There are times when—after it becomes evident one is groping about and moving one’s limbs into pretzel contortions of logic and avoidance of evidence—one simply has to say goodbye to a term or phrase long in use.
The “moderate Muslim” is just such a term. Its usefulness—if it ever had one—is outweighed by its incoherence and its misleading implications.
In a Jihad Watch post today in which Robert Spencer delves a little into putative differences between himself and Daniel Pipes about the existence and extent of the “moderate Muslim”, one can see Spencer’s language twist and turn as it tries valiantly to retain this term when it would be more merciful—for himself and for his readers—to put the “moderate Muslim” out of its misery with a deft slit of an Occam’s razor to its figurative throat.
Spencer is concerned to assure critics that he is not, in fact, a purveyor of a comprehensive condemnation of all Muslims that would in turn dispose his followers to go down the slippery slope of genocide—and the problem begins when he goes with the general flow by availing himself of the term “moderate Muslim” in order to articulate his assurance. Spencer seems to think that as long as he acknowledges the existence of the “moderate Muslim” as well as the broad demographic extent of the “moderate Muslim”, then he will be let off the hook—by anyone of reasonable intelligence and good will, that is—of the charge that he condemns all Muslims as unjust and dangerous.
I suppose Spencer is correct; though apparently there are no Spencer critics out there of reasonable intelligence and good will, since it doesn’t seem to matter how many times he reiterates that he does not condemn all Muslims and that he in fact believes not only in the existence of the “moderate Muslim” but also in the broad demographic extent of the “moderate Muslim”: his critics persist in tarring him with the brush of prejudicial quasi-genocidal bigotry.
So not only is the term “moderate Muslim” illogical and torturous (as we will show), it also doesn’t seem to work! It’s not doing the job it’s supposed to be doing—to wit: the job of getting Spencer’s critics to stop misunderstanding him!
To illustrate the problem with the term, let us examine Spencer’s well-meaning contortions:
I believe that it is possible for a devout Muslim could both be pro-American and anti-Islamist [i.e., ipso facto, “moderate”], if he is unaware of or ignores or denies the jihad imperative.
It is entirely possible for a Muslim to be unaware of it or to ignore it, or even to believe that it is Islamically illegitimate, given that in various areas of the Islamic world that imperative had been deemphasized and even forgotten for centuries until the contemporary Salafist movement has revived it. A Muslim can pray five times a day and even recite the Qur'an without ever confronting the necessity to make war against and subjugate the infidels—particularly if Arabic is not his first language. And for the less devout, this is even easier.
Here Spencer is unduly diluting, if not redefining altogether, the term—unless he is cleverly avoiding the actual word “moderate” in order to have plausible deniability should someone come along with a critique like mine. Let us assume Spencer is not doing this, but is, in fact, in the passage quoted above, explicating the nature of the “moderate Muslim” . What becomes readily evident is that he is defining “moderation” wholly in passive, negative terms: The “moderate Muslim” is one who is ignorant and/or passive with regard to the Islam about which he is putatively “moderate”. This is not really moderation, but simply describes (degrees of) inactivity in relation to the prescribed (and proscribed) deeds of Islam, as well as (degrees of) nescience of the doctrines of Islam. Moderation properly speaking would involve a conscious decision to water down and smooth out the rough edges of something, not the accidental result of sheer ignorance and laziness.
When I say that moderation involves a conscious decision, I don’t mean that all religious moderates are going around every minute of the day consciously deliberating about their religious thoughts and choices. Many of them—particularly when we think of the modern Western religious moderate (Jewish or Christian)—may in large part be thinking and acting relatively unthinkingly, having been raised moderates or having gone through a long slow process of a percolation of moderation into their psychic bloodstream, as it were. Also, we must not forget the forest for the trees: namely that, in the modern West, the surrounding sociopolitical cultures are overwhelmingly structured and saturated by secularism and modernism in various ways—some subtle, some aggressive. Nevertheless, even though there is a degree of passivity, even in the modern Western religious moderate, there is also a level of conscious receiving, sustaining and participation in his or her moderation.
Needless to say, the vast majority of Muslims do not have the privilege, as the vast majority of Westerners have, of being surrounded by sociopolitical cultures that are overwhelmingly structured and saturated by secularism and modernism in various ways. Indeed, there is in Muslim societies precious little of the secularist atmospherics that Westerners take for granted. Thus, even more for the Muslim moderate than for the Western religious moderate, the moderation will perforce be more of a conscious choice, and a conscious process; for his surrounding society in a variety of ways will continually remind him of his unusual nature.
This is not all. Spencer felt obliged—because of the obtuseness of his latest critic, a Republican named Shawn Steel—to make sure he did not support the view that, as Steel put it, “the core theory of Islam is inherently violent and anti-Western, [and] therefore moderate Muslims are a minority”.
This last particular bit of solicitude on Spencer’s part might be the most surprising to many of his admirers, as he hastened to protest that:
Of course, I've never said—much less implied—anything remotely like this.
Which part of it is Spencer careful to distance himself from? Is it that “the core theory of Islam is inherently violent and anti-Western”? Or is it that “moderate Muslims are a minority”? I cannot be sure, but I suspect that Spencer is more prone to conceding the former, and that he fell for Steel’s linkage of the two with his sneaky little “therefore”—as though the belief that “the core theory of Islam is inherently violent and anti-Western” inexorably leads to the belief that “moderate Muslims are a minority”. And so, Spencer felt obliged to deny both charges, when he would have been wiser to detach the two, and only deny the latter.
But: even if he had done so, the term “moderate” still poses a problem, as we have argued, for it connotes at least the role of a conscious, relatively intelligent awareness, if not a decision sustained day after day. To affirm that the majority of Muslims in the world are “moderate” in this more active, conscious sense would be counter-indicative. It is far more likely, as we argued above, that the majority of Muslims are simply “not immoderate” out of passivity, sloth and ignorance.
I therefore recommend a new term to replace the hackneyed “moderate Muslim”: My new term is the AHM—the “Apparently Harmless Muslim”.
The advantage of this new term, the AHM, is that it can bridge the gap between Spencer and his more vigorous followers who might feel he is being a bit too soft on Muslims. That is to say, even most of the most passionate anti-Jihadists among us can feel comfortable conceding that the majority of Muslims in the world are apparently harmless. This does not mean they will remain so; but it does definitely imply that we passionate anti-Jihadists are not knuckle-dragging rednecks who feel compelled to assume that all Muslims have horns, a tail and breathe fire: for, you see, we can concede that, as far as we can tell, for now, on the surface at least, most Muslims are indeed apparently harmless.
The perfect ambiguity of the new term—the Apparently Harmless Muslim—allows us to show that we recognize that most Muslims are, as far as we can tell, not doing anything bad at all; while at the same time it gives us plenty of leverage to maintain suspicion about any and all Muslims, should an indeterminable number of them be either lying to us, or be sincerely harmless today, but succumb to some form of “Sudden Jihad Syndrome” tomorrow.
It’s not too late, I hope, to throw out the old, and ring in the new: So let’s discard that tired useless term, the “moderate Muslim”. And let us christen a much more useful term for the deadly decades ahead of us: the AHM: The Apparently Harmless Muslim.