Blogs > HNN > Islam Needs Radicals, Not Moderates (and So Do We)

Sep 21, 2005 8:58 am

Islam Needs Radicals, Not Moderates (and So Do We)

George W. Bush. Tony Blair. Sylvio Berlusconi. Jacques Chirac. Along with most every other Western leader and innumerable pundits and policy-makers, they are frantically searching for the "moderate Muslims" who can save Islam from itself and improve relations between Muslims and the West.

The problem is that there's no such thing as a moderate Muslim, at least the way most Americans define the term. Look at whom we call moderate: President Bush, joined by many leading commentators, consistently cites Jordan's King Abdullah and Morocco's King Muhammad as the epitome of modern, moderate Muslim leaders. But a glance at the Amnesty International reports on their countries, or those of Egypt, Pakistan and other so-called moderate regimes, reveals them to be anything but moderate in the way they treat their citizens. In fact, the level of repression and censorship of most "moderate" regimes is as great as at any time since 9/11.

What we really mean by "moderate" are leaders who play by our rules, don't challenge US/Western power and policies, and suppress any militant tendencies against us among their own peoples. Not surprisingly, the peoples of the region have a different view of these leaders: they are oppressive handmaidens of American empire.

Looking for something called moderate Islam is an equally problematic enterprise. President Bush famously argued that "Islam means peace" after 9/11 as a way of signaling support for moderate Islam. That's a nice sentiment, except that Islam doesn't mean peace; it means submission to the will of God, which as anyone familiar with the history of the last two millennia knows, has historically involved quite the opposite of peace. Similarly, commentators often celebrate the possibility of a moderate Islam by pointing to a hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that argues that the "greater jihad" of self-introspection and improvement is more fundamental for Muslims than the "lesser jihad" of war and violence. But as anyone familiar with Islamic law knows, most Muslim scholars consider it a "weak" hadith and not the Prophet's actual words. In fact, its use by reformers in during the last century has been met with scorn by conservatives, who see it as evidence that "moderates" have a poor grasp of their own theology and law.

In the last two decades a "moderate" school of Islamist jurisprudence has in fact emerged (known as the wasatiya movement in Arabic) that has tried to balance the body of Islamic law with the needs and norms of modern societies. But its leaders have been variously coopted or censored by their governments, or are quite immoderate when it comes to Jews, homosexuality or full equality for women. The ones that are truly moderate strongly oppose almost every facet of US foreign policy and our hyper consumerist culture, for which they are labeled "radicals" by their governments and ours.

What is interesting is that most so-called "radical" Islamic movement, such as al-Qa'eda, are in reality not that radical. Instead, they bear striking resemblances to utopian movements from the Jacobins of post-Revolutionary France to the fascists and Maoists of the last century. The tools used to wage their war--from the internet to the suicide vest--are new; but their desire violently to purify their societies is all too familiar.

What would a truly radical Muslim look like? Perhaps like a young Shi'i Sheikh named Anwar I met in Baghdad. He is known as the "Elastic Sheikh" because of his religious and secular university degrees and willingness to use "whatever works, wherever it comes from" to help the residents of his Sadr City neighborhood solve the myriad problems they face. Sadly, I have not heard from him in months, and fear he is among the victims of the increasing violence against the city's Shi'i population.

Or he might look like a friend of mine from Casablanca named Reda. One of the leaders of the Moroccan heavy metal scene, he's also a soon-to-be Ph.D. in Islamic studies at the Sorbonne. But he and his musical comrades were labeled as Satanists by moderate Islamists and arrested by the moderate Moroccan Government because they dared to write powerful--and really loud--songs that challenge the country's patriarchal politics and culture.

Or they might look like Nadia Yassine, the leader of Morocco's biggest political force, the religiously oriented Justice and Development movement. In our first meeting she explained that Islam was "hijacked by men" after the Prophet Muhammad's death and has suffered for it ever since. The next time I saw her she suggested that Morocco might be better off as a republic rather than a monarchy, a view that landed her in jail courtesy of the moderate government of Morocco.

It is she who first suggested to me that what Islam needs are radicals, not moderate--"but radicals in a good sense." Sitting next to her and nodding in agreement was the Swiss Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan. One of the leading progressive voices in Europe, his visa to teach at Notre Dame was revoked by the US government on trumped charges of being "tied to terrorists." This only months after senior CIA and State Department analysts asked me how they could find more Muslims "who are the real deal like him."

My radical friends are routinely oppressed by their governments, attacked by conservatives, obstructed by the US, and ignored by the media and peace groups who should be highlighting their activities and struggles. This suggests they're doing something right, and that we should be doing more to help them. Of course, that would be pretty radical; but how else to achieve the radical transformation that is necessary to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East, not to mention to America?

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