Punching my 'moderate' button again

bhutto 3I hit the wall on something this past weekend. But before I vent a bit, let's flash back to one of the most candid and insightful statements in the New York Times self-study document (PDF) from a few years ago. The key, of course, is that the labels we use to describe people and groups really matter -- especially religious labels. Thus, a study group at the world's most powerful newspaper wrote:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.

GetReligion readers already know what we think around here about journalists who like to toss the word "fundamentalist" around. That isn't what has me on a slow boil at the moment, however.

No, I am fed up with the use of the word "moderate" by journalists, which basically means "people that we like." I have been doing a lot of travel in recent weeks, and at almost every location -- from Prague to Princeton -- I have ended up in conversations with journalists and scholars about "moderate." This word is getting more and more and more use when married with the word Muslim.

What exactly is a "moderate Muslim"? Moderate in comparison to what? Moderate vs. traditionalist? Moderate vs. liberal? Moderate vs. radical? And in what context is a "moderate Muslim" a "moderate Muslim"? As an Al-Jazeera English executive asked recently, during an interview for my Scripps Howard column, is that "moderate" in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain, France or the U.S. of A.?

What are the standards here, either in terms of politics or Islamic doctrine? What does a "moderate" believe or not believe that a "traditional" or even a "radical" Muslim does not?

Let's look at a typical reference, in an amazing deadline story by Laura King of the Los Angeles Times about the bombing that almost killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but before her return, Islamic militants had threatened violence against Bhutto, who is seen as a pro-Western moderate. Pakistani cities have been hit hard in the last year by suicide attacks, but this was by far the deadliest.

Until the bombings, the focus of the homecoming had been the highly fraught relationship between Bhutto and President Pervez Musharraf, who remains the chief of Pakistan's powerful military. The two have been trying, with the blessing of the United States, to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement.

So, is "moderate" a political term? Of course, in Islam, there are no lines drawn between faith, culture and government, but let's set that aside for a minute. "Moderate" means "pro-Western." What is the content of that statement? Muslims who are willing to support the rule of secular, common law as opposed to the rule of sharia?

This is the context for most of the "moderate" language in the coverage of this terrorist attack. But wait, there is one more thing to look at -- the ultimate button-pusher for me.

You see, it seems that journalists are not the only people confused at the moment. Check this out:

Mindful, perhaps, of resentment in Pakistan over perceived American meddling in domestic politics, the White House declined to comment directly on Bhutto's return. Press Secretary Dana Perino said the United States hoped for a "peaceful, democratic Pakistan, an Islamic state that is a moderate force in the region, and one that can be an ally to help us fight extremism and radicalism."

Later, U.S. officials condemned the attacks.

Now, did Perino mean to say "Islamic state" as in a state under Islamic law? Or did the press secretary mean a "Muslim state"? Is there a difference? Which one is "moderate" and which is "radical"? Does anyone know? Does anyone care?

Too many questions. My head hurts.

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