Saturday, February 20, 2010

Does Political Islam Have a Center?

Is there a centrist position in political Islam, and could the West benefit from cultivating, rather than suppressing, it?

The post-9/11 American prejudice is that Muslim societies have only two groups: the quiescent, obedient ones and the terrorists. So, I’d like to pose a few questions that any specialist would no doubt find laughably simplistic. From the perspective of Muslim studies, they are simplistic; from the perspective of the average American, I’m afraid they are not. So specialists need to take them seriously and provide answers:

Meaning of “Centrist” or “Middle of the Road:”

Note that I said “centrist,” not “moderate.” I would take “centrist” to indicate non-violent when feasible, advocating rule through law and discussion but not necessarily behaving in a manner a citizen of a rich, comfortable industrial state might call “moderate” because in a highly corrupt and polarized traditional dictatorship (apply these loaded terms where they fit), “moderation” may not be what is needed to reach the center. Just to make the point for American readers, “moderation” would not have freed the slaves or eliminated segregation; “moderation” would not have gotten women the vote; “moderation” would not have earned workers the right to independent unions. If society is far to the right (oh, think the behavior of the police during anti-globalization protests in Seattle or during the Republican convention in New York or the attitude of government toward the poor of New Orleans fleeing Katrina), then “centrist” does not somehow magically transform into “just a little less far to the right;” rather, “centrist” still must contain some semblance of aiming at the “center,” i.e. half way between repressive elitism and revolutionary destruction. A “centrist” Obama Administration, for example, might have broken up Goldman Sachs and jailed all executives convicted of interfering with government regulators; few would have termed that “moderate,” but it would have been right in the center between the right wing demand for unregulated Wall Street greed and the public ownership concept of modern socialism—which would call for the replacement of Goldman by a governmental institution to manage trading for the public welfare.

Being Centrist in Muslim Society.

Returning to Muslim societies, and without forgetting the questions posed above, how should a centrist political Islamic activist behave? The answer for such a person in Turkey may be easy…well, at least if that person is ethnically a Turk. But what if that citizen is a Kurd and wants to participate in a peaceful, democratic movement for regional autonomy? What about a member of Iran’s green movement peacefully marching while being beaten by the Basij? What about a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood being thrown in jail for aspiring to vote or, indeed, an elected Muslim Brotherhood member of parliament for aspiring to serve? What about a poor Shi’ite resident of South Lebanon watching Israeli jet bombers roar over his house at low altitudes in fake attack runs to remind him of the terror of the summer 2006 war? What about a farmer in Gaza being shot at for walking in his fields along the Israeli border?

Americans, not least those over-confident folks in Washington driving their aircraft carriers here and there, would benefit from considering these questions. I will try to as well, in coming posts. Chime in!


In 2008, Khalil al-Anani wrote an intriguing article still well worth reading called, not coincidentally, “The Path of Centrist Political Islam” January 29, 2008 on the Common Ground News website.

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