Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Moderate Muslim Shows the Strengths and Weaknesses of That Approach

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By Barry Rubin

Here’s a really interesting op-ed piece on al-Jazeera by a moderate Muslim with some useful ideas. But it also shows the weaknesses of that standpoint.

Mohamed El-Moctar El-Shinqiti (his transliteration, not mine) was born in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, so he isn’t strictly speaking a mainstream Arab. But his resume is perfect for discussing these topics: a certificate for memorizing the whole Koran and a BA in Islamic law. He's been a teacher of Islam in Yemen and spent two years teaching at Islamic centers in Washington DC, Virginia, and California before becoming head of an Islamic center in Texas.

But that is, of course, also the problem, He has lived in the United States for 11 years, clearly is fluent in English, and has read widely in Western political writing. So he isn’t typical of those clerics and experts on Islam living in Muslim-majority states functioning almost completely in Arabic or other non-Western languages.

Thus, his background shows why it’s hard to become a moderate Muslim unless you spend a lot of time in the West (and not even necessarily then). In addition, his argument shows how moderate Muslims have to twist history a bit to make their case. The problem is not necessarily that they are fooling Westerners (they aren't if they are sincere moderates) but, regardless of their good intentions, they can’t fool fellow Muslims.

On the positive side, it shows there are articulate, ingenious people (as opposed to ingenuous radical Islamists pretending to be moderates) able to write even in places like al-Jazira’s site who can articulate moderate arguments and concepts.

Basically, el-Shinqiti urges a synthesis, a tranformation of Islam into a political role similar to that played by Christianity in many Western democracies. He starts by pointing out that the Muslim-majority world is in crisis and needs modernizing solutions, using the example of the West moving from its Middle Ages into a new type of polity and society.

"The cultural legacy modern Muslims inherited from their ancestors," el-Shinqiti explains, "is exhausted, and–with lack of self-criticism–much of this legacy is becoming a burden….At this moment, Muslims need new ideas and ideals that transcend their divisions and heal their wounds.”

There is certainly general agreement, among nationalists, Islamists, and liberal reformers that a big crisis exists. Each faction, of course, has its own answer. The Islamists attribute the crisis to the abandonment, not exhaustion, of the Muslim cultural legacy.

Further, they insist that what el-Shinqiti calls "self-criticism" of their own tradition is merely a Western (even a Zionist, imperialist, Christian Crusader) plot to weaken Islam. They are very much engaged, however, in criticism of how Islam is practiced in the Muslim-majority world. And they have convinced a lot more people than have the liberal reformers.

He continues:

"At the heart of the crisis of Muslim societies today is the lack of consensus about the social contract on which society should be based, especially in terms of an agreed understanding for the relation between religion and state.”

This is certainly true. Indeed, this debate is central for Muslim-majority countries and the Middle East generally. Islamists want religion to define and dominate the state; nationalists are willing to make varying degrees of accommodation to an Islam they define in more moderate terms, and the liberals want a primarily secular framework. Ultimately, Arab liberals have more in common with the nationalists (including the current dictatorial regimes) than they do with the Islamists.

To put it simply, Islamists want Sharia, Islamic law, to be the sole source of the nation's law and governance. Nationalists are ready to have it be a source. In a sense, what el-Shinqiti proposes is close to that offer. A lot, arguably the majority, of Muslims are ready to accept this situation.

El-Shinqiti argues as if he is adapting this idea to a Western-style system by making a distinction between what he calls “Anglo-Saxon `soft' secularism which basically means positive neutrality of the state towards religion, and the French 'hard' laïcité that goes beyond neutrality to negative intervention against religion.”

In other words, he says, Muslims can live with an American-style separation of church and state but not a consciously secular state. Islamists don’t want either, while the nationalist dictatorships give lip service to the “soft secularism” model though they often tilt in practice toward a more Islamic framework to keep more pious Muslims from joining the Islamists against them.

While as an argument, el-Shinqiti is offering something rather sensible, there are lots of problems once one starts examining his idea. For example, what he's proposing is not significantly different from the way that Egypt, Syria, Jordan, or Iraq has been governed for the last fifty years. This is precisely what the Islamists are rebelling against: they don’t want a small taste of Islamic doctrine as interpreted by pro-state clerics. They want it all.

Moreover, to defend his argument, el-Shinqiti has to distort history:

"Institutional separation between religious and political organizations is not difficult to accept in the Islamic world. It is indeed in compatibility with the Islamic historical experience, where religion was never institutionalized as a political competitor with the state, the way it was in medieval Christianity.”

Well, of course if that institutionalization of Islam as competitor wasn’t necessary that was because the state was already so highly Islamized. One could make the opposite argument: it was far easier for Western states to become more secular because they were battling an external enemy, the Rome-based Papacy. Britain’s King Henry VIII, for example, could just start his own religion and mobilize his people against the Pope.

But until Kemal Ataturk established the Turkish republic in the 1920s--and never since then--no ruler of a Muslim-majority country could declare a secular state or create an officially sanctioned moderate version of Islam. And we've seen how this Turkish system has been faring lately.

Again, El-Shinqity’s goals are good—the state’s basis is geographical, not religious; citizens must have equal political rights. But this program forces him into another distortion of history:

"Fortunately for modern Muslims who are deeply rooted in their cultural heritage, there are potentials in their inherited culture that might help. First, Muslim societies have always been open to religious diversity.”

Well, not exactly. And his Muslim listeners know it, whatever they say to Western audiences. In fact, Jews have already been driven out and Christians are being pushed from most of the Muslim-majority countries they inhabit.

"Second, Islamic law is very flexible and open to perpetual interpretation and adaptation, and it is easy to incorporate most modern laws within the Islamic legal vision.”

This is what the reformers claim and the Islamists deny. Neither is “right” in some abstract sense. What counts is how many followers each side can get. The tide is going toward the Islamists. In other words, if only five percent of Muslims believe that modern laws can easily be accepted by Islam then the words and good intentions of people like el-Shinqiti are useless. Thus, his statement is made ridiculous in practice no matter how true or untrue it might be when applied to Islamic theology.

El-Shinqiti speaks of the existence of three groups: Muslim majorities, non-Muslim minorities, and non-practicing Muslims. Outside of Lebanon, non-Muslim minorities, however, are just no longer significant politically. The number of openly non-practicing Muslims is also quite small in Muslim-majority countries.

More accurate, I think is the distinction between an Islamist minority that is growing and a majority of people who are also practicing Muslims but draw their political identity not from Islamic theology but from nationalism, communal loyalty, patriotism toward the state where they live, or some other identity.

He concludes:

"I told my friends at a Texas church a few years ago, I don't care if U.S. law is drawn from a Biblical source or a Roman source; what I care about is that the law does not discriminate against me as a Muslim.” Islamists in the West, however, who seem to control the majority of mosques, believe that a law that forbids certain (real or alleged) Muslim practices in practice is discriminatory, whether it be requiring taxi drivers to take seeing-eye dogs or work through prayer times, or even bans polygamy.

The main problem with Sharia law in Middle Eastern countries where the population is almost entirely Muslim is not so much that it discriminates against non-Muslim minorities and openly non-practicing Muslims but that it discriminates against practicing or relatively lax Muslims who have a different interpretation of their religion. Incidentally, it also seeks to establish radical dictatorships eager to punish dissidens harshly and engage in Jihad against everyone else.

It is good to hear voices like his joining the debate, especially writing in Arabic. The ultimate problem, however, is that el-Shinqiti’s concepts speak more to Texas than to Tehran, Tunis, or Tikrit.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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