Is “moderate” Islam a fallacy?

I’ve recently enjoyed a debate presented by FORA between a scholar of Islamic and middle eastern studies, Daniel Pipes and Syrian born psychologist, Dr. Wafa Sultan. The essence of the debate is whether or not there exists what many deem a “moderate” or tolerant following of Islam.

Pipes’ perspective is that there is indeed a division between hardcore Islamist ideology and a collective moderate belief and that the trend of extremism can be staunched. Sultan, citing her experience as a woman in an Islamic country, begs to differ suggesting that Islam cannot be neatly divided into various gradients of piety, rather that the doctrine itself is immune to selective adaptation. In other words, Islamic doctrine cannot be or simply won’t be conveniently “fudged” into an ideology that’s willing to overlook the more primitive, violent aspects of Koranic doctrine.

Sultan’s hard edged belief that Islam is irreconcilable to modern civilization was famously captured on Al Jazeera when she pulled no punches during a debate with a Saudi cleric, insisting that what kept much of the Islamic world in a perpetual, primitive state of backwater existence was the religious adherence to Islam. Her debate with Pipes isn’t nearly as entertaining but is a more thoughtful and engaging discussion.

The video of the debate is about an hour long and follows:
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Sultan is fiery and unrelenting (to the point of distraction, I’d say) in her disgust with the Islamic world . Obviously her heritage and experience go a long way toward pre-empting the politically correct epithet’s that would be hurled at, say, an anglo male holding and publishing the same scorching testament regarding Islam. I admire both her vehemence and her audacity.
However, I think David Pipes got the better of her in the long run. Much of what Sultan presents will grab both the feminist and xenophobic crowd in America and while one can sympathize with her, Pipes presents a more balanced, realistic vision. He recognizes the reality of militant Islam as the “now” in terms of threat and even suggests that security efforts should include the ultimately “politically incorrect” tactic of profiling. Yet at the same time he insists that not only are there a considerable number of Muslims practising a “moderate” form of Islam but that the religious concept as a whole can be shifted to marginalize the “jihadist” element. Give the vid a look and let me know what you think.

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23 Responses to Is “moderate” Islam a fallacy?

  1. Master Cook says:

    I probably know less about Islam than many on this blog, so lots of caveats apply to this post. That said, there are two things that bother me about the religion.

    The first, unlike other founders of religions, Mohammed was a politician and governed a city. That meant he had to handle political disputes and other government stuff, and a tradition developed in Islam to refer to what Mohammed said or how he did things. This means there are specifically “Islamic” ways of doing things that in other religions are clearly left to secular authorities. There is one famous passage in the Gospels where Jesus specifically says it wasn’t for him to comment on something based on his being a religious guru.

    The other thing is historically both Islam and Christianity had disputes over how much their theology could accomodate more rational thought. Unlike Christianity, it seems that every single one of these disputes in Islam was resolved in favor of the more fundamentalist party. The most famous one that comes to mind is the doctrine of the uncreated Koran. The Caliphs even wanted to rule that the Koran was a human creation, and therefore could err, and were basically shouted down.

    I could see an Islamic version of protestantism that first, greatly deemphasized the Hadiths (the reported sayings of Mohammed) over the Koran (dictated by God over the Koran), and second reversed the result of the Mu’tazilite controversy.

    One other structural constrast between Islam and Christianity worth noting is that in Christianity, the dominant branch (Catholicism) has a large bureaucracy that interprets the religion for its followers. There is a more decentralized, more populist, and more fundamentist version as well (Baptism). With Islam, this is reversed (Shi’ism vs Sunnism). I think historically religious bureaucracy has had the effect of muting religious fundamentalism!

  2. Chris says:

    “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.” – Muhammad, Hadith

    Leviticus isn’t exactly moderate either. Islam and Christianity are one in the same, and I have known enough Muslims to know that the religion can be both as peaceful and as violent as Christianity has been. In all honesty and contrary to the beliefs of their followers, I believe the two religions to be two faces of the same faith.

  3. Chief Wiggum says:

    I’ve read that elements of the British government sought to reach out to moderates in the Nazi party right up to the invasion of Poland. Once in a while I will come across an article about some individual or entity advocating reaching out to moderates in Hisbollah or Hamas.

    The Saudis are considered to be our allies in the erstwhile GWOT, and are thought to be moderates (if only by comparison to more overtly radical groups). But who has done more to spread the Wahhabist version of Islam across the globe with their financing of mosques, madrassas and insurgencies? There are strengthening islamic movements in moderate Muslim states, like Turkey and Indonesia.

