Whose moderate Muslims?


Whose moderate Muslims?

Whose moderate Muslims?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012
  • Malaysian Muslims
To be accepted by civilised society, Muslims must declare their peaceful intentions, their integratedness, their moderation. But why does the West get to define what a "moderate Muslim" is? (Photo by Hussein Shaharuddin/The Mole)

Who gets to decide what a “moderate Muslim” is? In this extended piece, Iain Buchanan argues that as the West demands Muslims fit themselves into its definition of the moderate Muslim, it ignores that it has itself failed to abide by its own standards. The way to initiate true dialogue between moderates, he says, is for the West to take steps to address its own failures.



This is a tiresome time for Muslims. Especially in the West. Collectively, they are seen as wild, narrow-minded, and unevolved; a relic society still stuck in the Middle Ages. They are the world's biggest troublemakers, a demographic time-bomb in the heart of Europe. So Muslims have a great deal to account for, a great deal to live down. Of course, there are many Westerners who are happy to accommodate Muslims in the world they both share -- even cheek by jowl in the same city or state. But there is a quid pro quo. To be accepted by civilised society, Muslims must declare their peaceful intentions, their integratedness, their moderation. "Moderate Muslims", as it were, must wear on their arms the badge of a yellow crescent.


But what, exactly, is a "moderate Muslim"? Our definition of what a "moderate Muslim" is will depend on our definition of many other things. Firstly, it will depend on who demands the definition, and what they want from it. Secondly, it depends on the definitions of the two extremes between which "moderate" sits. Thirdly, it depends on the qualities – social, political, ecological, religious – that are being calibrated and tested for "moderation". So it is, perhaps, a thankless exercise. There can be a great many definitions of just what a "moderate Muslim" is. And there will never be agreement between all these definitions -- or those who make them. After all, we make of words exactly what we want to make of them.


"Moderation", like honesty, should be a virtue we can all agree upon, whatever our religious calling. It is, after all, the mark of a good human being – treating others fairly, making modest demands on our fellow beings and on the rest of God's creation, whether it be the land we occupy, the trees we use, the creatures we eat. Moderate people do not exploit, over-eat, abuse living things, waste resources. Moderate people are sympathetic, understanding, and calmly disposed. Moderate people do not make war, torture, or oppress ...


We could go on. But it would be evading the real issue. And the real issue is not a question of moderate human beings. It is a question of moderate Muslim human beings – and a question, ultimately, of geopolitics. And, ultimately, the issue is the right of the Christian West to pass judgement on others, and to demand their submission to a view of the world that the Christian West holds. For the growing demand for Muslim moderation is not so much a Muslim initiative, for Muslim benefit-it is much more a reactive demand to Western pressure, which seeks definitions and undertakings that please the Christian West.


At a simplistic level, there seems little to argue about. Christian Westerners, for the most part, consider a "moderate Muslim" to be the kind of Muslim they can live with: one who is quiet and unassuming, loyal, predictable, law-abiding, unthreatening in any way. This sounds reasonable enough, at least within the Christians' own lands. But the world is much bigger than the Christians' own lands: there are Muslim lands, and the lands of many others, often with very mixed populations. And the Christians have long had a decisive (and often very destructive) presence in all of these lands – as well as an unfortunate tendency, still, to want their writ to run over every single one of them. And so, at the very least, if Muslims accept a Western-defined "moderation" for themselves, perhaps they should examine more carefully the credentials of their definers.


Historically, of course, there is a problem. Whatever Christianity is as a religion, its followers have all too often been anything but "moderate" in their dealings with one another and their dealings with everyone else. For well over a thousand years, Christian history has been defined by the unholy marriage of power and the Bible. All too often, the gospel of the poor and needy has been suppressed, and Christians have shown themselves to be brutal, greedy, and war-mongering – and have justified their actions on the basis of holy scripture. Perhaps this only proves that human beings devise their holy scriptures to serve human ends – and that those ends are sometimes good and sometimes bad. Or perhaps it demonstrates that, however virtuous and well-intentioned their scriptures, human beings will usually be led by their baser instincts, and will readily misinterpret the book they claim inspires them. Clearly, there is a disconnection between what people say they believe, and what they do. And that disconnection has been particularly strong in European (and Christian) history.


