Spirits of 'moderate' Islam

250px Bottle of Arak RayanAs regular GetReligion readers will know, I have a thing about that vague word that mainstream journalists keep using to describe the Muslims that America likes, or that the journalists like, or that the Taliban dislikes, or something. That word, of course, is "moderate." In particular, I want to know more about the doctrinal or religious content of the word. I know that it has something to do with being pro-West or pro-America. I suspect that it has something to do with the belief that one can be a good, practicing, faithful Muslim without living under Sharia law -- a hot question in the Islamic world today.

So I read with interest a New York Times story that ran with this headline: "In Mixed Slice of Baghdad, Old Bonds Defy War." It's about the shockingly peaceful Baghdad neighborhood called Bab al Sheik:

... (It) has been spared the sectarian killing that has gutted other neighborhoods, and Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and Christians live together here with unusual ease. It has been battered by bombings around its edges, but the war has been kept from its heart, largely because of its ancient, shared past, bound by trust and generations of intermarriage.

Reporters even feel safe there, walking and talking. We are marching closer to the crucial word, of course. Take this visit to a large Kurdish family.

Abu Nawal, the father, recounted how a group of men from the office of the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr came to a local cafe, proposing to set up shop in the area. The cafe owner pointed to a sign, which stated in dark script that all discussions of politics and religion were prohibited. The men were then asked to leave.

"The guys in the neighborhood said, 'If you try to make an office here, we will explode it,'" said Abu Nawal, a shoemaker, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for four generations.

Some time later, Sunni Arab political party members came and were similarly rebuffed. ...

He said he despised the poisonous mix of religion and politics that was strangling Iraqi society, and he enjoyed cracking wry jokes at politicians' expense. Playing off the names for extremist militias, which in Iraq call themselves things like the Islamic Army, he refers to his group of friends as the Arak Army, righteous defenders of an anise-flavored alcoholic drink.

So intermarriage and alcohol -- two terrible things for traditional Muslims -- are crucial. Now we have arrived at the key moment in the story.

The neighborhood has another rare asset: moderate religious men.

Sheik Muhammad Wehiab, a 30-year-old Shiite imam whose family has lived in Bab al Sheik for seven generations, was jailed for 14 months under Saddam Hussein, a biographical fact that should have opened doors for him in the new Shiite-dominated power hierarchy. But his moderate views were unpopular in elite circles, and he has remained in the neighborhood.

He feels connected. So much so that while talking on the phone one night this fall, he walked out into the tiny alley outside his door, lay down and watched the stars in the night sky.

250px Bottle of Arak RayanAnd what are those "moderate" views, pray tell?

We get some clues later in the story. We meet an anonymous Sunni cleric who seems to share these "moderate" views, although we have not been told what those views are.

The cleric, who asked that his name not be published out of concern for his safety, because of the high profile of the mosque, lovingly ticks off qualities of the 12th-century Sufi sheik Abdel Qadr Qailani, who gave the mosque its name: Intellectual. Scholar. Moral teacher.

But moderate religion is not drawing an audience on a national scale, and Qailani Mosque, one of Baghdad's most important Sunni institutions, has fallen on hard times. Donations are down. Its long-running soup kitchen serves one meal a day instead of three. Sufi clerics cannot perform their rituals. A bomb sheared off part of a minaret in February.

So "moderates" are smart, which means that non-moderates are, well, not smart? And moderates believe in morality, but are not hung up on the actual teachings of Islam?

Then, the story ends with a long, rather strange anecdote about how positive it is when people feel free to drink lots and lots of that Arak drink. The alcohol really seems to be crucial.

This is not helping me much. It sounds like "moderate" is, again, code for Muslims with whom Western journalists feel comfortable. Did I miss something in this story?

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