Thursday, August 26, 2010

Which Side Are You On?: The "Moderate Muslim" Litmus Tests

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By Barry Rubin

In the controversy over the "Ground Zero" mosque in New York and other issues, Muslims are often asked if they condemn terrorism, Iran, or Hamas and other revolutionary Islamist groups, along with other questions. The idea is to determine whether they are moderates or radicals. Each of these questions also has an unnoticed "internal Muslim" aspect as well that makes them all the more important.

Yet this question is often placed in the context of whether or not they support murderous attacks on non-Muslims or calls to wipe out Israel. This is a valid consideration, but it misses a key point about why Islamic activists should be asked and how they should answer such questions.

After all, those whom the moderates are being asked to condemn are revolutionary Islamist groups or countries. If you don't condemn them you are in effect accepting their program for a radical transformation of Muslim-majority (and even other) countries, the imposition of a radical interpretation of Sharia law on every aspect of society.  If you are a nationalist, or a liberal, or a moderate Islamist the prospect of your enemies seizing state power and perhaps repressing you would be a most upsetting prospect.

In other words, a moderate would condemn these groups and Iran not for the sake of Israel or the West, but for the sake of his own people and anti-Islamist cause. It is impossible to be neutral on this point: Do you want to live (or see most other Muslims live) under a caliphate, a theocratic dictatorship, a repressive regime as exists in Iran or the Taliban's Afghanistan or not?

The request to show yourself to be moderate is not a demand for some concession but to declare that you don't want to see Muslims as well as others subjected to an authoritarian, would-be totalitarian regime that crushes all dissent, murders critics, persecutes Christians and Jews, and outlaws alternative interpretations of Islam, among other things.

Would a moderate like to see what should be his worst nightmare triumph, interpreting Islam in its own extremist way, and destroying any chance that he might realize his vision? Well, he could if his vision is roughly the same as theirs.

Another question asked--Do you condemn terrorism not only against "innocent Muslims" but also non-Muslims?--has a similar twist. Again, by refusing to reject terrorism against Jews, Christians, and (in Thailand, at least) Buddhists, the political activist is accepting some types of deliberate murder of civilians.

Yet this is not the only issue going on here. An "innocent Muslim" is a regular person, a bystander. But that would not include government officials or employees or those deemed too secular or liberal, people revolutionary Islamists want to kill.  Perhaps this category of the non-innocent might include whole Muslim communities (Shias in Iraq, for example; African groups in Sudan). Moreover, failing to condemn all terrorism shows either a misunderstanding (or support) for the anarchy and destruction that this tactic imposes on Muslim-majority societies. In other words, it shows both ruthlessness toward one's own people and indicates that one is on the side of the radical Islamists.

Still another indicator is adherence to the Muslim Brotherhood or its front groups. It is somewhat understandable but ultimately quite foolish to focus only on the threat of currently violent terrorist Islamist groups, notably al-Qaida, to the exclusion of everyone else (even Hizballah or elements of the Taliban, according to some Obama Administration officials.)

The Brotherhood is more dangerous precisely because it takes a long-term, tactically flexible view that is more likely to be effective in both Muslim-majority and Western states. Moreover, for the Brotherhood, violence is merely a matter of timing, wrong to engage in only because the mass base has not yet been prepared and success not assured.

One of the Brotherhood's tactics is dissimulation or to use the plainer word: lying. Its agents speak of dialogue, moderation, and bridge-building to the suckers (I mean interlocutors) while indoctrinating their Muslim audience with anti-Americanism, anti-Westernism, anti-Christianism, and antisemitism. Many of them have mastered the rhetoric of human rights and victimhood.

And they have become used to the fact that few in the West will look deeply into their doctrine, what is said in Arabic or other non-Western languages, or political positions. Thus, in most of the Muslim-majority world it is between incredibly difficult and impossible to build or repair any church or synagogue (according to Islamic doctrine which sought to ensure that non-Muslim institutions literally collapsed).

Does this mean that Western societies should do the same to Muslims? No, but it means that these societies should inquire into their "moderate" friends views on the issue, pressing for them to protest and demand change in the countries their religion controls (they won't) and to cover such matters in schools and media.

A final point of great importance. There are relatively few “moderate Muslims” but there are millions of Muslims who are relatively moderate. The former term refers to people whose main identity is as a Muslim and who explicitly want to reform normative Islam. In contrast, the latter are those who are equally Muslim in faith but  whose primary identity formed by some ethnic (Turkish, Arab, Persian, Kurd, Berber, etc.) or national (Egyptian, Indonesian, Indian, Moroccan) loyalty and who practice Islam in traditional, non-Islamist ways.

Almost a decade after the September 11 attacks, it is remarkable to see how primitive, censored, and misinformed is the Western debate over Islam and Islamism. Yet this is an issue of the greatest importance in the world today. The fate of the Middle East and the future of the West hangs in the balance.

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, at

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