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Muslim liberals: epistles of moderation

About the author
Faisal Devji is associate professor of history at the New School for Social Research.

If the unprecedented global protests over insulting depictions of the Prophet Mohammed in a book, newspaper or a papal speech tell us anything, it is that Muslims around the world can act in concert without following a leader or sharing an ideology. While such demonstrations might possess a local politics, in other words, they are shaped by global movements that lack traditional political meaning, not least by sidelining leaders and institutions for popular action in the name of a worldwide Muslim community as seen on television. The same holds true for Muslim support of global militancy, whose televised icons are capable of attracting a following without the help of local institutions or leaders.

The new global arena that such movements bring to light, then, presents a threat to politics conventionally conceived. This is a threat that Muslim liberals are trying to address by promoting the cause of dialogue and debate on a global scale; the most recent manifestation of this trend was the letter sent on 13 October 2007 in the name of 138 Muslim "scholars, clerics and intellectuals" to "the leaders of all the world's churches, and indeed to all Christians everywhere."

In engaging in this effort, though, Muslim liberals also risk moving beyond the political structures of liberalism: chief among them the nation-state and its representative institutions. There is nevertheless a great deal of funding available for such efforts today, mostly from western governments interested in promoting "moderate" Islam internationally; and it is not difficult to mount a critique of the way in which Muslim liberals are enticed into supporting the particular projects of such states by accepting this funding.

But even at their most genuine, such projects to support liberals tend to be counterproductive in the long run, having in the past done little more than create dependent and thoroughly compromised Muslim elites in Asia and Africa whose liberalism never became a living factor in their societies. I do not however intend to pursue this easy line of criticism here; instead I focus on the more general difficulties of dialogue and so of the limits of liberalism itself in a global arena lacking political institutions of its own.

A disingenuous discourse

In the first few years after 9/11, Muslim liberals were able to mount only defensive manoeuvres, presenting themselves as voices of moderation in the media while at the same time protesting the anti-Muslim tone that had come to mark so much public debate and government action in the west. But while the organisations they founded have had an undeniable importance in protecting the rights of Muslims living in Europe and America, the efforts of these liberals to advocate religious moderation appear to have had little effect on those who were not already "moderate" to begin with.

Faisal Devji is assistant professor of history at New School University, New York. His writing includes Landscapes of the Jihad: Militancy, Morality, Modernity (C Hurst, 2005 / Cornell University Press, 2005)

Also by Faisal Devji on openDemocracy:

"Spectral voices: al-Qaida's world wide web"(19 August 2005)

"Osama bin Laden's message to the world" (21 December 2005)

"Back to the future: the cartoons, liberalism, and global Islam" (13 April 2006)

"Between Pope and Prophet" (26 September 2006)

"Dubai cosmopolis" (19 April 2007)
In any case, despite their prodigious output of apologetic writings, Muslim liberals and their supporters possessed no global presence equivalent even to the most mediocre of militants. Naturally their lack of influence does not mean that most of the world's Muslims are opposed to the liberals among them, only that these moderates have been unable to assume any effective leadership globally. Recently some among the moderates have begun to conduct a more proactive media campaign that brings together the scattered energies of Muslim liberals in a collective enterprise.

Such for example was the open letter that an array of thirty-eight Muslim politicians, clerics and intellectuals from around the world wrote the pope while global protests were occurring in response to his slighting reference to Mohammed in his Regensburg address of 12 September 2006. Interesting about this letter was the fact that it moved beyond a standard and reactive defence of Islam to instruct Benedict XVI about the necessity of tolerance and understanding for the common good. More important, however, was its attempt to achieve a global presence by neglecting the nation-state and its representative institutions (in which I also include international organisations) to address the head of a church that both is and is not part of a liberal order. The Muslim letter of 2006, in other words, sought to make a global intervention by addressing itself to Christendom as a whole.

A year later more Muslim notables, including many among the letter's signatories, issued another epistle, now addressed not only to the pope but the heads of all the major churches (indeed, it appears, to every Christian leader its Muslim authors could find). This was a letter of invitation, asking Christians and Muslims to come together by recognising that both their scriptures preached the love of God and of the neighbour.