    While there are moderate elements in the larger ummah, the radicals often have the whip hand. It is dangerous for moderate elements to speak out. The penalty is often death. In the USA, it’s probably true that the leadership of the Democrat party is more left than most of its members. The Republican leadership is more to the right than most of the rank and file. Some western leftists have made common cause with the jihadist Muslims as part of their goal of destroying capitalism and liberal democracy, which they equate with fascism and imperialism. The Left is using massive immigration and multiculturalism to gut the historic states of Europe.

    I apologize for the rambling on. Your question was “Is Moderate Islam a Fallacy?” No, it’s not a fallacy, but it may be immaterial. Men with guns are going to decide this. Does anyone think the Taliban will not take power again in Afghanistan when the NATO forces leave? The islamic thing is a great romantic adventure for many of its adherents- fighting the devil and his minions on Allah’s behalf, at Allah’s command. If you win, God’s paradise will be spread upon the earth. If you lose, you get to fuck your brains out in heaven forever and ever. It’s tough for muslim moderates to compete with that.

  4. Abdul Haqq says:

    The very title of this post is belittling and condescending to us. This article and video comes at a time when Indonesians are mourning the passing of former President Abdurrahman Wahid – a true Muslim advocate for peace, tolerance, and moderation, who acted and spoke against Islamic extremism and terrorism – and frankly many of us, including myself, feel insulted when critics like Ms. Sultan categorically deny even the possibility of a “moderate Islam”.Thanks in part to Mr. Wahid’s legacy, Muslim Indonesians live it every day. It is not a Western myth. It is not a theological impossibility – in fact it is a theological imperative. We recoil in disgust and incomprehension and we speak against the atrocities (although Western media often choose to ignore us) that are committed in God’s name by others who profess our faith. Take a moment to read about what Mr. Wahid did and stood for, listen to his children, our voices, and know that the Muslim world is not without hope.

  5. Curzon says:

    I have two perspectives on this.

    On the one hand, of course it’s not a fallacy. Many Islamic societies show a greater toleration of different ways of life than most Christian societies, and have had that history for more than a thousand years, allowing societies to peacefully operate with Jews, Christians and other religions living in the same city, at the same time that the West would permit nothing but Christianity and would burn heretics at the stake. Today, Dubai operates one of the most open, multicultural city state societies out there, and there is a tolerance for other cultures simply not seen in the West. Can you imagine the United States opening up a city to free immigration and letting US citizens become less than 10% of the population, possibly with Islam as the majority religion, and having it exist with basically no crime or ethnic violence? For all the blather in the US about diversity and multiculturalism, I can’t see the US copying Dubai’s success in this regard.

    On the other hand, the one thing I note about Islamic societies and Muslims in general is a lack of tolleration for free and open speech that could be offensive. In the West, you can basically get away with saying anything without sanction. In many Islamic societies, you cross the line if you say anything possibly insulting to Islam or blasphemous. So Abdul Haqq’s opening comment — “The very title of this post is belittling and condescending to us” — makes me uncomfortable. Why not openly debate this? You can openly have public debates in open forums in the West on a topics such as, say, “Is Christian “Just War” theory a farce?” or “Jesus v.s. Darwin: Is Christianity compatible with modern science?” Just this week, an arrest warrant was issued on charges of blasphemy in Egypt for a Saudi female journalist (currently in hiding in Beiruit) because she wrote, if Islam really does favor equality between men and women as many Imams are saying, give us an edict that allows women to marry four men. That type of speech should be engaged or ignored, not criminalized and punished. That is the biggest barrier to the progress of many Islamic societies today.

  6. Beauty says:

    Russia’s space agency chief was quoted as a spacecraft may be dispatched to knock a large asteroid off course and reduce the chances of earth impact. Isnt that the big picture? The “them and us” as expressed by ABDUL HAQQ in “The very title of this post is belittling and condescending to us” should perhaps be the starting point for a shift in points of view in relation to a disaster facing us all.

  7. spandrell says:

    I´d say calling Pipes an ¨Anglo¨ is a bit misleading.

  8. Chris says:

    I completely agree with Beauty. The “us and them” attitude has been lying at the root of problems for all of history. People are quick to condemn what they’ll never understand, quick to hate people who’s true paradigms they will never know. Whether it be violent battle on the international front, or ego battle on the intellectual front, pride does a good job of blinding us from the perspectives of others.

    I’m still waiting for the day we all realize we’re exactly the same, that we believe what we believe for the same reasons, fear what we fear for the same reasons, and hate what we hate for the same reasons. I don’t believe I’ll ever live to see it.

  9. Kyle says:

    Forget that profiling is politically incorrect as that shouldn’t be a consideration. However there is widespread evidence that it doesn’t work, that is why it is to be avoided.

