Why “Moderate Islam” is the Wrong Language
by Mark Woodward*
The terminology used in English and other European languages to discuss Islam, and especially Muslim political movements, shifts constantly. There is a general consensus, shared by many in the Muslim world, that “radical” and “extremist” are appropriately characterize individuals and movements that advocate and/or employ violence to accomplish their political ends.
Beyond this the waters are much murkier. What language should we use to refer to the huge majority of the world”s Muslims who oppose radical extremist violence? What terms should be used to distinguish this group from others who advocate values including democracy, human and women”s rights, cultural and religious pluralism?
These are especially vexing questions in light of the fact that terminology used in the “Western” press is instantly globalized. Today’s Op-Ed in the New York Times is known and talked about in villages here in Indonesia, and everywhere else in the Muslim World within hours. When pundits make misleading statements about Islam or call for an “Islamic Reformation” they are heard on the streets of Cairo and Jakarta at least as clearly as they are in Washington and New York.
Western commentators often use “Moderate” and “Liberal” to refer to Muslims and Muslim organizations that oppose violence and who, they think, share “Western” values. These are the worst possible choices. In many Muslim circles “Moderate” and “Liberal” are terms of derision, especially when used in conjunction with the word Islam.
“Islam” refers to various understandings of belief, practices and life ways rooted ultimately in the Qur’an which Muslims believe–no not believe, know–to be the word of God. To say that someone is a “moderate” Muslim is to suggest that she or he is insufficiently pious and does not take God”s word seriously.
“Liberal” is even worse. The term has been captured by extremists in the Muslim world as much as it has been in the United States. It suggests not only impiety but also moral laxity. For many here it means accepting, if not actively promoting, things like drinking alcohol, “free sex” and even “gay marriage.”
Secular Muslim? Don”t even think about it. To call a Muslim “secular” is almost the same as to call him or her an apostate. That means she or he is going to Hell. Religious Muslims take this very seriously. A more appropriate usage would be “Secular people from Muslim backgrounds.”
Using the term “fundamentalist” to refer to “extremists” is equally unwise. Translated into Arabic, Indonesian, Urdu or any other Muslim language, the word means something like: “one who adheres to the basic principles of Islam.” I know many people who not only embrace the concepts of democracy, human and women”s rights and religious tolerance who are proud to call themselves Islamic Fundamentalists and who consider the “extremists” to be religiously deviant.
To be sure there are some Muslims who describe themselves as “moderate,” “liberal,” or even “secular.” I know a few. They are a very small minority. I suspect that these terms are more commonly used by Muslims in the West to locate themselves within Western political discourse than they are by Muslims in Muslim societies.
Calls for an “Islamic Reformation” are entirely misguided. They are often understood as telling Muslims how to think about Islam. I do not know any Muslims who think that non-Muslims have the right to do this. The call is based in Protestant Christian triumphalism, rooted in the questionable assumption that the Protestant Reformation is responsible for democracy, concern for human rights and the other more positive elements of “Western” progressive thought. But those who so blithely call for an “Islamic Reformation” seem to forget or not to know that the 16th Century Northern European Protestant Reformation sparked nearly a century of devastating and extremely bloody religious warfare.
A few months ago I attended a seminar at which a German Professor told a group of young Muslim intellectuals from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore that they needed to find an “Islamic Martin Luther.” This did not go over well. Most in the audience were familiar with the history of the Protestant Reformation and knew that Luther was virulently anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic and of course anti-Catholic. One friend remarked: “A Protestant Reformation is exactly what we don”t need, that kind of thinking is what produced bin Laden.” Proposing a de-confessionalized version of the principles of the Second Vatican Council would perhaps be more reasonable.
Inter-religious and intercultural dialog can only begin with the acceptance of difference and a commitment to building common understandings on issues of mutual concern. Attempts to conduct such a conversation predicated on the assumption that “you” must become more like “us” will fail. Calling for a Protestant Reformation in Islam dredges up the worst sort of colonial memories. This may not be obvious to Americans. It is painfully obvious to Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders.
Using “moderate,” to say nothing of “liberal,” in a political sense is equally misguided. It suggests that Daniel Pipes is correct that “Islam” and “Muslim” are synonyms for bigotry and violence. It also says that extremists are in control of Muslim religious and political discourse, as Thomas Friedman suggested in a recent New York Times Op-Ed.
These views are simply false. Here in Indonesia the word on the street and in the mosques is that people who plant bombs in the name of Islam are too “extreme” and that even in times of war deliberately targeting civilians is “un-Islamic.” Friedman, Pipes and others hear extremist voices because they want to. Yet, their voices are heard here, with a mixture of anger and sorrow. Anger that people would say such things about Islam and Muslims without distinguishing between the tiny minority that actual do hold extremist views, and the overwhelming majority who believe that the violence advocated by extremists is sinful. Sorrow that there are actually Muslims who do hold such views.
Many Muslim intellectuals here believe that Pipes, Friedman, and others like them think in the same exclusivist, bigoted ways that Muslim extremists do. I think they are correct. Portraying the “other” as an archetype of evil drives ethnic and religious violence.
How to Get it Right?
Finding the right language is not easy in a global information environment. It is necessary to search for terms that, at least, do not offend a larger portion of the intended or unintended audience. At the same time the terms used in local reportage and political discourse must be intelligible to local audiences.
The first step is to stop using terms like moderate, liberal and fundamentalist. Using the term “mainstream” to refer to the huge majority of Muslims who reject extremist violence is a good idea for two reasons: First, it accurately reflects the climate of Muslim opinion. Second, it resonates strongly with the notion of consensus, which is among the basic sources of Islamic Law.
“Progressive” is perhaps the best term to use for those Muslims who advocate democracy, human and women”s rights, religious and cultural pluralism. This term resonates strongly with ijtihad or individual, context sensitive interpretation of Islamic scripture and is also among the accepted sources of Muslim jurisprudence. Many of my Muslim friends, with whom I share these values, also like the term.
To be a “mainstream, fundamentalist, progressive Muslim” is a very good thing. The world could use more of them.
* Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University and Visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at the Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies at Gadjah Madah University and Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, both in Yogyakarta Indonesia