Modern Myth: The Moderate Muslim

Modern Myths is a series of articles that deconstructs popular myths that are informed by modernity. This series first presents the myth, analyzes and dismantles it from a lens of tradition, and ultimately, offers alternatives in viewing or resolving the legitimate challenges associated with the myth. We hope the “Modern Myths” series will enable you to not only question your understanding of these topics, but also how you arrived at your previous understanding of these myths.


Several qualitative analyses by MediaTenor, an international research institute, reveal that over 80% of Islam-related media coverage is negatively biased (1). Jaded notions of the “Moderate Muslim” attempt to subvert such rhetoric, but serve as a funnel for orientalist-driven thought, where Muslims only exist on a manufactured scale of terror to “terror-hating.” The question itself of who is a Moderate Muslim assumes an inherent relationship between terrorism and Islam, whereby a Muslim, without a modifier, is naturally too extreme.

Such preconceptions fuel the public’s need to assign what is outside its social norms and characteristic of Islam and Muslims to this scale of moderation, where outwards practice of Islam in any degree warrants suspicion,  purportedly emblematic of a “natural inclination towards violence.” Dr. Khaled Beydoun, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, writes,

The hegemony of the evil or ‘bad Muslim’ has entirely eclipsed illustrations of ‘good Muslims,’ and in instances where the latter are the subject of focus, are engaged in stifling terrorist acts, or stopping radicalization. (2)

As the concept of moderation remains ambiguous, confusion persists in the overlap between religious practices and political stances. The assumption that stances on either side insinuate the equivalent on the other begs the question of whether religious moderation must presuppose political moderation. Fortunately, Islam offers an independent definition of moderation.

Thus We have appointed you a middle nation. (Qur’an, Surah Baqarah, 2:143)

Islam encompasses theology, socio-politics, and economics and legislates disciplined practices that acknowledge current and evolving climates. The discrepancy lies in what moderation looks like to the outside, thus yielding the concept of the Moderate Muslim: an invention of a global system of capital and political hegemony to further its own power.

Rejection of the desire to be limited to such a scale is equalized to harboring terrorist sympathies. The Moderate Muslim may wear a headscarf or have a name that leaves tongues tied, but accepts in its entirety the lifestyle of non-Muslims, rendering them different from the average non-Muslim only in the superficial matters of human existence, and thus reducing Islam to unfamiliar foods, clothes, and some stylized phrases. Mainstream Western political forces prescribe a maximum standard of practice, where one can be the face of change without radically challenging the status quo (3). Any public visibility of the practice of the religion is equated with extremism. This definition is characterized, not by principle, but by what serves the interests of Western political forces. Muslims are left to ricochet within a dichotomy that either imposes a narrow definition of what the West deems acceptable in its modern cultural hegemony or to breach it with the risk of social ostracization, loss of livelihood, and frequently, deportation or imprisonment without due trial.

Such a dichotomy determines the humanity of Muslims not in reference to their own religious framework, but rather by evaluating how Muslims yield to the demands of a hegemonic modern society. The secular world believes itself to have implemented a universally applicable standard – as though it arose from a vacuum devoid of contextual beliefs – with the slightest deviation from it inviting skepticism and fear, and in doing so, it maintains an orientalist cognitive lens that measures civility by contextual ideals. As ideals evolve, Muslims are left to play catch-up with a culture that feigns unity in “diverse” and “moderate” autonomies, when in reality the freedom of practice exists among a set of pre-defined options.

This isn’t unique to America, as it is a continuation of what has existed in colonial states globally to maintain the pacification of people who refuse to submit to modernity. My work with Muslims Condemn was not seen as a challenge to the Good Muslim/Bad Muslim narrative of the Western elite, but as an example for other Muslims to continue in “engaging dialogue” built on faulty grounds, directly assigning to Muslims the responsibility to assuage irrational fears for an ever-changing standard of approval.

Ugandan academic and political commentator Mahmoud Mamdani refers to this phenomenon as “culture talk,” characterizing public discourse about Islam as akin to reading about “museumized peoples,” whose culture has no rich history nor tradition of its own, but exists in relation to the West and their trajectory to assimilate (4). He mentions that part of the solution towards peace and countering such talk is to break out of this victim role and reclaim historical consciousness.

Our acclimation to the binary mentioned by Dr. Beydoun renders us as political footballs, constricting the ability of orthodox Muslims to shape conversations about Islam. Muslims must be willing to deconstruct the underlying principles on which problematic notions like this originate. Half-hearted acceptance from various ideological groups does not matter in the re-prioritization of subservience to God. This is imperative. In seeking to reject the idea of moderation, Muslims affirm the immoderation of our mizaan (spiritual scale); the quest of Islam is not a balance in deeds, but for the good to overwhelm the bad.

Citations:

  1. MediaTenor (2013), US TV Primetime News prefer stereotypes. Retrieved from http://uk.mediatenor.com/en/library/speeches/259/us-tv-primetime-news-prefer-stereotypes
  2. Beydoun, K. A. (2016, May 20). The myth of the ‘moderate Muslim’. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/05/myth-moderate-muslim-160511085819521.html
  3. Suleiman, O. (2018, January 24). One year after the travel ban, I am not your American Muslim. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/24/opinions/travel-ban-anniversary-suleiman-opinion/index.htm
  4. Mamdani, M. (2002). Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and Terrorism. American Anthropologist, 104(3), 774

About the author: Heraa is best known for her research project, Muslims Condemn, and is currently a student in Molecular Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and language development. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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