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April 29, 2007

Sunday Sermonette: Rejecting the "moderate Muslim" label

Asma Khalid has a thought-provoking essay in AlterNet entitled "Why I am Not A Moderate Muslim."

In this passage, she puts her finger on what has always bothered me about using the term "moderate Muslim" to describe followers of Islam who embrace values such as democracy, gender equality, and peace:

In the aftermath of September 11, much has been said about the need for "moderate Muslims." But to be a "moderate" Muslim also implies that Osama bin Laden and Co. must represent the pinnacle of orthodoxy; that a criterion of orthodox Islam somehow inherently entails violence; and, consequently, that if I espouse peace, I am not adhering to my full religious duties.

I refuse to live as a "moderate" Muslim if its side effect is an unintentional admission that suicide bombing is a religious obligation for the orthodox faithful. True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to adhere piously to a religion's tenets. [AlterNet]

Khalid's insight applies to other groups as well. It would be insulting to describe members of the United Church as "moderate Christians" compared to Southern Baptists--because the implication would be that industrial-strength Christianity is conservative and that more liberal faiths represent a watering down of the old time religion.

When I first moved to New York, I nearly got into a shouting match with an Orthodox real estate broker who was showing me an apartment in Crown Heights. As I was checking the tile in the bathroom, the guy made some off-the-cuff remark about how Reform Jews weren't really very Jewish.

"No, we just don't agree with you," I snapped.

The thing to remember is that claims of fundamentalism or orthodoxy are positioning statements for brands. We often treat claims of religious orthodoxy as if they were statements of fact rather than rhetorical devices.

Positioning your doctrine as the orthodoxy is a way to marginalize your competition. If we uncritically allow the most reactionary sects to claim the mantle of orthodoxy, we do the work of fundamentalists for them.


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Khalid's insight applies to other groups as well. It would be insulting to describe Unitarians as "moderate Christians" compared to Southern Baptists--because the implication would be that industrial-strength Christianity is conservative and that more liberal faiths represent a watering down of the old time religion.

Lindsay, it may or may not be an insult to describe Unitarians as moderate Christians, but it would be a mistake to describe Unitarians, per se, as any kind of Christians at all. From Wikipedia:

Unitarian Universalist congregations and fellowships tend to retain some Christian traditions such as Sunday worship that includes a sermon and singing of hymns, but do not necessarily identify themselves as Christians.

You're right. I meant the United Church, not the Unitarian Church. Big difference.

Surely this is a tempest in a teapot. Is a gentle breeze less truly weather for being gentle?

This point seems lost on (or ducked by) anti-religious crusaders like Sam Harris who prefer that the most violent and bigoted adherents of a religion be taken as its truest representatives.

I went to see folk-singer Tom Paxton on March 30 at a Unitarian place in Minnesota.

Paxton said the following may not fit their religion, but "Thank God for the Unitarians."

Dabodius -

Lindsay Beyerstein is an atheist who is critical of Sam Harris.

I'm also an atheist who isn't a fan of his.

I've always interpreted "moderate Muslim" as shorthand for "politically moderate Muslim" (i.e., non right-wing extremists). But I can see the ambiguity and understand why some dislike the term.

I find this point of view interesting. It could be applied to many different aspects of life, not just religion.

Indeed, Eric, even moderate torture apologists find it hard to get a good word said about them on this blog.

I think you are absolutely right. It has always seemed to me an authoritarian technique to claim that you stand so near to God that you need not follow Gods law.

I think that the United Church of Christ, a predominantly U.S. denomination, differs from the United Church of Canada. The former rarely refers to itself as the "United Church," "UCC" more often, and does have a rather liberal theology; I assume you were referring to Canada's broad or "latitudinarian" Protestant church.

Great find and very helpful comments, Lindsay. In post after post I try to sort out the good guys from the bad guys in Christianity and its not that easy.

