Muslim Moderates

Robert Spencer and Dean Esmay are having a rather heated, ongoing exchange about the nature of Muslim moderates and the extent to which jihad is an integral teaching of Islam. Aside from the ad hominem and questioning of motives, it’s worth a look.

I’ve been reading Esmay’s site for years and have only passing familiarity of Spencer’s. Still, on this issue, I’m much more closely aligned with the latter.

. . . I have been bitterly attacked simply for observing that there are millions of Muslims who have no interest in the jihad, and I am just as eager as is the rest of the world to find Muslims who will renounce jihad and Sharia supremacism and stand with us to defend the equality of dignity of all people, freedom of conscience, and other principles denied by the mujahedin.

However, in my eagerness to find such people I am not going to allow myself to be fooled. I have read the Qur’an many, many times. I have read Bukhari, Muslim, and other Hadith collections. I have read the Sira of Ibn Ishaq. I have read treatises of Islamic law and first-hand accounts of Islamic history. All that brings me to certain inescapable conclusions about Islamic doctrine, Muhammad’s character and behavior, and more — conclusions which I have documented in my books. Then when I read various Muslim moderates, they state that the Qur’an teaches, and that Muhammad taught, and that Islam as a whole teaches, very different things from what I know to be the case.

What should I do then? Clap my hands and shout, “Yea, here’s a Muslim moderate”? Well, I haven’t done that. Their omissions, distortions, and misrepresentations make me suspicious. As I have said many times, it is easy to convince Westerners who know nothing of Islam that Islam is peaceful. It is harder to convince mujahedin. I am all for real moderate Muslims. I am not for getting deceived. If I can see that a moderate’s account of Islamic teaching is inaccurate, a mujahid will certainly be able to also. And if that moderate’s moderation won’t convince Muslims, what’s the point of it? To make non-Muslims feel better? I would rather have the truth than feel better on the basis of half-truths, thank you.

As to the argument that there are numerous radical groups that claim Biblical inspiration, Spencer writes:

The Lord’s Resistance Army and Christian Identity movement are fringe groups that teach things that no mainstream Christian sect teaches or has ever taught. Nor do they have global networks of violent Christians committing violence all over the world in the name of Christianity. In contrast, every Muslim sect (except the Ahmadiyya and some others who are considered heretical by maintream Sunnis and Shia for precisely this reason) and madhhab teaches jihad to establish the Islamic social order over the earth. What that amounts to is this: mainstream Christians around the world are not in danger of falling prey to the Christianity of the LRA or Christian Identity. For most of them, these groups’ version of Christianity is self-evidently absurd. But in Islamic communities, the mujahedin recruit by presenting their Islam as true, pure Islam — as I have documented many times at this site (do a search at JW for “pure Islam”). That is something the moderates must counter, if they can, or that recruitment will continue.

While I claim no special expertise in religious studies, it does not take much historical reading to understand that Jesus was a purely religious figure who taught his disciples to follow the path of peace whereas Mohammad was a political-military-religious leader who led his followers in violent conquest and taught a message of imperialism. Jesus was “the Prince of Peace;” Mohammad was a warrior-king.

It’s also the case that, as the Christian faith came into ascendancy, there was a substantial period where church and state essentially merged and there was substantial violence and wrongdoing conducted in the name of Christianity. The tide turned centuries ago, with the weakening of the papacy as a political force following the Thirty Years War and the Protestant Reformation. Even during the Church’s dark period, however, a great body of scholarship grew up from within about Just War and the proper relation between church and state (the Two Swords debate).

Further, Christianity has managed to evolve and adapt to modern life in a way that Islam has not. Islam is mired in the time of its founder in a way that Christianity simply is not. Even the most “fundamentalist” Christian sects do not advocate that we run society in the way we did in Christ’s time–or even the 7th Century.

Update: My occasional co-blogger John Burgess makes some excellent points in the comments:

I certainly do not underestimate the danger of Islamic-inspired terrorism. But I do look at the numbers. Even if there were a million violent jihadists out there, they would represent 0.000625% of all Muslims. Go ahead and estimate 10 million jihadis, 100 million jihadis—they still represent an insignificant fraction of those who call themselves Muslims.

To paint a stereotype based on an infinitesimal portion of the whole is simply wrong. It begs to be labeled as some form of phobia.

There are two things that need to be done:

1) Keep your eye on the real target, extremist jihadis. Even if they are unrepresentative of the whole, they are still the danger.

2) Help those who want to paint a more representative picture do so by not demonizing them. By giving them earned respect, we empower them to claim back the title to Islam.

Robert errs because he cannot recognize that the vast majority of Muslims do not take part in jihad. Even the vast majority of Wahhabis live quiet daily lives and abjure violence, focusing instead on things like putting food on the table and getting their kids into good schools and jobs.

