Moderate Muslims, Real and Phony

There is good news to report: The idea that “militant Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution” is finding greater acceptance over time. But there is also bad news, namely growing confusion over who really is a moderate Muslim.



This means that the ideological side of the war on terror is making some, but only limited, progress.

The good news: Anti-Islamist Muslims are finding their voice since 9/11. Their numbers include distinguished academics such as Azar Nafisi (Johns Hopkins), Ahmed al-Rahim (formerly of Harvard), Kemal Silay (Indiana), and Bassam Tibi (Göttingen). Important Islamic figures like Ahmed Subhy Mansour and Muhammad Hisham Kabbani are speaking out.

Organizations are coming into existence. The American Islamic Forum for Democracy, headed by Zuhdi Jasser, is active in Phoenix, Arizona. The Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism appears to be genuinely anti-Islamist, despite my initial doubts about its founder, Kamal Nawash.

Internationally, an important petition posted a month ago by a group of liberal Arabs calls for a treaty banning religious incitement to violence and specifically names “sheikhs of death” (such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi of Al-Jazeera television), demanding that they be tried before an international court. Over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from 23 countries rapidly signed this petition.

With time, individual Muslims are finding their voices to condemn Islamist connections to terrorism. Perhaps most outstanding is an article by Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, a Saudi journalist in London: “It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists,” he writes, “but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims…. We cannot clear our names unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women.”

Other analysts have followed al-Rashed's example. Osama El-Ghazali Harb writes from Egypt that “Muslim and Arab intellectuals and opinion leaders must confront and oppose any attempt to excuse the barbaric acts of these [terrorist] groups on the grounds of the suffering endured by Muslims.” From Virginia, Anouar Boukhars holds that “Terrorism is a Muslim problem, and refusal to admit so is indeed troubling.”

The bad news: There are lots of fake-moderates parading about, and they can be difficult to identify, even for someone like me who devotes much attention to this topic. The Council on American-Islamic Relations still wins mainstream support and the Islamic Society of North America still sometimes hoodwinks the US government. The brand-new Progressive Muslim Union wins rave reviews for its alleged moderation from gullible journalists, despite much of its leadership (Salam Al-Marayati, Sarah Eltantawi, Hussein Ibish, Ali Abunimah) being well-known extremists.

Fortunately, the authorities kept both Tariq Ramadan and Yusuf Islam out of the United States, but Khaled Abou El Fadl got through and, worse, received a presidential appointment.

Even anti-terrorist rallies are not always what they seem to be. On November 21, several thousand demonstrators, some of them Muslim, marched under banners proclaiming “Together for Peace and against Terror” in Cologne, Germany. Marchers shouted “No to terror” and politicians made feel-good statements. But the Cologne demonstration, coming soon after the murder of Theo van Gogh on November 2, served as a clever defense operation. The organizer of the event, the Islamist Diyanet Ileri Türk-Islam Birlii, used it as a smokescreen to fend off pressure for real change. Speeches at the demonstration included no mea culpas or calls for introspection, only apologetics for jihad and invocations of stale and empty slogans such as “Islam means peace.”

This complex, confusing record points to several conclusions:

• Islamists note the urge to find moderate Muslims and are learning how to fake moderation. Over time, their camouflage will undoubtedly further improve.

• Figuring out who's who is a high priority. It may be obvious that Osama bin Laden is Islamist and Irshad Manji anti-Islamist, but plenty of Muslims are in the murky middle. An unresolved debate has raged for years in Turkey whether the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, is an Islamist or not.

• The task of identifying true moderates cannot be done through guesswork and intuition; for proof, note the US government’s persistent record of supporting Islamists by providing them with legitimacy, education, and (perhaps even) money. I too have made my share of mistakes. What’s needed is serious, sustained research.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, most recently Militant Islam Reaches America. You may visit his website by clicking here and purchase his books by clicking here.

(This article courtesy of the Middle East Forum.)

Daniel Pipes

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Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and the author of several books, including Militant Islam Reaches America and In the Path of God: Islam and Political Power (Transaction Publishers), from which this column derives.

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