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The Search for Moderate Islam By: Lawrence Auster
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, January 28, 2005


The Search for Moderate Islam: Part I

Does it Exist?

A leading intellectual figure and stalwart fighter in America's confrontation with radical Islam, Daniel Pipes is perhaps best known for his idea that "radical Islam is the problem, moderate Islam is the solution." As Pipes argues, radical Islam, though currently the dominant political force in the Muslim world, is supported by only 10 to 15 percent of Muslims worldwide, while moderate Islam represents the great, though so far mostly silent, majority of Muslims. He further points out that radical Islam, also known as militant Islam or Islamism, is a very recent phenomenon, having more in common with modern totalitarian ideologies than with true, historic Islam. While he warns that militant Islam aims to overthrow the West and regain lost Islamic glory, he insists with equal conviction that traditional, moderate Islam is fully capable of living at peace with the rest of the world.

Pipes's dual perspective on Islam leads him to advocate a dual-track strategy toward it. We must, he says, use all necessary political and military means to defeat the Islamists and secure our own safety, even as we seek out moderates and help them in the vital work of reforming Islamic beliefs and practices, isolating the extremists, and building an Islamic community that can be a normal and productive member of a democratic world community.

 

In contrast to the view of Islam advanced by Pipes, which we might call "ecumenist" because it looks forward to an ultimate harmony and even union between Islam and the West, there is a perspective that we might call "civilizationist," because it insists that there are essential incompatibilities between the two civilizations. These different understandings of Islam imply diverging strategic concepts. For the ecumenist school, the only aspect of Islam that represents a danger is the radical, false Islam. We must therefore empower the true, moderate Islam, so that under its guidance the Islamic countries will re-make themselves into decent and free societies. But for the civilizationist school, the problem is not "radical" Islam but Islam itself, from which it follows that we must seek to weaken and contain Islam, rather than try to create some new, nicer Islam.

 

The issue is momentous. If we subscribe to the promise of a moderate Islam, we will make its cultivation the central focus and goal in the war against militant Islam. If this moderate Islam in fact exists, our efforts may help Muslims transform their civilization for the better and relieve the world of the curse of Muslim extremism. But if moderate Islam does not exist, yet we delude ourselves into thinking that it exists, we would inevitably find ourselves trapped in a cultural equivalent of the Oslo "peace process," forever negotiating with and empowering our mortal enemies in the pathetic hope that they will turn out to be friends. Alternatively, if we understand that there is no such thing and can be no such thing as moderate Islam, that would obviously result in very different policies. In the remainder of this article, I will endeavor to show that the latter view is correct, a task made easier by the fact that Pipes, the principal advocate of the moderate Islam thesis, has provided numerous statements that contradict it. As a result, virtually my sole authority in the ensuing critical discussion of Daniel Pipes's ideas will be Pipes himself.

 

There is no intention here to undermine Dr. Pipes, a man who has bravely spoken the truth about the terror-supporting organizations in our midst and exposed himself to their vicious attacks in the process. I've had numerous e-mail exchanges with Dr. Pipes in recent years and I respect him for the important contributions he has made to this fight. But when there are such radically divergent views regarding the nature of our enemy, which would lead us to radically divergent ways of dealing with the enemy, the respective positions must be aired in full. All that should matter to us is getting at the truth.

 

It should also be understood that our subject is not the thought processes and attitudes of one individual, but, in effect, of our whole society in its attempt to grapple with the incredibly difficult challenge of Islam. As one who stringently opposes the bad Islam and devoutly dreams of a good Islam, Pipes is emblematic of the rational fears and the delusive hopes that have been at the core of this debate.

 

Is it true?

 

So let us start again with Pipes's basic view of the subject, which happened to be used as the epigraph of a recent complimentary profile of Pipes in Harvard Magazine:

 

It's a mistake to blame Islam, a religion fourteen centuries old, for the evil that should be ascribed to militant Islam, a totalitarian ideology less than a century old. Militant Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution.

 

To say that moderate Islam is the solution to radical Islam implies several things: that moderate Islam exists; that it represents the true (though perhaps currently disregarded) norm of Islam; and that radical Islam is a departure from that norm. Yet in the same Harvard Magazine article, several other quotes are given from Pipes's work that suggest the very opposite of these ideas. Here, for example, he is discussing a Muslim student speaker at the Harvard Commencement a couple of years ago, who, along with some of his professors, sought to portray "jihad" in benign terms, as indicating only an interior spiritual struggle rather than military conquest:

 

"But of course," Pipes erupted in his article, "it is precisely bin Laden, Islamic Jihad, and the jihadists worldwide who define the term [jihad], not a covey of academic apologists. More importantly, the way the jihadists understand the term is in keeping with its usage through fourteen centuries of Islamic history." [emphasis added.]

