Islam’s missing moderates and the problem of ISIS


WASHINGTON, October 7, 2014 – ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other Islamist terrorist organizations have core memberships measured only in the thousands. Al-Qaeda’s core is estimated at under a thousand, its total number of supporters at perhaps 100,000. ISIS is estimated at 12,000 to 15,000.

Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama felt it necessary to remind America that Islam is a religion of peace, and that terrorism is an activity of the fringe. It is true that most Muslims have no interest in killing Christians or anyone else. But it seems a stretch to call a religion, most of whose devout members advocate killing those who leave it, a “religion of peace.”

And, as Bill Maher observed from a 2013 Pew Research poll, that’s precisely what most Egyptian Muslims believe. Three fourths of them believe that Sharia should be the law of the land, and of those, 86 percent favor the death penalty for converts out of Islam. So do 82 percent of Jordanians. Eighty-one percent of Egyptian Muslims believe the appropriate penalty for adultery is to be stoned to death, as do 84 percent of those in the Palestinian areas of the Middle East.

Seventy-four percent of Egyptians who believe Sharia should be the law of the land think it should apply to non-Muslims.

The Pew poll did not cover Saudi Arabia. Egyptians are relatively moderate by Saudi standards, not as heavily influenced by Wahhabi fundamentalism. There are countries more moderate than Egypt in the region, but in even the most moderate Muslim countries – Morocco, Iraq, Pakistan and Indonesia – 30 to 50 percent of Muslims believe that Sharia should be the law of the land. Thirty to 60 percent favor the death penalty for converts out of Islam.

It is a bad idea for Christians to point out violent passages in the Koran as evidence that Islam is an inherently violent religion. The Prince of Peace comes with a sword. But when over 20 percent of Muslims in countries with moderate Muslim populations believe that execution should be the penalty for conversion from Islam, we have to ask, what exactly do we mean by “moderate”?

The definition of “moderate” in the Muslim world does not draw on the Enlightenment as a point of reference, nor on American ideas of tolerance. Almost half of American Muslims polled think that parodying Mohammed should be a criminal offense, and 40 percent think that Muslims in America should be subject to Sharia, not the Constitution.

Those numbers may indicate some first-generation cultural baggage brought over from the Middle East, not the views of the second and third-generation or of converts from the west, but they are still disturbing. When half of American Muslims don’t believe in the First Amendment, what constitutes a “moderate” position?

Perhaps Islam needs its own Reformation, or perhaps the toxic politics of the Middle East are simply finding expression in religious ideologies. Either way, you wouldn’t want to be gay or female in most of the Muslim world, certainly less than you would want to be either in the most benighted parts of the United States. It would be much safer to come out as gay to a fundamentalist Baptist family in the U.S. than to a moderate Muslim family just about anywhere.

Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito put a lid on ethnic hatreds that had been simmering since the 1389 battle of Kosovo, in a country divided by a common language and two alphabets, but not, officially, religion. When he died and the lid came off, religion was a way of expressing ethnic and national pride, just as Orthodoxy became an expression of Russian nationalism after the collapse of the USSR, and Islam of Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen and Tadzhik nationalism at the same time. Islam has been a venue of political expression among China’s Uighurs, not a people otherwise well known for their piety.

Perhaps that’s the real problem with Islam today; perhaps Islam is not fundamentally violent, but has become an expression of nationalist outrage, pride, and resentment in a region where there’s a lot to be resentful about. The west has a couple of centuries of practice at trying to separate out religion from politics, and it’s only in the last generation that places like Ireland have come close to succeeding.

The Muslim world is centuries behind the West on that path. Unfortunately, they have set out on that journey armed with social media, modern weapons, and an understanding of terror tactics second to no one’s. It makes for an uneasy world, and a world that has reason to be uneasy with Islam. Islam may be a religion of peace, but for too many Muslims, that’s not the peace of western-style tolerance, but the peace of the grave.

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