Contested Identities

The labeling of religious factions as fundamentalist and moderate, orthodox and reform, mainstream and extremist, is as old as religion itself. At the heart of these highly charged terms, scholars of Islam say, is a struggle for identity—of self, of others, of God.

In the five years since Al-Qaeda terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the terms “extremist Muslims” and “moderate Muslims” have become so ubiquitous that Google finds nearly a million matches for them. They are repeated daily in television broadcasts and newspaper headlines:

“Every effort must be made to embrace the moderate Muslim, not persecute them.” “Extremist Muslims seek Saudi funds.” “Moderate Muslims blaze new path.” “Why the U.S. should engage moderate Muslims everywhere.” “Extremist Muslim cleric to be deported.” “Moderate Muslims can fight back and reclaim their religion.”

But what do these labels actually mean? Would journalists so readily use “extremist Jew” or “moderate Christian”? Are these categories created largely for political expediency, so Muslims around the world can be neatly divided into two camps?

Several Islamic groups use the terms “moderate,” “reform,” or “progressive” to distinguish their organizations from militant or fundamentalist strains; critics counter that “moderate” is used in Europe and America only to describe Muslims who are “pro-Western.”

Group identities are contested in the West as well, with divides between and within denominations over such issues as whether prayer should be allowed in schools and who should be able to marry. These heated debates often play out in the political arena, where labels like “Moral Majority” are coined and popularized.

“This type of polemic language among religions usually escalates during periods when people are struggling for identity and for terms to describe themselves,” says Professor of Islamic and Jewish Studies Gordon Newby.

Indeed, against the current backdrop of global conflict, sloganism can be found everywhere: the “War on Terror,” “Clash of Civilizations,” “the Great Satan,” and “Holy War against the Infidels.”

But there is another conversation taking place as well—a search for language that will lead to peaceful resolutions and active tolerance. We asked several scholars of Islam at Emory, some of them Muslim, to comment on the river of rhetoric flowing through the public discourse and to address prevalent stereotypes, assumptions, and misconceptions that are serving to divide and alienate.

Despite witnessing a hardening of attitudes in the wake of hostilities, these scholars say they are buoyed by transformative work being done by people of all faiths.

From moderate to mainstream?
Passionate, polemical language appears even in ancient documents that date back to the early interrelationships among Muslims, Jews, and Christians, says Newby, chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies and author of A Concise Encyclopedia of Islam and The Making of the Last Prophet: A Reconstruction and Study of the First Biography of Muhammad.

Likewise, he says, the emergence of orthodoxy—when a denomination or branch of a religion becomes mainstream—always follows contests among different groups.

“An orthodox viewpoint is the result of one political group winning and calling themselves right,” he says. “It may be that what we’re seeing is an attempt by ‘moderate’ Muslims to negotiate a new kind of orthodoxy.”

The tendency to place linguistic behavior, religious identity, and cultural heritage under one “pure” definition of a person or group has existed for a long time, and our modern age, with its ideology of nationalism, is particularly prone to such a conflation, says Newby. “For example, Muslims have often been equated with Arabs, effacing the existence of Christian Arabs and Jewish Arabs and ignoring non-Arab Muslims, who constitute the majority of Muslims in the world.”

Events in the Middle East have taken a tragic turn, he says, with various factions fighting in territorial and nationalistic wars that have taken on sectarian and religious overtones.

“As with any conflict, this period has produced considerable polemic,” Newby says. “But it has also produced positive calls for mutual respect and cooperation.”

The World Council of Churches has sought positive dialogue with Islam as part of its movement to reach out to people of all religions; the Vatican II Council has asked its members to “esteem Muslims”; and in synagogues across America, groups are promoting Jewish-Muslim dialogue, Newby says.

“As peace treaties are negotiated and conflicts are reduced to non-belligerency,” he says, “members of all three religions will find themselves in a position to build on the traditions of common heritage and common experience.”

