Will moderate Muslims please stand up?

Published: November 21, 2015
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

The writer is a Rhodes Scholar and an alumnus of the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford

Each time a terror attack carried out by Muslim militants wrecks a Western country, Muslims from across the world take to electronic and social media to condemn the horrific act, dissociate themselves from the perpetrators and defend Islam as a religion of peace. Despite these condemnations, moderate Muslims have neither been able to undermine the militants’ resolve to continue their ‘holy’ war against the ‘infidel’ West nor have they been effective in dissuading Islamophobes in the West from demonising Islam and painting moderate and extremist Muslims with the same brush. Consequently, it is no surprise that while both Muslim extremists and Islamophobes are increasingly dictating terms of debate on extremism, the so-called moderate Muslims are not only bearing the brunt of this aggravating polarisation, they are also losing influence and yielding the debate to extremists. Who is to blame for this?

Although moderate Muslims would like to apportion blame solely to the interventionist and imperialistic foreign policies of the West, they cannot completely exonerate themselves from responsibility for the current mess. The standard Muslim line that militant groups like the Islamic State (IS), the Taliban, Boko Haram and so on, are not ‘true’ representatives of Islam and that their brutal acts have nothing to do with religion is actually part of the problem. This approach indicates the denial on the part of Muslims to acknowledge that one of the root causes of terrorism is radicalisation through a very literalistic and distorted interpretation of Islamic scripture.

Before I elucidate my argument, it is worth emphasising that a radical interpretation of religion does not necessarily have to translate into violence. Instead, it is often a combination of politics and conservative religion that produces the vitriolic narrative and rampage that most Muslim countries are grappling with today. There might have been no IS had the US and the UK not invaded Iraq. Similarly, the rise of extremism in South Asia and the Middle East cannot be explained without mentioning the role of some key regional and extra-regional countries that used religion as a tool to further their strategic interests. Additionally, there is also no denying that colonialism, endless Western military interventions and decades of secular authoritarian rule, often backed by Western powers, have helped push the Middle East into violence.

While Muslims almost always talk about the politics that creates terrorism and rightly so, they rarely discuss its other important source, namely a radicalised interpretation of religion. This piece contends that politics alone does not explain the origin and sustenance of the likes of the Taliban, al Qaeda and the IS. Regardless of the conditions in which they originated, these groups derive their sustenance mainly from the obscurantist and retrogressive ideology that views the modern nation-state as a system of kufr and affirms the inherent, and perhaps exclusive, right of Muslims to rule.

Followers of militant groups such as the IS and al Qaeda are often devout Muslims with a reactionary and warped worldview. These groups come closest to what would be dubbed the religious equivalent of fascism in modern times. Be it stoning women to death or beheading and killing innocent people, they invoke scripture to justify these acts, which is clearly wrong.

Being a moderate Muslim, I know that the majority of Muslims do not share the ideology espoused by these radical elements. Nevertheless, the problem is that most Muslims do not even acknowledge that radicalisation is a problem and that something needs to be done about it. By asserting that the likes of the IS, al Qaeda and the Taliban have nothing to do with religion, the moderate Muslims let these radicals get away with their virulent perversion of religion and thus squander a potential opportunity for discrediting them publicly.

A segment of moderate Muslims does recognise the challenge posed by radical interpretations of religion and dispute the conservative and literalist reading of scriptures advocated by religious fundamentalists. Quranic verses, the moderate Muslims argue, are often misinterpreted and quoted out of context, including some verses pertaining to non-Muslims, jihad and various forms of punishments. The problem with this debate is that it only happens in drawing rooms and private gatherings of a tiny liberal, secular and left-leaning class. Publicly, most Muslims are reluctant to openly engage in critical debate regarding religion. Those who do so often pay a huge price for it. Indeed, most Muslim countries lack the conducive environment required for fostering such debates. The places where there is space for critical debates are the relatively advanced democracies of the developed world. However, in almost all such countries, Muslims are in a minority and often the victims of hatred and prejudice inspired by Islamophobia. Consequently, conscious of their minority status, moderate Muslims in these countries hold back their views on religion for fear of being seen as abettors of Islamophobia.

Defeating extremism requires a holistic and all-encompassing strategy that simultaneously addresses its social, economic and political causes. Reclaiming control of theological interpretation is just one part of the wider strategy.

