderates" reject the label, while those who are regarded as "extremists" claim it.
In reality, the term "moderate Islam" is strange, since Islam is in essence a moderate religion. That being the case, why did all the Muslims categorized by the English government as "moderates" reject the label? According to the aforementioned sociologist, their main argument is that the use of this label is misleading, since it makes "moderate" positions seem like minority ones in a sea of fanaticism. At the same time, it creates an artificial division within a community characterized always by its diversity. The Muslim respondents refused to participate in a game of definitions initiated from positions of power with neo-colonial political aims.
A proof of the political significance of the term "moderate Muslims" is found in Daniel Pipes. In a series of typically inquisitorial articles, Pipes has devoted himself to a "search for moderate Muslims in the United States," introduced as the only valid interlocutors for institutions. Pipes analyzes the writings of outstanding Muslims in the United States and rails especially against all who are remotely critical of any part of US policy, be it domestic (the Patriot Act, Guantánamo, detentions without due process, legalization of torture) or foreign (invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, tortures at Abu Ghraib, the CIA's secret prisons, bombings of civilians, crimes committed by the US military, etc.).
Thus, groups like the Progressive Muslim Union of North America are represented by Pipes as "radicals" in spite of their defense of causes such as Islamic feminism and gay rights. The reason is simple: Pipes is ultraconservative and the Progresive Muslim Union of North America is, in contrast, of the Left. For Pipes, "progressive Muslims" are almost worse than terrorists. In his attacks on Khaled Abou el Fadl (one of the most brilliant Muslim intellectuals today), Pipes reproaches him for, among other things, making the case that jihad is purely a term for defense. This seems to bother Pipes greatly, to the point that he considers it as an unequivocal sign of fanaticism. . . .
According to Pipes, a moderate Muslim is one who agrees that Islam is violent but considers that it can be reformed; who supports the Patriot Act's abridgements of liberties as a valid means to protect national security; and who applauds the invasion of Iraq as a means to bring democracy to the Islamic world. Needless to say, he can't find many Muslims who fit in his schema. Consequently, Pipes concludes that the Americans have a problem, since most of the Muslim leaders who live in their country are extremists.
All this may seem funny, but it isn't if we think about the fact that in the United States there exists a movement to harass Muslim leaders and intellectuals, that several professors of Arab-Muslim origin have been dismissed from American universities for defending the Palestinian cause or protesting against American democracy's drift towards totalitarianism, and that all their writings and conferences are scrutinized by such organs as Campus Watch, dedicated exclusively to spotting and denouncing pro-Islamic speeches at American universities. Campus Watch has a strong presence in the universities that have Islamic or Middle East Studies departments. Its method is not just to keep an eye on professors' writings, but to ask "patriotic" students to denounce any suspicious phrase that a professor (Muslim or non-Muslim) may utter in one of his or her classes.
In Spain, we encounter a similar situation which affects us, especially those of us associated wtih WebIslam and Junta Islámica. Thus, while we are categorized by many as "moderates," the radical Right considers us "radical Islamists." The reason for that has nothing to do with where we actually stand within Islam but everything to do with our criticism of Islamophobia characteristic of the new reactionary thought.
For example, Gustavo de Aristegui's change of attitude illustrates this point. In his book Jihad in Spain, he wrote: "Not all converts to Islam are Islamists, because, upon seeing the drift of Islamists, many converts decided to follow a moderate line native to Spain. That is the case with Junta Islámica, communities presided over by Mansur Escudero, who by the way was the only Muslim religious leader in Spain bold enough to issue nothing less than a fatwa condemning Al Qaeda terrorism and censuring Bin Laden, which certainly requires a great deal of courage" (p.186). Nevertheless, a year later Aristegui radically changed his opinion, as a result of Junta Islámica spokesman Yusuf Fernández calling him out on his Islamophobia. From that moment on, in the imagination of the radical Right, Junta Islámica has become a member of a sinister (and rather phantasmatic) legion of radical Islamist groups trying to re-conquer Al-Andalus and impose Sharia on all Spaniards. . . .
Under these circumstances, the search for "moderate Muslims" is no easy task. Those who from a doctrinal point of view are "progressives" in their way of Islam will necessarily reject Western policies toward the Islamic world as totalitarian and denounce the racist ideology that animates the neo-colonial policies of the West. In fact, many of them will see in the current condition of democracy in the West a caricature of democracy, dominated by the mass media and financial lobbies, without which nobody can get to govern.
Given the situation, what the English and American governments are looking for doesn't exist. That doesn't mean that they cannot fabricate it, and in fact they are already seriously working on it, constructing artificial leaderships to serve them. That is a good reason to reject the label "moderate Muslims" that some try to impose on us, doing their part to broadcast an image of Islam in which "moderates" are an exception in a sea of fanaticism, when the reality is exactly the opposite.
With this article, we wish to counsel Muslims against accepting a terminology imposed from outside. As we wrote on another occasion: the surrender to God (Islam) cannot but be a radical act by which a human being commits himself or herself to abandoning all idolatry, to beginning to divest himself or herself of all dogmatism, of all the projections that human beings make on the world to veil their connection to the unconditioned. There is no moderate Islam, because there isn't any immoderate Islam, for the same rule of three: if someone is fanatical, it means that he has made his religion a barrier, an idol against other religions, therefore he has not accepted diversity as a mandate, and he has not submitted himself to a Creator who gives us diversity as one of His most marvelous signs. But neither does there exist an un-integrist Islam, if we take the word "integrist" in its exact sense: to preserve integrity, a conception of life as an indivisible whole. In other words: Islam is a radical opening toward unity of diversity, and that very radicalism excludes all sectarianism.
Abdennur Prado, born in Barcelona on 12 December 1967, is a poet and thinker, the author of two books El islam en democracia and El islam anterior al Islam and numerous articles. Dedicated to inter-religious dialogue, he is a co-founder and the president of the Junta Islámica Catalana and a co-director of the Congreso Internacional de Feminismo Islámico. He is also the editor of WebIslam. The original essay in Spanish first appeared in WebIslam on 19 February 2007. Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi.