After the Charlie Hebdo attack in January, comedian Bill Maher tweeted that unless Muslims “strongly endorse the right of anyone to make fun of any religion/prophet,” they aren’t “moderate Muslim[s].” As the Middle East has devolved into chaos, the search for “moderate Muslims” has intensified. Once one is found, he or she must be feted, embraced and given a platform to share the good news — preferably in English or French.
The way we use the term, “moderate” means little more than “people we like or agree with.” Almost always, it signals moderation relative to American or European standards of liberalism, freedom of speech, gender equality and so on. Yet in their own countries, people who want to depoliticize Islam and privatize religion aren’t viewed as moderate; they’re viewed as out of touch.
Setting up a “moderate” ideal lets us Americans off the hook for our own disastrous policies in the region. We can fall back on the idea that if only Muslims had a Reformation just like Christians did, they’d get their act together. In war zones such as Syria, we complain that there aren’t enough moderate rebels to support. Why, exactly, would people who are willing to kill and die for a cause care about being moderate?
The search for moderate Muslims misunderstands the nature of the societies we’re hoping to change. It would be extremely difficult to find many Egyptians, for instance, who would publicly affirm the right to blaspheme the prophet Muhammad. The spectrum is so skewed in a conservative direction that in countries like Egypt, even so-called secularists say and believe quite illiberal things.
The subtext of so many debates over Islam and the Middle East is frustration and impatience with Muslims for not joining our liberal, secular age. However well-intentioned, such discussions are patronizing and counterproductive. We shouldn’t put Muslims in boxes that have little to do with the communities they live in.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.