As open letters released to the media, of course, these communications were aimed at public opinion around the world as much as they were directed to the eminences addressed. Indeed the pope and other churchmen to whom these letters were sent served as their media of dissemination to a global audience. Such epistles of moderation therefore play the same role as Osama bin Laden's letters and proclamations to the west, which are sometimes also signed by a variety of militant Muslim leaders. Unlike these latter, however, the epistles of moderation eschew all political debate by disingenuously casting the difficulties of Christian-Muslim relations in a purely religious light.

Consider, for example, the following passage from the 2007 letter:

"Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history. Christians and Muslims reportedly make up over a third and over a fifth of humanity respectively. Together they make up more than 55% of the world's population, making the relationship between these two religious communities the most important factor in contributing to meaningful peace around the world. If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace. With the terrible weaponry of the modern world; with Muslims and Christians intertwined everywhere as never before, no side can unilaterally win a conflict between more than half of the world's inhabitants. Thus our common future is at stake. The very survival of the world itself is perhaps at stake."

What is striking is that the authors here envisage a religious confrontation between Christianity and Islam that is far more extensive than anything Bin Laden would countenance - since it makes Christians all over the world (and not simply those from certain western countries) into the potential enemies of Islam, ignoring the fact that the majority of the world's Christians do not live in the west and are not therefore party to some epic confrontation with Muslims. But I suspect this expansiveness of address was meant only to disguise the letter's small significance by mounting the parody of a global event.

A simulacrum of dialogue

Unlike the first epistle its second incarnation did not arrive as a reaction to some violent demonstration of Muslim offence, though it certainly staked its claims upon the possibility of such violence in the future. In this sense both letters represented a kind of negative force, depending as they did on militant Islam for the strength of their arguments.

True, liberalism everywhere gestures towards the supposed horrors of an alternative political order in order to justify itself, but in the west these days it usually does so with power on its side. Muslim liberals, on the other hand, not only possess little power in their own right, they have also been unable thus far to stage the spectacular acts of sacrifice that mobilise people for a cause - acts of the kind that militants are so adept at performing. These sacrificial acts need not even be violent to be effective, as Gandhi and after him Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela demonstrated so well through the entire course of the 20th century. Perhaps liberals are incapable of staging such spectacles, given their devotion to protecting interests rather than sacrificing them, which is why liberalism has always come to power on the back of far more radical movements dedicated to religion, revolution or revenge.

Muslim liberals, too, would like to come to power on the back of radical Islam, but they have never managed to ride the tiger of jihad and so must reach out to the west for a helping hand. But this immediately puts them in the position of their colonial ancestors, consummate middlemen who occupied a kind of no-man's-land between the Christian masters and Muslim subjects of European empires by claiming to represent each to the other.

Indeed, the arguments of these Muslim liberals are drawn without exception from the lexicon of their 19th-century predecessors, down to every single scriptural citation they deploy. Such arguments do not therefore constitute any part of a dialogue but are rather the ghostly reiterations of a conversation between men long dead. Like the spectres they imitate, the signatories of these letters - themselves a random assortment of government-appointed clerics, out-of-favour politicians, exiled intellectuals, university professors, aspiring spokesmen for Islam, converts and immigrants in the west - appear like nothing so much as entrepreneurs trying to squeeze out a share of influence for themselves by representing Muslims and Christians to one another.

With a few exceptions, including the secretaries-general of the Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind and the Al-Khoei International Foundation, these men (and a few women) do not in fact represent any significant Muslim population; despite their sectarian, territorial and professional diversity, they include neither a single religious leader of any stature nor a single political one. Their representative character, in other words, is constituted by the sheer diversity of these individuals, who are therefore "representative men" in the colonial sense of this term. All of which means that a response from the pope is the only way of legitimising this ragtag group by lending it some kind of representative character as an interlocutor of the Holy See.

