close shot of a Muslim woman praying 

Why the idea of ‘Moderate Muslims’ is a narrative subtly rooted in Islamophobia

TW: Mentions of Islamophobia

The term ‘moderate Muslim’, although commonly used without malicious intent, is a label I have always silently disagreed with. At a glance, it appears to be a vague, rather wide-ranging umbrella-term, invoking a range of perceptions; From imams making condemnations towards militant extremists yet again after each terrorist attack, to ‘Westernised, liberal Muslims’, or devout Muslims in Islamic nations who speak against the atrocities of their governments often committed in the name of religion.

Regardless of one’s perception of what a ‘moderate Muslim’ might be, what remains at the core of this discussion is an uncomfortable truth: this specific term somewhat conveys an idea that the inherent default of a Muslim™ is not, in fact, one who is ‘moderate’ – and this is why I find it problematic.

The Arabic term for ‘moderation’, known as ‘wasatiyah’, is a concept popular among the Muslim community, especially those of us who were taught in Islamic school that moderation is the sunnah, and therefore, the most ideal way of life and pursuit.

Though this now leads us to another fundamental dilemma: how do we define moderation?

Unfortunately, it is here I find myself not knowing the answer – and this is a definition that neither Muslim scholars, the average layman, nor even the fiercest critics of Islam could ever universally agree upon.

Nevertheless, especially when discussing Muslims in the context of Western society, it almost always feels as though portrayals of Muslim identities have been reduced to such narrow, binary ideas of ‘whitewashed Westernised Muslims,’ versus ‘extremely religious alt-right Islamists’, with no in-between.

In such discussions, there is the refusal to acknowledge the lack of safe spaces for Muslim identities which exist among grey areas of intersectionality, and that being Muslim can also be something that exists on a spectrum.

When ‘grey areas’ of Muslim identities are brought up, whether in casual discussion or within portrayals in the media – we often only witness the identities of Muslim characters being in conflict and ‘transition’. Case in point being the latest debacle revolving around the Netflix film, ‘Cuties’, which has been criticised for yet again feeding into the cliché trope of oppressed young girls from Muslim communities who ‘liberate themselves’ by participating in ‘Western culture’ and eventually becoming hypersexualised.

Being told at Oxford that, “you’re the first Muslim woman I’ve ever spoken to who’s willing to engage in these sort of conversations – I never expected you to be so open-minded!” is not a compliment.

However, even within non-Western societies for example, like Malaysia, where I am from, (which has a significant Muslim population), Muslim characters in the media who go through periods of being ‘in transition’ with their identities are often initially portrayed as godless hedonists who eventually reach a redemption arc when they are finally ‘guided to the right path’, as they become repentant and are hailed as an inspiration.

The widespread reality, however, is the fact that, ironically, most Muslims, are a lot more ‘normal’, ‘moderate’, and less rigid than stereotypes refuse to believe. This is the case regardless of those living in diaspora communities or within Islamic nations themselves.

Many of us have learnt to make peace with being ‘X’ and ‘Muslim,’ although oftentimes, we struggle to get there. As much of a no-brainer as this sounds – Muslims are not, in fact, a monolith. There are Muslims of all nationalities and ethnicities, Muslims of all sexual orientations and gender identities, Muslims who are still in the process of discovering their spiritual journeys, and Muslims of endlessly different political inclinations.

Being told at Oxford that, “you’re the first Muslim woman I’ve ever spoken to who’s willing to engage in these sort of conversations – I never expected you to be so open-minded!” is not a compliment. If anything, it speaks more of people’s preconceived notions of Muslims being inherently hell-bent and caught up in their own distorted views without being able to have critical conversations about the complexities of human identity.

I have also been told that I was “such an interesting character,” by an upper-middle-class white British man, who justified this through the fact that, “you’re a young Asian woman, you’re Muslim, you wear the hijab, you have such outspoken political views, and you’re a feminist!”

Although he meant it with entirely good intentions, I was not sure how I was supposed to feel. It was as though he was listing every stereotype that made me the perfect candidate for the poster-child of modern-day identity politics – instead of seeing me as an individual.

the burden of ‘representing Islam’ has fallen so heavily on young Muslim girls and the way they dress – due to the inherent nature of our patriarchal society, both in Muslim and Western communities.

Sometime last year, I had a conversation with a friend about my intentions to take a step back from wearing the hijab upon entering university. He responded with, “I’m not surprised. You’ve always had progressive political views.”Again, I took that he meant well, but I was baffled – offended, even.

Was it always that Muslim women with ‘progressive views’ were meant to dress in a way that made less of an acknowledgement to their religious identity? Was showing more skin supposed to equate to showing more ‘tolerance and acceptance’ in a pluralistic, multi-cultural society? It was difficult for me not to feel once again dehumanised and reduced by my outward appearance, as though I was merely ticking off criteria from a list of stereotypes.

More often than not, I feel like my whole life has been spent unintentionally carrying the emotional burden of either making or breaking these stereotypes people often had of Muslim women – and I would even go as far as saying that the burden of ‘representing Islam’ has fallen so heavily on young Muslim girls and the way they dress – due to the inherent nature of our patriarchal society, both in Muslim and Western communities.

I also understand that when it comes to the debate on issues like the hijab and burka, many are already familiar with the concept of Muslim women’s bodies being a perfect scapegoat – caught in the crossfire of two entirely different cultures and condemned for not being able to conform to either side.

Hence, the idea of ‘moderate Muslims’ to me, also operates on similar rhetoric – where young individuals from Muslim communities are often caught in the dichotomy of being a Good Muslim™, i.e. secular and assimilated, in the eyes of the West – or a Good Muslim™, i.e. rigidly adhering to Islamic practice, in the eyes of the Muslim community.

Thus, the grey areas of intersectionality are so often brushed aside – raising again, the question of what is a ‘moderate Muslim’? Is it someone who does not identify as religious, but still celebrates Ramadan and Eid in respect of their culture? Is it someone who prays five times a day, who believes in modern democracy and an inclusive interpretation of Islam?

While radical, dogmatic Islam and the abuse of power by Islamic political parties are, of course, a very genuine threat, it does not negate the visceral sense of communal grief and trauma experienced by individuals of Muslim origin that binds us together – regardless of how ‘Muslim’ we perceive ourselves to be.

This is especially applicable within the current political climate. We collectively witness the horrors experienced by the Uyghurs in China, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas by the Burmese military, attacks on Muslims by the Indian government – in addition to the way all our lives have been fundamentally and irreparably altered in a world post-9/11, leaving us vulnerable to such overt forms of discrimination and bigotry – regardless of where our personal practices of the religion may lie.

But, like all communities, Muslims are no different, and should not be seen as different. Among us, there have always been nuances, conflicts, and divisions for all the centuries we have existed. In fact, the very idea that there is a lack of nuance among Muslims is in itself reductive and Orientalist – a clear indicator of the fact that many individuals outside the Muslim community have still not yet experienced genuine interactions with Muslims which are detached from their preconceived biases.

When discussing Islam within a political context – (ie, Fundamentalist Islam, Islam and Secularism, etc.) – a common line of argument taken by many Muslims is that “Islam is above any modern political ideology and therefore cannot be compared with.” While I understand where they come from, I believe that this would make sense only if one were to argue on a purely theological basis –  without taking into account any external circumstances that influence the way Islam is propagated today. Hence, to dismiss the existence of Islam being used as a political tool (both in the context of the Western and Muslim world) would only be counterproductive.

But it is important to note that when discussing these issues – we also often blindly ignore the role played by Western intervention, which has planted its roots in the Muslim world much earlier than September 11 of 2001, and the eventual ‘the war on terror’ that proceeds.

Where Muslim communities today find themselves under constant scrutiny from the liberal West, there is still a sense of historical amnesia that hangs uncomfortably

The colonial history that still today binds Europe and ‘the Global South’ is an uncomfortable past shared by societies on both ends of this ideological and cultural divide. Through the process of decolonisation and constantly rebuilding ourselves in a postcolonial world, nations are forced into a never-ending political and cultural struggle.

Religion, language, and cultural practices are all very significant elements that we cling on to in search of our individual and national identities. 

Hence, it makes perfect sense that Islam would play a fundamental role in a postcolonial society as a counter-reaction against Western forces – resulting in a more aggressive version of religious fundamentalism.

The role played by the United States and other Western nations in the Cold War also cannot be ignored – as it indirectly birthed the Iranian Revolution of 1979 that eventually transformed the entirety of the Muslim world on such an unprecedented scale. The suppression of revolutionary groups and nationalist movements in Asia and the Middle East out of fear Soviet allyship had set the precedent for Islamic extremism and the increasing lack of secular freedoms present in the governance of many nations today.

The Muslim community thus needs to be able to have more honest and critical discussions about the threats posed by political Islam, and its nature in influencing the rhetoric that gets propagated among Muslim and non-Muslim communities alike, instead of merely distancing themselves or making dismissive statements such as “Islam is a religion of peace, these extremists and politicians do not represent the true version of Islam.” 

Yet other significant issues within the Muslim community that need to be addressed also include how young individuals from Muslim families are often isolated and condemned for questioning or distancing themselves from the faith, the misogyny perpetuated by many Muslim men and women alike, the discrimination towards LGBTQ people, and the blatant anti-Semitism that often crops up in the discussions regarding Israel and Palestine.

Again, it is also worth emphasising, however, that these issues related to misogyny, anti-Blackness, and anti-Semitism that we see in the 21st century are also a significant byproduct of colonial history. Where Muslim communities today find themselves under constant scrutiny from the liberal West, there is still a sense of historical amnesia that hangs uncomfortably at the lack of acknowledgement to legacies of violence propagated by imperialist powers against women and ethnic/religious minorities – and that these systems of violence have not yet been fully dismantled from many former colonies due to the inherent political instability within these regions. Thus, our mainstream conceptions of race and gender have very much evolved over time to fit a narrative that continuously thinks in backward, regressive terms of ‘the Other.’

But at the end of the day, the question of what defines a ‘moderate Muslim’ still remains, and in my opinion, is a question best left unanswered. Like any other 21-year old who is still on a constant journey in refining their identity – I am many things, as I am a person.

‘Muslim’ just also happens to be one of those things.

Image credit: @DMahendra via Creative Commons