Moderate Muslims need to come out of their comfort zones and actively contest and challenge the radical interpretations of scriptures advanced by extremists. In order to establish their position as the true representatives of Islam, the moderates need to provide a strong counter-narrative and win the war of ideas within the Islamic world. In pursuit of this goal, they should initiate an informed and open public dialogue about religion and rescue it from the grip of radicals. This may sound like a daunting task, but it is the only way moderate Muslims can ensure that their vision of a more tolerant and inclusive Islam prevails.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 22nd, 2015.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • Michael R
    Nov 22, 2015 - 12:57AM

    Ayaan Hirsi Ali has tried to make this argument, and is under threat of death. I applaud your bravery in calling for moderates to stand up to extremism. You are correct that an argument must be made to counter the religious foundation of the extremists. they are NOT just a political movement couched in religion. they ARE a religious movement, and they can find justification in the Koran and other works for their actions. What Islam needs desperately is a wholesale reform movement to bring it to modernity. however, its unlikely to occur.

    The economist wrote about her book Heretic: “Unfortunately, very few Muslims will accept Ms Hirsi Ali’s full-blown argument, which insists that Islam must change in at least five important ways. A moderate Muslim might be open to discussion of four of her suggestions if the question were framed sensitively. Muslims, she says, must stop prioritising the afterlife over this life; they must “shackle sharia” and respect secular law; they must abandon the idea of telling others, including non-Muslims, how to behave, dress or drink; and they must abandon holy war. However, her biggest proposal is a show-stopper: she wants her old co-religionists to “ensure that Muhammad and the Koran are open to interpretation and criticism”Recommend

  • vinsin
    Nov 22, 2015 - 2:25AM

    I haven’t met a single Moderate Muslims in my entire life. And those whom I hear on media do come from Pakistan though.Recommend

  • someone
    Nov 22, 2015 - 4:55AM

    Moderate Muslim? Is there such a thing?Recommend

  • Madhav Das
    Nov 22, 2015 - 7:46AM

    Muslims are not standing up and asking to be heard because they do not exist. Recommend

  • Aleem
    Nov 22, 2015 - 9:33AM


    No we are all blood thirsty, rearing to go at it crazy Muslims. :-).


    You probably have never met A muslim let alone a moderate one!

    Joking and sarcasm aside, we are not that different from you. Unfortunately I cannot even get a minute on the news to condemn what is being committed in the name of my religion. So you keep on asking us moderates to stand up and we keep telling you we are against these people and our struggle against the extremist is not one that we can win overnight. Lets realize that what has taken decades to build into this extremist monstrosity cannot be disassembled overnight. We are working at our individual level to speak out against this blind extremism but we also need time to work through this. Peace be upon all and may God preserve all!Recommend

  • Milind
    Nov 22, 2015 - 10:35AM

    Will moderate Muslims please stand up?

    Nope.. Coz there ain’t any… Recommend

  • Amanzim
    Nov 22, 2015 - 11:37AM

    I like the sentiments expressed by the author; he has courage and wants Muslims to help create a modern reformist Islam, like Martin Luther did for Christianity near 200 years ago in Germany. The problem is that you have to have a tolerant atmosphere where such ideas are tolerated by the society. Many like Erdogan, Turkish President, say that there is no such thing as moderate Muslim, you are either a Muslim or you are not. What is required is that people should accept the laws of the country and do not take law in their own hand, like those who killed people in Paris. That applies to accusations of blasphemy as well as other ‘irritants’ by those who think differently. That is not sufficient, but would be good beginning.Recommend

  • Nasser
    Nov 22, 2015 - 11:50AM

    biggest flaw in your thinking is categorizing Muslims as Moderate and extremist . A true Muslim is always moderate in his,or her approach to life and society. Those who do not follow the divine command for middle path in their dealings are simply not muslims. Todays so called EDUCATED class to which you belong has created this divide results are there for all to see. For God’s sake stop this nonsense under the influence of western islomophobia wave. Cant you I understand the very meaning of MUSLIM…? It simply means,that a person following the creed of Islamic tenets in it’s entirety is a Muslim. Now if a group is on a killing spree and too of innocents is how it be related to Islam or Muslims since Islam forbades this lust for blood. Hope you would have got my point.Recommend

  • vcbhutani
    Nov 22, 2015 - 1:30PM

    The expression ‘moderate Muslim’ is a contradiction in terms. V. C. Bhutani, Delhi, 22 Nov 2015, 1400 ISTRecommend

  • Ana Al Haq
    Nov 22, 2015 - 5:03PM

    My name is Mansoor Al Hallaj and I said the truth! Do you know what Muslims did with me then?!Recommend

  • Toba Alu
    Nov 22, 2015 - 5:44PM

    My moderate comments for moderate Muslims have been moderated away.Recommend

  • Feroz
    Nov 22, 2015 - 6:36PM

    Please start the process now, tomorrow it may be too late.Recommend

  • Sumit
    Nov 22, 2015 - 8:31PM

    You said it best. Only if we had more people like you. More power to you.Recommend