Yet it is not at all clear what kind of dialogue is possible between these Christian leaders and their self-proclaimed Muslim counterparts, assuming for the moment the latter's legitimacy. For one thing, Islam's lack of a church and therefore of dogma strictly speaking means that there can be no equivalence even between Christian and Muslim divines, let alone between the pope and a group of "representative Muslims" who are likely disagree with each other on more subjects concerning Islam than they disagree with Benedict XVI. In any case, the absence of an institutional structure and so of dogmatic authority among them means that these men and women cannot in fact talk about the same subjects in the same way as the churchmen they address.

Moreover, these Christian leaders can be addressed at all only because they happen to be churchmen. For could our group of Muslims address Buddhists, Hindus or even Jews in the same manner? Who would they address apart from some group of religious entrepreneurs like themselves? Indeed different Muslim sects cannot even address each other in the way their representatives do the pope, whose dogmatic authority as the head of the Roman church is what finally lends his interlocutors their coherence. Lacking such a structure of authority, Islam is much closer to the world's other religions than it is to Christianity, which is in fact the great exception among these faiths. But this makes the similarities that the letters so frequently invoke between the two largest monotheisms both true and false, since in some fundamental ways Islam is closer to Hinduism (in its lack of a church organisation and hierarchy, say) than it is to Christianity.

The vanishing neighbour

Like so many things about them, the desire of Muslim liberals to make common cause with Christians has a colonial history, one in which the moderates of the 19th century sought to form a partnership with their European masters, generally against some other group of fellow subjects. Whether it was greed for power or the fear of rivals that motivated them, these men stressed their religious kinship with colonial rulers to connive with them in the suppression of opposing religious, sectarian, ethnic and other parties.

The words of the 2006 and 2007 letters - even though the signatories are not so crude as to voice their dislike of any particular community, not even that of the militants - breathe the same spirit of exclusivity as any edict of ostracism. For these epistles would construct an exclusive relationship between Christians and Muslims in particular, and between Christians, Muslims and Jews in general, by displacing the possibility of a violence that marked them in the past to some other body. The only problem with this quest for a monotheists' alliance is that it goes against the geographical and demographic reality of the world's religions, with Hindus and Buddhists being much more likely neighbours for Muslims than Christians and Jews. In other words the quest for a special relationship with Christianity or Judaism is an explicitly occidental one, in which attention is shifted from the geographical and demographic realities of Islam to focus on its adherents only insofar as they come into contact with Christians and Jews in western Europe, north America and the Levant.

The fact that the second epistle of moderation speaks so glowingly about loving one's neighbour makes it seem strange that the Muslims' actual neighbours are forgotten for the only ones who count: Christians for the most part, and Jews out of courtesy, but only because both are meant to share the injunction of loving their neighbours. Yet surely loving one's neighbour has nothing to do with whether or not this neighbour shares such an injunction, indeed rather the contrary if we take the Gospels for our guide.

openDemocracy authors analyse religious-political crises in the global arena:

Neal Ascherson, "A carnival of stupidity" (6 February 2006)

openDemocracy, "Muslims and Europe: a cartoon confrontation" (6 February 2006) - a symosium

Tariq Modood, "The liberal dilemma: integration or vilification?" (8 February 2006)

Tina Beattie, "Pope Benedict XVI and Islam: beyond words" (18 September 2006)

Ehsan Masood, "Pope Benedict XVI: science is the real target" (19 September 2006)

Michael Walsh, "The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (20 September 2006)

Patricia Crone, "Jihad: idea and history" (1 May 2007)

Irfan Husain, "Sir Salman in the sea of blasphemy" (22 June 2007)

Birgitta Steene, "The Swedish cartoon: art as provocation" (10 September 2007)
In the haste to create an exclusive relationship with Christians in particular, their would-be Muslim interlocutors have even forgotten that among the verses of peace and amity they quote so liberally from the Qur'an are many that refer to pagans and polytheists as much as they do to any monotheistic faith. But pagans and polytheists are of course consigned to the flames by our moderates while Islam is lifted out of its own much more pluralistic past to enter into the paradise of monotheist uniformity. By ignoring the rich and contentious history of Muslim relations with Zoroastrians, Buddhists or Hindus, these letters also reduce the forms and varieties of religious interaction in the Islamic world to a monotheistic point, in fact narrowing it simply to the similarities between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

