Why I am not a moderate Muslim

I'd rather be considered 'orthodox' than 'moderate.' True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to piously adhere to a religion's tenets.

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Last month, three Muslim men were arrested in Britain in connection with the London bombings of July 2005. In light of such situations, a number of non-Muslims and Muslims alike yearn for "moderate," peace-loving Muslims to speak out against the violent acts sometimes perpetrated in the name of Islam. And to avoid association with terrorism, some Muslims adopt a "moderate" label to describe themselves.

I am a Muslim who embraces peace. But, if we must attach stereotypical tags, I'd rather be considered "orthodox" than "moderate."

"Moderate" implies that Muslims who are more orthodox are somehow backward and violent. And in our current cultural climate, progress and peace are restricted to "moderate" Muslims. To be a "moderate" Muslim is to be a "good," malleable Muslim in the eyes of Western society.

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I recently attended a debate about Western liberalism and Islam at the University of Cambridge where I'm pursuing my master's degree. I expected debaters on one side to present a bigoted laundry list of complaints against Islam and its alleged incompatibility with liberalism, and they did.

But what was more disturbing was that those on the other side, in theory supported the harmony of Islam and Western liberalism, but they based their argument on spurious terms. While these debaters – including a former top government official and a Nobel peace prize winner – were well-intentioned, they in fact wrought more harm than good. Through implied references to moderate Muslims, they offered a simplistic, paternalistic discourse that suggested Muslims would one day catch up with Western civilization.

In the aftermath of September 11, much has been said about the need for "moderate Muslims." But to be a "moderate" Muslim also implies that Osama bin Laden and Co. must represent the pinnacle of orthodoxy; that a criterion of orthodox Islam somehow inherently entails violence; and, consequently, that if I espouse peace, I am not adhering to my full religious duties.

I refuse to live as a "moderate" Muslim if its side effect is an unintentional admission that suicide bombing is a religious obligation for the orthodox faithful. True orthodoxy is simply the attempt to adhere piously to a religion's tenets.

The public relations drive for "moderate Islam" is injurious to the entire international community. It may provisionally ease the pain when so-called Islamic extremists strike. But it really creates deeper wounds that will require thicker bandages because it indirectly labels the entire religion of Islam as violent.

The term moderate Muslim is actually a redundancy. In the Islamic tradition, the concept of the "middle way" is central. Muslims believe that Islam is a path of intrinsic moderation, wasatiyya. This concept is the namesake of a British Muslim grass-roots organization, the Radical Middle Way. It is an initiative to counter Islam's violent reputation with factual scholarship.

This was demonstrated through a day-long conference that the organization sponsored in February. The best speaker of the night was Abdallah bin Bayyah, an elderly Mauritanian sheikh dressed all in traditional white Arab garb, offset by a long gray beard.

The words coming out of the sheikh's mouth – all in Arabic – were remarkably progressive. He confronted inaccurate assumptions about Islam, spoke of tolerance, and told fellow Muslims an un­pleasant truth: "Perhaps much of this current crisis springs from us," he said, kindly admonishing them. He chastised Muslims for inadequately explaining their beliefs, thereby letting other, illiberal voices speak for them.

I was shocked by his blunt though nuanced analysis, given his traditional, religious appearance. And then I was troubled by my shock. To what extent had I, a hijabi Muslim woman studying Middle Eastern/Islamic studies, internalized the untruthful representations of my own fellow Muslims? For far too long, I had been fed a false snapshot of what Islamic orthodoxy really means.

The sheikh continued, challenging Mr. bin Laden's violent interpretation of jihad, citing Koranic verses and prophetic narrations. He referred to jihad as any "good action" and recounted a recent conversation with a non-Muslim lawyer who asked if electing a respectable official would be considered jihad. The sheikh answered "yes" because voting for someone who supports the truth and upholds justice is a good action.

The sheikh, not bin Laden, is a depiction of true Islamic orthodoxy. The sheikh, not bin Laden, is the man trained in Islamic jurisprudence. The sheikh, not bin Laden, is the authentic religious scholar. But to call him a moderate Muslim would be a misnomer.

Asma Khalid is pursuing her master's degree in Middle Eastern/Islamic studies at the University of Cambridge in England.

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