Stop Saying “Moderate Muslims.” You’re Only Empowering Islamophobes.

June 25, 2014

Last week’s Heritage Foundation panel on the 2012 attacks in Benghazi was bound to be an ugly affair, what with the presence of panelist Brigitte Gabriel, a self-described “terrorism analyst” with a laundry list of offensive statements about Islam and Arabs. Sure enough, when attendee Saba Ahmed, an American University law school student, explained that not all Muslims are terrorists, Gabriel retorted that “the peaceful majority were irrelevant” in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the way that peaceful Germans were irrelevant during the Holocaust.

That prompted much hand-wringing, primarily on cable news, about the supposed silence of “moderate Muslims” in this supposed age of Islamist extremism. What no one on either side of the debate questioned, though, was the legitimacy of the phrase “moderate Muslims” itself.

The idea of a “moderate Islam” or “moderate Muslim” is intellectually lazy because it carves the world up into two camps: the “good” Muslims and the “bad” Muslims, as Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani hasnoted. (Saba Ahmed herself used the word “bad” in her remarks at the Heritage panel.) Until proven good, or in this case “moderate,” all Muslims are perceived as “bad,” or potentially extreme. We certainly don’t spend our time searching out “moderate” Christians or Jews, but rather reckon that the Westboro Baptists, Jewish Defense League, and others are aberrations. And sure, Muslims give us plenty of bad examples, but it’s our own fault if we allow those examples to constipate our ability to perform basic logic.

In order to arrive at a more peaceful and equitable place in our society, we must divorce ourselves from the notion that we are authorities on the faith traditions of others and as such are entitled to prescribe how they must interpret them in order to be welcomed. The diversity within religious traditions is just as important to the pluralistic fabric of America as the diversity of religious traditions. Carving up our Muslim compatriots into categories that fit our idea of what they should be isn’t going to get us there.