Media, moderation and Islam

/ 19 December 2009

Stewart Hoover has a piercing and pertinent commentary in his blog this week, as he responds to the question “Where are the moderate voices of Islam?”:

... today I am moved to comment on a persistent question. Ever since 9/11, many voices in media discourse (and no doubt in public discourse as well) have posed the question above. The latest to ponder it is Tom Friedman in a New York Times column that ran this week. Friedman is rightly outraged at recent acts of violence in Iraq and Pakistan. Why, he wonders, did the recent Swiss vote banning minarets evoke more outrage from prominent Muslim voices than these horrors? An astute observer of Middle East politics, Friedman notes that Arab governments seem duplicitous in their relations with radicals. This is a valid criticism. But, along with many in the media, he makes a leap of logic by extending his argument to a challenge to moderate clerical or authoritative voices to be more forthright in their condemnation of terror and violence in the name of Islam. There are several assumptions implicit in this challenge, assumptions that are rooted in and framed by the way Journalism tends to look at these questions. First, it is framed by an ecclesiological bias that thinks of religious authority in centralized and hierarchical terms. Islam is not Catholicism. There is no Pope, of course, but there is also no particular tradition of Ex Cathedra articulation of doctrine in a way that aspires to bind large swaths of geographic or theological turf. Second, it assumes that individual clerics or schools within Islam would recognize what Friedman calls “the jihadist minority” as sufficiently Muslim to be “their problem,” as it were. How many Christian theologians felt it necessary to take responsibility for Timothy McVeigh? Third, into what discursive space is this “moderation” supposed to be inserted? Fatwas are intended to articulate doctrine of a sort, but are also traditionally focused on the Ummah. They are not traditionally proclamations like Papal bulls. Fourth, Friedman and others want voices of moderation to insert themselves into a global, Western, and secular sphere of political discourse. It is an open question who in Islam would presume to speak in this way. And there are geopolitical impediments and complexities involved. Which Islam is to take on this responsibility? Should Indonesian clerics or laity, for example, take this up? And what does it mean for a Muslim voice be seen to apologize for the faith in settings “outside?” Readers might reflect on the criticism President Obama has received for seeming to “apologize” for American values when speaking “outside” our borders.