Moderate shmoderate

Yes but. Yes it’s good to point out that “Muslim rage” about the video is actually a tiny fraction of Muslim opinion on the subject, as Avaaz does. But it’s not so good to sort Islamists into the bad radical ones and the “moderates,” as Avaaz also does. Moderate theocracy is still theocracy, and it’s bad.

Like everyone else, many Muslims find the 13 minute Islamophobic video “Innocence of Muslims” trashy and offensive. Protests have spread quickly, tapping into understandable and lasting grievances about neo-colonialist US and western foreign policy in the Middle East, as well as religious sensitivities about depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. But the news coverage often obscures some important points:

1. Early estimates put participation in anti-film protests at between 0.001 and 0.007% of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims – a tiny fraction of those who marched for democracy in the Arab spring.
2. The vast majority of protesters have been peaceful. The breaches of foreign embassies were almost all organised or fuelled by elements of the Salafist movement, a radical Islamist group that is most concerned with undermining more popular moderate Islamist groups.

That looks alarmingly like a wedge strategy, or a move the window strategy – separate the “more popular moderate” Muslim Brotherhood from the Salafists so that the MB will seem not so bad after all. The MB is still so bad after all! Especially if you’re a woman, or gay, or a Christian or an atheist or an “apostate.”


  1. says

    That looks alarmingly like a wedge strategy, or a move the window strategy – separate the “more popular moderate” Muslim Brotherhood from the Salafists so that the MB will seem not so bad after all. The MB is still so bad after all! Especially if you’re a woman, or gay, or a Christian or an atheist or an “apostate.”

    Out of curiosity, short of STFU, what could Muslims do that wouldn’t look like that to you? I’m sorry but it seems really insane to me to criticize the fact that most are behaving peacefully as a sign of a greater strategy to commit evil.

  2. says

    In other words separating Muslims from Salafists or Islamists is a fine project, but separating Salafists from putative “moderate” Islamists isn’t, because it deludes unwary people into thinking there is such a thing as a moderate Islamist. Erdoğan is supposed to be a “moderate Islamist” and he wants an international law against “blasphemy”…That’s not “moderate.”

  3. casey says

    There is pretty much no such thing as a good government when it comes to issues affecting women and LGBT folks, at least in regards to the governments that actually exist. The Democrats are moderate on those issues here in the US. So saying that a moderate Islamist party is still bad doesn’t really mean anything. Would the people in Egypt be better off without an Islamist party in government, sure, depending on the party that replaced them. There are plenty of shitty oppressive political parties in the world. Would those groups you mention be worse off with a radical Islamist party in power, most definitely.

  4. says

    Ing, I’ve used the phrase ‘moderate Islamist’, and I do know what it means roughly by who it tends to refer to, but that said:

    Yes, an Islamist is still a theocrat. So no, no one should be thinking, oh, phew, well, they’re moderate, so no worries.

    And, thinking about it, yes, it is kind of an odd phrase. You know what it means as a relative measure… but…

    But we generally don’t say ‘moderate Dominionist’.

    (We really don’t. The phrase gets 13 hits on Google, in case you’re curious. I checked. Some of those spurious because the words were next to each other more coincidentally. ‘Moderate Islamist’, in contrast, well, thousands, as you can well imagine.)

    And, yes, probably the Muslim Brotherhood and the like do get some benefit from being made to look like the moderates, here, against the contrast provided by the Salafists. People get to thinking: well, at least they’re not Salafists. Which is quintessential move the window, whether intentional or not.

    And to answer your question regarding ‘what would satisfy you’, on my behalf: let me ask you one:

    What could the Dominionists do that would satisfy you?

    That’s the valid question. As is ‘What could the Islamists do?’. Not ‘what could Muslims do?’ Ophelia’s point, as I read it, is that the pointing out the moderate Islamists’ protests are peaceful does make them look relatively good… Doesn’t so much mention, oh, umm, yeah, they’re also theocrats.

    Oh, and to answer the rhetorical question, I can answer it on my own behalf quite happily:

    What would make me happy is if they stop being Dominionists.

    Same with the Islamists. Please and thank you, to both of them. The fact that there are Salafists doesn’t suddenly make them ‘moderate’ in the sense of ‘oh, well, then, no problem’. They’re only ‘moderate’ in that specific sense that yes, there are even more extremist groups out there.

    That said, in fairness, I don’t know how else Avaaz is supposed to explain this particular dynamic without using the term moderate and radical Islamist at all gracefully, because yes, that is what’s happening.

    (/Or, wait… maybe I do: phrasing it ‘extremist Islamist’ and ‘violent extremist Islamist’? Or even just leaving out the extremist, as it kind of goes without saying, really.)

  5. Skarphedin says

    Consider Pakistan: a government minister can offer a reward for the death of a blasphemer and have no real immediate consequences; 82% of the population believes that death is the appropriate punishment for apostasy; minorities are accused of and punished for blasphemy – while high ranking government officials who speak out against this are assassinated.

    To argue that since only, say, 0.005% of Pakistani’s actually protested in the streets against this film – so, I guess there’s nothing to be worried about, is incredibly stupid.

    It’s the fact that there are these rashes of sometimes violent, always absurd, protests around the Muslim world, and that this happens frequently in response to trivial expressions of disrespect for Islam. This in combination with the clearly sympathetic view of leaders and citizens of Muslim nations towards the views of the protesters – ie, that the solution to the problem is restrictions on freedom of speech.

    I guess what it comes down to is that some object, perhaps, to the ‘rage’ depiction – most people in these countries are not actually yelling all the time. OK, fine, that’s sensationalism – but an more accurate view of the situation isn’t much less disturbing.

  6. Albert Bakker says

    To me it seems it’s the job of this elusive overwhelming majority of islamic moderate to show the extremists clearly belong to a tiny lunatic fringe, and not anyone else’s job or responsibility. It’s their turn to stand up and shout these barbarous islamists down. Leave them the choice to purge the cancer or get eaten by it.

  7. says

    ‘Moderate Islamist’ is about as reasonable a formulation as ‘moderate fascist’.

    The US responded to 9/11 by invading the country (Afghanistan) which hosted those who organised it. A greater part of the Western left was against that invasion, including as I recall, Avaaz.

    Many, perhaps including Avaaz, would have had the US do nothing in response to 9/11, and at the same time wear sackcloth and ashes for all its alleged crimes.

  8. Albert Bakker says

    @ Ing: Intellectual Terrorist, actually moderate Muslims are to blame to the extent that they are truly the majority. They do not really have to be silenced by the media, they really are not speaking.

    I would wager the majority within these majority of moderates are not really that much aware of their responsibility. Maybe these murderous bunch of extremists are somewhat over-enthusiastic, and people who lack the respect Islam deserves and ridicule Mohammed maybe should be put to death. But really worrisome is how these overly zealous types impact on the favorable image of Islam in the West.

    Once in a while you can see in print a lone voice, of a Muslim, usually a female, objecting. Usually it is framed in a way as seeing the extremists hijacking her faith. As if the extremists do not adhere to the and only real Islam, which necessarily produces tranquility and peace. I have yet to see on one of those sparse occasions much acclaim from the Muslim moderate majority. Usually the author winds up excusing herself for her audacity, her ignorance about Islam, and made to make clear she didn’t speak for anyone else but herself.

  9. Trends says

    Actually it is the job of the media to accurately portray a situation which they often fail at. It is not the fault of moderate Muslims that many are biggoted towards them.

    But for the media to report on incidences of Muslim moderation those incidences have to take place. You don’t hear from many moderates, and so there’s nothing much to report. The raging fundies hog all the microphones and the cameras. They dominate the muslim students associations and indeed all the major muslim advocacy groups. They have the ear of gov’t and academia

    The media needs evidence of muslim moderation in order to report on it; they can’t just invent ‘moderation’ when little or no evidence of that moderation exists.

  10. Robofish says

    @Ian MacDougall: “Many, perhaps including Avaaz, would have had the US do nothing in response to 9/11, and at the same time wear sackcloth and ashes for all its alleged crimes.”

    You got any evidence for that, or is it just a baseless slur? I seem to remember plenty of argument over what was the best way for the US to respond to 9/11, but I don’t seem to remember anyone recommending a ‘do nothing’ strategy. (As for Avaaz, I don’t think it even existed at the time.)

    As for the topic: I don’t think there’s anything necessarily contradictory about saying ‘all Islamists are bad, but some are worse than others’. Specifically, those willing to resort to violence to achieve their aims, contrasted with those willing to play by the rules of a democratic society. Ian MacDougall said ‘moderate Islamist is as reasonable as moderate Fascist’; but while I wouldn’t use the word ‘moderate’, I think there *is* a meaningful difference between a Fascist organisation that openly uses and encourages violence against its enemies, and one which simply peacefully contests elections. Only the former is *directly* causing harm to people; the latter is, however unpleasant, operating within the bounds of legitimate opposition in a democratic society. Both should be strongly opposed, but there is a difference there worth recognising.

