October 17, 2003


The Six Dilemmas of the Moderate Islamist (Michael Vlahos, 10/16/2003, Tech Central Station)

Editor's note: This article is the first of a two-part series on moderate Islamists and American strategy. This emerged from a Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab meeting with moderate Islamists. It does not try to speak for moderate Islamists, but rather to how they talk about their dilemmas. The discussion was frank and open, so as a courtesy the guests are not named, and only sparely quoted.
Moderate Islamists could ultimately decide if America wins or loses its "War on Terror." Victory depends on their support, and thus also on our support of them, but in the end as well on the support of Muslims everywhere.
Why? Because Islam is in the throes of renewal and the Muslim World is changing. Moreover we cannot genetically modify Muslim societies so they become happy American replicants. The change must be in Islam itself, and the question is will it be a radical purification or a moderate reinterpretation?
But what exactly is a "moderate Islamist?" The moderate Islamist should not be confused with the moderate Muslim. The moderate Muslim is the kind of Muslim America likes. Americans are comfortable with moderate religiosity; so like the quiet churchgoer, we would prefer Muslims who are not above, for example, knocking back an occasional beer. But this is not what we should expect. Islam is a demanding religion -- and a demanding way of life. Islamic renewal will be full of piety and passion.
The moderate Islamist, like the radical Islamist, seeks to renew the Muslim World -- not help it relax. The Islamist is dedicated to the Islamic cause, and he is an active proselyte. Thus moderate Islamists like radical Islamists are dedicated to change within and expansion of the Muslim World. But unlike the radicals they reject the path of aggressive struggle, or Jihad. Moderate Islamists would renew their faith and their world instead through Islamic reinterpretation, or Ijtihad.
Moderate Islamists are thus self-proclaimed leaders -- clerics and scholars -- in the renewal of Islam. The moderate Islamist is highly educated, in contrast to many radical Islamists. The moderate Islamist is also receptive to Western ideas -- but selectively receptive. Ultimately the moderate Islamist must compete with the radical Islamist for authority among Muslims. It is this competition that will decide how Islam changes.
But the moderate Islamist is at a disadvantage. Moderate Islamists face six dilemmas that threaten to undermine their cause.

You need only look at the sinkhole Europe is becoming to see why moderates in the Islamic world are hostile to the full panoply of Enlightenment modernity, but you have to wonder about the chances of slow and sensible reform succeeding. The conservative American Revolution is the exception--the nihilistic French the rule.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 17, 2003 1:03 PM

I was working late last night and took a cab home. Muslim driver, obviously traditional in accent and taxi decoration. He was eating and apologized because he was fasting during daylight for Ramadan. This led to a great conversation about the joy of the holiday (which moved me)and how non-Muslims should wish Muslims a happy Ramadan (Apparently, "Happy Ramadan!" does it.). Ended with a classic North American conversation about how fantastic Canada is and how lucky we are to have so many peoples and faiths that get along. I saw no insincerity (and I'm a cynical lawyer).

What the heck are we all supposed to think?

Posted by: Peter B at October 17, 2003 7:21 PM