If we really want to help moderate Muslims, we should stop telling them what Islam is

However well-meaning attempts by non-Muslims to define Islam are, they are ultimately counter-productive.

However well-meaning attempts by non-Muslims to define Islam are, they are ultimately counter-productive

In the wake of this month’s latest Islamist outrages – notably a mass kidnapping by Boko Haram in Nigeria, Sudan’s death sentence against a female apostate, and an anti-Semitic triple murder by a jihadist in Brussels – there has been a predictable outpouring by non-Muslims on what Islam really is.

In the US, Carla Power, a journalist, provided Time Magazine readers with ‘five reasons why Boko Haram’s actions are fundamentally un-Islamic’. On the Sudanese death sentence, Tell Mama’s Stephen Rose (a Dorset-based writer who I presume is not Muslim) valiantly quoted Quranic verses to put those pesky Sudanese officials straight about their own religion, writing that in fact the “Quran guarantees freedom of religion”.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, Robert Spencer of anti-Muslim ‘jihadwatch’ used the same events to support his view of Quran and Islam as inherently intolerant and violent. On the Brussels murders, he cited several verses of the Quran and argued that these meant that “Islamic jihadists are the most intense of the people in animosity toward Jews”. On the Boko Haram kidnap, he explained that “as for the abduction of the schoolgirls, the Quran tells Muslims to take captives when they meet unbelievers”.

Unfortunately, however well-meaning (or otherwise, in the case of Spencer) these attempts by non-Muslims to define the ‘correct’ Islam are, their approach is counter-productive. Even if it is comforting imagine that there is a ‘true’ Islam that is peaceful and tolerant, in truth there are 1.6 billion Muslims and just as many versions of Islam; to claim that there is a single Islam (whether peaceful or militant) flies in the face of our post-modernist understanding of the world.

Arguing for a single understanding of a religion, even a peaceful one, that exists independently of each individual’s understanding is as absurd as claiming there is only one legitimate interpretation of the works of William Shakespeare or of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and that this exists independently of readers’ imaginations.

The Quran – and Islamic scriptures as a whole – however revered by some, are just another set of texts and the usual rules of literary criticism and understanding should apply. No text or narrative should be seen as exempt from having multiple equally valid variant readings because some regard it as sacred; indeed, to do so is often intellectual cowardice dressed up as tolerance.

More concretely, by insisting that there is one true Islam and that our extremist rivals are ‘un-Islamic’, well-meaning non-Muslims risk sustaining the very ideology that is bedrock of modern jihadism – namely takfirism (the practice of denouncing perceived Muslim dissenters from ‘the one true Islam’ as heretics).

More broadly, depicting Islam as standing outside human interpretation also bolsters the more widespread belief of many individual Muslims that they alone know exactly what Islam is and that their critics are not just wrong but are actively distorting Islam.

The destructive effects of this mindset can be seen in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, where jihadists, Islamists and secularists alike claim a monopoly on the correct interpretation of Islam and attack rivals as apostates.

Ironically, however, the fundamental basis for this outlook, the belief in the existence of a single valid understanding of Islam that must be protected against corruption, are echoed by none other than David Cameron, who has himself defined jihadism as an “extreme distortion of the Islamic faith” (allegedly at the behest of that equally noted Islamic scholar Baroness Sayeeda Warsi), while even George W Bush has pronounced that “the face of terror is not the true face of Islam”.

However well- intentioned, such interventions are fuelling the intolerance that we are trying to fight.

Rather than reinforcing the false and divisive idea of a single Islam, albeit as peaceful Islam, we should instead emphasise the theoretically infinite pluralism of Islamic interpretations.

True, this means honestly facing some uncomfortable (or for Robert Spencer, comfortable) truths; namely that extremist interpretations of Islam are just as textually valid (or invalid) as more moderate interpretations. But while this means conceding ground to extremists (both Muslim and non-Muslim) in the short-term, in the longer run, introducing relativism to discussions of Islamic ‘truth’ will make it harder for aspiring totalitarians to use Islam to prop up their ideologies, just as the post-modern rejection of certainty has undermined other hardline ideologies and ideologues in the West.

