Who Will Reform Islam?

There are genuine moderate Muslim organizations in the United States, but they are mostly ignored by our government and by the media

Those who are relying on the moderate Muslims of the world to correct their errant brethren might profit from a news story out of Pakistan. The All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF) has launched a book titled I am Not Malala, I am Muslim, I am Pakistani. It’s meant to “counter [the] anti-Islamic propaganda” in Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousufzai’s book, I am Malala. In addition, the teacher’s association is going to court to have Malala’s book banned.

So, the girl whom the Nobel Prize Committee looks upon as the face of moderate Islam is looked upon as something of a heretic by a sizable segment of Pakistani teachers (the association represents 173,000 private schools.)

Or shift your focus to Indonesia—once hailed as a model of moderation, and the place fondly remembered by our president for the sweet sound of the muzzein’s call to prayer. These days, you’re just as likely to hear the shrill sound of the imam’s call to prepare—torches, that is. According to a report in Gatestone Institute, more than 1,000 Christian churches have been shut down, torn down or burned down since 2006. Sometimes the churches are demolished by imam-incited mobs, but just as often they are shut down by local authorities. In many cases when Christians are attacked by mobs, police stand by and watch.

Teachers, clerics, local authorities, police. These are the people we usually think of as the forces of moderation in society. And normally, such people can be counted on to defend the established order. But increasingly in the Muslim world, Islam is the established order and people like Malala and “uppity” Christians who don’t know their place are seen as radical agitators who need to be put in their place.

Thinking that moderate Muslims are somehow going to reclaim Islam from extremists is wishful thinking. Moderate Muslims in the sense we understand the word “moderate” are not a huge silent majority who only need to make their voices heard. Rather, they are a silent minority who are silent for good reason. They see what happens to people like Malala and they don’t want to suffer the same fate. There’s a big difference between being personally opposed to shooting schoolgirls in the head and being willing to speak out openly against the ideology that justifies the shooting. The proper term for those willing to speak out under dangerous circumstances is not “moderate”, but “heroic.”

But truly heroic people are in short supply in any society. Undoubtedly, there were many whites in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era who were dismayed by the Ku Klux Klan, but who would never have thought to challenge the system that prevented blacks from riding at the front of the bus or drinking from “whites only” water fountains. For every Atticus Finch, there are always twenty “moderates” who prefer to stay within the bounds of local codes and customs—whatever they may be.

The Civil Rights Movement broke the back of Jim Crow, but it wasn’t led by moderates of the go-along-to get-along school. And it was primarily successful because it was a Christian movement that appealed to the Christian conscience of all Americans. It’s difficult to imagine a similar movement in the Muslim world that would bring about equivalent reforms (say, in the treatment of women) by appealing to the Muslim conscience. The imitation of Muhammad leads in a different direction from the imitation of Christ. The well-formed Muslim conscience is a powerful thing, but it is not the same as a well-formed Christian conscience. Indeed, it is the extremists who have been most successful in appealing to the Muslim conscience. They remind people what Allah expects of them and they can back up their teachings with chapter and verse from the Koran and with examples from the life of the Prophet.

Given their circumstances, it’s unrealistic to expect the majority of Muslims to adopt enlightened attitudes and practices. In essence, it’s asking them to stand up to their own religion. That’s asking a great deal, especially in light of the fact that we show so little willingness to do the same—stand up to their religion, that is.

If you’re a moderately-inclined Muslim living in some Mid-Eastern country and you notice that non-Muslims living in the relative safety of the West are afraid to speak against Muslims behaving badly, what’s the likelihood that you’ll take up the gauntlet? With much less to risk, citizens of the U.S. and Europe are—what’s the word?—deathly afraid to offend Islam. Why should you stick your neck out—especially when the penalty for sticking one’s neck out in your part of the world is to get it cut off?

It’s not simply that Muslims are afraid of what al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and similar groups might do to them. In Islam, the code of beliefs and behavior is also strictly enforced by your neighbors, your imam, your aunts and uncles, your cousins, your brothers and sisters, your mother and father, and your husband or wife. The first line of enforcers in Islamic societies are not the mujahideen, but the people seated around your dinner table. In the Orwellian societies that Muslims have created for themselves, each extended family is its own Ministry of Truth and Love.

