January 17, 2006

What Moderate Muslims?

A week ago, James Joyner of Outside the Beltway sent me a link to this post commenting on a column by Stephen Schwartz on the meaning of moderate Islam. He wanted my opinion of it since Schwartz had made a ridiculous statement about the use of the word 'Salafism', and I often use that word to describe the foundational Islamist theology of terrorist organizations. In it, Schwartz makes a lot of claims about a moderate form of Islam which has been hijacked by a more severe form of Wahhabism.

Instead of replying directly to James, I punted and sent the article off to our good friend Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch. Robert has delivered the promise he made to me to rebutt Schwartz's article. Here is a bit of it:

Schwartz then turns back to the Sunnis, asserting that “moderate Sunni Muslims may be recognized in person by asking a simple question: ‘what do you think of Wahhabism, the state Islamic sect of Saudi Arabia?’…If a Sunni Muslim is asked about Wahhabism and states that it is a controversial, extreme doctrine that causes many problems because of Saudi money, the respondent is probably moderate.” In contrast, “If a Sunni denies that Wahhabism exists by saying ‘there is only Islam,’ or tries to cover Wahhabism with an ameliorative term like ‘Salafism’ -- a fraudulent effort to equate Wahhabism with the pioneers of the Islamic faith -- the individual is an extremist.”

But is opposing Wahhabism enough to make one a moderate? After all, the Deobandis in Afghanistan are Hanafi Muslims, not Hanbalis like the Wahhabis — but they had no trouble making common cause in jihad with the Wahhabis. What’s more, the passages of the Qur’an and Hadith that jihadists invoke to justify their actions weren’t invented by the Wahhabis; they have always been there and were exploited by Muslims fighting violent jihads long before Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born.

After all, the primary difference between Wahhabi Islam and more traditional variants of the religion is not jihad warfare against unbelievers, but the Wahhabis’ practice of takfir, or the classification of Muslims of other sects as among those unbelievers. Schwartz accordingly eschews takfir: “Moderate Muslims may also be identified by what they do not do, to contrast them with radicals. And at the top of that list comes the practice of takfir, or declaring Muslims unbelievers over differences of opinion. Takfir also includes describing the ordinary, traditional Muslim majority in the world as having fallen into unbelief.” Very well, but what of jihad against non-Muslims? Schwartz says: “Islam is not, and never was, a radical or fundamentalist religion in its mainstream practice, regardless of the fantasies of Islamist fanatics and Islamophobes alike.” Maybe not, but I’d like to see him define “radical” and “fundamentalist.” Even the Ottoman Empire, of which he is fond, waged aggressive jihad against Christian Europe over a period of centuries. Not radical or fundamentalist? Pardon me if I am not reassured.


Wahhabism is not the problem. Wahhabism is a problem, because it has state sponsors in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to spread its dogma. The problem then is main stream Islam--even moderate Islam.

Moderate is a meaningless term which can only be understood as relative to the society we are talking about. For instance, could a historian distinguish between moderate and extremist Nazis? A moderate Nazi might be said to be one who is thoroughly antisemetic, but who insists that the 'Jewish question' ought to be solved through forced segregation and laws against intermarriage. The word moderate, then, can be used to describe ideologies which only seem moderate when compared to a much more extremist alternative. If that moderate ideology were examined on its own terms it might very well seem extreme.

If the only thing that differentiates moderate Muslims from extremists are a rejection of takfir and of terrorism, then truly the world is full of moderate Muslims. But is that enough?

I have a very simple way to determine if the form of Islam is acceptable to me: does it reject Sharia. That is it.

As a political observe I have no theological interest whatsoever in Islam and could care less if Muhammed was a prophet or not or about Islam's stance on Trinitarian doctrine. I really don't care. What I do care about is whether or not a Muslim believes that law and government ought to be strictly secular in orientation or not.

Even liberal Muslims who believe in the establishment of Sharia carry with them a dangerous and anti-libertarian philosophy. Imagine, for instance, a liberal Sharia court which gives a man a fine for blasphemy. A moderate Sharia court might give the man a light jail sentence. The extremist Wahhabi court might sentence the man to a long sentence or even to death.

In all three cases a form of religious fascism exists. Whether or not we choose to call these varying religious forms moderate or not is really inconsequential. One may be worse than the other, but all three are bad.

The fascism of Franco's Spain was surely more moderate than the fascism of Nazi Germany, but I still would not have wanted to endure it.

As long as Islam embraces Sharia, I will reject Islam as a fascist ideology. Any form of Islam that rejects it is okay in my book.

UPDATE: James Joyner replies here with the usual thoughtful commentary. I also noticed a TB to this post by Ocean Guy, a new blog to me. In it he makes this inciteful comment:

If the Pope is right, then the only difference between extreme, moderate and liberal Muslims is how harshly each would/does treat non-Muslims living in their midst. There are hundreds of years of history which give us clear pictures of the spectrum of treatment that non-Muslims are subjected to under Muslim rule. We'd be wise to learn from them.
Indeed. I would add that some slaves had very nice masters who treated them well. Having a nice master, though, still makes one a slave.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 12:28 PM | Comments |