More on Extremist and Moderate Muslims

The comments on my prior post on extremist and moderate Muslims led me to believe that more could usefully be said about the subject.  One significant question is whether moderate Muslims have an obligation to condemn extremist Muslims.

Clearly, it would be useful to the cause if moderate Muslims were to condemn their extremist brethren.  But do they have an obligation to do so?  I can imagine arguments on both sides.

But that is not my main concern.  It is instead whether the defenders of freedom should be insisting that moderate Muslims condemn extremist Muslims, whether or not such moderates have an obligation to do so?  And my point is that such insistence is not strategically advisable. 

One can imagine relatively benign reasons why moderate Muslims might not criticize the extremists.  The moderate muslims might be sympathetic to western values, might privately condemn the extremists, and feel victimized by their actions (since it makes all Muslims look bad).  But they still might not speak out due to fear of violence or other negative acts.

One can also imagine less happy reasons for their silence. Perhaps the moderate Muslims feel a bit conflicted – they oppose violence of this sort, but are troubled by Western culture and ideas, and have some sympathy for some of the goals of the terrorists, if not their methods.

In the latter case, I would not want to be seen as defending the moderate Muslims.  To be clear, if people are opposed to freedom, then they are seriously problematic. But that still does not mean that we should be insisting that they condemn the extremists.  As I noted in my prior post, the moderate muslims can be our allies in the fight with extremist muslims and criticizing them does not help in that task.  Moreover, our criticism of these people would drive them closer to the extremist muslims, whereas our objective should be to split them away from the extremists.  Thus, even if they are open to criticism, that does not mean we are better off doing so.

One analogy here (and it is only an analogy) is with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.  While I oppose much of what I understand to be the positions of the PA, it still makes sense for Israel to treat them differently than Hamas.  Keeping Hamas and the PA opposed to one another is in Israel’s interests.

None of this suggests that we should refrain from advocating our values.  We should defend Western notions of freedom, even if many moderate Muslims disagree with those values (assuming for the sake of argument that many moderates do disagree with them).  But defending Western values is different than alienating people who we need as allies.

Reader Discussion

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on January 16, 2015 at 16:56:27 pm


I do not think that those of us who advocate moderates expressing concerns are a) unaware of the difficulties such expression may entail, b) that there is some chance that our critique may *alienate* them or c) that they have a *special* obligation to so express themselves.

We do however recognize that it is apparent that any critique of Islam is not likely to be met in a calm and reflective manner by the proponents of *radical* Islam (and a case may be made that the moderates may not be receptive either). Recall if you will the polling data, which if extended across the entire Islamic population, shows that the nearly 40% of Muslims favoring anti-Western attitudes equates to 100's of millions. What this tells us is that given the intractable posture of Islamists to listen to critiques from without, it would seem as if the only place from which such criticism could come is from within. If as you (and others have argued) this is exceedingly dangerous for the moderates, then we are in effect saying that, in the face of this resurgent onslaught of this ideologically driven movement, some far more serious efforts must be made to stop it, as it is extremely unlikely to stop itself.
Where is todays 'Charlemagne? will we concede the field at Tours (or Paris).
Perhaps, rather than asserting that there is a special obligation for moderates to so express it may be better to assert that there is a *special need* for them to do so.
It appears to me highly unlikely that a Solzhenitsyn will arise from amongst this group; still somewhere, somehow one would expect that a voice would / should be raised as it was from out / under the horrors of the Soviet regime.

I'm just being wishful here.

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Image of gabe
on January 16, 2015 at 20:10:38 pm

I do agree it would be an excellent thing for moderate Muslims to voice a different view. I just don't think we accomplish that by demanding that they do so. And we create other problems to boot.

