'Moderate Islam' Isn't Working

December 20, 2015 Topic: Islam Region: United States Tags: IslamIntegrationUnited StatesReligion

'Moderate Islam' Isn't Working

"Revisiting our ‘strengthen the moderates’ strategy, I now believe that while it was basically sensible, it was off track in two critical ways."

Similarly, this is who controls the online space. We are all aware of the dangers of online radicalization and extremist Web sites are subject to scrutiny, but the purportedly moderate Web sites are considered harmless and ignored—a mistake. A few years ago, I began tracking the religious advice provided to Diaspora Muslims online. Specialized Web sites cater to a target audience of assorted dislocated persons: recent arrivals to Europe, Canada and the United States, discontented teenagers and young adults from immigrant families, converts and floundering second generation German or Dutch or French or American sort-of-citizens who just haven’t found their footing. In a Dear-Abby format, they address day-to-day problems related to family, love, school or the workplace—as they claim, from an Islamic perspective. They are not overtly political, and they don’t incite violence. What they incite is estrangement. The common thread of the advice: don’t trust the ‘unbelievers,’ don’t befriend them, don’t care about them, don’t adapt to their habits and ways and don’t feel loyal to any of their institutions. Go to ‘their’ high school, but don’t make friends with Christian or Jewish classmates. Get your diploma, but don’t go to the graduation party.

Here is a typical piece of advice, issued to a young man who wants to know if it’s OK to play basketball during recess with non-Muslim fellow pupils.

“Allah has forbidden the believers to take the kaafireen as friends, and he has issued a stern warning against doing that. . . Elsewhere Allah states that taking them as friends incurs the wrath of Allah and his eternal punishment. . . One of the forms of making friends with the kaafirs which is forbidden is taking them as friends and companions, mixing with them and eating and playing with them…You should not sit and chat and laugh with them. . . it is not permissible for a Muslim to feel any love in his heart towards the enemies of Allah who are in fact his enemies too.”

Here is the reply received by a Muslim housewife looking for daytime companionship with the woman next door:

“Is it allowed for a Muslim woman to be friends with a non-Muslim woman who is very decent?”

“Praise be to Allah. Visiting kaafirs in order to have a good time with them is not permitted, because it is obligatory to hate them and shun them.”

And on it goes, for question after question. Can you applaud after your children’s school performance? No, because that would mean imitating the behavior and customs of the unbelievers. An engineer who works for an airline is told that he must not service the in-flight entertainment devices, because music and video clips are unIslamic and he should have nothing to do with them. If he can’t refuse this task, he must change jobs. A recent college graduate reports that his school ran a seminar on how to land a good job. It was important to offer the interviewer a firm handshake and look them in the eye, he had been told. But what if his interviewer is female? He is sternly told that he needs to find an all-male workplace. Those are a bit rare in Western countries. . . but then, the religious authority behind islamqa, it turns out, is a cleric in Saudi Arabia.

The harmfulness of such a mindset is obvious, but what is the remedy? Several steps come to mind:

1) Establish a vetting and a certification process for Muslim clerics in the United States, as a requirement before someone can head a mosque, run a religious education or a youth program, officiate at religious ceremonies, or term himself an imam. This will raise the quality of religious information and instruction being offered to the community, and bring greater transparency. There are precedents for this. In Austria, for example, after many disturbing experiences with Islamic religion teachers and complaints from parents, the government decided to set up its own theological certification program. In Bosnia and many other Muslim-majority countries, training of imams is overseen by the government, and in many places, Friday sermons are either vetted or centrally provided to all mosques to guarantee correct substance.

2) Require new immigrants and refugees to formally accept some basic rules of the road' that describe daily life and values in the United States. As Americans, we have long felt superior to the Europeans in our ability to create a “salad bowl” of diverse cultures, beliefs and traditions instead of the cramped xenophobia we often attributed to them. And for many decades there was truth to that. But today, it may turn out that the Europeans, forced to think about how to safely absorb a huge number of suddenly arrived strangers, are moving ahead of us. They are working to articulate relatively elaborate social compacts that articulate the core values and behaviors they expect refugees and immigrants to take note of, acknowledge and undertake to follow. This ranges from language acquisition to acceptance of women’s equality and non-segregation, tolerance of (though not, of course, mandatory participation in) the modern Western lifestyle such as alcohol consumption and habits of dress. Designed to minimize conflict on the neighborhood level, these rules of engagement serve as notice that European society is willing to broaden and embrace, but not deform or restrict itself for the new arrivals. Whether this is successful will remain to be seen, but it’s worth trying.

3) Find ways for true Muslim moderates, progressives and secularists to have a larger voice in expressing the views and values of the community, one that is more reflective of social reality. A typical documentary or news report about Muslims in America is illustrated with images of men bent forward in prayer in a mosque, and women in headscarves or even full hijab. As with other faiths practiced in our country, the spectrum of American Islam too is considerably broader, including the observant, the non-observant and the occasionally observant, with multiple levels of assimilation, integration and mutual influence.

Cheryl Benard has written widely on political Islam. Her most recent book Eurojihad, Cambridge University Press, October 2014, predicted increased Islamist violence in the West.

Image: Flickr/Muhammad Ghouri.