People may be willing to die and kill for what they regard as an immutable truth; they are less likely to make sacrifices for what they know is but one interpretation among many. No-one wants to die for a variant textual reading.

Furthermore, in addition to withdrawing from the fruitless pursuit of which Islamic interpretation is theologically ‘correct’ (and what if ‘correct’ Islam proved to be unpalatable?), those non-Muslims engaged in the struggle against Islamist extremism are better off basing their arguments in pragmatic cost/benefit analysis.

For instance, rather than confronting a cleric who is convinced that women should not be allowed to work outside the home with our own cherry-picked battery of women-friendly Quranic quotes and hadiths, we should point out that while we cannot judge the theological value of the cleric’s interpretation, his views tangibly increase the chances of his followers suffering poverty, a poorer quality of life and – correspondingly a greater prospect of family breakdowns – as a result of the loss of a woman’s income to the household.

We should fight our battles only on ideological terrain which favours our arguments, rather than on the quicksand of Quranic citations and Islamic texts which are themselves products of previous generations’ ideologically-driven selective interpretations.

Rather than engaging in a futile quest for the supposed intentions of someone-else’s God, let us instead debate what practices and ideologies are materially harmful or not harmful to Muslim individuals and to society at large, and draw conclusions accordingly. For some militant liberals, this approach will be less immediately satisfying than denouncing our enemies as ‘un-Islamic’ heretics and traitors to their own religion – but that is entirely the point.

James Brandon is an associate fellow at the Institute for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR) in London. He is the former director of research and communications at Quilliam

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35 Responses to “If we really want to help moderate Muslims, we should stop telling them what Islam is”

  1. TNC

    Basically agree with the headline, However, this statement conflates the author’s postmodernism with the currents of belief prevalent in the countries where Islam is the majority religion:

    ” Even if it is comforting imagine that there is a ‘true’ Islam that is peaceful and tolerant, in truth there are 1.6 billion Muslims and just as many versions of Islam; to claim that there is a single Islam (whether peaceful or militant) flies in the face of our post-modernist understanding of the world. ”

    This is not true. Most Muslims living in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia do not see the world through a postmodernist lens or lenses. There are certainly varieties of Islam i.e. Shia in Iran and Sunni/Salafist in Saudi Arabia but that does not mean that Shia in Iran are open to non-Shia varieties or Salafi in Saudi Arabia are open to non-Sunni interpretations. The main dimensions of this struggle are within the Islamic counties and among/between Muslims.

  2. JoeDM

    The term “Moderate Muslim” is an oxymoron.

    In normal British society it is not generally considered ‘moderate’ to be homophobic, misogynist, or want to cover yourself from head to foot, etc…….

  3. Ortega

    Most Muslims living in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia do not see the world through a postmodernist lens or lenses.

    I think he means that on an anthropological level, religion (especially a largely decentralised religion like Islam) is primarily symbolic and not necessarily attached to a specific set of values/beliefs.

    For example, some muslims would see hallucinogenic drugs as fundamentally “unislamic”. In some places though, the use of such substances by muslims has been a longstanding aspect of local religious expression. Same goes for music and dancing.

  4. Declan

    The headline is somewhat misleading, but generally agreeable. Of course, non-Muslims shouldn’t be dictating to Muslims what Islam is or what it means for Muslims.

    I do think there is a difference between 1) non-Muslims telling Muslims what Islam is, 2) non-Muslims telling Muslims how to be Muslims, 3) Non-Muslims giving their perspective on Islam to a Muslims, 4) Non-Muslims giving their perspective on Islam to a general audience. I think it is important to stress that not every attempt at 3 or 4 is the same as 1 or 2.

    Although most lines of argument have weaknesses, cultural relativism is particularly weak because it leaves little or no ground for practice beyond theory. This I think will be picked up by others, though.

