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Violence and Terrorism >
Who are the “moderate” Muslims?

“Who and where are the moderate Muslims?” continues to be a hotly debated question. The term moderate is problematic. What are the criteria for identifying a moderate Christian or Jew, a moderate Republican or Democrat? We have a human tendency to define what is “normal” or “moderate” in terms of someone who is just like us. Deciding who is a moderate Muslim often depends on the politics or religion of those making the judgment. Politically, many Western governments and experts are searching for reflections of themselves; the litmus test for a moderate Muslim may be tied to foreign policy issues—for example, how critical one is of American, British, or French policy or one's position on Palestine/Israel or on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Chechnya, or Kashmir. Authoritarian Muslim governments use the term moderate to refer to those who do not oppose their governments.

When the “moderate” question is asked about Muslims, is it simply used to distinguish between extremist and nonextremist Muslims? Or is it really asking whether a Muslim espouses secular liberalism or is reformist as opposed to conservative or traditionalist?

Is it correct to say that the only moderate Muslim is one who accepts secularism and separation of church and state? Or can a moderate believe in a state where no religion is privileged and the rights of all (believer and nonbeliever) are protected? Must our idea of a moderate Muslim be someone who not only promotes the equality of women and men but also opposes the wearing of a hijab?

Often, “moderate” is equated with so-called progressive or liberal Muslims and excludes conservatives or traditionalists as well as fundamentalists. Some, for example, identify as moderate those Muslims who believe that a woman should be able to lead men and women together in prayer (salat). However, if this were a criterion for judging who is “moderate,” then many Christian and Jewish groups or denominations, and their leaders (for example, the late Pope John Paul II as well as his successor, Benedict XVI), would fail the test. Should we then add other litmus tests such as a Muslim's position on birth control, abortion, and gay rights?

Minimally, I would argue that moderate Muslims are those who live and work within society, seek change from below, and reject religious extremism, illegitimate violence, and terrorism. And as in other faiths, in Islam such moderates constitute the majority of the mainstream.

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