Moderate Islam: Western Ally or Western Myth? A Debate

Can there be a truly moderate Islam compatible with liberal-democratic notions of human rights and democracy? Is “radical Islam” a modern phenomenon or is Islam itself inherently radical? Such were the questions addressed in a recent debate between Dr. Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, and Dr. Wafa Sultan, a Syrian-born American psychiatrist. James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal moderated.

Mr. Pipes began by emphasizing that he and Ms. Sultan are allies, fighting the same opponents, namely, the Islamists. They agree on the past and present of Islam but disagree about the future. Ms. Sultan argues it cannot change while he believes it can. The idea that Islam cannot change is an essentialist view that ignores how much Islam has changed over history, an aspect that he, as a student of Islamic history for forty years, appreciates. He stressed that many of the requirements of the Shari’a, or Muslim sacred law, are impractical to implement, resulting in what Mr. Pipes has coined as the “medieval synthesis,” whereby loopholes are devised to get around impractical tenets, such as the prohibition against usury.

In the 1800s, with the onslaught of Western influence, the medieval synthesis collapsed, replaced by secular, reformist, and fundamentalist strains. The last of these is the totalitarian mentality that Mr. Pipes describes as “Islamism,” which transformed the religion into a political movement. And while Islamism dominates today, there are even at this bleak moment signs that Islam itself can change. For example, jurists in Turkey recently ruled that women can pray next to men in mosques, a small but important step for women’s rights.

Ms. Sultan began her argument by quoting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan, who says that there is no “moderate or immoderate Islam. There is Islam; that is it.” She contends that terms like “radical Islam” conceal the true nature of Islam itself-a political ideology. She adds that the aim of Islam is to subdue the entire world under Shari’a. To prove her position, she quoted from the Qur’an; she also argued that the true nature of Islam can be seen in the Sira, or biography, of Muhammad, which, she says, has come to define Islam itself. For instance, Ms. Sultan claims that Muhammad’s actions-such as marrying a 9-year-old and taking many women as concubines -means that there can be no equality for women under Shari’a.

During the question and answer session, Mr. Pipes pointed out that those who argue that Islam itself is the problem leave the West with no solutions, adding that, to truly reform Islam, Western governments must begin to empower genuine moderates. Asked what policies she would adopt toward the Muslim world, Ms. Sultan asserted that Islam can be reformed, and recommended Western pressure on the Saudi king as the surest way.

Mr. Pipes and Ms. Sultan agreed on some specifics, for instance, that Western governments must not welcome non-violent Islamism and should monitor the hate being taught in Muslim schools in the West. Overall, however, Mr. Pipes, while not denying what Islam has been or is, insists that Islam, like other religions, can and will change, whereas Ms. Sultan was more pessimistic.

Summary written by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.

Daniel Pipes


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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  • Would we say there is a “radical Catholicism” and a “moderate Catholicism?” I think Catholics of any stripe would object to such categories. There is only the Catholic faith, and while there may be many interpretations of the Church’s teaching, there is only one teaching.

    Without having the luxury of knowing what I’m talking about, I would argue that the same must be true of Islam. There is what the Quran teaches, and that is Islam. Then there are different interpretations, some more or less radical, about what it means. But to get to the truth about any religion, whether it’s the Catholic faith, Islam, Buddhism, or what have you, you have to look at what it teaches.

    I’m not an expert on what Islam teaches because I haven’t read the Quran, studied Islamic scholars, or listened to any authoritative Imams. But to discover whether Islam is inherently radical I would say you’d have to look to the Quran, since that seems to be the canon of their faith.

  • mattheww


    I’m no expert, either, but I think there is a mistake in your reasoning based on my understanding of the Quran/Islam. Unlike Catholicism, there is no magisterium. There is no apostolic succession. There is no authority to appeal to in regards to interpretation and application of the Quran. As such, I think you have the equivalent of Protestantism. Each Protestant sect determines their own doctrine. Each Imam could do likewise based on their interpretation of the Quran.

    This is my rudimentary understanding, but I think this is why your analogy is flawed. There’s also the whole concept of abrogation where portions of the Quran have been changed or particular Siras are not supposed to be applied. However, there is no universal interpretation of these things, thus different strains of Islam.

    There is a Coptic priest who has an evangelization mission to the Islamic world named Father Zakaria. His site may be a good resource on this topic as my understanding may be flawed.

    Christ’s peace on this Solemnity of The Blessed Virgiry!