The Elusive Moderate Muslim

Imam Siraj Wahaj is in great demand. Last week he was a featured speaker at the Mosque for the Praising of Allah in Roxbury, Massachusetts. A few days before that, he addressed four hundred people at a Muslim Students Association gathering at Western Michigan University. His star has shone for years: in 1991, he even became the first Muslim to give an invocation to the U.S. Congress. And why not? Not long after 9/11, he said just what jittery Americans wanted to hear from Muslims: “I now feel responsible to preach, actually to go on a jihad against extremism.”

But what he thinks actually constitutes extremism is somewhat unclear; after all, he has also warned that the United States will fall unless it “accepts the Islamic agenda.” He has lamented that “if only Muslims were clever politically, they could take over the United States and replace its constitutional government with a caliphate.” In the early 1990s he sponsored talks by Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman in mosques in New York City and New Jersey; Rahman was later convicted for conspiring to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, and Wahaj was designated a “potential unindicted co-conspirator.”

The fact that someone who would like to see the Constitution replaced has led a prayer for those sworn to uphold it is just a symptom a larger, ongoing problem: the government and media are avid to find moderate Muslims — and as their desperation has increased, their standards have lowered. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to find Muslim leaders who have genuinely renounced violent jihad and any intention, now or in the future, to impose Sharia on non-Muslim countries. The situation is complicated by many factors, including:

1. Taqiyya and kitman. These are Islamic doctrines of religious deception. They originated in Shi’ite Islamic defenses against Sunni Islam, but have their roots in the Qur’an (3:28 and 16:106). Many radical Muslims today work hard to deceive unbelievers, in line with Muhammad’s statement, “War is deceit.”

2. Since most Muslims today are not Arabs but all Islamic worship must be in Arabic, and because the Qur’an itself is in difficult classical Arabic, a significant number of nominal Muslims in the U.S. and around the world have no clear idea of what the Qur’an actually says, or what the traditions of their religion in fact do teach.

This group, of course, is the radicals’ largest recruiting ground: again and again — notably in the case of the Al-Qaeda cell in Lackawanna, New York — they have radicalized such “moderates” simply by teaching them what the Qur’an says.

The smallest number is a third group: Muslims who know that the Qur’an and other Muslim sources teach violence against unbelievers but are ready to set that aside in all circumstances. “Moderate Islam” as a viable entity is still in an inchoate state theologically; it is largely a cultural habit that is ever vulnerable to being overturned by by-the-book radicals.

Of course, another moderate Muslim spokesman, Stephen Schwartz, vehemently denies this. He recently reacted with contemptuous indignation to the claim “that Bosnian moderation has no basis in Islamic tradition, and that the absence of such means the country will always be susceptible to extremist infiltration.” But it isn’t that it’s not traditional; it’s that it’s not theological: in the same piece he notes that he “was alarmed during my recent trip to see a resurgence of ‘street Wahhabism’ among young people and others easily swayed by superficial influences.” No doubt these “superficial influences” included copious references to the Qur’an and Sunnah. Schwartz ascribes their appeal to, among other things, poverty and hopelessness. But this fails to explain why places that are relatively untouched by poverty and hopelessness — most notably, Wahhabism’s birthplace of Saudi Arabia, but by no means limited to the Kingdom — have not been able to stop resurgences of “street Wahhabism.” The appeal to “pure Islam” has proven strong.

Where is moderate Islam? How can moderate Muslims refute the radical exegesis of the Qur’an and Sunnah? If an exposition of moderate Islam does not address or answer radical exegeses, is it really of any value to quash Islamic extremism? If the answer lies in a simple rejection of Qur’anic literalism, how can non-literalists make that rejection stick, and keep their children from being recruited by jihadists by means of literalism?

So far, all self-proclaimed moderate Muslims have left such questions unanswered. But until they are answered, it would be wise to be wary of the likes of Siraj Wahaj.