Tarring them with the same brush does not help them make their own arguments. It does not help them see that while some of the goals of the jihadis may be noble, the means they use to achieve them are not and must be rejected.

Because Robert’s point of view are wildly intemperate—and those of his commenters even more so—it’s quite easy to dismiss him. But because he gives good interview and writes a lot, his voice is louder than even the majority of Muslims, living their own faith. He’s accomplished a lot by becoming conversant with the ins-and-outs of Islamic exegesis. But he’s missed a lot by not recognizing that the instruction manual, written centuries ago, has been superceded in practice by a lot of functional work-arounds. He’s critiquing the manual that very few still use.

Much more at the link.

This is the essence of the problem. It is simultaneously true that Muslim teachings lend themselves to exploitation by extremists, that the jihadist-Islamist movement is large and has quiet support from some substantial plurality of Muslims, and that most Muslims are apolitical human beings simply trying to get by. How to simultaneously combat the former without further alienating the latter is not something we’ve figured out.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Besides patching Windows, Exchange, and the Flash Player Tuesday, Microsoft also released a pair of Office 2003 non-security, high-priority updates, and as usual, unveiled a tweaked version of its Windows Malicious Software Removal Tool. The pair ofBy James Joyner Outside Beltway – Robert Spencer and Dean Esmay are having a rather heated, ongoing exchange about the nature of Muslim moderates and the extent to which jihad is an integral teaching of Islam. Aside from the ad hominem and questioning of motives, it s

  2. Alex Knapp says:

    Even the most �fundamentalist� Christian sects do not advocate that we run society in the way we did in Christ�s time�or even the 7th Century.

    James, living in the heart of fundamentalist country like I do, I regret to inform you that you’re incorrect on this score. I have met people who sincerely want exactly that.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Although I’m a contributor to Dean’s World and I consider Dean a friend, I haven’t commented on the argument over there.

    I think they’re arguing at cross-purposes—about different things.

    Religion just doesn’t work that way. Whether you’re talking about Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, or any other religion there are two rather different things: the formal doctrine of the religion and the folk religion—the religion as it is actually practiced by its adherents.

    There’s an enormous variety in practice within Christianity from Opus Dei (which is getting considerable press these days) to Congregationalism (or even, arguably, Unitarianism). Within a single Christian sect, Roman Catholicism, there’s considerable variety in the folk religion.

    I’m not an expert on Islam but it’s obvious to me that there’s a separation between the formal tenets of the relgion and the folk religion in Islam as well and an enormous variety in practice.

    You can study the formal tenets as represented by the Qu’ran and the various associated texts for an eternity and learn little about the folk religion. Just my two cents.

    In a related vein you might want to check out the extensive quotation fromn the social anthropologist, philosopher, and student of Islam Ernest Gellner in this post of mine (out-of-print and, apparently, not available elsewhere on the web).

  4. John Burgess says:

    I think Dave Schuler puts his finger on it. Spencer probably knows more about “official” Islamic doctrine than 99% of practicing Muslims. And, I’m willing to bet, 90% of practicing imams.

    Until quite recently, the bulk of the Islamic world was far less developed than the West. From literacy (where it still lags a bit) to education for women (where it has rapidly caught up), a state of ignorance about the world prevailed.

    Even today, learning to read the Quran–in a foreign language, yet–is the total extent of formal education for huge numbers of people from Pakistan to West Africa. Reading, however, is nowhere near the level of religous understanding that even a product of the “Baltimore Catechism” reaches.

    That state of ignorance isn’t a surprise to those living in it. It’s a matter of both pride and shame. Pride, because it’s a level of education that many, many others can’t claim. Shame, because they know well that there are others who know a whole lot more.

    It’s very easy to get persuaded to a particular point of view about what the Quran “means” when someone with higher qualifications comes into the room. That’s a human response in any number of fields.

    But the shame of not really knowing means that one is subject to being outflanked by an “authority” who supposedly knows his stuff. And in a region of the world where religion is still very important, the last thing one wants is to be considered irreligious. At best, one learns to keep one’s mouth shut; at worst, one joins in.

    I certainly do not underestimate the danger of Islamic-inspired terrorism. But I do look at the numbers. Even if there were a million violent jihadists out there, they would represent 0.000625% of all Muslims. Go ahead and estimate 10 million jihadis, 100 million jihadis–they still represent an insignificant fraction of those who call themselves Muslims.

    To paint a stereotype based on an infinitesimal portion of the whole is simply wrong. It begs to be labeled as some form of phobia.

    There are two things that need to be done:

    1) Keep your eye on the real target, extremist jihadis. Even if they are unrepresentative of the whole, they are still the danger.

