Bin Laden and his followers represent a real interpretation of Islam that begs to be challenged relentlessly and visibly. Why does this happen so rarely? “Moderate” Muslims are part of the problem. As Martin Luther King Jr. taught many white Americans, in times of moral crisis, moderation cements the status quo. Today, what Islam needs is not more “moderates” but more self-conscious “reformists.” It is reformists who will bring to my faith the debate, dissent and reinterpretation that have carried Judaism and Christianity into the modern world. Sounding the call for reform is no way to win a popularity contest in the Muslim community. After the 2005 London transit bombings, I delivered a radio commentary disagreeing with Feisal Abdul Rauf, the moderate American imam who later fronted the campaign for an Islamic center and mosque near Ground Zero. He had issued a statement about the London terror strikes, assuring journalists that according to the Quran, “Whoever kills a human being…it is as if he has killed all humankind.”
“Not quite,” I explained with regret. “The full verse reads, ‘Whoever kills a human being, except as punishment for murder or other villainy in the land, shall be regarded as having killed all humankind” (my emphasis). For the British jihadis, I went on, “villainy in the land” describes the boot prints of U.S. soldiers in Iraqi soil. This otherwise humane Quranic passage gives aspiring holy warriors a loophole to exploit. I closed by suggesting that moderate Muslims join moderate Jews and Christians in admitting to the nasty side of all our scriptures. The following week, a Muslim acquaintance emailed me. Peeved that I would “go after moderate Muslims,” she curtly counseled me to “wash laundry in the backyard”—that is, to discuss our internal affairs privately. But what takes place among Muslims affects countless lives outside the fold, so our business is everyone’s business. When it is “moderates,” not extremists, who treat you as a traitor for advocating liberal democratic values, something has corrupted the moderates themselves.
That something is identity politics. Even in the seemingly tolerant Muslim communities of America, the politics of identity stands in the way of reinterpretation and reform.