Posted on October 13, 2016

Where is the Moderate Muslim?

The question of moderation in Islam has become very prominent in the last few years. Clearly, the latest reason for a resurgence of the question is the events in Iraq and Syria. The question has now become a global one as we witness young Muslims from all over the world, from all kinds of societies and with all kinds of backgrounds heading to the deserts of Iraq and Syria to participate in erecting a supposedly Islamic State on the bloody remains of anyone who might differ with them. Where did this thirst for violence and blood and excitement come from? Why are so many young Muslims becoming radicalized?

Hence the question: Where is the Moderate Muslim?

And I should clarify: this question is not only being asked in the West. The same question is being posed across the Arab world, in the Arabic language and in the public media. The question of the Moderate Muslim is not a question that should offend anyone in the region anymore. And in this context, it was interesting to observe the recent debate on moderate Islam between Reza Aslan and Bill Maher in the US. I believe it is inaccurate to suggest that all is ok since the radicals only represent small percentage of Muslims. The reason this is not quite so straightforward is because the radicals dominate public discourse of Islam and drown out the vast majority of moderate Muslims. Thus, the discourse of the moderate Muslim lies dormant, underdeveloped and marginalized.

The question of the Moderate Muslim is a relatively new one among Muslims. The more traditional question was: what do I do to be a good Muslim? We would ask this question when we were children and in fact the term is still used today by many people.

The focus of interest has shifted though. Today there is a confusion in many people’s minds. The confusion is between the beliefs that are now being presented, forcefully some, as central to a Muslim’s life and the often radical consequences these beliefs produce.

How, for example, did violent, nihilistic jihad take precedence over all other aspects of life? Where did spirituality go? What happened to building a society and an economy? What about raising a family and educating yourself? Where did the promise of science and industrialization go? What about generosity, kindness and care?

The radicals seem to have manufactured a simplistic and attractive set of positions that have entranced a growing number of people. They hold seemingly contradictory positions – that a person can be kind, generous and spiritual while also declaring war on nations, armies and individuals of all beliefs other than their version of Islam.

I come from a position where, because of our intrinsic beliefs in a long life of learning, understanding and productive engagement, we cannot accept the place given to such destructive tendencies. It seems to be the Islamic version of “better to burn out than to fade away.” It also has echoes in the youthful refrain: “you only live once.” Both statements reflect a desire to experience awe and carefree abandon. But can this be the essence of Islam? Or are they not the bitter conclusions of weak thinkers and uninspired preachers?

It is unfortunately the message being propagated by certain schools of thought. What lies behind this approach, this philosophy, this destructive spirit is the practice of exploiting and conditioning Muslim youth to be unwilled followers. We also need to keep in mind that a religiously justified “burning out” allows for the individual involved to be a tyrant for a day: raping, stealing, pillaging, terrorizing. This is a religiously justified freedom from all ethical rules. A kind of nirvana for a young man.


What are the traditional answers or approaches to the question of the moderate Muslim? Where can we see a space for the moderate Muslim? Where do we notice its absence?

Firstly, look at the reaction to the Rand report of 2007 on “Building Moderate Muslim Networks” with recommendations on how to deal with and strengthen Moderate Islam. The reaction to this report exemplifies one approach to our Muslim attitudes to Moderate Islam. This was seen, by many who heard of the report, as an unacceptable attempt to manufacture a West-friendly Islam, and as a conspiracy to rob Islam of its essence. This was a non-Islamic initiative to open the question of moderate Islam.

Another approach to this question is to deny that Islam is anything but moderate. According to this approach: “Of course Islam is moderate, and whatever extremism we see is a result of deviant interpretations or the product of CIA-Mossad attempts to undermine and attack Islam.” Not the most useful of approaches. It does not allow us to investigate why our own community produces monsters who quote our holy texts. This moderation consists in a denial that extremists represent True Islam or that they are simply not Muslims. Why they are not Muslims is not clear and what True Islam is not clear either.

Our default reaction to criticism directed towards Islam is often to be defensive and protective. Why are we so defensive? Reza Aslan, with all his knowledge is defensive to the point of proving the critics right. He is defensive on the tactical front of deflecting attention from outsiders by trying to point out how their individual ideas are inconsistent. Of course they are inconsistent.

