Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (Defining “Moderate” Muslims)

Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (Defining “Moderate” Muslims)

by Tariq Ramadan

The dust from the collapse of the twin towers had hardly settled on 11 September 2001 when the febrile search began for “moderate Muslims”, people who would provide answers, who would distance themselves from this outrage and condemn the violent acts of “Muslim extremists”, “Islamic fundamentalists” and “Islamists”. Two distinct categories of Muslim rapidly emerged: the “good” and the “bad”; the “moderates”, “liberals” and “secularists” versus the “fundamentalists”, the “extremists” and the “Islamists”.

This categorisation was not new. Literature produced during the colonial era, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by orientalist scholars in Britain and France, depicted Muslims in the same binary manner. “Good” Muslims were those who either collaborated with the colonial enterprise or accepted the values and customs of the dominant power. The rest, the “bad” Muslims, those who “resisted” religiously, culturally or politically, were systematically denigrated, dismissed as the “other” and repressed as a “danger”. Times have changed, but the old mindsets and simplistic portrayals continue to cast a shadow over today’s intellectual, political and media debate about Islam. One reason why so many Muslim thinkers, activists and reformers today try to avoid the label of “moderate” is the perception of having sold out on their religion to the west and its suffocating terminology.

So what exactly are we discussing? Religious or theological practices? Political positions? Proclivity towards violence? Animosity towards the west? What do we mean when we brand someone a “moderate” Muslim?

Underlying the contemporary debate about, and the search for, “moderates” is a confusion of categories. Islam, it is claimed, draws no distinction between religion and politics; thus it is permissible to use the most general descriptive terms without distinguishing religious conceptions and practices from political programmes and actions. To adopt such a reductive perception of Muslims, and the “Muslim world”, is to brush aside the most elementary descriptive and analytical principles that we would ordinarily apply to fields as diverse as theology and law on the one hand, and social sciences and political theory on the other. Given the acknowledged complexity of this rather sensitive subject, we must instead begin by ordering our priorities: first, the question in religious terms. Can we speak of moderation as opposed to excess in the way Muslims practise their religion? And how are we to categorise the diverse theological trends that coexist within Islam?

The theme of moderation in religious practice has been a constant in Islamic literature from the very beginning, during the Prophet Muhammad’s life in the early 7th century. In the Quran and the Prophetic traditions that accompany it, Muslim women and men are called upon to exercise moderation in all aspects of their religious life. “God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship,” the Quran reminds us, and Muhammad confirms: “Make things easy, do not make them difficult.” Often cited is the example of easing the obligation to fast during the month of Ramadan for travellers, as a way of cautioning believers against excess. Such methods, from the very beginning, have been employed by most Islamic scholars to understand the Quranic quotation describing the Muslims as the “community of moderation”.

During the first so-called Islamic century (or 8th century), two interpretations of religious practice sprang up: ahl al-‘azîma, which applied the letter of the law to teachings, without taking either context or the need for “ease” into account; and ahl ar-rukhas, which considered not only these factors, but also the need for flexibility vis-à-vis the social context of the day, not to mention instances of need (hâja) and necessity (darûra). Over the past 13 centuries, most Islamic scholars and Muslims around the world (whether Sunni or Shia, irrespective of legal school), have promoted and followed the path of moderation and flexibility in the practice of their religion. While strictly devoted to fundamental principles (such as the content of the creed, or aqîda, including five prayers a day and fasting in Ramadan, and prohibitions such as avoiding alcohol and pork), they have adapted to new environments and changing times (for example, integrating aspects of new cultures, producing legal opinions for the latest scientific or technological challenges, and so on).

It is at this level that we can locate the initial misconception about Muslim moderation. In western societies where the practice and day-to-day visibility of religion are close to zero (even in the United States, where religion as a cultural and moral reference point is relatively strong), to speak of daily prayers, fasting, of religiously grounded moral obligations, prohibitions and dress codes is often seen automatically as verging on excess.

From this skewed viewpoint, moderate Muslims are those who adopt no distinctive dress, who consume alcohol and practise their religion “as we do ours” - that is, not really, or by making it invisible in the public sphere. But our histories, cultures and reference points are not identical; the notion of moderation has to be studied from within each system of reference. It cannot be imposed from outside.

Yet, at the same time, Muslims cannot, or should not, deny that among the diverse currents within Muslim-majority countries and communities - literalist, traditionalist, reform­ist, rationalist, mystical and, even, purely political - dogmatic and excessive interpretations can be found. It is largely within the literalist, traditionalist and politicised currents of Islamic thinking across the world today that we find the most closed-minded interpretations of the faith. These tend to generate legal opinions that take into consideration neither social nor historical contexts with regard to religious practice, cultural behaviour, human relations, women’s rights and relations with “non-Muslims”.

On the subject of non-Muslims, some groups (such as the literalist Salafis in Saudi Arabia or the traditionalist Tablighis in Pakistan) attempt to discourage Muslims from ­interacting with Christians, Jews or atheists, and even advise adopting a stance of hostility and rejection. Several of these minority Muslim groups - especially the so-called takfiris - criticise other Muslim tendencies, going so far as to call into question the Islamic character of their beliefs and practices.

