By Barry Rubin
A reader asks: where are all these tens and even hundreds of millions of Muslim anti-Islamists.
I wrote an entire book about the liberals and moderates called The Long War for Freedom. There are a number of scholars who have written such books, even analogies of moderate Muslim writings. Oh, yes, and then there is every book and article written by non-Islamist Muslims over decades.
The problem today is that we are caught between two lies. The mainstream Western lie is that Islam is a religion of peace full stop. There is nothing at all militant in its texts. A small fringe of extremists have misinterpreted it or are even heretics. So all Muslims are moderates pretty much, either moderate moderates or moderate Islamists. And anyone who says otherwise is an Islamophobic racist.
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That is a lie.
But then there are those—far smaller in number and lacking power in the mainstream media or universities but present in other places—who say Islam is the problem full stop. It is inevitably militant, extremist, and violence. There is no such thing as political Islamism because all Muslims want Sharia dictatorships. So the radicals are proper representatives and there are few or no moderates at all. And anyone who says otherwise is a wimpy apologist sell-out.
And that’s a lie.
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Let me once again define the two key groups of Muslims who are anti-Islamist and relatively moderate by far in comparison:
–Muslims who are moderates are people whose religion is Islam but are not revolutionary Islamists. They might be Arab nationalists, or pro-democratic; they might be primarily loyal to identities as Turks, Kurds, Berbers, Iranians; or supporters of a communal-ethnic grouping like the Sunni Muslims of Lebanon or many of the Muslims of both types in Iraq or a variety of Muslims in the former Soviet republics and Russia itself who have national or communal identities. [Note: I don’t consider Alawites or Druze to be Muslims but if you do then you can count them as anti-Islamist Muslims, too.
And don’t forget all those Indian Muslims and Muslims in many countries who might support any one of many different parties or movements. There are Muslims who are left-wing, too. And then there are huge numbers of African Muslims who aren’t Islamists but have other loyalties.
In other words, lots of Muslims have their own political views. Remember for example that 60 percent of Tunisians voted for secular parties. In Turkey, the Islamists had to disguise themselves and there are so many opposed to them that if the rival parties ever got their act together they could toss them out of office. Even in Syria there are lots of liberal, moderate, or traditional Sunni Muslims. If we only helped those people rather than the Islamists (thanks to Obama policy and its funneling through Islamist Turkey and financing by Qatar and Saudi Arabia) the moderates might even win.
These people listed above vary in their religious views from pious, to different varieties, to lax, or secular but they are still Muslims.
–There are far fewer people who could be called moderates who want to reform Islam in some active way. Perhaps it is the relative shortage of these people that is misleading. The number of liberal Muslim reformers is not large, partly due to repression and intimidation. To some extent, though not completely, a lot of the alleged power of the reform movement is a creation of Western apologist propaganda. Yes, real moderate reformers do exist—a variety of articles and books deal with their ideas—and they are courageous people. Unfortunately, the Western mass media often favors the phonies.
Yet aside from all the varieties of Islam (one of which is the moderate Sufi view) and relative secularists and the sincere but relatively inactive Muslims, there’s something else, too. I call it conservative-traditional Islam and it has been very powerful. Conservative-traditional Islam has dominated, for example, the Arab world and Iran and Turkey and lots of other places for decades. It has several different approaches.
Among the Shia there is the “Quietist” Islam which means to be very religious and stay out of politics. This is the Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini battled, defeated, and his regime has tried to repress. But it is very much alive and one day—though it might take many decades—it will boot out the Islamists of today right to the bottom of the Persian Gulf. It is also very active in Lebanon and in Iraq, too.
Then there is the conservative-traditionalist Islam that has controlled the official positions throughout the Arab world and will now be rooted out by the Muslim Brotherhood if it can. These clerics are not necessarily lovable liberals but they are not advocates of violent revolution and people who fully intend to implement genocide. They viewed the Islamists as heretical and just ignorant, though many have surrendered or gone over to the winning side.