  11. Robofish says

    Oh, and @Trends: “But for the media to report on incidences of Muslim moderation those incidences have to take place. You don’t hear from many moderates, and so there’s nothing much to report… The media needs evidence of muslim moderation in order to report on it; they can’t just invent ‘moderation’ when little or no evidence of that moderation exists.”

    Here’s some evidence of ‘moderate’ Pakistanis protesting against violence by cleaning up the damage caused by the recent riots.

    Naturally, the Western media will be covering that, right?

  12. Trends says

    Robofish,that’s wonderful news and it’s reassuring.

    However, the Cahtolic church holds bake sales, rummage sales and pârish suppers to support worthy charitable works, but that doesn’t excuse the numerous aspects of catholic theology that are harmful, does it?

    Perhaps if “Romanist” Catholics rioted, looted, burned and killed ambassadors more often , you’d be more sympathetic to the charitable bake sales held by the moderates.

    Even Onlineislam, the Qatari-based muslim web portal of which Yosuf Qaradawi is the spiritual guide, is promoting peaceful demonstrations by moderates in order to offset the negative PR generated by hot-headed radicals.

    Qaradawi openly supports the execution of both homosexuals and apostates…

    The head of Canada’s CIC, a gentlemen who’s on the record ( 2006) as saying all Israelis over the age of 18 on Canadian soil are legitimate targets for murder, is calling for peaceful demonstrations, as well.

    Does rearguard “rebranding” have any real sincerity?

  13. Robofish says

    Fair points. I would say that even if those peaceful demonstrations are wholly unsincere ‘rebranding’ exercises carried out for cynical reasons – and I’m sure there’s some truth to that – the fact that they’re taking place shows that those Muslim communities are aware of how bad they look to the rest of the world at the moment, and understand that shows of violence and rioting are not good for Islam’s global reputation. That’s a very small step in the right direction.

    But indeed, what really matters is how they act when the eyes of the Western media aren’t on them any more, and what they do and say in private. That’s how to judge whether there’s been any real change in attitudes, or whether it was all just PR exercises to repair the reputational damage.

  14. Tim Harris says

    I think it is not only good, but extremely important, to point out that only a tiny fraction of the world’s Muslims turned out to protest against that film or trailer or whatever it was, when so much coverage has been given to Muslim ‘rage’ and when one not uninfluential commentator I read (it might have been Sam Harris in his latest predictable and unimpressive piece on this ‘rage’, I cannot remember)asserted that the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world invariably react as one monstrous bloc to perceived slights to their religion. I loathe Islam, I don’t like Islamists at all, but I am all in favour of wedge strategies that are aimed at isolating Islamists, particularly violent ones, from their fellows, who simply do not constitute one monolithic bloc. Again, I should also like to see, instead of predictable and no doubt justified expressions of outrage about Islam, some genuine attempt at a historically informed account, one that is aware of the recalcitrance of reality, of the political calculations that are involved in the Turkish and Pakistani attempts to utilise these incidents to press for anti-blasphemy or ‘respect’ laws and conventions as well as in what appears to be the weak-kneed acquiescence in this respect of the EU (which, as one commentator here has astutely pointed out, is now run not by social democrats but by ‘conservatives’ filled with neo-liberal delusions).

  15. Tim Harris says

    I honestly feel, Ophelia, that events like this should be given due attention so that people can be encouraged (copied from Andrew Sullivan’s blog):

    It was a dramatic weekend in Libya, starting on Friday when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Benghazi to protest against Islamist militias, including Ansar al-Sharia, the group many believe to be behind the attack on the US consulate there. Then after the main demonstration ended, many protesters regrouped to storm several militia compounds:

    Chanting “Libya, Libya,” hundreds of demonstrators entered, pulling down militia flags and torching a vehicle inside the compound, Ansar al-Sharia’s main base in Benghazi – once the base of forces of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

    The crowd waved swords and even a meat cleaver, crying “No more al Qaeda!” and “The blood we shed for freedom shall not go in vain!”

    “After what happened at the American consulate, the people of Benghazi had enough of the extremists,” said demonstrator Hassan Ahmed. “They did not give allegiance to the army. So the people broke in and they fled.”

    Though one militia fought back, resulting in eleven deaths, others simply evacuated, and their compounds were subsequently taken over by the Libyan military. In fact the Libyan government quickly took advantage of the opportunity to coordinate a crackdown on the militias, later announcing that all illegitimate armed groups must either submit to government authority or disband:

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