Islam Needs Radicals

Mark Levine

George W. Bush. Tony Blair. Silvio Berlusconi. Jacques Chirac. Along with most every Western leader, pundit and policymaker, they are frantically searching for the moderate Muslims” who can save Islam from itself and improve relations with the West. 

The problem is that there’s no such thing as a moderate Muslim, at least the way these decision makers define the term. Look at whom they call moderate: President Bush often cites Jordan’s King Abdullah and Morocco’s King Muhammad as the epitome of modern, moderate Muslim leaders. But a glance at the Amnesty International reports on their countries, or those of other so-called moderate regimes, reveals them to be anything but moderate in the way they treat their citizens. In fact, their level of repression and censorship for the most part is equal to or greater than at any time since 9/11.

Searching for moderate Islam” is an equally problematic enterprise. President Bush famously argued that Islam means peace” after 9/11 as a way of signaling support for it. But however nice a sentiment, Islam in fact doesn’t mean peace; it means submission to the will of God, which – as anyone familiar with the history of the last two millennia knows – has historically involved quite a lot of war. Similarly, moderate Islam’s boosters point to a hadith, or saying of the Prophet, that argues that the greater jihad” of self-introspection and improvement is more fundamental for Muslims than the lesser jihad” of war and violence. In contrast, most conservative Muslim scholars consider greater jihad” a weak hadith – that is, not the prophet’s actual words. Its use by moderates” to reform the shari’a – the Islamic code for living that some states institute as law sanctioning violence – has long generated conservative scorn. 

In the last two decades, a moderate” school of Islamist jurisprudence has in fact emerged (known as the wasatiya movement in Arabic). But its leaders have been variously co-opted or censored by their governments, or tend to be quite immoderate when it comes to Jews, homosexuality or full equality for women. The ones that are truly moderate strongly oppose U.S. foreign policy and much of our materialist, consumer culture. For doing so they are labeled radicals” by their governments, and ours.

Clearly we need to re-imagine our labeling of Islam, because the leaders we consider moderate are – often rightly – considered by their citizens to be corrupt and repressive handmaidens of U.S. policies that themselves could rarely be defined as moderate. On the other hand, Muslims respect those we consider radicals” for standing up to us, even if most don’t agree with how they’re doing it.

Yet the reality is that even the most radical of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda are not that radical. Instead, they bear striking resemblances to other utopian movements across history, from the Jacobins of post-Revolutionary France to fascists and Maoists of the last century. The tools they use to wage their war – from the Internet to the suicide vest – might be new, but their desire to violently purify their societies is all too familiar.

What would a truly radical Muslim look like? Perhaps like the young Shiite sheikh named Anwar al-Ethari whom I met in Baghdad. He is known as the Elastic Sheikh” because of his religious and secular university degrees and willingness to use whatever works, wherever it comes from” to help the residents of his Sadr City neighborhood solve the myriad problems they face. Sadly, I have not heard from him in months, and fear he is among the victims of the increasing violence against the city’s Shiite population. 

Or he might look like a friend of mine from Casablanca named Reda Zine. One of the leaders of the Moroccan heavy metal scene, he’s also a soon-to-be Ph.D. in Islamic studies at the Sorbonne. But he and his musical comrades were labeled satanists” by moderate Islamists and arrested by the moderate Moroccan government because they dared to write powerful – and really loud – songs challenging the country’s patriarchal politics and culture. 

Or they might look like Nadia Yassine, the leader of Morocco’s biggest political force, the religiously-oriented Justice and Development movement. In our first meeting she explained that Islam was hijacked by men” after the Prophet Muhammad’s death and has suffered for it ever since. The next time I saw her she suggested that Morocco might be better off as a republic than a monarchy, a view that landed her in jail, courtesy of the same moderate government that went after the metalheads.

It is she who first suggested to me that what Islam needs is more radicals, not moderates – but radicals in a good sense.” Sitting next to her and nodding in agreement was the Swiss Muslim philosopher Tariq Ramadan. One of the leading progressive voices in Europe, his visa to teach at Notre Dame University was revoked by the U.S. government on the utterly baseless charge of being tied to terrorists.”

My radical friends and colleagues are routinely oppressed by their governments, attacked by conservatives, obstructed by the United States and ignored by the media and peace groups who should be highlighting their activities and struggles. This suggests they’re doing something right, and that we should be doing more to help them. Of course, that would be pretty radical; but how else to achieve the radical transformation that is necessary to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East, not to mention to America? 

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Mark LeVine is professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture and Islamic studies, UC Irvine, and the author of Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2005)
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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