And in some places, notably Indonesia and places in sub-Saharan Africa, a systematically moderate Islam has emerged and run things for many years, though it is being challenged by the Islamists.
One more thing, if the foolish and ignorant governments in many Western countries actually helped real moderates, secularists, assimilationist or acculturating-oriented Muslims, and even conservative-traditionalist ones, perhaps the Islamists would be getting pushed back in the West, especially Europe. Instead, the intellectual establishments and governments often back, coddle, fund, and cheer the radicals.
Imagine being an Italian immigrant to America in the 1930s who hated Mussolini or an anti-Hitler German and being told that the anti-democratic front groups were the real and legitimate representatives of your people! And while the analogy is far from exact (it happened some but nothing like today’s equivalent): the American media romanticizes the pro-Hitler German-American Bund, conceals its fascist antisemitism, and then other people ask: Where are the moderate Germans?
So let’s get it straight: Revolutionary Islamists are real Muslims with a big base of support who want to impose repressive Sharia dictatorships. They draw on actual Islamic doctrine and can argue that their views are legitimately those of the Koran and the other holy texts. They are not a small minority but a growing mass movement that in places either has majority support or can whip the majority into line. Telling the truth about what is in Islamic texts is an intellectual duty.
Showing how radicals use these texts is simple scholarly integrity.
But that doesn’t mean that all of Islam is inevitably radical. It doesn’t mean that the revolutionary Islamists are right and all their Muslim opponents are wrong. It doesn’t mean we don’t have courageous allies among Muslims. And they are far more courageous than the posturing Western ignoramuses who romanticize the revolutionary Islamist murderers.
We don’t have to agree on everything but I have met so many such valiant people—as well as people I didn’t like but we recognized our need to cooperate—it would take a long story to tell. Let me leave you with one experience.
I’m lecturing at a university in North America. Of course, I am there as an Israeli; I am explaining Israel and its policies; but I am also explaining that the great battle of our time is that against revolutionary Islamism.
In the front row sits a young man, a graduate student apparently, wearing the biggest Palestinian kaffiyeh I’ve ever seen. As I speak, he nods vigorously. His smiling and evident agreement throws me off more than if he had been heckling me.
At the end of the talk he rushed up and said something like the following: “I’m a proud Palestinian. I want us to have our own free country. And I don’t want those Islamist crazies to keep the battle going for my whole life or turn my country into a nightmarish dictatorship.”
I’ve heard parallel things from Turks and Iranians, Syrians and Iraqis, Egyptians and Tunisians, and others.
OK. One more. I was speaking at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France. I was wearing a nice suit and tie. I come out and there is a demonstration of 300? 400? Iranians against the repression of the regime there. I walk over and shout out, in my very limited Persian, “Long Live Free Iran!”
They go crazy applauding. They crowd around me: Am I a European member of parliament?
No, I explain, I’m an Israeli just giving a talk there. Their faces fall. Not one—not one—single European Member of Parliament has come out to join them or congratulate them or cheer them. Not one non-Iranian European has come to march alongside them.
The Westerners only turn out to bash Israel, even if it means cheering Hamas and Hizballah.
Sure, Muslim communities in Europe and America hardly ever renounce terrorism or fight the Islamists or explain to converts that Usama bin Ladin and Khomeini and the Muslim Brotherhood aren’t big heroes.
Why? Because those radical forces are in power, often with collaboration from Western leftists, intellectuals, academics, and officials. Ask any moderate Muslim or Muslim who is moderate whether the Western mass media show any interest in interviewing him to discuss the battle against the radicals.
And yes we have the right to demand that these communities teach against revolutionary Islamism and terrorism instead of pretending it’s all an Islamist plot.
But ask just not why more moderates don’t exist, ask why you aren’t helping them and acting as their allies in our common battle. After all, their lives are the ones most on the line.
Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs
(GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International
Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.