Theories of Relativity
Professor of Religion Richard Martin says the terms moderate, fundamentalist, and extremist are labels that “non-Muslims—and a few Muslims themselves—have used in reference to Muslim social movements, especially since the Iranian Revolution and the taking of American hostages in 1979.”

Nevertheless, these labels “don’t have the same force in defining how Muslims think and speak of themselves as, say, ‘Sunni’ or ‘Shiite’ or ‘Sufi,’ ” says Martin, author of Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies; Islamic Studies: A History of Religions Approach; and Defenders of Reason in Islam: Mu`tazilism from Medieval School to Modern Symbol. “Terms like ‘moderate’ or ‘extremist’ are relative, by and large, not to Islamic social, cultural, and theological understandings, but rather to Western ideas that are highly charged in public discourse in such powerful venues as cable news and the Internet.”

Al-Qaeda, for instance, would be regarded as an extremist movement by the majority of Muslims and non-Muslims but not by their sympathizers. And even “moderate” Muslims may find a few of Osama bin Laden’s charges against the United States and Great Britain to bear some truth, Martin says, especially Muslims living under U.S. military occupation.

“For the past few decades, some Muslim intellectuals have developed concepts like Islamic reform and renewal in response to perceptions of the need to respond to modernity, globalization, and the power of the Internet,” Martin says. “So, in short, there is such a thing as a ‘moderate’ Muslim and an ‘extremist’ Muslim, but these are conversational labels, not recognized movements or interpretations of Islam. And even ‘moderate’ Muslims can sometimes sympathize with very extreme ideas, and Muslims who become political actors in extreme movements can—as fathers, husbands, teachers, and in other roles—subscribe to very human and humane ideas.”

Thus, he says, there are a number of Muslims who would consider themselves moderate, but “we need to know with respect to what: U.S. foreign policy, treatment of women, relations with non-Muslims, identity with national citizenship?”

Martin gives the example of a network of mostly North American Muslim academics who call themselves “Progressive Muslims.”

“By most definitions they would be considered moderate in their religious and political beliefs,” Martin says. “It is not a doctrinaire movement requiring strict adherence to a set of dogmas. Rather, they hold that all questions about gender relationships, clothing and appearance, Islamic governments, citizenship, human rights, and the like should be open to discussion, not closed. Perhaps that is the best self-definition of ‘moderate’ as that term is applied by some Muslims to themselves: a person who identifies with Islam in a free and open relationship to Muslims with different points of view.”

In the eye of the beholder
Associate Professor of Political Science Carrie Wickham, author of Mobilizing Islam: Religion, Activism, and Political Change in Egypt, says the term moderation has a lot of currency right now within the Islamic movement, with several major groups and figures publicly aligning themselves with the notion.

“I want to emphasize that this does not mean a move toward secularism. These moderate Islamists are not liberal democrats,” she says. “To define ‘moderate’ Muslims as secular Muslims would be to place anyone who views politics through a religious prism, or who begins their political work with a set of religious commitments, as extremists. One can have a religious commitment and at the same time be committed to humanist values.”

Wickham, who was named a Carnegie scholar in 2003, has used grants from the Carnegie Foundation and the U.S. Institute for Peace to study the development of Islamist groups in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait during the past several years in researching her new book, Islamist Auto-Reform and the Future of Opposition Politics in the Arab World.

Her research focuses on mainstream, nonviolent opposition groups calling for comprehensive Islamic reform, in which a growing number of leaders have begun to advocate new interpretations of Islam that “privilege ideas of democracy, pluralism, and citizenship rights.”

For most Islamists, she says, “the priority is not to attack the West, but to stimulate a moral, social, and political renewal of the Muslim community itself. Furthermore, the majority of citizens in the Islamist movement reject the use of violence as a means to acheive their domestic goals and are committed to a strategy of incremental reform through legal channels.”

