What is a ‘moderate’ Muslim?

By Irshad Manji, the author of ‘The Trouble with Islam Today: A Wake-Up Call for Honesty and Change’ (THE TIMES, 29/11/06):

What does it mean to be a “moderate” Muslim today? As Pope Benedict treks to the secular Muslim state of Turkey, this is a good week to ask the question.

The Pope raised this question – unintentionally – in September. He delivered a speech emphasizing the need to reconcile religion with reason. Along the way, Benedict quoted an obscure Christian emperor who linked Islam to violence. As if on cue, Muslims around the world reacted angrily, some resorting to the very violence that they denied plays any role in our faith.

Days later, I delivered a television commentary about why, as a faithful Muslim, I don’t believe the Pope needed to apologize. We Muslims resent it when non-Muslims reduce the Quran to its most bloodthirsty passages. Why, I wondered, are we reducing the Pope’s speech to a mere few words?

The emails I received in response proved that Muslims know how to exercise freedom of expression as vigorously as the Pope does. Consider, for example, this message from Imran, a self-described “moderate Muslim” and American citizen who works for the US government:

“You said that how Muslims are reacting to the Pope is like reducing the Quran to its most bloodthirsty passages. There is no such thing, Missy… You are looking for cheap publicity for your book and bashing Islam is the easiest way to get it nowadays. It used to be sleeping with the publisher, but for that you require looks. One more thing, if you are a Jew, you should not be ashamed of it.”

Sonya is another Muslim American who benefits from her country’s free speech guarantees. She told me that I should be ashamed of myself for stating my heretical views publicly. Sonya went on:

“Do you blame the people who give you death threats? Or try to psychically harm you? I happen to agree with them. If you know how to talk to people, it will get you somewhere. If you don’t, you will have many enemies…”

I could make a big deal of Sonya’s support for death threats or Imran’s gratuitous anti-Semitism. But there’s something else in their messages that explains why moderation is a concept with which Muslims struggle, even in the 21st century.

Imran says that there’s “no such thing” as reducing the Quran to selected passages. Translation: the Quran must be accepted as the alpha and the omega of God’s will. Likewise with Sonya. When she accuses me of not knowing “how to talk to people”, she’s saying that Muslims don’t want to hear about anything negative in our revelations.

The irony is, my defence of the Pope played up the Quran’s non-violence. I pointed out that Islam’s holy book encourages Muslims to reflect far more than to retaliate. Even if someone is mocking your religion, the Quran advises, walk away. Once tempers have cooled, engage in dialogue.

Still, my simple acknowledgment that the Quran contains harsh passages, too, is enough to eclipse the gospel of dialogue.

Imran and Sonya are more representative than I wish. All Muslims are taught that because the Quran comes after the Torah and the Bible, we must regard it as the final and perfect manifesto of the Divine. It is, we’re told, free of ambiguities, contradictions and human editing; in other words, free of the corruption that contaminates Jewish and Christian scriptures.

Thus the central conundrum for us Muslims. If it’s an article of our faith that the Quran is the unfiltered declaration of God, then what makes moderate Muslims “moderate”?

Perhaps it’s that they won’t murder to assert their convictions. But is this enough, given that moderates such as Sonya tolerate the murderers? And, as Imran demonstrates, those of us who dare to imply that the Quran can be questioned are not real Muslims. We are Jews.

Fortunately, more and more Muslims are proclaiming that it’s time for a liberal Islamic reformation. Two groups that powerfully attest to this movement are the Democratic Muslims of Denmark and their off-shoot, the Critical Muslims, both of which emerged from the Danish cartoon wars.

It’s revealing that neither group calls itself the “Moderate Muslims”. Their members considered doing so. But in the end, they couldn’t agree on what “moderate” means. Maybe that’s because it means too little. Suppose more of us aimed to be reform-minded instead?

Yet another question to ask during an important week in relations between Muslims and Christians worldwide.