Stop Reinforcing the Term “Moderate Muslims”

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The other night, Dalia Mogahed appeared on The Daily Show and spoke about the challenges faced by Muslim Americans. When asked whether Mosques caused “radicalization” of Muslims, she stated that Mosques are actually forces for “moderation.” In her 2006 Gallup report, “The Battle for Hearts and Minds: Moderate vs. Extremist Views in the Muslim World,” she classifies two groups of Muslims: the “moderates” and the “radicals/extremists.”

Mogahed is not the only Muslim who reinforces the “moderate/extremist” binary. In fact, most Muslims who appear on mainstream media and speak for us describe the global Muslim population in these binary terms.

This needs to STOP.

I have written about this before in my “No One Hijacked Islam” posts, but I am strongly opposed to the term, “moderate Muslim.” To assert that Muslims can be simply categorized into two types not only plays into the harmful “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary, but it is also so dehumanizing. It is as if all Muslims have radio dials attached to the back of our heads, indicating whether or not we are “moderate” or “radical.” Mogahed contends that the internet “radicalizes” Muslims, as if it is as easy as someone turning the dial knob from “moderate” to “radical.” Furthermore, does U.S. imperialism and military occupation not also fuel more violence? It’s just “the internet”?

Over the years, in conversations with well-intentioned non-Muslims who aspired to help challenge Islamophobia, I’ve lost count of how many of them would say, “It’s so ridiculous, not all Muslims are terrorists! Like, you’re a moderate!” Or as I heard recently from a non-Muslim who invited me to an interfaith discussion, “We never get to hear from the moderates like you, we just hear about the radical Muslims.” There is never a question of whether or not I identify myself as “moderate.” These assumptions and conclusions about us are made because of how normalized the “Good Muslim/Bad Muslim” binary is. To say “Muslim” is not enough, we need to specify that we are “moderate Muslims” in order to prove that we are not “terrorists.” This is dehumanizing because our values, morals, and political and religious views cannot, and should not, be measured or categorized. We don’t hear Christians or Jews being classified into simplistic categories, and certainly not in binaries like “moderate Christian” vs. “extremist Christians.” Yet, we must brand Muslims.

I also don’t like the vilification of the term “radical.” Here, on this blog, I use the term “radical” to describe the anti-racist, decolonial, and feminist politics I advocate. To me, “radical” has always meant resisting and challenging oppression, the status quo, and structural violence. In the mainstream media, when the term “radical” is paired with “Muslim” or “Islam,” we are being conditioned to view “radical Muslims” as people who blow up buildings or target innocent civilians for no apparent reason other than the fact that they “hate freedom.” Because so many of the mainstream Muslim American “representatives” and organizations who appear on CNN, MSNBC, or Comedy Central say, “ISIS and Al-Qaeda cause Islamophobia,” to challenge them and point out that Islamophobia exists because of white supremacy, is to get dismissed as an “extremist.”

Prophet Muhammad was a radical, as was Hazrat Fatima, Imam Ali, Jesus, Mary, Moses, and all of the Prophets (peace be upon them all). Remember that scene from Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, where he tells Forest Whitaker’s character that “Jesus was a radical”? Somehow, especially in the Muslim American community, we have internalized and reproduced white supremacy’s notion that “radical” means “evil.” The term is thrown around like an insult to dismiss Muslims as being irrational, violent, and extremist. You don’t vote in the U.S. election because you believe the system is corrupt? “Oh, you’re a radical, why are you in this country?!” You protest against drone strikes in Pakistan and talk about how the Obama administration has killed grandmothers, fathers, mothers, sons, and daugthers? “You’re a radical, you’re a terrorist sympathizer!”

“Moderate Muslim” is also code for “assimilated Muslim.” It’s appealing to the dominant culture and saying that we are “just like every other American” (and “American” is code for white people). Further, it’s saying that we must glorify U.S. history and the “founding fathers.” For Muslims living in Muslim-majority countries, the term “moderate Muslim” gets applied to individuals who are pro-Western, or, as Fareed Zakaria fantasizes about, the “Jeffersonian democrats” — Muslims who supposedly want to be “American.” If we point out that Jefferson owned African slaves and perpetuated genocide against Indigenous Peoples, we get called “radicals.” We get equated with “terrorists.” For Muslims who don’t want to be American or reject the U.S. political system, are we “evil” for having these thoughts? If we point out the facts and truth, such as the U.S. being founded upon slavery and genocide, we are “extremists.” Can we not be human and have freedom of thought instead of being forced into narrow boxes of identity? With all the talk about freedom of thought and freedom of expression, we don’t uphold those values for Muslims and people of color. To be accepted, you need to be “the moderate.”

