Why moderate Muslims are silent

Missing a post 9/11 critique of radical Islam
The Indian Express (India), Dec. 21, 2002 (Opinion, Bernard Haykel)

Many in the US have been baffled by the apparent silence of moderate Muslims since the events of September 11. Other than initial condemnations of the attacks by prominent Islamic scholars in the Middle East and in the West, many Muslims appear to have acquiesced to the hijacking of their religion by extremists like bin Laden. The moderates, that is those who reject on principle the use of indiscriminate violence to achieve political ends, have yet to level a systematic critique of the radicals in print or on air.

Instead, many, perhaps the majority of Muslims have voiced scepticism and even denial about the involvement of their co-religionists in the attacks. Over the summer, I travelled extensively throughout the Middle East and South Asia, visiting Islamic scholars, mosques, madrasas, bookstores as well as watching news programs and TV interviews on local and satellite TV stations. In bookstores, I found considerable material on bin Laden, but most of it is either in praise of the man or situates him, and the events of 9/11, in some conspiratorial scheme hatched by the US military and ‘a secret force’ within the US that is led by Jews.

A few people I met expressed satisfaction at the damage inflicted on America and were unabashed in their open support for bin Laden and his al-Qaeda movement. I also met Muslim moderates who invariably condemned the radicals for defaming Islam and stated that the latter did not represent the Islamic mainstream. But most moderates demurred when I asked them whether they had openly aired their views. How does one account for their silence?

The immediate reason for this silence is that al-Qaeda has been successful in instilling in the minds of Muslims that the US is the principal political enemy of the worldwide Muslim community. This has been confirmed by the perception that the US provides unquestioned support for the policies of the government of Israel as well as the present talk of a US invasion of Iraq.

Muslims perceive themselves to be under direct military attack on a number of fronts. I noted an unprecedented level of hatred not only for the policies of the US but for many of the values it stands for. Confronted with a formidable foe, Muslims have chosen not to air their dirty linen in public by engaging in mutual recriminations and polemical exchanges — mosque sermons, television and radio stations are insisting that Muslims remain united against the common enemy.

There are also historical reasons for the silence of Muslim moderates. Simply put, the moderates in the last half-century have been progressively relegated to the intellectual and political margins of Islamic society by a new breed of Islamic political activist — otherwise known as Salafi or Wahhabi. The Salafis, of whom bin Laden is one, are crude literalists in matters of religious interpretation and perceive most of the values of western modernity to be antithetical to Islam. They promote a simplistic and utopian vision of Islam, as ‘authentic’ and opposed to the western social and political values that threaten the Islamic order.

Salafis have risen to major prominence since the early 1970s for several reasons: one, Muslim states have throughout the twentieth century co-opted moderate Islamic scholars. The effect has been a serious loss of credibility for the moderates in the eyes of many Muslims. Two, the political and economic failure of the secular nationalist policies of most of the Arab states, combined with a strong-arm authoritarianism that has brutalised ordinary citizens. In response to this, mosques have become the only centers of opposition to the regimes in power, and these have come to be dominated by a younger and more militant generation of Islamists. Three, perhaps the most significant factor in the silencing of the moderates has been the accrual of vast sums of petro-dollars by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikhdoms, all of whom have spent billions of dollars in the promulgation of Salafi Islam. By contrast, the traditional centers of Islamic education have been starved of funds and have not been able to recruit a generation of dynamic scholars who might rise to the intellectual challenge posed by Salafis and authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world.

While in India this past August, I noted that the Saudi government was still active in subsidising the creation of schools that subscribe to their interpretation of Islam as well as providing scholarships to study the religious sciences in the kingdom’s universities. The influence of Saudi Arabia in altering the religious landscape of the Muslim world over the last three decades cannot be overstated. In Yemen, Salafi proselytising and funding has considerably undermined the traditional sects of Islam. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Pakistan, where South Asian forms of Islam, namely certain Sufi mystical practices, have come under attack by Salafis. Likewise in India, the Hanafi scholars of Deoband and the Nadwa often deprecate traditional Indian Islamic beliefs and practices, preferring Saudi-inspired ones instead. Even more important has been the ability of the Saudis, and Gulf states, to buy most of the Arabic media outlets where any criticism of Salafism is prohibited and all religious discussion is censored. I noted, however, that this form of religious censorship might be receding finally, perhaps as a consequence of 9/11. But the change, if one can call it such, remains hard to discern.

Faced with this Salafi onslaught in the Muslim world, it is not surprising that some of the more dynamic moderates have found refuge in the West, and that Muslims born in the West should be at the vanguard of moderate Islam. But being in the West is itself a major factor of marginalisation. Among other things, those in the West do not share in the everyday concerns and travails of Muslims in the heartlands. More significantly, it is clear that the Salafi message resonates with particularly modern concerns Muslims have about their role in the world and their disenchantment with aspects of western modernity. The certainties that Salafism posits in answering questions, its lack of nuance in viewing the world, and its success in projecting a muscular Islam, all account for its contemporary appeal. Until moderate Muslims are able to provide some of the same, they will remain on the margins of an ongoing debate about what it means to be Muslim and how to define the contours of a modern Islamic identity.

(The writer teaches at New York University)


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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday December 22, 2002.
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