What it takes to be a ‘moderate Muslim’

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The term ‘moderate Muslim‘ is a much loved one in policy circles. It was brought into prominence in RAND reports such as ‘Building Moderate Muslim Networks’… but what is this litmus test? Thanks to the think tanks, the odd MEP and others we now have a good empirical base!

Firstly, ‘Moderates’ are those who do not take the Qur’an too seriously.

“Traditionalists by definition believe that the Quran and the shari’a should be followed literally and completely… Like the Old Testament, the Qurían includes content no longer relevant today…The Old Testament is not different from the Qur’an in endorsing conduct and containing a number of rules and values that are literally unthinkable, not to mention illegal, in todayís society” (Cheryl Bernard , Civil Democratic Islam – Partners, Resources and Strategies).

In a similar vein, Gerard Battten MEP, with support from missionary friend Sam Solomon has called on ‘all moderate and peaceful Muslims’ to sign up to a Charter that includes the clause “to consider and reappraise the suitability of those texts that were framed in a bygone age and which, in a modern society, have no purpose and can only give encouragement to extremists….”

Baroness Caroline Cox has had her views published by the think tank ‘Civitas’. She instructs that that Moderate Muslims “need to take a stand” on
– slavery, including its modern manifestations in the Muslim world
– human right abuses wherever they occur including those concerning religious freedom, freedom of speech, and equality of opportunity for women.

Baroness Cox’s ‘Islamist’ is not only a slave-owning misogynist but has deeper moral flaws from which the ‘Moderate Muslim’ must be saved: those doctrines that “clearly provide religious justification for deliberate deception” (p.63, The ‘West’, Islam and Islamism, 2005). Orientalism is alive and well at Civitas.

The problem is that one can never really satisfy the likes of Cox. Even the late Zaki Badawi – no bossom friend of the ‘Islamists’ – did not go far enough in this regard. After referring to one of his Radio 4 talks on Islam as a religion of peace, she notes, “nor did he he mention the other warlike and intolerant verses from the Qur’an…Dr Badawi cannot be unaware of these and other provocative verses given his lifelong experience as an Islamic scholar. Surely it is incumbent [sic] on him to explain to the British public just what they mean and which is the true voice of Islam”.

Robert Spencer (of JihadWatch) has also drawn up a list defining ‘moderation’. It too reflects crude Orientalist prejudices:

– Acknowledge the existence of and repudiate the traditional Islamic imperative, taught by all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence that Muslims recognize as orthodox, to impose Islamic law upon non-Muslims, whether by force or by stealth [sic]
– Renounce any intention, now or in the future, to replace the U.S. Constitution with Islamic law (!)
– Call upon Muslims in America and worldwide to drop the traditional and authoritative Islamic prohibition of marriage between non-Muslim men and Muslim women, and to repudiate and teach against the idea of divinely sanctioned wife-beating (Qur’an 4:34).
– Condemn Hamas and Hizballah as terrorist organizations, and the Islamic Republic of Iran for its continuing the barbaric practice of stoning people to death. Call upon Muslim groups to teach against stoning as a punishment for adultery or anything else in American mosques and Islamic schools.”

The reference to Hamas is significant – it has become another litmus test: ‘Moderate Muslims’ are required to condemn the liberation movement outright. Thus the quintessentially ‘moderate’ Quilliam Foundation feels qualified to advise: “Hamas has a duty to halt politicking with the lives of ordinary Palestinians” . Ed Hussain of this Foundation even writes about “the tyranny of Hamas” – when it is the party with majority elected members in the Palestinian Chamber!

Yet another test is the demand on Muslims to disassociate themselves from certain great personalities of the past. Thus Charles Moore in his lecture ‘How to beat the Scargills of Islam’ berated the Muslim Council of Britain for being “in reality dominated by the followers of the Pakistani ideologue, Maudoodi….”. This is the ‘good Muslim/bad Muslim’ divide – to use Professor Memdani‘s phrase. Moderates are in effect being told to disown their intellectual and political heritage and not have a respectful memory of their giants – be it Maudoodi or Qutb. Tariq Ramadan had an excellent riposte when a radio interviewer asked about his admiration of Hassan Al-Banna: “You were talking to me about Nietzsche…he had so many positive thoughts and he was so creative, but at the same time his thoughts were used by the Nazis…but the people are not demonising Nietzsche, the whole work of Nietzsche, they are putting things in context”.

The litmus tests took their most bizarre turn when a DCLG Minister – Ruth Kelly – linked ‘moderate’ behaviour to willingness to participate in the Holocaust Memorial Day: “There are also some people who don’t feel it right to join in the commemorations of Holocaust Memorial Day even though it has helped raise awareness not just of the Jewish holocaust, but also more contemporary atrocities like the Rwanda genocide. That’s also their right.
But I can’t help wondering why those in leadership positions who say they want to achieve religious tolerance and a cohesive society would choose to boycott an event which marks, above all, our common humanity and respect for each other”.

Kelly was succeeded in post by Hazel Blears,who retained this litmus test. When one Muslim organisation that had previously abstained did participate, this is what Blears could muster: “We have strengthened the hand of the moderates. I believe that this approach has helped the MCB to take the welcome step of attending Holocaust Memorial Day- a small but significant step in the right direction. We have enabled new voices to be heard, and brought new people to the table.” Notwithstanding MCB’s decision, the cold-shouldering of authentic community representative bodies has continued – note Blears’ embargo on ministerial participation at the MCB’s Annual General Meeting in June 2008!

Finallly, a ‘moderate’ should not be too emotional about the Prophet and his family.

Those relaxed about ‘Satanic Verses’ in the past – and ‘The Jewel of Medina’ today, win plaudits. Their acceptance of a blanket ‘right to offend’ in the name of freedom of speech is “pleasing” (for Kenan Malik, in The Guardian, 1 October, 2008), but then there is a caveat: if only one did not remain “in denial about the harm caused by the broader culture of self-censorship.”

Muslim intermediaries or institutions who do start responding to imposed standards of ‘moderation’ can never do enough.

As Tariq Modood commented when there was a similar discussion on British values, “the idea that there has to be a schedule of ‘non-negotiable’ value statements to which every citizen is expected to sign up is not in the spirit of an open, plural citizenship.”