And the reason is not hard to see. Over the centuries, as European (and eventually American) culture came to dominate the world, its use of the Christian gospel as motif and justification expanded dramatically. As powerfully as its secular patrons, the Gospel came to represent the hegemony of an imperial culture over a diverse but subservient world. In profound and complex ways, the Christian gospel became so institutionalised, as part of the dominant culture, that it became hard to tell where the West's secular personality ended and its spirituality began. And this conflation has had the direst effects -both on the integrity of Western and non-Western cultures alike, and on the reputation of the Christian gospel itself. Above all, it is essential to recognise that, all too often, what is seen as the Christian way is in fact the way of Western culture – and what is seen as Western culture is often, in many a mangled form, the Christian way as well.


Religion as a weapon


There has always been an instrumentality in the way that Westerners have used their religion. Rather than it being an innate part of living, it has been used as a political tool, a sanction for rulers, an imperial weapon, a moral cane to strike with. Scriptural interpretation thus all too easily serves these, rather than more humane and laudable, ends.


Naturally, in the strongly elitist and imperialistic societies of Europe, the Bible became a weapon of control and repression -- and all too frequently the priesthood became little more than a department of state, an army of moralising camp-followers hammering the souls of citizens and foreigners alike. It was a state of affairs that did not tolerate dissent, difference, or opposition – whether from commoners, priests, or princes. And given the imperialistic urge of such societies, the attitude to foreigners was hardly one of love and coexistence. Outsiders were subjugated or demonised – and frequently both. And the Church was happy to rationalise the situation in Biblical terms.


Western history was truly a blood-soaked history. For more than a thousand years, within Christian Europe, rival kings, bishops, and princes fought one another for territory and influence, using religion as justification for massacre, torture, and oppression. During the Thirty Years War, fought largely over religion, the population of Germany was reduced by almost a third. In those thirty years, up to 14 million Europeans died in the slaughter and the devastation of war. And in Ireland, the Puritan Cromwell and his Ironsides cut a swathe through the Catholic population – massacring 4,000 at Drogheda, 4,000 at Wexford, and justifying the horror in the name of God. By the 20th century, Christian violence had been thoroughly industrialised – and so hugely magnified. The First World War was justified as a war to save "Europe's Christian civilisation" – and cost over 15 million lives. The Second World War, in Europe alone, cost another 40 million lives. And the Second World War, of course, marked by the evils of Christian anti-Semitism, also hastened that atoning creation of a new Jewish state – which has soured global politics and intensified religious conflict ever since.


And as Europe expanded its control overseas, again it used religion as justification for crusades against all who got in the way. Over a millennium of warfare, millions died in Europe alone, mostly in the name of God. And as Europe expanded, many more millions of strangers died at the hands of Christian warriors, settlers, traders, and government officials: 100 million across the Americas, 15 million in the slave trade, and still more millions in the colonisation of Africa and Asia. In the Belgian Congo alone, between 1885 and 1905, the Catholic King Leopold ll's civilising mission caused almost 15 million deaths – and to manage the remainder, he cut off hands and feet, ears and noses. The Congo Holocaust killed twice as many people as the European Holocaust and the Armenian Holocaust combined: the latter two have shaped world history, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future; in contrast, few people have even heard of the catastrophe in the Congo.


Of course, imperial mass murder was often more a matter of administrative whim than deliberate policy: in India, the good Christian Churchill's punitive measures led directly to the Great Bengal Famine and 10 million deaths. And, more recently, the abstraction of mass bombing helped to kill some three million civilians during the war in Indochina -an achievement which the Presbyterian Elder (and onetime Defense Secretary) Robert S. McNamara described as "fantastic". And at the end of the Second Millennium, Christian convert (and onetime Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright could say that toppling a single tyrant was worth the price of 500,000 dead Iraqi children.


Throughout the West's imperial history, the thread of Christian blessing is both firm and constant. From the depradations of Catholic Spain in South America, to the modern exploits of groups like the New Tribes Mission and Missionary Aviation Fellowship, the Christian Church has allied itself with powerful men – and violence against the vulnerable. The extermination of North American Indians was seen by many as a Christian necessity, and so was the extermination of Australia's aborigines. And today, in the depths of Amazonia, Christian missions still preside enthusiastically over numerous little genocides of fragile tribal communities. In Guatemala, just thirty years ago, over 600 Mayan villages were razed to the ground, their inhabitants tortured, raped, disembowelled, and burned to death. Over 200,000 Mayans were murdered, one million became refugees – and mostly in a single year, during an unholy pact between Presbyterian Ronald Reagan and ardent Pentecostalist President Efrain Rios Montt. Again, few people have even heard of what happened in Guatemala. There are, after all, Holocausts and Holocausts.