Militants adhere to an extremely puritanical version of Islam, Wickham says, based on a strict and literalist reading of the Qur’an and opinions of conservative Muslim jurists and religious scholars, some dating back to medieval times. This strand of Islam, which encompasses the Salafi and Wahhabi currents, is particularly influential in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

“Not all Salafis and Wahhabis endorse violence,” she says, “but their understanding of themselves as the only ‘true believers,’ their designation of everyone else—fellow Muslims included—as infidels, and their intense suspicion of all outside cultural influences as a threat to Islam creates an ‘us versus them’ mentality, which sets the stage for support of jihad.”

Conversely, within the reform Islamist movements, deliberations on questions of identity are ongoing: “Who are we?” “What are the proper strategies and goals of our movement?” “When we call for an Islamic state, what would that mean in practice?” “How do we reconcile our commitment to Shari’a [Muslim law] with our commitments to pluralism and democracy?” and “How can we engage—on constructive and equal terms—with governments and societies in the West?”

The “demonization” of all Muslims that took place after September 11 and the equating of Islam with terrorism was deeply offensive to many Muslims, Wickham says, and has led to a widely held view that Islam is under siege and needs to be defended. “Attitudes have hardened,” she says. “We are seen as wanting to take over the world not only with our weapons but with the marketing of our values, ideas, and lifestyle.”

Those who promote Islamic change also tend to be highly critical of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East, and this criticism is “at times laced with disturbing prejudices and misconceptions,” she says. The same group, for example, might condemn September 11 but endorse attacks on civilians by Palestinian commando groups, referring to suicide bombings as “martyrdom operations” and viewing them as a legitimate means of resistance.

“Islam as a religion, like all religions, is open to multiple and conflicting interpretations,” she says. “If you want to find justification for the idea of Holy War against infidels within sacred Islamic text, you can find it. If you want to find support for the idea that Muslims should respect those with different religious views and treat them in the spirit of fraternity and harmonious coexistence, you can find support for that as well.”

Looking to the future, Wickham sees two primary ways of encouraging moderate political ideologies in the Middle East: supporting economic development and opening the political sphere.

“If you have multiple Islamist groups and multiple secular groups with real roots in society, then you’re in a situation where no one group can monopolize power,” she says. Turkey, which has a secular government even though 99 percent of the population is Muslim, is a case in point. “Leaders then have to govern in relation to, and most likely in coalition with, other groups with different goals and objectives—and different interpretations of Islam.”

‘Voices of Islam’
Vincent Cornell, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Middle East and Islamic Studies, has spent the last two years editing Voices of Islam, a five-volume set written by nearly fifty prominent Muslims from around the world on the themes of tradition, spirituality, daily life, beauty, science, and change. The set aims to give voice to the “living diversity” of Muslims—men and women, Sunnis, Shiites, and Sufis, progressives and traditionalists, leaders and activists, teachers and business owners—on the doctrines and practices of Islam.

“To think of Islam as monolithic is both wrong and dangerous,” says Cornell, a University of California, Los Angeles, graduate and Peace Corps alumnus who has been a Sunni Muslim for more than thirty years, since converting while living and working in Morocco in 1974. “To present the voice of a ‘typical’ Muslim or ‘representative’ Muslim can lead to oversimplification, the handmaiden of the stereotype.”

Recurrent images in the media of groups of Muslims expressing grief or anger have characterized followers of Islam as irrational or fanatical, alien to civilized cultures, says Cornell.

“There is a critical need for Islam to be expressed to the world not as an image, but as a narrative,” he says, “and for Muslims to bear witness to their own experiences.”

Cornell, formerly director of the King Fahd Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies at the University of Arkansas, is the author of Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism.

Extremist Muslims such as Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, he says, are correct in saying that liberal democracy—based on the concepts of individual autonomy, separation of church and state, and pluralism—is a threat to their vision of Islam, in which religious authority is absolute, divine law (Shari’a) is publicly recognized, and “all true Muslims” are alike. This vision is not open to compromise, reform, or worldly considerations.

For the past five years, Cornell has been a participant in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “Building Bridges” dialogue of Christian and Muslim theologians and is a co-convener of a working group of Muslim scholars, funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, with the aim of forming a new theological perspective of non-Muslims in Islam.