 

And that definition, he continued, to the majority of Muslims meant, and means, "the legal, compulsory, communal effort to expand the territories ruled by Muslims (known in Arabic as dar al-Islam) at the expense of territories ruled by non-Muslims (dar al-harb)."

 

If bin Laden's and other jihadists' understanding of jihad "is in keeping with its usage through 14 centuries of Islamic history," as Pipes indicates, then jihadism, i.e., militant Islam, has in fact been a normative component of Islam for 1,400 years. Therefore it cannot be true that militant Islam is a very recent, minority movement.

 

In another quote in the Harvard magazine article, Pipes again asserts the supposed atypicality of militant Islam:

 

Militant Islam derives from Islam but is a misanthropic, misogynist, triumphalist, millenarian, anti-modern, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, terroristic, jihadistic, and suicidal version of it. Fortunately, it appeals to only about 10 percent to 15 percent of Muslims, meaning that a substantial majority would prefer a more moderate version.

 

The obvious point to make here is that the characteristics Pipes attributes exclusively to militant Islam—misogynist, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, jihadistic and all the rest—can be just as easily attributed to mainstream traditional Islam. But there is a less obvious point here as well. By his use of the subjunctive mood in the phrase, "a substantial majority would prefer a more moderate version [of Islam]," Pipes is suggesting, not that the "moderate" majority actually prefer a more moderate version of Islam, but only that they may prefer it in the future, under conditions which do not now exist. Thus the supposed vast moderate majority, making up 85 percent of all Muslims, seem to accept the actually existing, non-moderate Islam. How, then, could we expect them to become the leaders of Islam and remake it in a moderate direction? We might also point out that what 85 percent of the Muslim population believes is irrelevant in any case. What matters is what a majority of the political class in the Muslim lands believe.

 

Does moderate Islam exist?

 

As we continue to read Pipes's writings on the subject, a deeper problem in his concept of moderate Islam becomes evident. It's not just that the supposed moderate majority is really an indifferent or weak voice within Islam. It's that moderate Islam may not even exist in any meaningful sense.

 

There are several facets to this issue. In an article touting the progress of moderate Islam, Pipes balances the good news with an honest accounting of the serious difficulties that have been encountered in the effort to find and identify moderate Muslims:

 

—Islamists note the urge to find moderate Muslims and are learning how to fake moderation. Over time, their camouflage will undoubtedly further improve.

 

—Figuring out who's who is a high priority. It may be obvious that Osama bin Laden is Islamist and Irshad Manji anti-Islamist, but plenty of Muslims are in the murky middle. An unresolved debate has raged for years in Turkey whether the current prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is an Islamist or not.

 

—The task of identifying true moderates cannot be done through guesswork and intuition; for proof, note the American government's persistent record of supporting Islamists by providing them with legitimacy, education, and (perhaps even) money. I too have made my share of mistakes. What's needed is serious, sustained research.

 

Having told us that moderate Islam is the solution to radical Islam, Pipes now tells us that we can't even tell who is a genuine moderate Muslim. It's as though on America's entry into World War II Franklin Roosevelt assured the nation that with the help of our allies we would be able to defeat Nazi Germany—and then added that he had no idea if we actually had any allies or how he would identify them if he thought he had found some.

 

Similarly, Pipes writes:

 

If militant Islam is the problem and moderate Islam is the solution, as I often argue, how does one differentiate between these two forms of Islam?

 

It's a tough question, especially as concerns Muslims who live in Western countries.

 

If it is so hard to tell a moderate from a radical, how is it possible to base anything that we do on the moderates? To continue my World War II analogy, it is as if President Roosevelt had said, "How do we differentiate between the Axis Powers and our allies? It's a tough question ...” and then assured us that our allies stood firmly at our shoulder in the war against fascism.

 

Not only is it hard to find moderate Muslims, and not only is it hard to differentiate moderate Muslims from radical Muslims, but when you do find them, they are in a disorganized state:

Moderate Muslims who wish to live modern lives, unencumbered by burqas, fatwas, and violent visions of jihad, are on the defensive and atomized. They must be helped: celebrated by governments, publicized in the media, given grants by foundations.

Pipes further expands on the isolation, weakness, and fearful circumstances of anti-Islamist Muslims—not just in the Muslim countries, but in the free countries of the West:

The weak standing of anti-Islamist Muslims has two major implications. 

 

For them to be heard over the Islamist din requires help from the outside—celebration by governments, grants from foundations, recognition by the media, and attention from the academy.

 

Those same institutions must shun the now-dominant militant Islamic establishment. Moderates have a chance to be heard when Islamists are repudiated.

 

Promoting anti-Islamists and weakening Islamists is crucial if a moderate and modern form of Islam is to emerge in the West.

The suggestion is that moderate Islam presently exists only in the form of individuals who lack any organized existence as moderates. Nor do they have the political capacity and support to become leaders within the Islamic community. So we must help them organize. We must help them become leaders. And what shall this help consist of? Media recognition, foundation grants, government celebrations. This raises an unavoidable question: if a national or religious movement needs to be nursed into life by people from outside that culture or religion, can it be considered a viable movement? France gave us crucial military assistance during the War of Independence; but we didn't depend on the French to help us create our own government and celebrate our national identity.

