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The Challenge For Moderate Islam


In a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal on how to beat the Islamic State, Maajid Nawaz argues that Islam is a diverse religion but Islamism “is the desire to impose a single version of Islam on an entire society. Islamism is not Islam, but it is an offshoot of Islam. It is Muslim theocracy.” So too with jihad, which he says is a nuanced and multifaceted Muslim idea about struggle that’s been twisted by radicals into a doctrine “of using force to spread Islamism.”

Nawaz leaves it at that. He goes on to criticize President Obama and liberal commentators for oversimplifying the relationship between Islam and Islamism when they say the two have nothing in common. We shouldn’t refuse “to call this Islamist ideology by its proper name,” he writes, for fear that all Muslims will be blamed for the actions of a few.

That’s a great point, but it’s not enough just to call Islamism by its proper name. If Muslim theocracy is a distortion of Islam, Nawaz should explain why. But he doesn’t even try. In this, his essay is representative of the broad failure of moderate Muslims to explain the substantive difference between Islam and Islamism. If the leaders of Islamic State are wrong, and imposing Islamic law through force goes against historical and normative Islamic teachings, then a long essay in a major newspaper about how we can defeat ISIS would be a good place to explain that. But Nawaz makes no attempt to clarify how groups like ISIS or al-Qaeda could stem from what he believes is a correct understanding of Islam.

That’s too bad, because many of us in the West need to understand distinctions that moderate Muslims seem to take for granted. I recently argued that if ISIS and its underlying ideology are to be defeated, the Islamic doctrines that animate it must be discredited—not just by a crushing defeat on the battlefield but also by moderate Muslim leaders around the world arguing for a peaceful version of their faith. We in the West have no competency to judge which interpretations of Islam are valid and which are not—no matter what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry say. If moderates have a compelling case to make, they’d better start making it.

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