We’re beginning to get a taste of this family “fear pressure” here in the U.S. A report commissioned by the Department of Justice reveals that between 23 and 27 honor killings are committed every year in the U.S., with many more probably going unreported. Young women are the usual victims. They can be killed for becoming “too westernized,” for dating a non-Muslim, for refusing an arranged marriage, or for requesting a divorce. Fathers are the usual culprits, but very often the killings are a family project with mothers, brothers, and cousins joining in. In other Western countries, the problem is much worse. Over the past five years, the UK has recorded 11,000 cases of honor violence

That’s not to say that Muslims who want to break out of the mold don’t face other pressures. If you can get executed by your family for being too Western, you can certainly be killed off by the local version of the Taliban for being un-Islamic. One reason it’s difficult to find a genuine reform-minded person in the Muslim world is that such people tend to be targeted by the radicals. In 2011, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani Minister for the Defense of Minorities and a Catholic, was gunned down for opposing the country’s blasphemy laws. Two months earlier, Salman Taseer, the governor of the province of Punjab who also opposed the blasphemy laws, was assassinated by one of his bodyguards. The bodyguard was showered with rose petals when he appeared in court, and some Pakistani religious leaders called for a boycott of Taseer’s funeral. One religious party warned that “No Muslim should attend the funeral or even try to pray for Salman Taseer.”

People who live in the West shouldn’t underestimate how difficult it will be for moderate Muslims to reform Islam. That’s because many Muslims, perhaps a majority, don’t think that Islam needs to be reformed. Numerous polls have shown that the majority of the world’s Muslims would prefer to live under sharia law. Moreover, in majority Muslim lands there is powerful support even for the harshest sharia penalties such as amputation for theft and death for apostasy. Even in the U.S., 51 percent of Muslims agree that they should have the choice of being governed according to sharia. We like to think that there are only a “handful” of radicals in the Muslim world, but it’s likely that the number of truly reform-minded Muslims is also in the “handful” range. They are engaged in an uphill battle.

Ultimately, it’s up to Muslims to reform Islam, but it’s a mistake to think they can do it without help. The forces for moderation in the Muslim world are on the defensive. They need considerable moral and physical support. How can it be provided? In the first place, one has to be able to identify the moderates. That’s something we haven’t been successful at doing. Our administration keeps giving weapons to the people we think are the “moderate” rebels in Syria, and they keep handing the weaponry over to ISIS. We mistake the fanatic “death-to-America” crowd in Iran for moderates, send them hundreds of billions of dollars, and assume that their apocalyptic rantings are mere hyperbole. In Egypt, we helped bring the radical Muslim Brotherhood to power, and over here, Muslim Brotherhood affiliates such as CAIR and ISNA are given veto power over domestic security policy.

There are genuine moderate Muslim organizations in the U.S. (the Clarion Project maintains a list of them), but they are mostly ignored by our government and by the media. If our establishment paid more attention to them and less to the stealth jihadists, moderation might have a better chance of success. The same is true on the international level. There are moderate Muslim leaders who need our support, but aren’t getting it. While we were very supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, we have provided only grudging support to the man who brought Egypt back from the brink of fanaticism—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. While Western leaders continue to lavish praise on the “religion of peace,” President el-Sisi has had the courage to publicly call for a reform of Islam. In his continuing fight against the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and the growing power of ISIS in the Sinai, he deserves all the military, intelligence, and moral support we can provide.

What else can we do to make the Islamic world more moderate? Well, contrary to the peace-studies crowd who have the President’s ear, force sometimes helps. It was force, after all that turned Libya’s Gaddafi from a terrorist into a moderate. And currently, it is a show of force that is winning recruits to ISIS. When the young and restless of the world see the ability of ISIS to gobble up huge chunks of Syria and Iraq, to down a Russian jetliner, and to create panic in Paris, they are impressed and they want to get in on the action.

The only antidote to that is a superior show of force. As Senator Marco Rubio said the other day on TV, we should “subject [ISIS] to high-profile, humiliating defeats.” He added that such defeats should be captured on film and broadcast to the world. Indeed. In fighting an enemy such as ISIS, the propaganda war is almost as important as the shooting war. Battlefield defeats should be leveraged into psychological defeats.

The Islamic world can be made more moderate, but Muslims can’t do it on their own. Their problems, unfortunately, are our problems, and we can’t afford to take a laissez-faire attitude in the face of a fast-spreading cancer. The vast majority of silent Muslims are not waiting for a chance to declare their moderation, they’re waiting to see which way the battle goes. Do they want peace? Sure. But many of them are willing to settle for the peace of Islam—the total submission of all to the will of Allah once final victory is obtained.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About William Kilpatrick 57 Articles
William Kilpatrick taught for many years at Boston College. He is the author of several books about cultural and religious issues, including Psychological Seduction, Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right from Wrong and, most recently, Christianity, Islam, and Atheism: The Struggle for the Soul of the West. Professor Kilpatrick’s articles on cultural and educational topics have appeared in First Things, Policy Review, American Enterprise, American Educator, The Los Angeles Times, and various scholarly journals. His articles on Islam have appeared in Aleteia, National Catholic Register, Investor’s Business Daily, FrontPage Magazine, and other publications. Professor Kilpatrick’s work is supported in part by the Shillman Foundation. For more on his work and writings, visit his website, turningpointproject.com.