 

Obviously, far more than foundation grants will be needed to make the moderates a meaningful factor in Muslim politics. Writing in the New York Post on December 31, 2002, Pipes gave this prognosis:

 

[V]iolent jihad will probably continue until it is crushed by a superior military force.... Only when jihad is defeated will moderate Muslims finally find their voice and truly begin the hard work of modernizing Islam.

 

Moderate Islam is so weak, fearful, and undeveloped that it can't even find its voice until the dominant militant Islam is militarily destroyed—by us. Like the interim Iraqi government, moderate Islam can only exist—in a vulnerable, tenuous state—so long as we are there to protect it. Furthermore, as appears from the endless terror war in Iraq, we lack the means to crush militant Islam in a Muslim country. At best we can fend it off, not defeat it. This means that the ability of moderate Muslims to find and keep their voice would depend on continued U.S. military presence throughout the Muslim region. We would have to maintain Mideast-wide counterinsurgency operations until the end of time. And that's just so that the moderates can find their voice.

 

Yet, having pointed to the weakness and dependency of the moderate Muslims, Pipes, when asked in a FrontPage Magazine interview what steps he would advise Bush to take in the war on terror, replied as follows:

 

I would advise him to surround himself with leading moderate, anti-Islamist Muslims and announce that the "War on Terror" has been redefined as the "War on Militant Islam." That would have many and profound implications, such as ... (3) pointing out the key role of moderate Muslims, and (4) specifying that the immediate war goal must be to destroy militant Islam and the ultimate war goal the modernization of Islam. [Emphasis added.]

 

But what "key role" could there be for the moderates in this struggle, given the fact that they will not even be able to find their voice, let alone be able to lead and govern, until after we have destroyed militant Islam over the whole globe?

 

Is a moderate Muslim—a Muslim?

 

There is yet a deeper perplexity that confronts us in the search for moderate Islam. It's not just that the moderates are, for all practical purposes, a minority in the Muslim world. It's not just that they are a politically weak and terrorized minority. It's not just that they won't be able to find their voice until the U.S. wins a permanent world-wide military victory over militant Islam. It's not just that they are atomized individuals rather than an organized group. And it's not just that moderate Islam does not presently exist in any meaningful form. It's that moderate Islam cannot exist. Consider this questionnaire that Pipes designed to find out whether a person is a moderate Muslim:

 

Should non-Muslims enjoy completely equal civil rights with Muslims? May Muslims convert to other religions? May Muslim women marry non-Muslim men? Do you accept the laws of a majority non-Muslim government and unreservedly pledge allegiance to that government? Should the state impose religious observance, such as banning food service during Ramadan? When Islamic customs conflict with secular laws (e.g., covering the face for drivers' license pictures), which should give way?

 

While the questionnaire would help identify as a radical anyone who answered no to most of the questions, it has one notable flaw: anyone who answered yes to most of the questions would no longer be a Muslim. As long as Muslims follow the Koranic law that defines Islam, they could not accept the legitimacy of conversion out of the faith (banned by the Prophet on pain of death), nor could they accept, in any permanent sense, the laws of a majority non-Muslim government, since they are commanded by the Prophet to wage Holy War until the entire world has been subjugated to Islam. Therefore, by Pipes's own definition of what constitutes moderate Islam, it is a contradiction in terms. So let's be clear about the meaning of this. Religiously indifferent Muslim individuals exist. Formerly Muslim individuals who have left the faith exist. Formerly Muslim states that have de-Islamicized themselves exist (or at least one such state, Turkey, has existed). But moderate Islam does not exist, and cannot exist.

 

Pipes tacitly indicates the same in his book, The Path of God, where he criticizes the so-called reformist Muslims who have adopted more "spiritual" understandings of jihad. These reformists' ideas actually come from the West, Pipes continues, but by claiming an Islamic source, they maintain the illusion that Islam has always been humane and liberal. As a result, they avoid the hard work of facing the truth about Islam and changing it.

Pipes's meaning is undeniable: moderate Islam does not now exist. It must be created. Moreover, it can only be created by means of renouncing that which Islam has always been. But, on those terms, can the result still be Islam? In the culminating passage of his magisterial 1878 biography, The Life of Mahomet, William Muir, after noting the good things about Muhammadanism, speaks of the "radical evils [that] flow from the faith in all ages and in every country, and must continue to flow so long as the Koran is the standard of belief."[1] But the Koran, of course, is the basis of Islam and its highest authority, viewed by Muslims as the eternal, uncreated word of God. Muslims can no more give up the Koran and remain Muslims, than lions can give up their teeth, their claws, and their tawny coats, and still be lions.

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