  5. Mike Stallard

    Good article – thank you.
    Of course the Koran is just another text at the end of the day and of course any holy book – however much it is revered – can be used to further personal prejudice. The New Testament, for instance, is particularly bloodthirsty at times (I am a Catholic and the IRA is Catholic too).
    Equally, the argument over the nature of Islam, surely, goes right back to the days of the first Haddith when the four law schools were developed under the Abbasid Caliphate. So just saying that the Koran is the only source of truth is not right.
    Doing right and preventing evil, however, is scary. Especially if that evil is defined by very angry people. And, having seen the way Muslims were treated in the 1990s in our school, I can assure you that they often have very good cause too.
    In the end, I am afraid the Muslims must face either the fate of the Jews (with pogroms?) or the divisive future of northern Irish Catholics if the Salafists are not reined in fairly ruthlessly and fairly soon.

  6. Mike Stallard

    I have Muslims in my own family and they are thoroughly nice people. they are part of a friendly community in Singapore and actually it reminds me very much of the Anglicanism in which I was raised. “The done thing…”

  7. Al

    No you got it all wrong, Brandon. See, the Quran has a spooky power that makes Muslims do bad things and the Muslims that are not doing bad things are not true Muslims. I’ve read Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, you see. Everything wrong with Muslim world has nothing to do with geopolitics. It’s all down to the magic scary Islam and we must continue to bomb the shit out of Muslims as this will bring us peace.

  8. swatnan

    I think they all need reminding from time to time that Islam professes to be a religion of ‘peace’, but there is precicious little evidence of that. Even Tariq Ali is calling for its ‘reform’.

  9. Arjan

    Who are the “we” here and who are “moderate Muslims”? And what makes you the “moderate Muslims” they will quote the tenets of Islam any differently? They have some kind of superior intellect or much better understanding of Quran just the virtue of the fact that they are born into Islam?

  10. Mark

    I’m aware of Steve Rose, and his qualifications of “best verses” etc, along with what Cameron has said. Also, the other extreme of Spencer. Your suggestion is a noble one, but I reckon will always lead back to the formers of Rose and Cameron in terms of challenging them. I have been fed up with “best verses” from people who wish to protect the faith, and I completely understand why others will immediately attack those “best verses” simply because there are worse ones. I have decided, as I have with other religions that might be getting “empowered,” that the best way to deal with it, is to absolutely recognise what the worst of the religion, in the wrong hands, can bring about, rather than insisting what the best of the relgion, in the best hands, can bring about. That includes recognising bad Quranic verses and especially bad Hadith. This is imperitive if anyone is looking to reform.
    Your paragraph that starts “For instance…” is a great example of tackling it in the way you suggest, but will so easily, and inescapably, move to quoting verses. Why? Because there are those who go by the book/hadiths literally, and moderates and non-muslims need to understand where this can come from.

  11. Leon Wolfeson


    Well, thanks for the smokescreen in the rest of the post.

  12. Mike Stallard

    “If” is actually the operative word, don’t you think?

  13. @thejamesbrandon

    Hi all – and many thanks for your thoughts on the piece. I’m aiming to do further articles exploring this theme and will try to take your various responses on board! Thanks again for reading. James

  14. Leon Wolfeson

    Not from my perspective.

  15. Blakeley Nixon

    I have been trying to articulate the views in this article for a long time. On the plurality of religion Gramsci said something similar about Catholicism –

    Every religion, even Catholicism (in fact, especially Catholicism, precisely because of its effort to maintain a superficial unity and not allow itself to be fragmented into national churches or along class lines) is really a multiplicity of religions that are distinct and often contradictory; there is a Catholicism of the peasant, a Catholicism of the petty bourgeoisie and urban workers, a Catholicism of women, and a Catholicism of the intellectuals.

  16. Frank Black

    Sadly, there is no such thing as a moderate muslim.

  17. Frank Black

    If you are waiting for the muslims to reform the quran, you are in for a long wait.

  18. Mark

    The whole, Muslims are either “moderate” or “extreme” is silly. There is the same range from liberal/secular, all the way through to extreme. I haven’t counted (and can’t) whether the “community” is that much more conservatively religious than other “communities”, but to label all as extreme is wrong, simply because evidence shows there are many liberal Muslims just as worried about the extremes as anyone else.

  19. Keith Thomas

    Best leave it to Muslims to interpret their faith.