Those of us who consider ourselves reformists are often attacked in internal Muslim debates for having “gone out of Islam” in our search for context and new understandings of religious texts. In the west, as well as in Asia and Africa, including in some Muslim-majority countries, I have repeatedly been called a kafir (disbeliever), a murtad (apostate) or an impostor seeking to adulterate Islam and destroy it from within. This happens to a large number of Muslim reformists - who, paradoxically, are at the same time considered “fundamentalist” and “extremist” within some right-wing circles in the west.

More troubling, perhaps, and making outside categorisation even more hazardous, is the tendency for some reformist, rationalist or mystic groups to develop, internally, the same dogmatic attitude towards their Muslim co-religionists, casting doubt on their legitimacy in the most categorical and exclusivist fashion. Moderation is multidimensional, and is not ­expressed only with reference to the west or to “non-Muslims”.

Closer analysis of the political positions of the literalists, traditionalists, rationalists, reformists and mystics further complicates the task of understanding. I believe the question of political moderation is often a subjective one. Af­ghanistan provides a rather obvious example: the same people who, two decades ago, were hailed as “freedom fighters” against Soviet invaders are today described as “terrorists” when they resist the Anglo-American occupation of their land. And everyone can agree to condemn terrorist acts against civilians in New York, Rabat, Bali, Amman, Madrid and London, but how are we to describe the resistance movements in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, fighting against foreign occupations that they consider illegal and illegitimate? Are Muslim members of the resistance to be deemed “extremists”, while “moderates” become those who accept the occupying presence of American and British forces? Who decides, and based on what criteria?

I have had personal experience of these shifting definitions. The Washington Post once described me as the “Muslim Martin Luther”, only for the Sun to then tar me as an “Islamic militant”. In 2003, I was received at the US state department as an “open” and “moderate” Muslim. Less than a year later, under the same Bush administration, my criticism of American policy in Iraq and Palestine (where I recognise the legitimacy of the resistance without in any way condoning attacks against civilians and non-combatants) had transformed me into a potential “supporter of terrorism” and “extremist”. I was forbidden entry into the United States. Then, six years later, the terrorism- and extremism-related accusations were dropped by the US authorities. The Obama administration has decided that my opinions are not dangerous and that I may be useful to the critical debate around Islam: I am now allowed to travel to the United States.

But the attacks on me continue. Being the grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood - the world’s oldest and largest Islamic political group - I am dangerous by definition and I must not be listened to. Islam, my critics claim, allows dissimulation (taqiy­yah) and so I am accused of practising it in the extreme: all that sounds so fine to western audiences is in fact nothing but the presentable side of a far more obscure hidden agenda - it is claimed that I want to Islamise modernity, Europe and the Europeans, the whole west. So how can I be a “moderate”, they ask?

Not only is political “moderation” an ill-­defined concept, but the confusion between religious and political spheres makes analysis even more problematic. People are quick, far too quick, to assume that because a woman or a man is religiously “liberal” with regard to Islamic practices such as wearing the hijab or drinking alcohol, for instance, she or he will hold equally “liberal” political views. In my ­experience, nothing could be further from the truth. There are innumerable cases of political personalities, intellectuals and civil society activists who are indeed Muslims with liberal views and practices but who publicly support the most hardline dictatorial regimes and/or the most violent resistance groups everywhere from Algeria to France. So moderation in religion cannot be correlated with its supposed political equivalent. In the western-generated analysis, however, there is a tendency to conflate these categories.

Relations with the “west” offer another interesting standard by which to evaluate the political and religious stances of contemporary Muslims. The violent extremist groups view their relations with the west only in terms of complete opposition and enmity, couched in religious, political, cultural and economic ­conceptual language. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims - particularly western Muslims - recognise the achievements of western societies, while at the same time claiming the right to determine for themselves the parameters of their identity, the nature and extent of their religious practices, and their spiritual and moral convictions. Seen from this perspective, criticism and rejection of the west are linked only to a refusal to accept political, economic or cultural domination.

Even within Islamist ranks, strictly religious discourse is predominantly moderate with regard to the west, from Malaysia to Morocco by way of the current Islamist government of Turkey, whose objective is to join the democratic and secular European Union. The zone of tension and latent conflict is not defined by religion, and therefore has nothing to do either with Islam or with “moderate Muslims”.

There are those in the west today who are keen to define moderate Muslims as those who are invisible, or look just like us, who support us, or even as those who have accepted the terms of their subjection. In turn, they want to declare all the rest as fundamentalists or extremists. Such self-serving judgements are ideological in nature and lead only to an intellectual confusion that prevents us from grasping the essentially political and economic nature of the debate. They cannot help us to understand the complex dynamics at work in Muslim societies. Once we have condemned the violent—extremist groups that murder innocent civilians supposedly in the name of Islam, we must move forward and place their political positions in context.

There exists a strictly religious debate, couched in the language of Islamic jurisprudence and the fundamentals of faith, over the notion of moderation. If this is grasped - as it must be - it becomes possible to approach the more relevant political questions with far less prejudice and naivety. We should never forget that religious moderation, however it is defined, is perfectly compatible with a radical, non-violent, democratic political stance that rejects all forms of domination, exploitation and oppression.

Tariq Ramadan is professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University. His latest book is “What I Believe” (Oxford University
Press)  Visit Prof. Ramadan’s website at tariqramadan.com

SEE ALSO:  The New Statesman special issue on Islam http://www.newstatesman.com/religion/2010/02/british-muslims-islam-britain


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