After every gruesome crime undertaken in the name of Islam there are the inevitable calls for a “moderate Islam”.
I have always been very curious as to what this means, exactly. How do you moderate a religion? Do you declare some texts holy and some not? Who decides? And frankly, who would abide by the rules of this new, improved moderate religion?
Those calling for moderation somehow seem to believe that (i) humans can choose how to interpret their religion – that is, they can somehow make it “moderate”. At the same time, they believe that (ii) once the religion has been “moderated” people will only follow the moderate version and not the extremist versions. For some reason they are unable to see that hypothesis (i) is the perfect contradiction of hypothesis (ii). If (i) is true, then (ii) cannot be true, and vice versa.
Anyway, how does one differentiate a “moderate” Muslim from an “immoderate” one? Maybe a moderate Muslim has a Western education? Maybe he or she is well travelled, and been exposed to the world, does not dress in traditional clothing or keep a beard.
Maybe a moderate Muslim is okay with alcohol, maybe a moderate Muslim is okay with nightclubs and bars, and even gay bars? If that is so, a moderate Muslim looks very much like the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon, and very much like Omar Mateen, who has just become one of the worst mass murderers in the United States.
As far as I know, there is nobody who knows how to transform a religion into a moderate one. Ah, wait, you say the European Enlightenment, that little phase that many supposed reformers want to cite as the turning point for Christianity?
But how, exactly, did it reform Christianity? Did the Catholic Church or the various Protestant churches, adopt moderate practices and moderate dictums? Were the parts justifying murder, misogyny and massacre edited out of the Bible and did we get a new “moderate” Bible? (Frankly, many of those parts are in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, which are shared with the Jewish Torah, and no, we didn’t get an excised, or moderate Torah either, in case you were wondering.)
The Enlightenment was not a theological project, but a political one. Its leaders sought not to change the contents of the Bible, but to change the relation between the state authorities and religious authorities.
As such, it was a battle for power, where tax incomes, and political authority of religious figures, were both severely curtailed. Consequently, the power of bishops and Popes to declare war or, as Pope Alexander VI did, divide the world in half, to be plundered on the West by Spain and on the East by Portugal, died.
In fact, even by the then, the Pope’s power to decide such things was gone, and most states, notably England, which later went on to conquer anything in sight, ignored his commands.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the European Enlightenment about moderation, it is this: religions do not change, but if you strip religious institutions of landholdings and political power, their ability to influence the world is diminished, and the scope of individual freedom expanded. That is it.
So, what does the discourse of “moderate Islam” tell us? It tells us that instead of identifying the real problems, which are clearly definable – the defence of ideals like freedom of speech, freedom of association, equal treatment under the law, democracy, and justice – people prefer to discuss theological ideas with no meaning.
This allows those unwilling to engage with the numerous atrocities and war crimes that populate our world, from Iraq to Yemen to Afghanistan to Egypt to Syria and much else, to obscure the political problems that are leading more and more people to simply give up on the system of global governance that currently exists, and instead, blame a religion.
It also, crucially, allows “liberal” and “moderate” Muslims to wash their hands off the crimes committed in the name of their religion, and by their co-religionists by saying, “It isn’t us. See, we drink alcohol, we don’t pray, or fast, or keep a beard, or our wives in purdah. We don’t believe in anything; we are just like you. It’s the illiterate religious extremists that are the problem.”
At both positions, this nonsense of moderating a religion – nonsense because it leads to no change and makes nobody accountable – allows us to continue living in a deeply unjust world. This, in turn, means that young idiots (and when have the young not been idiots?) are easily drawn into dreams of some crazy utopia, and willing to kill innocents to achieve it, because no other path of change is shown to them.
The world is broken. It is deeply unfair, and it is deeply interconnected. We can sit in our cushy chairs and do nothing, and watch as those willing to kill and slaughter for a twisted vision gain more and more followers, and are able to bring murder to every corner of the world.
Or we can try and build a better, more open, more just, world. That is a political challenge, not a religious one. But it is a challenge that weighs more on Muslims than anybody else because the zones of conflict are largely – if not exclusively – in the Muslim world.
Either fight for justice for your brothers and sisters, and create a better world, or watch as they are lured away by another mad demagogue in a mission to slaughter their way to power. It is your choice, but you do not have the privilege of saying it is not your responsibility. Forget being a moderate this or that, what is required are immoderate people willing to take extraordinary risks to change the world and make it a better place.
The Article first appeared here (DailyO)
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