But what about the wider point that even we within Islam recognize the extremist within our own community? Aslan does not respond to this internal worry that many of us have. Perhaps we are defensive because we want to protect our shell, our appearance without requiring ourselves to be introspective and critical. Perhaps we do not have the time to engage in this introspection.

A third approach is for us as Muslims to acknowledge, or even verbalize, that we are moderate Muslims, without the ability to specify what makes us moderate. Most people who describe themselves as moderates seem more interested in defending Islam from “unfair” criticism than in outlining what moderation looks like. Is moderation simply the fact that the majority of Muslims live “peacefully”? One of the drivers of these traditional approaches to moderation may be found in the insecurity of our religious leaders. Their apparent inability to engage adequately with the questions thrown up by modernity, telecommunications and globalization has led to a reactive, defensive position vis a vis Muslims with questions.

And this, I believe, is the most important problem that we moderates need to face up to. Our moderation seems to have no real content, no identifiable principle, no force to gather around, no ground to stand on, no direction to take.


We hear of moderation, but it comes across as a detail, as expediency. It is almost a tactical give in order to win peace until a further date. The truth is that it is difficult to BE a moderate, and it is difficult to think of what makes moderation moderate. We all need to think about this together.

What are some of the areas that are a cause of concern? If the young Muslim were to collect all the information he could on Islam in one room, in one library, he would find such a variety of readings that he would be lost. He would find everything from readings that glorify violent jihad and martyrdom to readings that promote deep and beautiful spirituality with little connection to the material world. All the readings he would discover have roots in the words of the Quran and Prophetic sayings. What is he to do?

Some of the key areas where these differences appear are the following:

1. Obsessive compulsive ritual and fatwa seeking vs. ethics/spirit
2. Anger / fear vs. Love of God
3. Individual vs. group/Ummah
4. Ethics vs. politics
5. Doubt vs. certainty

Such dichotomies represent the range of approaches that you can find in the different schools of Islam. How is one to make sense of them all?

In all of this confusion, radicalism presents the appeal of clear-cut and organized ideas, attractive in their simplicity. I believe that it is the logical duty of the young Muslim to take a step back and think about how he should approach the different readings of Islam.


All of these questions seemed abstract and difficult to pin down for a long time until I was approached by a young Asian Muslim in London at the end of a talk I gave there. He thanked me for the talk and then asked me a question that has continued to puzzle me since. He explained that he had joined the University Islamic Society and was wondering whether it was Islamically correct to avoid all interaction with non-Muslims at his university and to avoid assisting a non-Muslim in any way. It seems this is what he had been told by some of his colleagues at the society.

I was surprised by his question. But as time has gone by, I am increasingly worried that this is the key problem that we face. There are so many voices, and people, and preachers and interpreters and imams and scholars – all demanding that we obey Islam and do as they say.

How is a young Muslim – particularly in a Western society – to make sense of any of this?

In a period of crisis and existential search, how does a young man know if he even has a religious right to be a moderate? Especially when he is faced with narratives that design Islam along territorial, exclusionary and expansionist lines? What does the young man, who has no deep learning or knowledge of the language and texts of Islam, do in the face of an army of Islamic scholars who see themselves as divinely ordained to guide the Ummah?

Given some of the illogical, contradictory and often irrelevant statements made by many of these people, the non-scholar must retain the right to develop a set of standards in approaching these people. It is to retake the right to think about approach, if not detail, back from the scholars. One immediate reason is because if we moderate Muslims are looking for a way out of expediency and into a world of ethical principles, we quickly find difficulties of design on this path. Much of the guidance we are given by our religious authorities comes in the form of answers to specific questions, rather than general principles of conduct. This is traditional, but it is no longer enough.

We are caught in a trap of sorts. Moderates must push for ethical power to move from the religious authorities to the ordinary average individual. The question-answer-fatwa approach may have been appropriate to a traditional society, but it does not respond adequately enough in a world of fast moving events and decisions that need to be made at a rapid pace. The power to make ethical choices should be passed to the individual Muslim through education in the principles of religion rather than formulaic rites and dictates that demand a constant return to the religious scholar for advice.

I divide the various Islamic schools, groups and factions by their acknowledgment of the difference between Islam of the Individual and Islam of the Group.

With Islam of the Individual we find principles and ethics. With Islam of the Group we find gatekeepers and an abstract Utopian End: A. the Pious. B. the Turbaned. C. the Authoritative: He who defines/controls/edits the Group and its membership.