All of this, moreover, is based on the presumption that the recognition of similarity necessarily leads to friendship and respect, whereas the opposite might well be true - as it certainly is in the histories of violent conflict between Muslims, Christians and Jews, to say nothing of Catholics and Protestants or Shi'a and Sunni. This exclusive focus on monotheistic similarities leads to one conclusion: the rejection of religious diversity and the consequent adoption of a Christian model for faith in general. Perhaps this is why the second epistle attributes a completely Christian locution to Islam: the love of God and of the neighbour.

A question of sovereignty

The Christianisation of the world's religions proceeds apace, precluding the mutual respect among them that is due only to the recognition of fundamental difference and disagreement. For with similarity there comes disputation and the narcissism of minor differences. So the letter to Benedict XVI in 2006 rejects the claim that Islam was spread by the sword and attributes the greater part of its conversions to missionary activity. But before their encounter with Christian missionaries in the 19th century, Muslims had little notion of organised proselytism, as indeed they would not without the institution of a church, which means that conversions to Islam occurred in the absence of a mission as much as of a sword.

Both epistles of moderation are narcissistic in this way, for instance by pointing to minor differences between Christianity and Islam while at the same time adopting the most Protestant views of scripture. So the Qur'an is approached directly and without mediation as if it were a transparent and self-evident text accessible to all, which goes completely against its traditional reading in the Muslim world. This holy book is moreover interpreted as literally as any American evangelist might interpret his Bible, to the extent that the Christians and Jews it mentions are described in the letters as if they were merely the ancestors of today's religious communities, which is to say historical and sociological groups rather than the exemplary figures and juridical categories of traditional thought.

In the 1920s, for example, Muslim divines in India saw nothing odd in forming an alliance of Hindus and Muslims under Gandhi's leadership by invoking the Qur'an's description of a pact between Jews and Muslims under the prophet's leadership. These clerics, in other words, did not see the Jews mentioned in the Qur'an as an historical or sociological community with contemporary descendants, but instead as nothing more than exemplary figures who could stand in for Hindus and provide the juridical precedent for a pact between Muslims and polytheists. It is this kind of thinking that the monotheistic intimacies longed for by Muslim liberals puts an end to.

Islam is not what Muslim liberals, in their intellectual vapidity, would have it be. Militants, on the other hand, are far more creative in their religious thinking and much more imaginative about their means of propagating it. Insofar as violence (however transient it might be) represents one of these means, the intellectual adventurousness of militant Muslims poses a serious problem for their liberal counterparts. Yet I am convinced that these militants will have done more to revolutionise Islam in the long run than any collection of Muslim liberals, no matter how diverse and representative the latter happens to be in character. For by operating in a global arena without political leaders or institutions of its own, these men reveal to us a vision of the future. All the moderates have to offer, by contrast, is a past endlessly recycled - but the past not of 7th-century Arabia so much as of 19th-century Europe.

The Islam of militancy and offence occupies a global arena in which it acts without being an actor. That is to say militancy exists as a global agent by virtue of sacrifices that are amplified in the media and mirrored around the world without the benefit of political leadership and institutions, since even Osama bin Laden exists for his Muslim admirers as nothing more than a media icon. Whatever their local causes or consequences, therefore, such acts represent the democratisation of sovereignty in a global arena lacking sovereign power of its own. This sovereignty is exercised by individuals of all descriptions through the ostentatious sacrifice of their own lives as well as the lives of others in the name of a community and a cause that remain invisible everywhere but on television.

What is the future of sovereignty in the global arena? How might it be attached to a set of institutions and a form of politics that does not as yet exist there? Why has religion come to provide the only vocabulary we have to describe this new world? Such are the questions that militancy poses and will in all likelihood proceed to answer. About these questions the moderates have nothing to say.


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