The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

What's a moderate?

A few quick thoughts on the Tariq Ramadan controversy. The debate is largely one of definitions. What defines a moderate Muslim? Is Tariq Ramadan, or anyone for that matter, moderate simply because he doesn't support suicide bombers, and isn't calling for armed confrontation with the West, or infidel regimes, or whatever other looming entities are perceived as threats to Islam? This is a tangible measure of moderation for many, especially today, when the specter of global terrorism carried out by Islamic radicals is frankly the only reason we're discussing this in the first place. Abu Aardvark defined a moderate as those who "embrace dialogue as a core political value."

However, in terms of really understanding what these people are saying, these are marginal issues. Many "moderates" like Ramadan and Qaradawi, may not be calling for armed confrontation and may be engaging in open dialog, but they do have a way of reading the texts, and of interpreting Islam that I, and my liberal secular standards, feel is decidedly immoderate. Their critics argue that whether or not they themselves are encouraging violence, their way of thinking is ultimately the same as those extremists who are. Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid, in his book "A Critique of Religious Discourse," argues that the premises that Qaradawi and others are basing their discourse on, are the same premises that the extremists are basing their rhetoric on. It's a matter of applying the principle and when to apply the principle, not a matter of the principle itself.

Let's take the example of the takfiri movements that plagued Egypt though much of the 1990s. Al Gamaa Al Islamiya would release a statement saying the regime of Hosni Mubarak is an infidel regime and therefore we must resort to violence and do away with it. And then the "moderates" from Al Azhar, or elsewhere, would release a statement in response saying, the regime is not an infidel regime. So the debate is not, is it acceptable to violently attack an infidel regime? But rather, is the regime an infidel regime? It's an argument over details, not principles.

The reason this debate continues to rage, and the reason it won't end any time soon, is because while Qaradawi and Ramadan are moderates by the standards of a place like Cairo, by our more secular Westernized standards they are about as moderate as, I don't know, say Billy Graham or Ralph Reed (Neither Reed nor Graham are calling for armed struggle, but both are trying to achieve immoderate ends through moderate means.) Those who say Ramadan is not moderate can find plenty to support their argument, meanwhile, in the context of time and place (ie the Islamic world today), Ramadan is a moderate.

Which brings us back to the game of definitions. We need to make a distinction between moderate and reformist. Too often, when people slam an Islamic thinker as not moderate, it is clear that they were expecting a reformist. Reformists view the Koran as a historical text, as a series of solutions to a series of a specific problems faced by a specific society in a specific time. It provides a general framework that is applicable throughout the ages, but just because four wives was a reasonable thing in seventh century Saudi Arabia, doesn't mean it's reasonable today. Such talk is considered blasphemous by Al Azhar, by Qaradawi, and I would imagine by Ramadan too. Unfortunately, the truly reform movement in Islam, as embodied by thinkers like Nasser Hamed Abu Zeid, Gamal al Banna and others, is still insignificant in the Muslim world. They are perceived (perhaps rightly) as a bunch of Westernized secular intellectuals. So, while we should continue to encourage the true reformists, we must also engage Ramadan and those of his ilk.

(A quick sidenote: This is all unrelated to whether or not Ramdan should be allowed to teach in the US. I can think of dozens of University professors of all political and ideological stripes who are hardly moderate. Issandr is right, Ramdan doesn't present a threat to US security, even if he does pose a threat to progressive, liberal thought. Of course, all those crusading against Ramadan pose an even bigger threat to progressive, liberal thought. I guess the answer is to let him in, and then, if necessary, discredit him on the merits of his ideas. Silencing him or keeping him out is no better than Azhar confiscating books.)