`Moderate Islam’ typology missing the point
Ahmad Najib Burhani , Jakarta | Thu, 11/12/2009 1:34 PM | Opinion
There is a standard perspective among laypeople in the US and Europe when they perceive Islam. They classify Muslims into two oppositional categories, such as good versus bad Muslim, and moderate versus non-moderate Muslims.
This simple division is based on elementary logic and cannot imagine any variety of religiosity beyond these two categories – white and black. And there is no place for an additional category in this model of typology.
If a certain number of Muslims would be included in the moderate Islam category, the remaining people would be categorized as non-moderate. This is a political conclusion on Muslim politicism which is often disregards sociological or theological considerations. This further raises the question, who is a moderate Muslim?
The logic behind this categorization is like what the former US president George W. Bush stated in the beginning of “war on terror”, when he gave two options for Muslims, “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”.
Moderate Islam or “good” Muslims is the name applied to Muslims who are “friendly” with the US, and non-moderate Islam is a designation for Muslims who oppose the West.
Any current justification supporting the idea that moderate Islam is the ideal position for Muslim is only post hoc. They appear after this term was invented and popularized, not before.
If we go to the commentaries of the Koran, the meaning of din al-wasath (median or moderate religion) or ummatan wasathan (moderate people) is not used to refer to the median position between liberal and radical (or terrorists) – the beloved meaning of the term used by proponents of “moderate Islam” – but between Christianity and Judaism or between “soft” and “hard” religions.
The new negative meaning of wasath (not liberal and not radical) has occurred as justification after the term “moderate Islam” was propagated.
Furthermore, applying the term moderate Islam would strengthen the belief in the existence of a “clash of civilizations”, a belief that there is only one Islam and one Western civilization, and that these two worlds are in eternal conflict, are incompatible and incommensurable.
This is a belief strongly held by both the orientalists and their followers, such as Bernard Lewis, Samuel Huntington, and George W. Bush, as well as fundamentalist Muslims such as Osama bin Laden. Although they are opposing each other in politics, they share in their understanding on Islam.
While some Muslims believe that all Muslim people are members of ummatan wahidah (a single community), in fact they are different in terms of ethnicity and nationality. In terms of geography, linguistics, theological and law understanding, Muslim people are not unified.
Osama Bin Laden abandons these anthropological and sociological differences. The only difference that he submits is between male and female, gender or sexual difference. Orientalists, and their obedient followers like Huntington, fully accept this notion.
Besides having the same notion as Osama, they also essentialize all Muslim people into a single form; they have a different civilization that is not compatible with the West and have an inherent hatred of the West. They also believe there is a single West, regardless of their differences in religion, ethnicity and nationality.
The political term “moderate Islam” is not helpful in establishing a social category. My suggestion is to avoid this term in reading or understanding Muslim people.
Instead of using this controversial term, using traditional sociological category such as modernist and traditionalist Muslim is much more useful. Although the traditional classification of modernist and traditionalist is currently less sharp than several decades ago, this category does not fall into essentializing Islam into two categories based on hatred.
Over time, Muslims are facing new challenges that are different from what they faced a decade or a century ago. The term modernist and traditionalist is a result of scholars reading about Islam phenomena in the 20th century when they faced colonialism, animism and mystics.
The new challenges (new religious extremes, globalization, Westernization etc) divide Muslim people into several categories such as salafist, liberal, progressive, neofundamentalist and Islamist. These sociological and theological terms are a better alternative than the political term “moderate Islam”.
The writer is a researcher at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) and the Maarif Institute.