In the aftermath of history's bold, new threshold of 9/11, a delirious hunt was instantly initiated-to rope in, all those who would fit into the profile of a 'moderate Muslim', At that point in time, our world had seen a complete transformation. Perhaps, those included in this search, belonged to the ranks of people, who could have provided answers-and at the same time, also had distanced themselves from public outrage.
This was done, to further condemn the violent acts of the hastily branded, 'Muslim extremists', 'Islamic fundamentalists' or simply said- the 'Islamists'.
By way of categorization, two distinct classes of Muslims were allowed to emerge: the 'good' and the 'bad'. The 'moderates', 'liberals' and 'secularists' versus the 'fundamentalists', the 'extremists' and the 'Islamists' would be classified, much later.
This categorization was nothing new. If we search the Literature produced during the colonial era, particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was composed by orientalist scholars in Britain and France- and Muslims, without prejudice, had also been depicted, in the same binary manner.
The so called 'good' Muslims were those who had either collaborated with the colonial empire or had accepted the values and customs of the dominant power. The rest, were obviously the 'bad' Muslims --those who had 'resisted' religiously, culturally or politically, or were systematically denigrated, and dismissed as the 'others'- and, often referred as dangerous.
Times have changed, but the old mindsets and simplistic portrayals continue to cast a shadow over today's cultural, intellectual, political and media debate about Islam. One reason why so many Muslim thinkers, activists and reformers have tried to avoid the label of being referred as a 'moderate' today, is but the perception of having sold out on their faith, to the west, and its complicated realities!
So what exactly is needed to be discussed? Shall we begin with religious or theological practices? Or, perhaps-Political positions? And, maybe the Proclivity towards violence? Or, the Animosity towards the west? What do we really signify when we brand someone, as a 'moderate' Muslim?
Underlying the contemporary debate about the moderates', or their search, is a confusion of categories. Islam is claimed, to draw no distinction between religion and politics; thus it is permissible to use the most general descriptive terms, without distinguishing religious conceptions, and practices from political programmes and actions.
To adopt such a inferential perception of Muslims, and the 'Muslim world', is the same as brushing aside the most elementary descriptive and analytical principles, that we would ordinarily apply to relevant domains, or concerning fields-as diverse as theology and law, on the one hand, and social sciences and political theory on the other.
Given the acknowledged complexity of this rather sensitive subject, we must instead begin by placing our priorities in order: first, let us deal with the questions, arising out of religious terminology.
Can we speak of moderation as opposed to excess, in the way Muslims practise their religion? And how are we to categorise the diverse theological trends, that coexist within Islam?
The theme of moderation in religious practice has been a constant reminder,
in Islamic literature --from the very beginning-as early as the Prophet Muhammad's life in the early seventh century, A.D. In the Quran and the Prophetic traditions that accompany it, Muslim women and men are called upon to exercise moderation in all aspects of their religious life. The Quran has reminded all that 'God desires ease for you, and desires not hardship'. And, so has Muhammad confirmed: 'Make things easy, do not make them difficult'.
Often cited is the example of easing the obligation to continue fasting during the month of Ramadan for travelers. This may be perceived as a way of cautioning believers against excess. Such methods, from the very beginning, have been employed by most Islamic scholars to understand the Quranic quotation, describing the Muslims as the 'community of moderation'.
During the first so-called Islamic century (or the 8th century AD), two interpretations of religious practice sprang up: ahl al-'azîma, which applied the letter of the law to teachings, without taking either context or the need for 'ease' into account; and ahl ar-rukhas, which considered not only these factors, but also the need for flexibility vis-à-vis the social context of the day, not to mention instances of need (hâja) and necessity (darûra).
Over the past thirteen centuries, most Islamic scholars and Muslims around the world (whether Sunni or Shia, irrespective of their alignments to legal school), have promoted and followed the path of moderation and flexibility in the practice of their religion.
While strictly devoted to fundamental principles (such as the content of the creed, or aqîda, including five prayers a day and fasting in Ramadan, and prohibitions such as avoiding alcohol and pork), they have adapted to new environments and changing times (for example, integrating aspects of new cultures, producing legal opinions for the latest scientific or technological challenges, and so on).
It is at this level that we can locate the initial misconception about Muslim moderation. In western societies where the practice and day-to-day visibility of religion are close to zero (even in the United States, where religion as a cultural and moral reference point is relatively strong), to speak of daily prayers, fasting, of religiously grounded moral obligations, prohibitions and dress codes is often seen automatically as verging on excess.
From this skewed viewpoint, moderate Muslims are those who adopt no distinctive dress, who consume alcohol and practise their religion 'as we do ours'-that is, not really, or by making it invisible in the public sphere. But our histories, cultures and reference points are not identical; the notion of moderation has to be studied from within each system of reference. It cannot be imposed from outside.