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Mike Rappaport
on January 17, 2015 at 00:04:08 am

I think this discussion needs to be refocused somewhat. One point to be made is that moderate Muslims have condemned extremist Muslims in a far more sustained way, under far worse conditions, than anyone on the planet. Almost no one in "the West" has a track record comparable to that of Sari Nusseibeh, Asma Jehangir, Pervez Hoodbhoy, Maryam Khawaja, Ahdaf Soueif, Sadiq al Azm, Orhan Pamuk, Irfan Husain, Najam Sethi, or the late Neguib Mahfouz, etc. etc. etc.--not to mention the thousands upon thousands of anonymous activists and relatively unknown writers throughout the Islamic world who have been fighting extremism now since at least 9/11, if not before. The one Muslim on the blog I run has done so, but he's hardly alone in that:


Second, if we're going to talk about an "obligation," we need to specify a context. In some contexts, it seems to me that Muslims have a very strong obligation to condemn and resist extremism; in others, that they don't have one at all. But we can't usefully discuss the topic without specifying the relevant context.

Moderate Muslims have the strongest obligations to resist and condemn extremism when it's proximate to them and the moderates are in some sense facilitating the activity of the extremists. Notoriously, extremists have a tendency to over-run or infiltrate mosques, schools, charities, and other institutions. In cases like that, moderates absolutely have an obligation to resist extremists. Who else can? Either the extremists must be driven out, or the moderates must withdraw support from such institutions, but the issue has to be forced. There are less clear-cut cases than that, but in general, the principle is: don't let your actions contribute to the extremists' agenda. I don't really see why it would be counter-productive to insist on resistance in these contexts. It seems to me counter-productive to fail to insist on it.

I also think that when the leaders of Islamic organizations (e.g., CAIR) make unreasonable demands, Muslims in general have to speak out and push back. Those demands are being made in their name. It's perfectly legitimate to expect them to have a view on that.

Some people have the luxury of being political activists of one sort or another. Muslims in that situation have the obligation to make anti-extremism a part of their agenda (at least insofar as their activism is about specifically Islamic causes). You can't be an activist for some cause related to the Islamic world and fail to see the centrality of extremism to the problems of that world. (I'm not referring here to Muslims who happen to be activists on issues that are basically irrelevant to specifically Muslim issues. A Muslim member of the PTA or town council doesn't have to condemn extremism to be able to go about her business in those capacities.)

On the other hand, lots and lots of moderate Muslims just live private, non-activist lives that bear no relation to extremism at all. I don't think that such people have any strong obligation to take to the barricades and actively condemn extremism, unless it happens to show up in or around their own lives. It would be counter-productive to insist that such people drop the projects they have and exchange them for radically different ones. But that's because they're not doing anything that gives them the relevant obligation. The nominally Muslim mom who lives in Seattle, has a religiously mixed marriage, works 9-5, raises her kids, cooks meals, but never makes it to the mosque, and doesn't give to specifically Muslim charities, etc. doesn't have a strong obligation to hire a babysitter on Friday night, rush to the local rally, and brandish a "Je Suis Charlie" placard because of what happened in Paris. Nor does she have to go around looking for blogs to comment on, or petitions to sign, or whatever. As long as she's inwardly against the terrorists, that's all that really matters.

Consider a parallel case. Suppose I meet someone who is prominent in the Israel Bonds movement. It might well be appropriate (depending on where we are) for me to ask him: "What's your view, as a representative of the movement, on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank? Does Israel Bonds support settlements?" Suppose he says "yes." In that case, if I disagreed with settlements on principle, it would make sense to hold him responsible for that support and act accordingly.

But suppose I meet someone who merely happens to be Jewish, and that's all I know about him. It really would not be appropriate for me to use that fact by itself as a basis for an aggressive inquiry into the person's views on the occupation, settlements, Israel Bonds, etc. To initiate such an inquiry, I need evidence that the person bears some contributory relation to the occupation, settlements, etc. Being Jewish is not enough. The same basic principle applies to Muslims or anyone else. Being Muslim is not enough to foist political responsibilities on a person. You have to know what relation he bears to some political role or consequence.

Incidentally, on a separate issue: I don't think polling data on Muslims should be taken very seriously, at least in cases where the data are collected in countries where censorship prevails. People in countries of that sort often lack the habits of free thought and inquiry, and sometimes are penalized for expressing politically incorrect views. Just as we'd take a poll with a grain of salt if it were conducted in Cuba, North Korea, or even China, we ought to do so when it's conducted in Egypt, Gaza, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, etc. Beyond censorship, the literacy rate in such countries is often abysmally low, and particularly low among women. If freedom of speech makes inroads, and literacy increases, the data will probably change. Without freedom of speech and literacy, the data are of dubious value.