How do I become a Good Muslim when I cannot trust anyone to answer this without an Agenda? This question is at the heart of a debate posed by traditional Islamic Political Theory. Islam of the Individual builds itself on the inability to trust religious authority in today’s world, in today’s environment, with today’s knowledge.
• the impossibility of knowing who is manipulating, using, utilizing you.
• the reality of the cannon fodder approach.
• the absence of personality.


The great Islamic thinker Al Ghazali provides an example in Islamic history of what we can do in today’s world. There are readings of today’s world that say that there is simply too much freedom and too much choice – especially in western, liberal, democratic societies. Everything is available and on offer, and giant corporations are working night and day to tempt us in every way imaginable. There is no moral compulsion to do anything other than indulge your desires. It is difficult to locate yourself in this world of choice. Radical Islam is said to offer a way out of the doubt and uncertainty and moral fragility of such a life.

The problem is that it is a false stability and it is a false certainty. Often the convert to Islam makes this clear to me. How often have we heard the convert speaking in awed tones about the clarity that they now have about life? As I listen to them, I think to myself, if it was all so clear to us within Islam, then why so much struggle, so much anger, so much blood, so many scholarly and not so scholarly battles?

The reality seems to be that we all share in the human condition and we all ask the same sort of questions – including within the Muslim faith. Islam’s beauty and our challenge is to construct our Islamic answers to the questions posed by the modern world, by technology, by alienation – rather than denying that the modern world exists.

One key way in which we can do this is by looking at the role of the following concepts as exemplified in Al Ghazali’s life: and they are Doubt/Certainty. Let me unpack these ideas a little. Any conscious human being will likely have felt doubt and uncertainty. How do we deal with doubt and uncertainty within Islam? Currently these mental states are, for the most part, condemned if ever they appear. This any Muslim child knows when he asks a question at the boundaries of religious discussion. Silencing the child doesn’t make the question go away though. And that is the problem of those who say that Islam is ritual and obedience only. It is ritual and obedience but it also has the capacity to answer the difficult questions and the doubts that modern life presents. The radical chooses the weakest of answers to those questions. These answers fill his life and remove him from the real challenge of life – which is to live it.

The moderate often feels shame at any surfacing of doubt. Let me be specific here. The doubts I am talking about concern the large number of choices we have in modern society, but they also concern the lack of clarity around key questions of whether one is to love or to fear God, whether violent jihad is a manifestation of deep piety, and whether the ethical is political and vice versa in Islam or not.

This is why I believe that we need to determine a constructive position for doubt, to use it as a tool to build our self-knowledge. One reason I find the fear of doubt particularly interesting is that it unsettles people who have no ability to construct more appropriate or complex or informed answers to questions. People who are settled in their ways. They are psychologically unable to deal with a change in the settings of their lives. And so doubt must be expelled from their world. In their world, doubt must be demonized. Doubt must be seen as the work of the devil.

The relationship of the religious classes to doubt and its vaguest expression is a possible indication of a number of things. Their rejection of the positive power of doubt perhaps indicates an inability to construct interesting answers, or perhaps reveals a disconnect between their world and a world of technological, social and economic change of great rapidity. Could it indicate that they fear the brittle nature of their own beliefs will not be able to stand up to the questioning mind?

This is why moderates need to place the religious authorities – both traditional and radical – under the microscope. The reality here is that the religious classes should embrace doubt as a mechanism to further develop and enrich their and our understanding of our religious texts and the divine. They should not fear; they should relish the chance to see the jewels of religion in a new and different light.

We need to develop a sense of measure, of balance between competing claims on our time, our attention, our capacity for work, our spirit. The radical throws all wordly ties to the wind and accepts that he is on his way to a violent death and a heavenly reward. The radical is no longer of the earth. The radical measures himself by setting himself beyond all the rules of life and determining to become a martyr.

We the moderates are here to stay. How can the moderate Muslim measure him or herself? Moderation must mean more than not running around cutting heads off and burying women in the home away from knowledge and education.

The moderate needs to measure him or herself by engagement with life, by living life fully and affirming life.

Moderation needs a philosophy, an approach, a sense of purpose, a mission and a set of goals. It cannot simply mean that we are friendly, gentle, kind. Moderation must also allow us to think how religion and spirituality appear in our lives.