Talk about imperialism, drones, and exploitation of Muslim-majority countries, and you’ll get classified as a “radical.” The worst and scary part of all of this is that you are not just vilified by the U.S. mainstream, but by fellow Muslims too, especially those who are speaking for us in the mainstream media. If you watch the entire interview with Mogahed, you don’t hear her once mention U.S. imperialism as playing a significant role in the creation of ISIS. Is talking about the latter considered an “extremist” view or “justification” of ISIS’s violence?

I understand the fear of getting labeled “anti-American,” – the consequences are real, no doubt – but it is concerning when we don’t see any of the more popular Muslims in the mainstream (i.e. those who get frequently invited to speak on TV) raising these points to challenge the imperialist violence that the U.S. perpetuates. Mogahed makes the important point that the vast majority of terrorists are white non-Muslims, but the argument stops there. It does not go further and address U.S. state-sponsored terrorism. Everyone is on board with condemning ISIS, but no one seems to want to talk about the root causes or how we got here. Instead, the “root cause” is pinned merely on extremism and anti-American sentiment. Nothing is said about U.S. complicity or about where this extremism comes from.

By reinforcing the “moderate Muslim” vs. “extremist Muslim” binary, we are restricting freedom of thought. We are not just discouraging critical thinking, but also vilifying it. We vilify the Muslims who challenge and speak out against the white supremacist system that is built into the U.S. It’s like we are giving other Muslims an ultimatum: you’re either a moderate, Good Muslim who loves being an American, or you’re the radical, Bad Muslim who we need to reject and turn in.

Our community is not monolithic. The views of Muslims are diverse, complex, and vary from individual to individual. I am not the only person who has been speaking out against the simplistic and harmful labels/categorization of our community. Instead of categorizing ourselves, we need to encourage Muslims to be who they are, unapologetically. Not all Muslims are going to be the flag-waving proud “American Muslims” that so many of the mainstream Muslim American groups want us to be, and that is OK. It should be OK.

Have any of the mainstream Muslim American political commentators gone on TV to talk about how dehumanizing and painful it is for Muslims when they constantly hear about people who look like them getting bombed, tortured, raped, and detained, not to mention being routinely demonized in TV shows, movies, and media news coverage? Holding anti-imperialist views does not mean Muslims are going to join ISIS. It does not mean we should be dismissed, ridiculed, or vilified. Being an “American” is not a prerequisite to being human, nor do we need to call ourselves “moderates” to be respected as human beings.

Let’s put an end to these harmful and dehumanizing labels. I have come across far too many Muslims, especially Muslim youth, who don’t like disclosing their Muslim identity or feel anxiety about going to school or work due to all of the media vilification that is out there. As research has suggested, racism and Islamophobia, including in the form of microaggressions, have a negative impact on self-esteem, mental health, and identity. It’s not easy being the only Muslim student in a classroom and the professor puts you on the spot to speak for all Muslims or answer for the crimes other people committed. It’s not easy to face Islamophobia in the workplace. We don’t help Muslims in those situations if we reinforce the idea that we have to define ourselves according to the “moderate Muslim/extremist Muslim” binary. Instead, we should be encouraging each other, uplifting each other, to define ourselves on our own terms, proudly and unapologetically.

2 thoughts on “Stop Reinforcing the Term “Moderate Muslims”

  1. The reason that I detest the term “moderate Muslim” is that it suggests that we as Muslims are inherently extremist, or fundamentalist, or just nutcases and that Muslims who are not, are “” moderate”.

    One would not call a wasp who isn’t a member of the Ku Klux Clan a “moderate white Christian”, or a Jew who isn’t a zionist a “moderate Jew”, or a Hindu who isn’t a fundamentalist, islamophobe patriarch a “moderate Hindu”. So why should we be any different?

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