Distance from responsibility


But for many, such is the price that had to be paid for the blessing of Christian civilisation. Why dwell on the death toll, when so much good came in its wake? It is a disingenuous question. And it leaves the culprits free to sin again. We do not dismiss the Holocaust because Jews are now more secure, better integrated in Western society, and in possession of their own state. There can be no justification for the horrors visited upon the world by the Christian West, in the name of the Christian God: indeed, one could argue that true Christians would never behave like that – and that a village school or a clinic, built upon an abomination, is itself an abomination, and a mockery of Christ's message.


But there is a deeper question. One of the defining features of modern Western society is the distance that technology and organisation can put between the individual and his actions: man's creativity and destructiveness, his goodness and his evils, have become remote-controlled. So loud in its affirmation of the individual and his rights, Western society has effectively separated the individual from the need to feel responsible for his actions, the need to feel guilt, sympathy, shame, or the pain of others. The assembly worker, the civil servant, the banker, the drone operator – all may be quiet, clean-handed, and prayerful… and all may be comfortable killers. Western society has freed moderate men from the evil that they do – and allowed them sanctimony over their victims.


Given the history of the Christian West, perhaps the key question for Muslims is not so much why they are so anti-Western. Rather, it is why so many Muslims so resolutely seek to model themselves on Western images of how they should behave. After all, this "Western way" is essentially the way of European (and more recently American) Christian culture – a conflation of religion and culture both deliberate and unavoidable. And one of the defining features of the Western way has been its peculiar unity of church and state: secular power has always needed the Christian Church to validate it – while the church has always travelled as a servant of secular power. This helps to explain why, historically, the Western example is at best ambivalent; and why, in its modern shape it remains so-at once enormously seductive, irredeemably corrupt, and utterly self-righteous. A strange way, indeed, for Muslims to follow.


And yet it is mandatory, these days, for Muslims to define their "moderates" in terms of Western-derived conceptions of democracy and free elections, free speech, religious "tolerance", sexual equality, children's rights, and so on. But what is the reality, in the Christian West, of its own ideals? Is "democracy" served when a US president comes to power through a cooked election, or when a "popular" British prime minister governs with the support of just a quarter of the electorate? Is "free speech" served by laws which send a man to prison for doubting "the (European) Holocaust", but not for doubting the far greater destruction of Native Americans, or enslaved Africans, or starving Bengalis? What of a "free press" -when the industry is dominated (as in Britain) by a super-corporation, based overseas, which breaks privacy laws on an industrial scale, and bribes police and politicians as a matter of course? And what of “justice", when the judiciary is politicised and the police are in the pockets of the press – and senior officers conspire to falsify hundreds of statements to cover up their prejudice and their negligence?


But let us go no further than children's rights. After all, these are the root, stock and branch of much Western concern about non-Christian peoples, and the inspiration (ostensibly) for a vast network of child protection agencies – Save the Children, World Vision, International Justice Mission and so on – funded by the Christian West and aimed at the rest of the world. For decades, into the 1960s, and mainly through Christian agencies (both Catholic and Protestant), Britain forcibly exported tens of thousands of its own "orphans" to work on the new farmlands of Canada and Australia. For well over a century, and into the 1960s, the authorities in Canada and Australia routinely kidnapped tens of thousands of tribal children, put them into "orphanages", and taught them the virtue of speaking English and worshipping Jesus Christ – today, the same process continues in such tribal regions as northern Thailand, where thousands of poor village children are routinely extracted from their homes to be converted (and deracinated) by agencies like Youth With a Mission and the Baptist Church.


Meanwhile, in the homeland of Christian moderation, a recent scandal has underscored the perils of passing judgement on the rest of the world. In October 2012, it was revealed that one of Britain's most loved television entertainers, Sir Jimmy Savile, had, over four decades, been a serial paedophile, abusing scores of children – often openly – in the course of his work. But he had got away with it, because his employers – and many other powerful people – had for decades painstakingly looked the other way. Sir Jimmy was too good for the ratings, too valuable an asset to lose. So young girls were routinely attacked in dressing rooms, caravans, hospitals, schools, and children's probation homes – and Sir Jimmy was feted by all, knighted by the Queen, knighted by the Pope – and indulged in his predations by that paragon of British moderation, the British Broadcasting Corporation. It was a crime that was sustained, routine, and thoroughly institutionalised. It was like many other similar crimes – affecting many thousands of children in the mainstream church, in care homes, and in kindergartens. It was known, and it was covered up by people in power.


