Are “moderate” Muslims mum when they should speak out?

December 7, 2007

Ayaan Hirsi AliAyaan Hirsi Ali has an op-ed piece in the New York Times called “Islam’s Silent Moderates” today asking why moderate Muslims have not protested loudly against the “teddy bear case” in Khartoum and the Qatif rape case in Saudi Arabia. She makes some good points, especially asking why the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has not said anything. The OIC is quick to defend Islam and Muslim countries when the criticism comes from the outside, including from her.

Then she wrote:

For example, I would welcome some guidance from that famous Muslim theologian of moderation, Tariq Ramadan. But when there is true suffering, real cruelty in the name of Islam, we hear, first, denial from all these organizations that are so concerned about Islam’s image. We hear that violence is not in the Koran, that Islam means peace, that this is a hijacking by extremists and a smear campaign and so on. But the evidence mounts up.

“Why are the Muslims silent?” has been a mantra of many Western critics since at least the time of 9/11. It comes up fairly regularly after Islamist attacks or egregious cases of human rights violations in the Muslim world. It’s true that many Muslim leaders have avoided speaking out. But there have also been quite a few Muslim condemnations of terrorism that seem to have gone unnoticed. Something has been changing on this front and it has been evident these days. Hirsi Ali has either missed it or does not want to mention it.

Ramadan issued a clear statement over a week ago denouncing the Saudi rape verdict, the teddy bear verdict and the sacking of Pakistan’s supreme court justices. The secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammad Abdul Bari, said the move to try Gillian Gibbons was “a disgraceful decision and defies common sense”. Two British Muslim peers flew out to Khartoum to negotiate her release.

Muhammad Abdul BariThis is not to say whether Ramadan or the Muslim Council of Britain are “moderate” or not (although the MCB made a “moderate” decision last week by voting to take part in the UK Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration after boycotting it for several years).

But these leading Muslims did speak out quite clearly and the Muslim peers defended a fellow British subject. On the other side, there was silence from the OIC and most of the Middle East.

So have some moderate Muslims, at least in western countries, been speaking up after all? Could the problem be that western critics of Islam haven’t been listening? Please give us your impressions.


P.S. I noticed two days after posting this blog that Rod Liddle at The Spectator has made the same point about the way British Muslim leaders spoke out clearly in defence of Gibbons and against the Sudanese charges. His article starts on a very different track, arguing that Gibbons was released “far too soon.” She would surely disagree there. Anyway, Liddle then went on to say: “But — whisper it quietly — some considerable good may have come of the whole shebang. The most unequivocal and persistent protests about Ms Gibbons’s arrest, back home, came from Britain’s self-appointed guardians of Allah, the Muslim groups. Including the Muslim Council of Britain. Note the word ‘unequivocal’. They protested loud and strong and without those previously ubiquitous caveats always beginning with the conjunction ‘but …’. As in ‘We condemn this outrage entirely, but you have to understand that….’ This time there were no buts, just condemnation.”

The comments show quite a few readers don’t agree with Liddle, which makes it all the more interesting that he decided to highlight this aspect of the story so strongly.


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I think as journalists we have to decide when to pull the plug on reporting on old standbys. Have moderate Muslims spoken out against terrorism? Yes. Did the Armenian genocide happen? Yes. Do vaccines cause autism? No.

The glaring fact in this case, of course, is that British Muslims took a lead in securing the teachers release.

So you make an excellent point: Maybe it’s time to start distinguishing among Muslims– be they from Australia or Saudi or Britian — rather than ask the false question, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?” For one thing, just look on Facebook…

Posted by ReligionWriter | Report as abusive

Several prominent muslims have spoken on these issues lately, not least among them Sheikh Hamza Yusuf – th/guestvoices/2007/12/the_real_teddy_be ar_tragedy.html – and Imam Zaid Shakir- notes/the_teddy_bear_crisis/.

I hesitate to use the word moderate because it’s not well defined. Moderation in what sense, that one ignores aspects of the religion that may be distasteful to westerners? That one drinks alcohol? That one rejects hijab? That one agrees with “the west” in terms of politics and policy? That one dresses oneself in ashen sack clothes and goes out into the street, tearing out their hair every time a muslim somewhere does something stupid? Reading the news these last few years, all of these have been used as the litmus test for determining who is a moderate and who is not.

Posted by rahma | Report as abusive

Rahma, I agree with your hesitation, which is why I put the word moderate in quotation marks. This is a term borrowed from political reporting and it just doesn’t fit some religious situations. But lacking better terms, journalists sometimes end up using it anyway. “Moderate” can be used in another context, too, where the writer is setting up the litmus tests you mention. That’s something different from the linguistic problem I’m talking about here.

This is not just a problem when we write about Islam. Describing the various shades of Christians can also be a challenge, but Islam’s different cultural background does make it more complicated. Western languages don’t seem to have enough suitable terms to express what we’re trying to say. Does anyone out there know if Arabic, Urdu or Farsi fare better here?

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Have they been speaking out – of course they have. Has the media given them sufficient coverage – there’s the problem. There’s no sensationalism in moderates making reasonable statements. There’s a natural incentive to highlight the extremes because that is what people pay attention to and thus raise ratings.

Just compare the ratings of shows on PBS where reasonable people sit around and talk even disagree in measured ways against shows that highlight people shouting, interrupting and castigating someone on the other side of a question.

Posted by fern | Report as abusive