Yet, at the same time, Muslims cannot, or should not, deny that among the diverse currents within Muslim-majority countries and communities-literalist, traditionalist, reformist, rationalist, mystical and, even, purely political -- dogmatic and excessive interpretations can be found. It is largely within the literalist, traditionalist and politicised currents of Islamic thinking across the world today that we find the most closed-minded interpretations of the faith.
These tend to generate legal opinion of varying nature that take into consideration neither social nor historical contexts with regard to religious practice, cultural behaviour, human relations, women's rights and relations with 'non-Muslims'.
On the subject of non-Muslims, some groups (such as the literalist Salafis in Saudi Arabia or the traditionalist Tablighis in Pakistan) attempt to discourage Muslims from interacting with Christians, Jews or atheists, and even advise adopting a stance of hostility and rejection. Several of these minority Muslim groups - especially the so-called takfiris - criticise other Muslim tendencies, going so far as to call into question the Islamic character of their beliefs and practices.
Those of us who consider ourselves reformists are often attacked in internal Muslim debates for having !gone out of Islam' in our search for context and new understandings of religious texts. In the west, as well as in Asia and Africa, including in some Muslim-majority countries,
Moderation is multidimensional, and is not expressed only with reference to the west or to 'non-Muslims'.
Closer analysis of the political positions of the literalists, traditionalists, rationalists, reformists and mystics further complicates the task of understanding. I believe the question of political moderation is often a subjective one. Afghanistan provides a rather obvious example: the same people who, two decades ago, were hailed as 'freedom fighters' against Soviet their invaders are today described as 'terrorists' when they resist the Anglo-American occupation of their land.
And everyone can agree to condemn terrorist acts against civilians in New York, Rabat, Bali, Amman, Madrid and London, but how are we to describe the resistance movements in Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, fighting against foreign occupations that they consider illegal and illegitimate? Are Muslim members of the resistance to be deemed "extremists", while "moderates" become those who accept the occupying presence of American and British forces? Who decides, and based on what criteria?
Political 'moderation', again and s an ill-defined concept, but the confusion between religious and political spheres makes analysis even more problematic. People are quick, far too quick, to assume that because a woman or a man is religiously "liberal" with regard to Islamic practices such as wearing the hijab or drinking alcohol, for instance, she or he will hold equally "liberal" political views. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
There are innumerable cases of political personalities, intellectuals and civil society activists who are indeed Muslims with liberal views and practices but who publicly support the most hardline dictatorial regimes and/or the most violent resistance groups everywhere from Algeria to France. So moderation in religion cannot be correlated with its supposed political equivalent.
In the western-generated analysis, however, there is a tendency to conflate these categories.Relations with the 'west' offer another interesting standard by which to evaluate the political and religious stances of contemporary Muslims. The violent extremist groups view their relations with the west only in terms of complete opposition and enmity, couched in religious, political, cultural and economic conceptual language.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of the world's Muslims - particularly western Muslims - recognise the achievements of western societies, while at the same time claiming the right to determine for themselves the parameters of their identity, the nature and extent of their religious practices, and their spiritual and moral convictions. Seen from this perspective, criticism and rejection of the west are linked only to a refusal to accept political, economic or cultural domination.
Even within Islamist ranks, strictly religious discourse is predominantly moderate with regard to the west, from Malaysia to Morocco by way of the current Islamist government of Turkey, whose objective is to join the democratic and secular European Union. The zone of tension and latent conflict is not defined by religion, and therefore has nothing to do either with Islam or with 'moderate Muslims'.
There are those in the west today who are keen to define moderate Muslims as those who are invisible, or look just like us, who support us, or even as those who have accepted the terms of their subjection. In turn, they want to declare all the rest as fundamentalists or extremists. Such self-serving judgements are ideological in nature and lead only to an intellectual confusion that prevents us from grasping the essentially political and economic nature of the debate.
They cannot help us to understand the complex dynamics at work in Muslim societies. Once we have condemned the violent - extremist groups that murder innocent civilians supposedly in the name of Islam, we must move forward and place their political positions in context.
There exists a strictly religious debate, couched in the language of Islamic jurisprudence and the fundamentals of faith, over the notion of moderation. If this is grasped -- as it must be -- it becomes possible to approach the more relevant political questions with far less prejudice and naivety. We should never forget that religious moderation, however it is defined, is perfectly compatible with a radical, non-violent, democratic political stance that rejects all forms of domination, exploitation and oppression.
The Islamic faith has been misunderstood more than, it has been embraced. Yet, today it is the fastest growing faith on our planet.
The writer is a former educator based in Chicago
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