  • Trollslayer
    Nov 22, 2015 - 9:52PM

    Mr. Kakar eloquently stated his case while framing his thesis for moderate Muslims of the world but neglected to examine radicalization at home. The Jhelum incident provides cannon fodder for Islamophobes and only serves to confirm their belief that Muslims cannot peacefully coexist with people of other faiths and other sects within Islam. Recommend

  • Trollslayer
    Nov 22, 2015 - 10:00PM

    @ Toba Alu

    Witty banter. Moderate comments can be offensive to pseudo liberal moderators because they cannot afford to offend the sensibilities of other pseudo liberals and radicals.Recommend

  • harkol
    Nov 22, 2015 - 10:08PM

    Christianity had Renaissance.
    Hinduism had Reformation.
    World awaits similar reformation in Islam (sharia) in majority of Islamic nations.Recommend

  • Clockboy Ahmed
    Nov 22, 2015 - 10:11PM

    Yes there are moderate Muslims, percentage wise the number are same as number of people who have seen Yeti or Loch-ness Monster.Recommend

  • hzr
    Nov 22, 2015 - 10:19PM

    exclusive, right of Muslims to rule….but the west does it,it is colonialism.Muslim rule was cruel everywhere and the only aim to treat the locals as dhimmies and convert.Recommend

  • Pukudengutha
    Nov 22, 2015 - 10:27PM

    The phrase “Moderate Muslim” is an oxymoron. Now, no such person exists, will never exist at any time in the future.Period.Recommend

  • Rafiullah Kakar
    Nov 22, 2015 - 11:15PM

    @Toba Alu:
    Post your comment again so that we can see it. Recommend

  • Parvez
    Nov 23, 2015 - 12:01AM

    Excellent article……when the moderate does speak out he does so with fear, because even the State sits on the fence on this issue, irrespective of what they say to the public.
    I do believe that for evil to succeed it only takes for the good to do nothing.Recommend

  • Justin
    Nov 23, 2015 - 4:16AM

    Your arguments are based on collective responsibility and/or guilt by association. Pathological people/groups can use any ideology/religion (e.g nationalism, atheism, communism, hinduism, judaism, islam, christianity, etc.) to do what they want to do. 1.6 billion Muslims around the world do not exhibit any violent behavior. Muslims are at the receiving end of all of these acts of terrorism.That said, Muslims need to stand up and are standing up against all sorts of violent extremism, be it suicide bombing, west bank bombing or drone strikes. Apologetic/defensive approach doesn’t serve any community. Recommend

  • Shoukat Tareen
    Nov 23, 2015 - 2:01PM

    Agree with Rafi……. I think they are moderate Muslims who are responsible for the emergence and up surge of extremism and radicalization which they have used, as the West is using, for their political ends. Recommend

  • Zahid Khan Kakar
    Nov 23, 2015 - 2:24PM

    A very good piece of writing, but the world has also need to change their standards of humanity. Secondly we also need to do some research on these famous terrorist groups like Al-Qaida, ISIS etc, Who has made these groups and who are the sponsors of these groups? Recommend

  • Komal S
    Nov 23, 2015 - 8:18PM

    Well said Aleem. But please ponder over this, how can a believer of a system that expects you to first acknowledge that other belief system are on the wrong path be a moderate? Others are wrong and i am the only one right is not an attribute of a moderate. You know how the Ahmedis are treated in Pakistan. They can’t even say they are muslims. It is people in the Governments of various countries that discriminate Ahmedis based on their belief. Similarly the minority rights in Islamic countries are appalling. You have seen the plight of Shias in Sunni majority country and vice versa. In most of these cases the so called rulers of the state are directly responsible for this. Can you give us one good example in the recent past where the moderate muslims put their foot down and altered the discourse. Recommend

  • Komal S
    Nov 23, 2015 - 8:30PM

    Can you please explain where does a moderate muslims stand on these issues?
    Would moderate muslims allow Ahmedi’s be themselves and give them rights to call themselves a muslim?
    Do moderate muslims believe that Sharia should be the rule of law in a muslim majority country?
    Why do minority population in Islamic countries keep shrinking? Do moderate muslims think it is because of forced migration, forced conversion or because majority convert due to love of Islam?Recommend

  • Rafiullah Kakar
    Nov 24, 2015 - 12:53AM


    Appreciate your feedback! Nowhere in my article have I mentioned that Muslims should apologise for what ISIS and Alqaedae are doing. I am absolutely against this idea of collective guilt. I have primarily addressed those Muslims who absolutely deny the role of radical Islam in providing sustenance to islamic militants and instead only talk about the politics of radicalisationRecommend

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