And yet those who protected Sir Jimmy and his ilk were not criminals or wild men. They were all good, moderate, Judeo-Christian souls. Even the much-loved Sir Jimmy was a respected Catholic, a papal knight, and a pillar of the philanthropic community. And it is the same with the corrupted police force, the corrupted banking system, the corrupted newspaper industry, and the corrupted childcare system. This is no uncivilised and un-Christian border region. This is the heartland of Christian moderation.


It is an eerie spectacle. As this venerable civilisation falls apart, the overseers of the catastrophe are good, upstanding, and thoroughly Christian souls. The bankers in disgrace – Bob Diamond, Steven Hester, Sir Fred Goodwin – were all decent Christians. The minister overseeing the banking scandal – a banker himself – was also a vicar of the Church of England. The owner of the most corrupted media corporation – Rupert Murdoch – is a passionate Christian; his personal pastor – Rick Warren – is a member of Tony Blair's Faith Foundation. And the home of some of the most sustained campaigns of child abuse, of course, has been the Catholic Church and its sanctuaries for damaged children. In other words, the wrongdoers and their protectors are almost always fine moderate Christians, in responsible jobs, in positions of great influence. Such are the people who decide the world's moral parameters -- such are the markers for defining other people's "moderation."


And yet... Muslims still agonise over their own "moderation". And Muslims still feel the need to prove their credentials as worthy members of the human race – all too often without seeing this as a universal requirement for all human beings to perform.


Far more sensible a response would be to demand that the Christian West, before it lays down rules for others to follow, itself devise a definition of "moderate Christians" that the rest of the world can live with, and then elevate these "moderates" to positions of leadership, subject to a common approval. But, then, there must be a rider to this demand: the rule of "moderate people" must go hand in hand with the rule of "moderate systems" – of religious, political, economic, and social activities, of the management and control of human affairs and technology (especially military technology) across the globe. It is a crucial rider, for a very important reason: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others have nothing like the huge political and material power that goes with being Christian, and especially Western Christian. They do not possess those tightly-organised, richly-funded networks of global assault and subversion that the West's evangelicals possess; they do not possess the economic clout, the political clout, the technological clout, or the military clout that the imperial West can provide in support of its moral persuasion. Of course, such an undertaking will never happen without a fundamental rearranging of Western society and its economy, and political system. And in any case, Western Christians, for the most part, are perfectly happy with the "moderation" they practise.


For the call to "moderation", ultimately, is part of the political game. It is a device, used by the powerful, to hold the troublesome in check. "Moderates" do not challenge. "Moderates" do not fight. It has been a tool of the imperial Christian Church for over a thousand years: the masses must keep in place, accept God's order of things, restrain their frustration at injustice. But against the Muslim world, the demand meets a more awkward reality.


Islam is a faith grounded in the principle of justice. It may be a difficult faith for its adherents; it is a truly dangerous faith for its adversaries. For over a thousand years, the Christian world has seen its tyrants play the two sides of Christ as a political game – with the image of the loving Christ used to demand the people's acquiescence, and the image of the warrior Christ used against their enemies. And in this way, in all Christian kingdoms, the imperative of justice was surrendered to the expediencies of secular power. And so, when Islam became the enemy, the reaction was predictable and inevitable: the Muslims proved indignant, direct, and fierce. Their Christian antagonists, after all, seemed to thrive on impiety, aggression, and boundless injustice. They were anything but moderate.


Steps towards dialogue


But the world moves on. And to speed the change, good, moderate Muslims can at least make a proposal. The extremists, the zealots, the violent men will all be reined in. But there shall be a quid pro quo. The Christian West shall undertake to rein in its own extremists, zealots, and violent men. And to do this, it can take three simple steps, for the benefit of moderation everywhere: 

  • Firstly, combat the growing influence of "Dominionist" ideas (such as Seven Mountains theology) in Christian evangelical strategy, especially in non-Christian countries; 

  • Secondly, put an end to Christian predacity disguised as love and charity; 

  • Thirdly, disavow the promotion of Christian Zionism by missionary agencies.


Such steps, of course, must be a mere beginning. But if they are taken, at the very least, the behaviour of Christian evangelicals in the world at large will be less driven by zealots and less riven with deceit. And a dialogue can begin between moderate people.


lain Buchanan is the author of Fatimah 's Kampung (Consumers Association of Penang, 2008) and The Armies of God (Citizens International, 2010).