‘Moderate Islam’ no antidote to jihadist ideology for countering violent extremism


islamists nytThe notion that “moderate Islam” is an antidote to jihadist ideology or a key to countering violent extremism is a misleading diversion, says a prominent analyst.

“While at first sight appealing, the notion of moderate Islam constitutes an undue concession to the argument that individuals and societies who hold Islam as part of their faith and cultural heritage are to be defined primarily by their religious affiliation — a standard seldom applied to other religions,” argues Hassan Mneimneh, a principal at Middle East Alternatives in Washington.

Yet the expectation of proponents of “moderate Islam” is that some compendium of traditions will be pulled out from the scholastic corpus to refute and rebuke the radicals. It is a futile quest, he writes for the Fikra Forum, an initiative of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:

The paradigm shift from the acceptance of inconsistencies to the exigence of a coherent system has done irreversible damage to Islamic scholasticism as a potential purveyor of tolerant values. Religious doctors and thinkers are welcome to seek new paradigm shifts to re-align Islamic theology with the values shared by many Muslims and non-Muslims — the extension of dignity, freedom, and equality to all. But Islamic scholasticism should not be equated with the full religious experience of Muslims, even while most clerics, moderate and radical, proclaim their custodianship of the faith.

“Rather than engaging in the intra-scholastic battle between moderates and radicals, the battle of ideas could be better framed as one between the shared values that unite people of all belief systems and a radicalism that seeks to impose totalitarian regimentation,” Mneimneh contends. “Certainly many Muslims would highlight the importance of religion in their world view. But the place of faith and its interaction with other elements of identity — culture, nation, language, ideology, lifestyle, etc. — is better viewed as a process of negotiation and circumstances, rather than in a rigid hierarchy assumed at face value.”

majid nawazOne self-described ‘Muslim reformer’ says he is being smeared as an ‘anti-Muslim extremist.’

“I am a brown, liberal, reform Muslim. I have survived violent neo-Nazi racism and served as a former War on Terror political prisoner in Egypt, witnessing torture,” writes Maajid Nawaz, founder of the counter-extremism organization Quilliam:

Yet, in a trip that takes us through the looking glass, the largely white American non-Muslim “progressive” leadership at the pro-civil liberties group Southern Poverty Law Center (SLPC) has just published a “journalist’s field list” naming me as an “anti-Muslim” extremist….. I have spent eight years defending my Muslim communities in Europe, Pakistan  and beyond from the diktats of Islamist theocrats. I have also argued for the liberal reform of Islam today, from within.

“Anti-Muslim extremists often complain that there are no ‘moderate Muslims’ challenging extremism,” Nawaz adds. “Then liberal reform Muslims and ex-Muslims stepped up to this challenge, only to be labelled as ‘anti-Muslim’ extremists by those we had hoped were our allies.”

Nawaz “is a liberal in the greatest sense of the term,” says James Kirchick, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Initiative. Nawaz “believes in individual rights and freedom, and he believes in a liberal interpretation of Islam than condemns terrorism, that respects the human rights of all people, including nonbelievers or ex-believers.”

“He’s one of the strongest voices for liberalism within Islam,” says Kirchick, a former Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance NGO.

Is Islamic Law Compatible with Human Rights?

The international media frequently features stories of Arab states and non-state actors committing human rights violations allegedly in the name of Islam, notes the Atlantic Council’s Islamic Law and Human Rights initiative, a project of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East:

The application and understanding of Islamic jurisprudence is varied and controversial, whether such readings of the faith result in institutionalized state laws or actions committed by non-state actors, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or al-Qaeda. A forthcoming event will present the initiative and feature a discussion on where gender relations and freedom of speech stand in the context of sharia in the region.

Ms. Hauwa Ibrahim is a visiting lecturer on women’s studies and Islamic law at Harvard Divinity School and is currently a fellow at both the Human Rights Program and the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard University. Dr. Moataz El Fegiery has over 14 years of experience in human rights research and advocacy in the MENA region and published intensively on Islam, Islamism, and human rights. Amb. Frederic C. Hof specializes in the conflict in Syria, and served as the special adviser for transition in Syria at the State Department in 2012. Ms. Geneive Abdo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.


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