    2) Help those who want to paint a more representative picture do so by not demonizing them. By giving them earned respect, we empower them to claim back the title to Islam.

    Robert errs because he cannot recognize that the vast majority of Muslims do not take part in jihad. Even the vast majority of Wahhabis live quiet daily lives and abjure violence, focusing instead on things like putting food on the table and getting their kids into good schools and jobs.

    Tarring them with the same brush does not help them make their own arguments. It does not help them see that while some of the goals of the jihadis may be noble, the means they use to achieve them are not and must be rejected.

    Because Robert’s point of view are wildly intemperate–and those of his commenters even more so–it’s quite easy to dismiss him. But because he gives good interview and writes a lot, his voice is louder than even the majority of Muslims, living their own faith. He’s accomplished a lot by becoming conversant with the ins-and-outs of Islamic exegesis. But he’s missed a lot by not recognizing that the instruction manual, written centuries ago, has been superceded in practice by a lot of functional work-arounds. He’s critiquing the manual that very few still use.

  5. lily says:

    The two commenters above are right and their point is important; whatever the original tenets of a religion might have been, the current state of a religion has more to do with the current state of its adherents than the texts and teachings. People make their religous beliefs match their immediate needs and experiences , not the other way around.
    To get a handle on jihadism we really need to try to figure out why people feel the need to emphasize that aspect of their tradition over allother aspects.. The tradition itself isn’t the driving force; something is making jihadism and the associated death and destrctiveness attractive to some people (frustrated pride? Nationalism? Anger over the Palestinian situation and a general sense of being victimized by outside forces?). People who get involved in extremist versions of Christianity aren’t motivated by the religion. They get something else out of the extremism besides Christian values. for example, the one fundamentalist of my acquaintance is motivated mainly by egotism. She likes to feel more moral than thou. She likes feeling like God is her personal servent, always there to respond to her prayers. She is a weak person and her religous beliefs reflect her personal insecurities. It may be that Americans are more prone to this kind of thing than cultures that don’t emphasize a personal god, but the rise of Chritianists isn’t a failing of Christianity. I don’t think terrorism should be seen as a failing of Islam. It isn’t helpful. It is more enlightening to view the movement of ideas and beliefs through groups of people by looking at the economic and political stresses people experience and how that will affect the way they interpete their religion.
    After all it is difficult to find a culture anywhere on this planet that wasn’t aggressive towards others, given the chance. People always use religion to justify doing what they have already decided to do.

  6. legion says:

    Lily,
    I have seen exactly what you describe; not just within religious groups, but in other groups as well… But does that mean the problem is religion itself? Or simply human nature? And either way, what can be done about it?

    I’m reading some midieval history just now, and there was a bit about the parallels between the growth of Islam and Christian Europe… The Moslems were moving about the ME, northern Africa, etc. telling the nomads “accept Allah or die” while at about the same time the Christians were moving throughout Europe telling the barbarians, pagans, etc. “accept Christ or die”. Both groups have things to be proud & ashamed of in their history…

    A ‘crusade’ against Islam is obviously not the answer. Even stomping out Islamist extremism (or however the ‘bad actors’ within Islam are referred to this week) won’t solve the problem for longer than a week or two, until some other group takes their place. Unfortunately, we all seem to be at a loss as to what a long-term solution would even look like…

  7. […] James Joyner of Outside the Beltway then weighed in with this post, “Muslim Moderates”.  My contribution to the discussion consisted of a comment I made on to that post: Although I’m a contributor to Dean’s World and I consider Dean a friend, I haven’t commented on the argument over there. […]

  8. Esmay’s Dismay…

    Well, it seems that Dean Esmay has his Underoos all in a twist about some textbooks in Saudi Arabia…  doesn’t he know that the Saudis are, like, our bestest friends in the entire Middle East?  Go ahead, admit it…  you……

  9. Banagor says:

    Bravo. Bravo.

    It sounds so reasonable. For once, a voice of reason in this whole debate.

    But, seriously, think about that for a moment. Let’s…compare.

    After all, most Germans who read and followed the ideology of Mein Kampf didn’t actually ever commit violence, did they? They led decent, pleasant, hardworking lives. Right?

    Now, I know what you’re going to say: it’s offensive to compare that work to the Koran. But then, why is it? Is it because one is a Western version of saying “Kill the Jews” and the other is an Eastern version of saying the same thing? Please, tell me why it would be offensive.

    It matters very much what people believe and worship, even if they aren’t strict adherents to the message. The point is that the message has some very bad points to it. Sure, not everything in Mein Kampf was bad – after all, he talks about a lot of good things like family values and economic issues. But the point is that there are a lot of bad things in it as well, just as in the Koran. And I don’t happen to think that anyone who follows either one or the other deserves any of my respect, no matter what they practice in their daily lives.