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Irfan Khawaja
on January 17, 2015 at 11:18:27 am


Thanks for these rather sensible comments and also for the link (which I checked out). It also seems reasonable.

I agree with your *contextualist* approach to obligation as an argument (not necessarily with all the examples). It is a rather realistic one.
However, let me ask you if, to your mind, there is an obligation for those who are not *activists* to also speak out simply as the due they owe to their new society. Is there not some expectation that all who wish to be a part of this (or any) society ought to express support for some of the more fundamental precepts or practices of their adoptive (or native) society? - in other words, if violence is viewed as abhorrent, should not a member of that society at least give lip service to that sentiment?
I think the failure to do so, especially when so much of the general public has done so, may tend to focus attention on the particular subgroup most closely associated with the issue (rightly or wrongly). You are correct concerning CAIR, etc. I suspect that a healthy does of the average Seattle Muslim housewife expressing disapproval may go a long way toward forestalling some rather unhealthy attitudes on the part of others.

Anyway, good comments.


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Image of gabe
on January 17, 2015 at 12:00:08 pm


Thanks. I guess in a certain way, my answer to your question is "yes, even non-activists owe something." But what they owe is relatively modest. I think what they owe is a disposition to speak out if and when the need arises. If it doesn't arise, they needn't speak out. If it does arise, they must. But they don't have an obligation specifically to seek out contexts in which to speak out--as you and I are doing right now.

So, take my Seattle housewife. She has an obligation to be generally informed about what's going on in the world, and inwardly to condemn the terrorists. That's settled.

Now imagine that her kids are of an age where they can understand the issues. I think she has an obligation to tell the kids that free speech is a right, and that terrorism against it is wrong. Depending on how religiously committed she is, she'll have to square that with the teachings of Islam. If she's not that committed, the fundamental point to get across to the kids is free speech.

Suppose she's out with friends and someone defends the terrorists. Here I think she has an obligation to disagree, even if all she says is "No, I don't agree with that." Ideally, she'd say more.

Suppose she goes on a day trip to Canada, and gets hassled by the border control people. It's fair to complain about that, but one fact has to be put in the balance among all the complaints: given terrorism, there is a legitimate cause for fear and for border control. That's perfectly compatible with thinking that the controls are excessive, or that a given officer is being unreasonable. But it's not compatible with pretending that excessive border controls are coming from out of nowhere. She'd have to think and speak accordingly.

I'm inclined to think that the need to speak out will probably arise in some way for the vast majority of people in, say, Canada and the US, even the most politically disengaged soccer moms out there. But I know people (even in Canada and the US) for whom it wouldn't arise at all, and I wouldn't condemn them. My grandmother is no longer alive, but if she were, she would not have an obligation to condemn the Charlie Hebdo killings. I am not sure my grandmother knew where "France" was, and I am not sure I would know how to explain the concept of "satire" to her (much less "free speech"). The only English she understood was "sale at Macy's." So I'd have left it at that--unless the terrorists had attacked a cookware sale at Macy's.

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Irfan Khawaja
on January 17, 2015 at 12:54:52 pm

Okey dokey!

Perhaps, I think of my own grandfather who, while not confronting such issues as the Seattle housewife, nevertheless made plain to all his fellow immigrants that he now considered himself American, not Sicilian or even Catholic.
Yet, just like your grandmother he did not consider it part of his responsibility to speak out on every issue as a rule. Again, you are correct - it may very well be situational i.e., the opportunity or obligation may be thrust upon you as it was with my grandfather and the rise of Mussolini - who he despised and vociferously argued against.

Oh, and my grandfather didn't shop - he just wanted to know who had beer on sale. Same thing I suppose.

take care

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Image of gabe
on January 17, 2015 at 16:54:14 pm

[…] More on Extremist and Moderate Muslims […]

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