I think there is an ambiguity here. 'moderate' could, to be sure, be understood adverbially, as modifying 'Muslim', meaning someone who is moderately Muslim. 'Real', 'authentic' 'alleged' have to be understood this way in similar constructions, but I think it can be understood as an adjective, indicating another attribute, apart from being Muslim, that belongs to the subject. Cf. a blue-eyed New Yorker, who is someone who is both a blue-eyed and from New York.* 'A poor Christian' is ambiguous in the same way. I think 'Muslim moderate' might avoid any danger of misunderstanding.

*A self-described moderate Republican (many you will be to young to remember them) would not, I think, consider themselves any less a Republican for that. Rather, they would be staking out a view about what Republicanism ought to be, or what it is at its best or something like that.

True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to adhere piously to a religion's tenets.

What are the tenets of Islam?
Who decides what is or is not a tenet of Islam?

In "Women and Gender in Islam", (Yale Univ Press, 1992), Leila Ahmed reminds us that "Interpretation is of necessity part of every act of reading or inscribing a text". She then tells us that "The role of interpretation in the preservation and inscription of the Quran, is, however, suppressed in orthodox doctrine, and the belief that the text is precisely as Muhammad recited it is itself a tenet of orthodox faith. Similarly, to question whether the body of consecrated Islamic law does in fact represent the only possible legal interpretation of the Islamic vision is surrounded by awesome interdictions. That its central texts embody acts of interpretation is precisely what orthodoxy is most concerned to conceal and erase from the consciousness of Muslims".

--- I would add that this is not some academic debate. People in Islamic countries lose their lives over challenging the orthodoxy.

--- Now, tell me again, what is true orthodoxy in Islam? Is it to adhere to those "awesome interdictions"?

Yes, this is a great post. But the next step is to come up with better tags. Not just for mainstream Muslims but for the extremists. As the women's movement has shown, changes in verbal usage do make a difference.
Does Muslim moderate really do the job?

You can add my weblog to those that reference your post! (I haven't quite learned how to do trackbacks yet.)
In today's post "Naming the Kinds of Things..."

i believe that religion per se is something human beings invented in order to cope with inexplicable issues of life/death and to provide an ethical centre for their communities. if you are one who believes in the divine, or whatever name you choose to use, for me religion expresses the *human* visions and hopes of that divine. who on earth may speak for god?

meanwhile, there are so many of us who fight to be the one and only truth. feh! lindsay is correct - we may disagree with the traditionalists. in their eyes we are denying the truth. are we not confident enough in our own beliefs that we need their validation? remember the old joke: people are going on a tour of heaven. the group reaches a particular door, and the docent warns them to be absolutely silent once she opens it. when it has been opened, the group looks in and sees the room is full of orthodox jews. after the door is closed again, somebody asks why they had to be so quiet. the docent answers: 'o, they think they are the only ones here.' (can be used for many faith traditions)

FYI: Irshad Manji writes with courage and brilliance on the role of women in Islam from a feminist perspective. Her goal is to open Islam for greater accessibility by women. Recently, she was featured on the PBS series, American Chronicles, “Faith without Fear. Her website is:

Well... I view "moderate Muslim" as "not an extremist Muslim".

I hate the term "Islamist" (a little less so now, knowing that some Muslims use the term themselves), and hate how people claim that it's "fundamentalism" that is the real problem ("Whether it's a fundamentalism in the service of Christianity or Islam or whatever..."). I don't know the fundamentals of Islam all that well, but I do know that suicide attackers violate some of those fundamentals, and that the 9/11 attackers violated more, so no true "fundamentalist" Muslim should have been able to support them from a religious basis.

I view extremism (and hatred) as the enemy, and view a "moderate" as "not an extremist" (and not that big into the hate). Orthodoxy never enters into my thoughts in that respect.

I do agree with one important point: we shouldn't need to differentiate the "moderate Muslims" by giving them a special label. It should be "Muslims" (assumed to be moderate), with an additional label for the unusual ones ("extremist/hatemongering/etc.").

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