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The Challenge For Moderate Islam


In a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal on how to beat the Islamic State, Maajid Nawaz argues that Islam is a diverse religion but Islamism “is the desire to impose a single version of Islam on an entire society. Islamism is not Islam, but it is an offshoot of Islam. It is Muslim theocracy.” So too with jihad, which he says is a nuanced and multifaceted Muslim idea about struggle that’s been twisted by radicals into a doctrine “of using force to spread Islamism.”

Nawaz leaves it at that. He goes on to criticize President Obama and liberal commentators for oversimplifying the relationship between Islam and Islamism when they say the two have nothing in common. We shouldn’t refuse “to call this Islamist ideology by its proper name,” he writes, for fear that all Muslims will be blamed for the actions of a few.

That’s a great point, but it’s not enough just to call Islamism by its proper name. If Muslim theocracy is a distortion of Islam, Nawaz should explain why. But he doesn’t even try. In this, his essay is representative of the broad failure of moderate Muslims to explain the substantive difference between Islam and Islamism. If the leaders of Islamic State are wrong, and imposing Islamic law through force goes against historical and normative Islamic teachings, then a long essay in a major newspaper about how we can defeat ISIS would be a good place to explain that. But Nawaz makes no attempt to clarify how groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda could stem from what he believes is a correct understanding of Islam.

That’s too bad, because many of us in the West need to understand distinctions that moderate Muslims seem to take for granted. I recently argued that if ISIS and its underlying ideology are to be defeated, the Islamic doctrines that animate it must be discredited—not just by a crushing defeat on the battlefield but also by moderate Muslim leaders around the world arguing for a peaceful version of their faith. We in the West have no competency to judge which interpretations of Islam are valid and which are not—no matter what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry say. If moderates have a compelling case to make, they’d better start making it.

Polls Say Radical Islam Is Mainstream

They don’t seem to be up for the challenge. After the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Muslim groups like the American Council on American–Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) were quick to condemn the attacks and distance themselves from “radicalism.” But none of these groups have ever addressed head-on one of the central claims of ISIS and other Islamist groups, which is that Muslim societies (including non-Muslim minorities) should be governed by Islamic law, or Sharia.

Setting aside who should decide the correct form of Sharia, is this something most Muslims believe? Is it a radical belief or mainstream? According to a 2013 Pew survey of Muslims, huge majorities of Muslims in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia say they agree that Sharia should be the law of the land.


Muslims in the West shouldn’t be offended if their fellow Americans or Europeans are uneasy about admitting large numbers of people who hold such a view into their countries. Combined with Islam’s political origins and its history of conquest, many westerners conclude, not unreasonably, that Islam is fundamentally illiberal and an Islamic “reformation” is impossible.

But instead of lecturing westerners about Islamophobia, moderate Muslims would do better to address candidly how something like Sharia can be reconciled with Western values. Tell us, in other words, why Islamist groups like ISIS are wrong for wanting to impose a Muslim theocracy, and tell us what Sharia and jihad mean if they don’t mean what Islamists say they do. We are capable and willing to understand.

Moderate Muslims Have Lots of Work to Do

Alas, westerners have at least some reason to suspect that moderate Muslims have no good answers to these questions. Nawaz mentions Muslim leaders in the West who are “urgently trying to lay the foundations of a theology that rejects Islamism and promotes freedom of speech and gender rights.” But why, after more than 1,300 years of Islam, do the foundations for such a theology not already exist? And why do would-be reformers “need a vocabulary that distinguishes Islam from the politicized distortion” of Islamists?

Nawaz’s failure to engage on these points undermines his claim that moderate voices can dissuade Muslims who are inclined to jihadist and Islamist views.

Nawaz’s failure to engage on these points undermines his claim that moderate voices can dissuade Muslims who are inclined to jihadist and Islamist views. If reform-minded Muslims in the year 2015 don’t have a vocabulary or a theology to explain why Islamism is a distortion of a religion founded in the seventh century, Islam has a serious theological problem right at its heart, and it’s intellectually dishonest for men like Nawaz not to say so plainly.

Likewise, it’s dishonest for our own political elites to pretend that large swaths of the Muslim world hold views that are compatible with democratic societies. Politicians on both the Left and Right often claim that peace and freedom are the universal desires of all peoples, the objects of all true faiths. But what if that’s not true? What if some people interpret their faith not as a call to seek peace but to make war? What if many millions of pious Muslims across the world desire not freedom but justice and piety? What message, and what messenger, can convince them to abandon what they believe is the interpretation of Islam most faithful to its history and most rooted in the teachings of its prophet? Who will tell them they are wrong?

If Islam Democratizes, It May End Itself

In a recent event at the Heritage Foundation, a panel of Muslims spoke out against ISIS and Islamic extremism. They argued for a reformed, progressive version of Islam that recognizes women’s rights, protects religious minorities, and rejects violence. They acknowledged that Muslims must reject literal interpretations of the Koran that extremists use to justify murder, and they argued for bringing the faith into the twenty-first century. “Our jihad is a struggle for reformation,” said journalist Asra Nomani. “We are in a struggle for the future of our world… it is a struggle of ideology.”

They acknowledged that Muslims must reject literal interpretations of the Koran that extremists use to justify murder, and they argued for bringing the faith into the twenty-first century.

That will no doubt assuage the fears of many in the West who want to believe Islam can be reconciled with modernity. But if it sounds like this reformed version of Islam is something wholly different than what most Muslims imagine their religion to be, we shouldn’t be too comforted by it. As Ross Douthat noted in a recent column, forcing Islam to accept secular pluralism would guarantee its irrelevance: “Instead of a life-changing, obedience-demanding revelation of the Absolute… modernized Islam would be Unitarianism with prayer rugs and Middle Eastern kitsch—one more sigil in the COEXIST bumper sticker, one more office in the multicultural student center, one more client group in the left-wing coalition.”

Douthat suggests that the best model for Islam’s transition is American evangelicalism, “like Islam a missionary faith, like Islam decentralized and intensely scripture-oriented, and like Islam a tradition that often assumes an organic link between the theological and political.” He deserves credit for his optimism, but there’s something uncomfortable about the comparison.

American evangelicalism identifies most closely with the founding myths of Christianity—the “Early Church,” in evangelical parlance. Young evangelical missionaries see themselves as the legitimate heirs of Christ’s apostles, their faith an expression of Christianity uncorrupted by the Catholic Church’s past mingling of politics and faith. In their eyes, the practice of their faith is closest to that of “first-century” Christians. They situate themselves in a long tradition of messengers of peace. Many of them would welcome the chance to be persecuted for their faith, perhaps even martyred, by a hostile political power just as Christ and his disciples were.

It isn’t hard to see how a similar approach to Islam might produce something very different, maybe even something like the Islamic State. If westerners are wrong to think so, Muslims themselves must tell us why. That they won’t, or haven’t yet, is a spectacular and ominous failure. It’s hard to understand. It leaves the West to wonder why this should be, and fervently hoping there’s an explanation that doesn’t mean war.

John is a writer in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.