Middle East regimes are using ‘moderate’ Islam to stay in power

Source: The Washington Post

By Annelle Sheline

Muslim clerics from around the world gathered in Morocco in January 2016 to draft the Marrakesh Declaration on religious tolerance. A reaction to the Islamic State’s highly public brutalization of religious minorities, the document harked back to the prophet Muhammad’s constitution of Medina, which enshrined the rights of non-Muslims in the first Muslim community in 622 CE.

While sponsors presented the declaration as an official form of moderate Islam to counter extremism, other domestic and international political goals also drove it. My interviews with government officials and religious leaders in the Middle East shed light on the murky politics surrounding regimes’ strategic use of “moderate” Islam.

There is no real agreement on the meaning of moderate Islam, of course. Muslim-majority governments that wish to be labeled moderate generally need to comply with the agenda of the United States. Therefore, the definition changes with U.S. policy goals. Willingness to negotiate peace treaties with Israel earned Egypt the unofficial designation of moderate in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994. According to the “inclusion-moderation hypothesis,” Islamist groups that participate in the democratic process typically merit the label of moderate. However, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and particularly since the rise of the Islamic State, moderation has more specifically corresponded to the rejection of violence.

This definition has drawn criticism from non-Muslims and Muslims alike. Some argue that religion offers no solution to violent extremism, which is actually rooted in youthful desires for excitement and significance rather than religious belief. On the other end of the spectrum, Islamophobes assert that moderate Islam is futile because the religion cannot be moderated. Many Muslims criticize the concept for implying that the faith is in need of moderation at all and for implicitly linking Islam with violence.

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