    “Calling us extremists is Islamophobic” says Fahad Ullah Qureshi – founder of Islam Net in Norway. He demonstrates to an audience of sunni Muslims that their beliefs about beheading, stoning to death, homosexual behaviour and the differences between rights for men and rights for women are not expressions of radical Islam; they are genuine expressions of mainstream Islam. Qureshi and his entire audience reject the notion that their views can be described as radical in any way. In fact, he accuses Western journalists of driving a wedge between people like him (who journalists describe as ‘radical’ and yet, he says, are merely willing to express all aspects of their Muslim faith openly, proudly and without cringing behind political correctness) and, secondly, other Muslims who hold the same views but who choose not to openly celebrate those aspects of Islam in public. This second class of Muslims, he reckons, are being intimidated and insulted by Western journalists with their use of the
    pejorative ‘radical’.

  20. Omar Shahid

    This is quite a good piece, but only partially correct. We can’t discount the role of social, political, economic and historical reasons why extreme versions of Islam have come about and why some Muslims do extreme things. It’s not as simple as varying interpretations.

  21. Omar Shahid

    We need to understand *why* different interpretations come about.

  22. Paul Perrin

    All that matters about any religion/politics is whether someone want to replace my will with theirs – Islamists/Socialists all have that same failing and are dangerous to humanity.

  23. Just Visiting

    > … valiantly quoted Quranic verses to put those pesky
    > Sudanese officials straight about their own religion, writing that in fact the “Quran
    > guarantees freedom of religion”.

    You are spot on – but sadly such daft behaviour has happened for years on UK left blogs too – this one also – we are not blameless here.

    > as absurd as claiming there is only one legitimate interpretation of the works of William Shakespeare or of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,

    Sure, that ‘one interpretation’ is absurd: but what about the issue of ‘main stream’ Islam – if the bulk of Islamic authorities agree on something – then are we allowed to consider that main-stream, and discuss whether we think it is compatible or not with our own views on democracy, pluralism etc?

    I’m interested to hear your view here – because some who take this line of ‘no one Islam’ seem to take it so far as to mean that no sensible debate of what Muslims do and say can be had: sorry if I wrongly suspected you of that silliness.

    It would be as silly as saying that because there is no ‘one interpretation’ of Toryism, that we cannot discuss what the majority of Tory MPs seem to be saying.

  24. Just Visiting

    Hi Mike, sorry to take a negative line here – but I wonder if you are making a comparison there that is mis-leading – albeit one that many people mistakenly make.

    – that the IRA’s actions and thinking was guided or influenced by Christianity.

    > The New Testament, for instance, is particularly bloodthirsty at times (I am a Catholic and the IRA is Catholic too).

    Well – taking a normal evidence based anthropological approach to understanding a group: looking at what they themselves said/did:
    * they never quoted the words of Jesus to explain their violence
    * they did not use Christian words to define themselves: they defined themselves as (i) Irish. (ii) Republican
    * their stated goals were not spiritual, nor from a holybook: their goals were political: to change some specific national boundaries in a small island west of the UK
    * their politics were essentially non-Christian: with Marxism thinking having a role: with the split into the Real vs the provisional IRA being in large measure about how Marxist the group should be.

    Whereas there are countless examples of Islamic violence round the world where the perpretators themselves, in their own words:
    * say they do what they do because they are Muslims
    * quote specific Quran verses to explain what they do
    * link what they do locally to a world-wide Islamic project and quote the Quran to explain that.

  25. Just Visiting

    You’re right, we can’t discount factors.

    But neither must we downplay the role of the thing that the violent extremists themselves say is their motive: the Quran and their identity as Quran-following Muslims.

    For example, taking a non-extreme facet of main-stream Islam: that daughters should inherit half of what sons do.

    This is known to be mainstream Islam: indeed the UK law Society are asking members to produce template Sharia-compliant legal wills: that enshrine this gender inequality as the default (a number of lawyers are not entirely happy).

    It seems clear here, that the root cause of this gender inequality being mainstream is the Quran and long-held Islamic thought itself: certainly over the last 1000 years this one Sharia principle has not changed.

