On the Crisis of Moderation — In America and Islam
October 15, 2011 8 Comments
As this blog declares “all things in moderation, including moderation,” let’s talk about the way we use the words “moderate” and “moderation.” Language matters enormously. How we use words determines how we process reality. Once a person or a notion fits into a language label, we think less and pre-judge more.
“Moderate” is a charged word in American politics. Many on the left and right deny that there is any such thing as an authentic “moderate,” arguing (typically dismissively) that “moderates” are simply sometimes conservatives and sometimes liberals. Meanwhile, Muslim communities skirmish over the meaning of “moderate” and Americans wonder what exactly is a “moderate Muslim-American.” We are talking about two very different senses of the word “moderate,” and we confuse them at our peril.
The word “moderate” matters in modern Islam as perhaps the word has never mattered so much. Whether or not there is such a thing as “moderate” in American politics, there is most profoundly such a thing as a “moderate Muslim.”
It is possible to say (though I disagree) in American political discourse, there is no “moderate,” only a person open at times to liberal or conservative narratives. It is impossible to say there is no “moderate Muslim.” In fact, in America, there are mostly “moderate Muslims” — who matter enormously.
In the first American political sense, “moderate” is a negative — i.e., not reliably part of the prevailing liberal or conservative narratives, therefore arguably outside any orthodox way of thinking about politics.
In the second sense, the “moderate Muslim” sense, “moderate” is a positive — an affirmation of certain values (free religion, free speech, free enterprise, non-violence, respect for other religions, respect for women). Moderate Muslims embrace these values.
And moderate Muslims embrace these values mindful that another extremist strain of Islam rejects these values, sometimes violently. Muslim moderation, therefore, is not merely a rejection of competing orthodoxies, but an open challenge to extremism, on the merits. Muslim moderation is a very real declaration of war against extremism — unlike the American political “moderation,” which simply preserves the leisurely option to validate one or the other predominant narratives.
It does not matter so much to me how many American political moderates we cultivate. They will breed naturally and hopefully exercise a civilizing influence on American political dialogue. It matters to me very much how many moderate Muslim-Americans we cultivate. These are our best American allies against Islamist extremism. These are the people who declare, simply by virtue of being Muslim and “moderate,” a profound challenge to the narrative of extremists. These are the people who make extremism steadily less acceptable, and the minds of impressionable young people steadily less susceptible to extremist poison.
There is (unfortunately in my view) no such thing as a “robust” moderate voice in American politics. Robustness dwells on the right and the left, and there should be more robustness in the middle, confident in its homelessness and always prepared both to speak sincerely and to slam the misleading extremisms of the left and the right .
There is and must be such a thing as a robust moderate Muslim-American voice. And by the way, everything we can do as non-Muslim Americans to connect with our moderate Muslim-American neighbors is a step in the right direction of uniting us successfully against extremist poison.
I believe so deeply in the importance of a robust moderate Muslim-American voice that I am a co-founder, along with my dear friend Nader Hasan, of the Nawal Foundation, which condemns any violence in the name of Islam, celebrates Muslim-American patriotism, and promotes the amplification of moderate Muslim-American voices. Let it be robust. Let the moderation sound loud and reach the hinterlands of America. Let us declare to the world, we’re proud Americans, of every religion, and violence in the name of any religion is unacceptable. Let that be our 21st century American legacy: a people robustly and successfully united against violent extremism.