  10. Larry Dunbar says:

    I have long been skeptical of the term “moderate” in describing any religious movement. It seems to me religion is divided between the potential, containing force, and the kinetic that contains velocity of movement, with Al Qaeda belonging to the kinetic part. The Saudis contain great amounts of force, and should not be mistaken for a moderate form of Islam. Al Qaeda contains great velocity and cannot also be considered moderate.

    Like hot and cold, moderation is just the absence of heat. What Mr. Pipes and Ms Sultan were looking for was something neither too hot nor too cold. I don’t think this will ever be found. I think the answer to moderation can be found by looking at what any religion is not willing to give up, command and control.

    I think religion 2.0 has a quote that goes something like this: give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, command and control is not Caesar’s. The physics and ethics of the movement can be tweaked from time to time, but the logic, which is the command and control, does not change. I think this can be seen in all three monolithic religions in the story of Abraham, which I read off of the KSA’s web site.

    If I understand the story correctly, the structure and ethics of the system were badly corrupted, but the logic remained. Because logic moves in cycles, through Abraham the logic of the religion was repeated. This is what gives logic the prime-mover of importance.

    Perhaps, instead of looking for moderation, look inward towards the logic of the systems and understanding what must remain, might be the best start, force will take care of the rest.

    “However, I think David Pipes got the better of her in the long run.”

    I apologize if I am mistaken, but it looks to me like Mr. Pipes is an Arab, therefore, I would have to say from her dialog on Arabs, Ms. Sultan got the better of him, slam!

  11. PaxAmericana says:

    The title is somewhat condescending. Moderate Islam exists right now, in places such as Indonesia. Anyway, many are still waiting, like Gandhi, for Western Civilization to develop. I would like to see a TV show in Africa or the Middle East on whether the US is constitutionally incapable of ever becoming civilized. That would be amusing.

  12. Beauty says:

    Larry Dunbar, Thank you for making this even harder than it already is. What ever appeared easy is sure as hell difficult. It is the difficult stuff (sorry about the lazy word) that is easy. Ms Sultan´s view of her former home is incomprehensible to Mr Pipes. Just the same way men do not fully understand women because, we are not women. We gave them the vote does sound revolting. In the same way, Mr Pipes is not a female muslim trying to warn about the danger of the hearts and minds battle today.

    I do not think Mr Pipes go the better of Ms Sultan. Mr Pipes´s argument might sound balanced and realistic but that again is a false premise. It is the same strategy being pursued to failure in all the conflict zones which has led to all the preventable body bags. I am still concerned about why we are loosing the politics of those battles both at home and abroad.

  13. Larry Dunbar says:

    “That would be amusing. ”

    That would be amusing, thanks.

  14. Larry Dunbar says:

    “It is the difficult stuff (sorry about the lazy word) that is easy.”

    Very true. The “difficult stuff ” is the result of force and it is easy to understand and see, the results of force. It is less easy to see where that force comes from (the potential) and to re-act without force, as a way of simplifying the situation.

    So it is quite natural and easy for us to react to force, usually with force. As Paxamerica says it is harder to react to force without force, or to understand what non-violence really means, to bring that force inward instead of outward. This creates a very complex situation in which the force is moving in the opposite direction as the displacement. The force is moving inward, as the displacement is moving outward, or in the direction of the future, towards future generations, which no longer exist, if you let force consume you, E=mc^2.

  15. IVoIIIoVI says:

    Indonesia is the apologists’ best example of “moderate Islam”? How embarrassing!

    Hundreds to worship outside churches amid tight security

    “Dozens of churches in the province have closed since 2004 after being stormed or attacked by hard-line Muslim mobs. In 2000, militants bombed churches across the archipelago on Christmas Eve.

    This week in Bandung, West Java, many Christians won’t be able to celebrate Christmas in a church because they were denied permits to build their places of worship.”

    A thousand Islamic extremists, including women and children, storm a Church near Jakarta

    Aceh Sharia forbids Chinese dance of the lions

    Sexy Costumes Spark Halloween Raids in Indonesia’s Kalimantan

    Indonesia: Stoning, caning now the law in Aceh

    Please, my fellow Muslims: these excuses and appeals to an imagined, feminized Islam are pathetic. If you want a moderate Abrahamic religion, convert to some mainline branch of Protestantism. Ours is a warrior’s religion, now in decline. Thus to preserve our heritage we must have a new Islam, freed of the feminized corruption of the West, and fortunately, it has already been revealed: Neo-Muhammadanism!

    And the Caliphate shall rise again!

  16. Chris says:

    It wasn’t that long ago…

    Curzon, I have to say I enjoy your controversial topics.

  17. Curzon says:

    Chris, this is Munro-Ferguson’s post, not mine!

  18. T. Greer says:

    I always find questions like these very silly. One of my closest friends is a mathematician from Yemen. He is a devout Muslim. He is neither an extremist nor a fundamentalist. What is he but a moderate? (Of course, he would reject the label “moderate” — at its root it is a fundamentally insulting label, is it not? I now few souls who claim that they are “moderately” righteous. My friend’s preferred label is “orthodox”, for this reason.)

    But really, why can’t Islam be “moderated” or “modernized”? Christianity did it. Europe and Arabia are both part of the Western tradition; the only difference between the two is the enlightenment. So why not work to change that? Religions are not the immutable and monolithic things some paint them to be; they are fluid, susceptible to change and outside influence, as are all ideologies. It is inane to assume that Islam is immune to the forces that shape all of human thought.

  19. Chris says:

    Haha, my mistake.

    Munro, I like your topics too.

  20. Beauty says:

    “I can’t see the US copying Dubai’s success in this regard” is perhaps why every nation has its flaws that is compensated for in other ways but with Islam, it is different. Dr. Wafa Sultan is selling a great future product. “The force is moving inward, as the displacement is moving outward, or in the direction of the future, towards future generations, which no longer exist, if you let force consume you, E=mc^2″ however, did sound as like a finality. Perhaps the need to find out what lies beyond a blackhole is another reason to educate those doing the god trick. Who is afraid of a blackhole puts it better.

  21. Spandrell, the reference wasn’t directed at Pipes.

    Paxamaericana, what do you imagine to be a “civilized” West? The sectarian/tribal warfare, poverty, disease and abject corruption we see in much of Africa?

    T. Greer, given the level of Main St. paranoia here in the US regarding Islam (remember the “He’s a Muslim” comment made by a woman at a McCain rally regarding Obama?) I’d wager we’re one successful terrorist attack away from a major collective push back, the likes of which we’re seeing in Europe. So I’ll have to disagree with your assertion that the question is “silly.” Quite the contrary, I think it’s an important and timely question to be asking and discussing.

    Abdul Haqq, apologies if you found the title offensive but I think there exists (as illustrated by IVoIIIoVI’s comment) a large enough body of hardline Muslims that the distinction is fair.

    Kyle, agreed whether profiling is used or not should be based on it’s effectiveness. Given the rather broad ethnic background of recent would be terrorists (Jamaican, Nigerian, Latino, Albanian, etc.) racial profiling may well be counterproductive.

  22. Roy Berman says:

    Why is everybody talking about “Islamic societies” as if that is a 100% correspondence with “Arab societies?” While Islam started in Arabia, there are a LOT more Muslims in either South Asia OR Southeast Asia than in the Middle East, and they tend to be ignored, as well as all the former Soviet Muslim-majority countries. And of course Turkey, with its aggressively secular constitution.

    I would like to second Abdul above in reminding people to not forget about Indonesia, which is by far the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world. They have a secular government founded on nationalism and democratic elections, and the late president Wahid was, despite being the leader of one of the largest (if not the largest) Islamic religious organization in the world, seems to have been less of a theocratic leader than the Christian Right politicians in America.

    IVoIIIoVI above mentions examples of intolerance and fundamentalist Islam in Indonesia, and that is absolutely a huge concern, but remember that the jihadists are the enemies of the government, and that the fundamentalist Islamist parties do very poorly in elections in most of the country. Islamist political parties as a whole saw a drop in their support in the 2009 elections, compared to previous years, including moderate parties such as the National Awakening Party of former president Wahid, but especially the more fundamentalist ones. Voters had previously supported the Islamist parties more because they were regarded as less corrupt, but the imposition of more Islam-inspired regulation inspired an electoral backlash, showing rather clearly how the majority feels.

    Several of the links posted by IVoIIIoVI refer to the law in Aceh province, which is worth mentioning. Aceh is the only area of Indonesia in which Shariah law is significant and Islamist parties hold power, as a federalist compromise by the Indonesian government to end a bloody war of secession by the Aceh fundamentalists, who wanted to form an independent Islamic state.

    So yes, Indonesia has its fair share of extremist Muslims, but I think that considering the overwhelming popular support for secular government, on the whole it is fair to say that the majority follows a moderate Islam.

  23. Roy Berman says:

    A minor correction: Aceh isn’t actually a “province” of Indonesia, but a “special region”, given far more autonomy than the other conventional provinces. This happened in 2005, after 29 years of war, partly as a result of the devastation caused by the 2004 tsunami.

    And here’s the handy stats on the 2009 elections I referenced:,_2009