Why? Because moderation is what frees us to learn, to build, to grow. The radical stunts his own growth. He sees himself as having understood and now implementing the final vision before departing the world. The moderate sees the world as a process that is in continual motion and confusion, revealing new aspects and different paths. The moderate can experience Islam as a path of unfolding experience and not as a death trap waiting for the true believer.

Moderation must be exciting because it puts constructive action in the forefront. There is a sense that Islam must be evident in our every waking moment. Thus the continual testing and retesting of our own devotion and piety. But Islam says: you know your world better. So we should not be afraid to put limits on how devout and pious we should be. There are many markings in our religion that insist on the limits of an overbearing religion, and unbearable level of piety and prayer.

We seem to excel at providing increasingly dogmatic answers to ourselves. We fill the vacuum created by modern consumer society and the collapse of traditional structure in the Middle East with dogma. However, dogmatic answers do not provide the flexibility and responsiveness required by the modern day psychological expanse of the Muslim mind. In a globalized world, the dogmatized Muslim mind is brittle. We as Muslims owe ourselves more.

Is it not legitimate to demand an Islamic set of positions that allow us to respond flexibly to the immense amount of information that we are exposed to every day? Is it not legitimate to ask for principles of behavior that will allow us to govern our own lives without continually calling on the Arab religious scholar?

We need to see ourselves as free ethical and moral agents to give full expression to Islam. It is inconceivable to think that operating by ethical principle rather than dogma is in some way against Islam. The only way in which such an objection can be interpreted is by understanding our religious and ethical predicament as a function of religious power politics. Our religious classes often suggest that people will not understand. I believe people will not only understand but also appreciate moral clarity. We need to stop policing each other’s behavior and focus on living ethically.

If this can be accomplished, then there are further elements that may help the young Muslim in search of answers and coherence structure his or her outlook. The reality is that we as Muslims face the same set of challenges faced by all others in the modern world. There is no secret Islamic remedy that will protect us from these challenges. The mind cannot be silenced, even if we think it is silent because we hear nothing. Behind closed doors we know that people are asking, wondering, questioning. The way we move beyond is by moving forward, loudly, and by constructing answers using all the resources we have in a world overflowing with good ideas.


1. Moderation needs conceptual clarity and this clarity comes from recognizing that we all share in the human condition and common humanity. The need for much greater knowledge to operate in the modern world is what compels us to lean towards a philosophical moderation which precedes Islamic Political Theory. There should be an understanding of psychology, history, texts, society, philosophy, awareness and self-consciousness, economics, and modern politics. And this also requires a suspension of cataclysmic judgment of others that we witness too often in the Muslim world.

2. We Moderates must build the program of moderation and that moderation begins with the individual asserting his separate existence as a principled moral and ethical agent, rather than a cog in a machine operated by scholars luxuriating in their monopoly over religious knowledge.

3. My hope is to speak and to hear an echo from Islam’s moderate majority, as the Muslim world remains one of controversy in need of conversation. It does so in part because it is reflective of the controversies surrounding identity and political instability in modern Arab history. This approach allows me to analyze my communities and myself accurately, taking ownership for my responsibilities and capabilities.

4. The moderate Muslim needs transparency. Our theologians monopolize our Muslim attention through a variety of means: one particularly important means is through legalistic, ritualistic, question and prescribed answer approaches to life. The idea that to every question and to every doubt there is an Islamic answer. By defining the Muslim’s life in this way,
our theologians control critical access to Islam’s ethical and political power structures. Building a program for Moderate Ethical Theory is the antidote.

5. The moderate Muslim’s productive identity is important to address as we must engage with the global economy and continue to provide our people with meaningful jobs and lives. What is our creative identity? How do we grasp our OWN imagination? Young entrepreneurs should tackle education, literacy, ethical empowerment at the level of the individual. Our society is always a product of what we allow ourselves to be. So if corruption is rampant, then it is because it is the corruption within. If violent, then it is because of the violence we are ready to commit against one another.

6. And finally, how does life’s complexity interact with our traditional religious stances and with the pastoral services of our religious leaders? By this I mean the duty of the religious scholars to interact with the community in a manner that gives more than legal judgments, commands and injunctions that we are expected to follow like a patient prescribed a course of medicine. Let us place the Muslim individual at the heart of Islam and focus on nurturing his or her mind; so that they can become the best that they can be in a balanced society focused on growth and development – always moving forward.

This essay is based on a 2014 lecture given to the International Affairs Forum hosted by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia, as well as the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

Posted in: Uncategorized