“The challenge for Muslim democratic liberals,” he says, “is to find an authentic starting point or baseline that allows modern political theory to engage the future without abandoning the past.”

The universal rights to life, dignity, and justice are upheld in the Qur’an, says Cornell, as is respect for others: “Oh humankind! We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes so that you may come to know one another.”

The only competition among Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, says Cornell, ought to be “the competition to alleviate human suffering.

“This is very different from the belief expressed by contemporary Muslim extremists that strapping on a bomb belt and blowing up a bus of Israeli school children will earn the martyr a reward in heaven,” he says.

Equally disturbing, he says, are the acts of violence and oppression against Muslims taking place in Palestine, Lebanon, and elsewhere cloaked in the “War on Terrorism” rhetoric.

“The only winners in this are the extremists,” he says. “Chaos is their means to power.”

Ancient conflicts, modern solutions
“There is nothing new about these tensions or conflicts—we have lived with them for centuries. These are ancient conflicts,” says Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, a Muslim who for two decades lived in exile as a political dissident from his native Sudan. “But the so-called ‘Clash of Civilizations’ will become far too exaggerated if we allow it to define our policies.”

An-Na’im describes himself as an Islamic modernist and a pragmatic optimist. “I am confident that the global dimension will be negotiated into proportion,” he says. “Humans have an amazing capacity to come to terms with things and bring them down to size. The reality of having to coexist will overcome the divisive nature of the sloganism of ‘us versus them.’ ”

An-Na’im grew up in Northern Sudan as the eldest of eight children of a brigadier general in the Sudanese Defense Force. He earned law degrees from the University of Khartoum, Cambridge, and Edinburgh, and became a member of a pro-Democracy movement known as the Republican Brothers, founded by his mentor, Mahmoud Mohammad Taha.

The movement came under attack in 1983 as President Gaafar Numeiry’s military regime sought to appease Islamic conservatives by instituting Islamic law.

An-Na’im was jailed with other supporters of the movement, and they were held without charges for a year and a half. After Taha was hanged for heresy in 1985, An-Na’im fled the country. By 1989 Sudan’s government was controlled by Muslim fundamentalists.

“Fundamentalism wreaked havoc in my country, but now people are coming back and life is resuming,” he says. “The fundamentalists are defeated. Political parties and newspapers are flourishing.”

This summer, for the first time, An-Na’im, his wife, and their children were able to return to the house he and his family had built in Sudan before leaving. “We can now visit with our extended family,” he says. “I can give public lectures on secularism and human rights, which are published and debated—all of this would have been unthinkable in the 1990s.”

An-Na’im, a scholar-in-residence at the Ford Foundation’s Cairo office and executive director of Human Rights Watch/Africa before coming to Emory, is the author of Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and International Law, and African Constitutionalism and the Role of Islam.

He directed several research projects at Emory’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion, including a fellowship program for scholars and activists from throughout the Muslim world working to develop Islamic arguments for universal human rights.

“The only legitimate and sustainable discourse that will change attitudes is an internal discourse,” he says. “There are Muslim voices—human rights activists, democracy activists, intellectuals and so on—that need space and protection to convey their message from the inside. What is the rest of the world doing to make that possible?”

All countries, he says, must ultimately find their own path.

“It takes certain conditions of stability and prosperity for societies to relax their defenses and allow active civic engagement. Fundamentalists may be elected in some cases, but that’s what democracy is all about. You give people the right to make their choice, no matter how misguided or dangerous you think it is.”

The reality of global pluralism, says An-Na’im, is that all people must be protected from discrimination and oppression as well as allowed the distinctiveness of their separate identities.

“It easily can be demonstrated that the Islamic tradition at large is basically consistent with most human rights norms, except for some specific, albeit very serious, aspects of the rights of women and freedom of religion and belief,” he says.

“The question is, which interpretations or understandings of the religion are likely under what conditions, and how do we promote conditions that are conducive to human rights?”



 © 2006 Emory University