  26. Mike Stallard

    If someone bombed the shit out of you and your children how would you feel about it? Me, I should be joining the nearest army as soon as I could get to one.

  27. Just Visiting

    Can you expand on that Mike?
    Do you mean it’s OK to resort to violence, but only if you yourself have suffered violence?
    Is it OK to resort to violence against un-related 3rd parties and civilians; if I personally have suffered violence?
    Is if OK for me to resort to violence against unrelated 3rd-parties, if not me nor my family, but just anyone of my religious group anywhere in the world, has suffered violence?
    If I am a British-born Muslim – what grounds permit me to use violence?
    On what grounds may a Muslim bomb a disco in Bali?
    A train in Madrid?
    A wedding anywhere?

  28. Mike Stallard

    The point which I was trying to make is that “bombing the shit out of” anyone is very counter-productive. Hearts and minds etc.

    Islam is that old fashioned thing which we English have so long taken for granted and lately abandoned – a religion.

    And religions can only be appreciated and come to terms in a religious way. This video I have found unpleasant, yes, but very useful in understanding the problem:


  29. Just Visiting

    I guess 100% of the folks here agree that “bombing the shit out of” anyone is counter-productive.

    > Islam is that old fashioned thing which we English have so long taken for granted and lately abandoned – a religion.

    It sounds like you have a special definition of the word ‘religion’ there.

    Do you you suggest that today’s practising english christians, jews, hindus: are not following a religion?

    > This video I have found unpleasant, yes, but very useful in understanding the problem.

    not sure I understand what you see as ‘the problem’ ? What is it about the Islam portrayed in that video, that you think is different to today’s Christianity, Judaism, HInduism etc practised in the UK ?

  30. Mike Stallard

    Well, although we Christians merrily burned and butchered people (still alive people too) in the 15 and even 1600s, we rather tend not to today.
    The bearded Expert wants to chop people’s hands off doesn’t he?
    I thought also that Christians lived by the Golden Rule – Love of God and neighbour. The people on the video seem to be rather not doing that. They are trying, instead, to follow the laws and commandments laid down rather a long time ago in the Arabian desert. If you read the Epistle to the Romans in the Bible, that way of life is taken to pieces and trashed.

    Are Tories and Labour the same? Are Communists and Fascists the same? Yet all are politicians. Not all religions are the same either.

  31. Just Visiting

    yes, can’t dis-agree with
    > Not all religions are the same either.

    Thanks for clarifying.

  32. kezra

    We must consider the Arabic language which is still spoken widely in its classical form especially when wanting to address people across the arab speaking world transcending dialects. Arabic as a language is littered with Quranic and Islamic intentions unlike Christianity in Ireland where the modern tongue is far removed from the original Biblical language.

  33. Tob Breogh

    Actually,it does not matter to those deeply rooted in retrogade values what clever arguments on relativization one may present them about the benefits of this or that religious interpretation.Some people way prefer to follow dogmas over reason and practical ideas and no amount of sensible reasoning will make such people change their attitude towards them,as they think such tenets to be sacred and theirs the only path to their concept of an afterlife paradise.

  34. Just Visiting

    Your point seems to suggest that it is by accident, a chance of language that Islamic terrorists get to mention their religion of much! That they are talking about something else, but somehow the word Quran and Sharia and etc come up in sentences, because Arabic is ‘littered with Quranic… intentions’

    Ha ha! That is one of the most ridiculuous attempts to suggest that violence around the world done explicitly in the name of Islam, is actually non-Islamic violence!

  35. Greg Kaye

    Its tragic that if a modern doctrine developed that was textually prejudice to women and called for the death of homosexuals and apostates, then you would actively denounce it – but as the same vial contents are maintained in the name of a religion, people turn a blind eye. Individual rights and individual respect are more central to humanity than rights of a belief. A belief is not human and has no rights. Beliefs that call for death just due to a persons sexuality are themselves perverse in their fearful intollerance and, in any other circumstances, you would denounce these views as fascist. While people can be treated as individuals in accordance with their religious beliefs and practices, the time to get real about this is well overdue.


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