Got News? What's a moderate Muslim?

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim (L) listens to his wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail in Kuala Lumpur August 9, 2010. The sacked former deputy prime minister is standing trial for alleged sodomy. Anwar says the case is a political conspiracy. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad (MALAYSIA - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW)

We've seen quite a bit of coverage of the Cordoba mosque project near ground zero. Most in-depth questioning or investigative journalism seems focused on opponents of the mosque project. Most discussions of the backers of the project assert that they are "moderate." But what is a moderate Muslim? What does the phrase "moderate" mean, much less imply? And this is putting aside the fact that there's plenty of information out there about Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf that makes one wonder what the modifier "moderate" means in his case any way. I really enjoyed this Wall Street Journal editorial page symposium that decided to ask the question "What Is Moderate Islam?"

The question is asked of Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's opposition leader (pictured); Bernard Lewis, professor emeritus at Princeton; Ed Husain, co-founder of a counterextremist think tank; Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operative and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Tawfik Hamid: a former member of the Islamic radical group Jamma Islamiya, Islamic reformer and a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani ambassador to Britain and chair of Islamic studies at American University.

They each look at the question differently and give plenty to ponder and fight about. Ibrahim writes:

Yet Muslims must do more than just talk about their great intellectual and cultural heritage. We must be at the forefront of those who reject violence and terrorism. And our activism must not end there. The tyrants and oppressive regimes that have been the real impediment to peace and progress in the Muslim world must hear our unanimous condemnation. The ball is in our court.

Mr. Lewis talks about how the seeds of tolerance are contained within Islam before noting how global communications have increased the power of intolerant strains within Islam:

For the moment, there does not seem to be much prospect of a moderate Islam in the Muslim world. This is partly because in the prevailing atmosphere the expression of moderate ideas can be dangerous--even life-threatening. Radical groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban, the likes of which in earlier times were at most minor and marginal, have acquired a powerful and even a dominant position.

But for Muslims who seek it, the roots are there, both in the theory and practice of their faith and in their early sacred history.

Husain says that he doesn't like the phrase "moderate" and prefers normal or normative Muslim. And Ahmed says he thinks the term "moderate" implies a value judgment of good vs. bad. He prefers to use "mystic, modernist and literalist" categories. The former radical Hamid takes a different approach:

In regards to Islam, the words "moderate'" and "radical" are relative terms. Without defining them it is virtually impossible to defeat the latter or support the former.

Radical Islam is not limited to the act of terrorism; it also includes the embrace of teachings within the religion that promote hatred and ultimately breed terrorism. Those who limit the definition of radical Islam to terrorism are ignoring--and indirectly approving of--the Shariah teachings that permit killing apostates, violence against women and gays, and anti-Semitism.

Moderate Islam should be defined as a form of Islam that rejects these violent and discriminatory edicts. Furthermore, it must provide a strong theological refutation for the mainstream Islamic teaching that the Muslim umma (nation) must declare wars against non-Muslim nations, spreading the religion and giving non-Muslims the following options: convert, pay a humiliating tax, or be killed. This violent concept fuels jihadists, who take the teaching literally and accept responsibility for applying it to the modern world.

Moderate Islam must not be passive. It needs to actively reinterpret the violent parts of the religious text rather than simply cherry-picking the peaceful ones. Ignoring, rather than confronting or contextualizing, the violent texts leaves young Muslims vulnerable to such teachings at a later stage in their lives.

Finally, moderate Islam must powerfully reject the barbaric practices of jihadists. Ideally, this would mean Muslims demonstrating en masse all over the world against the violence carried out in the name of their religion.

Moderate Islam must be honest enough to admit that Islam has been used in a violent manner at several stages in history to seek domination over others. Insisting that all acts in Islamic history and all current Shariah teachings are peaceful is a form of deception that makes things worse by failing to acknowledge the existence of the problem.

No one got terribly much room to dig into the texts but this is a wonderful beginning to an important conversation. I wish other media outlets would use this Cordoba project controversy as a means to discuss some of these important questions about Islam. A symposium is a great way to handle it but I'd like to see some news pages outside of the editorial section approach the topic, too.

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