The Quest for Moderates

A primary reason for acknowledging the power of religious organizations is to curb the appeal of radicalism and to bolster moderates. In practice, though, these goals have proved elusive, as religious organizations and national federations remain dominated by representatives of a hard-line, conservative Islam. European governments thus give a kind of established status to the kind of Islam associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and its south Asian counterparts, a strand of the religion that is far more conservative and overtly political than that prevailing among ordinary believers. Conservative and reactionary groups have actually increased their strength in the various Muslim federations in recent years. In France, the CFCM was explicitly intended to take Islam out of the cellars and garages that served as semi-clandestine mosques, but its most rapidly growing component is the UOIF, a conservative grouping aligned to the Muslim Brotherhood. So is the most visible Italian organization, the UCOII, a fact that has made Italian governments nervous about including it in dialogue schemes.

Critically, what is a moderate in the context of contemporary Islam? An individual might denounce terrorism and call for Muslims to be loyal citizens of the nations in which they live but could still hold unacceptably radical views on many sensitive issues. In Britain, MCB media secretary Inayat Bunglawala served as a prominent member of the post-7/7 "road-show" intended to denounce extremism. Bunglawala condemns terrorism and declares that Omar Bakri and Hassan Butt "are known for their lunatic opinions and are utterly repudiated by the Muslim community." Yet Bunglawala through the years has left a lengthy paper trail of distinctly nonmoderate comments. In the early 1990s he praised American Islamist Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, and before 9/11, he circulated the writings of "freedom fighter" Osama bin Laden. Bunglawala has also denounced the mainstream British media as Zionist-controlled.38

The former secretary general of the MCB was Sir Iqbal Sacranie, who in 1989 responded to the Satanic Verses controversy by opining that "death is perhaps too easy" for Salman Rushdie. Even so, Tony Blair's government secured a knighthood for him a decade later. Responding to the film Submission, Sir Iqbal asked, "Is freedom of expression without bounds? Muslims are not alone in saying 'No' and in calling for safeguards against vilification of dearly cherished beliefs." He has since described Hamas guerrillas and suicide bombers as "freedom fighters, in the same way as Nelson Mandela fought against their apartheid, in the same way as Gandhi and many others fought the British rule in India." Virtually no European Muslim leader of any stature or credibility denies the right of armed resistance to besieged Muslim communities in Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, or Kashmir, and many would approve the practice of suicide bombing in such desperate situations. As we have seen, Muslim leaders unhappy with the MCB have defected to new and more liberal organizations such as the British Muslim Forum, so that the British government now canvasses a wider range of opinion than hitherto.39

In the aftermath of 9/11, European political leaders recognized the urgency of developing dialogue with "moderate" Muslims thinkers, but often, the quest for such individuals proved difficult. One of Britain's best-known leftists is "Red Ken" Livingstone, mayor of London, who in 2004 was involved in sponsoring a conference on the wearing of the hijab in schools. As part of the event, he invited Sheikh al-Qaradawi, whose condemnation of the September 11 attacks made him seem a representative of mainstream, moderate Islam. In Livingstone's words, he preached "moderation and tolerance to all faiths around the world." Al-Qaradawi's views, however, attracted bitter criticism from various constituencies. He denounced Jews and homosexuals, and supported suicide bombings in Israel. In his view, "It's not suicide, it is martyrdom in the name of God. . . . The Israelis might have nuclear bombs but we have the children bomb and these human bombs must continue until liberation."40

On occasion, Muslim leaders use different rhetoric in their statements for public consumption in the West and in lectures or sermons directed at a Muslim audience in the Middle East or Pakistan. As we have already seen in the case of Tariq Ramadan, figures touted as moderate in one context appear less so in other settings. Now, one's verdict on Ramadan may ultimately be more favorable, but the story does suggest the difficulty of choosing Muslim "dialogue partners," whether at national or international levels.

Whatever other qualms we might have about recent European attempts at defusing extremism, it is far from certain that they actually work. Even if "moderates" do speak out against violence, such intervention has not yet shown much hope of success. For an analogy, European nations might look back at the various phases of the IRA's struggle against Britain from the 1930s onward, when the Catholic Church condemned and even excommunicated revolutionary activists, but to little avail. In modern times, similarly, France's Muslim clergy made little obvious impact by their attempt to quell the riots of November 2005; nor have MCB statements done much to quell extremist support among British Muslim youth. Worse, by appearing to be co-opted by the government, moderate leaders can actually harm their influence within the community, presenting themselves as collaborators. The activist International Crisis Group suggests that through their excessive willingness to support government initiatives, moderate clergy in France and elsewhere have actually contributed to the growth of extremism: "The exhaustion of political Islamism has coincided with the growth of Salafism."41

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment