Friday, October 24, 2014

Pinktober in Pakistan - Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Well done to IFG, makers of Triumph undergarments in Pakistan, for sponsoring a Breast Cancer Awareness campaign in honour of Pinktober. Their stall, open today and tomorrow at Dolmen Mall, is distributing information leaflets in Urdu and English, and selling pins, keychains and towels with proceeds going to breast cancer charities.  A great initiative for Pakistan, where awareness is pretty low amongst women, especially in lower socio-economic classes.

You can see me wearing my pink pin with Nadia, who is working at the stall today. 

IFG also makes foam prosthesis and support bras for women who have undergone mastectomies.

Information leaflets in Urdu and English

Thursday, October 23, 2014

021: Movie Review

I saw 021 (or Operation 021) last night, in one of its last few showings before it gets taken down. The movie's generated a lot of good and bad buzz, for having displeased some of its audiences at Capri and Nishat Cinema so much that they threw bottles at it and demanded their money back. People complained about the terrible writing and the confused plot. But it did take in quite a lot of money at its opening, so there had to be something there. In the interests of viewing some more Pakistani cinema, I went along to see what I thought of it for myself.

I found 021 to be a pleasantly intelligent thriller that aspires to be more than a simplistic "good guy" vs. "bad guy" 2 hour chase-and-kill flick. The premise: Afghanistan is sitting on trillions of dollars worth of natural resources, minerals, ore and precious stones. There are corporations around the world that would love to carve up Afghanistan's wealth for itself, and be damned to the people and the future of the already war-torn country.

Evidence of one such deal - wealth for weapons - between a mysterious corporation, Winston, and unknown Afghan sellouts - surfaces in the form of a mysterious microchip. Seized by Abdullah, a wild-haired militant who actually turns out to be a great patriot, the chip becomes the centre of a 21-hour operation as CIA operatives and Winston agents try to recover it before it gets into the hands of an Afghan journalist who will expose its contents to the world.

Along the way, it falls into the hands of Kashif ("Cash") Siddiqui, who has to decide whether he's going to give it to his buddies at the CIA or return it to the Afghans who want to leak it to the public. The CIA and their Pakistani partners go after Cash in a ruthless manner, and he has to rely on his training and wits to stay alive, not just deliver the chip into the right hands.

It's a little hard to figure out the entire plot until you've seen the whole movie. This is because the action, particularly at the beginning, cuts choppily from scene to scene and face to face so rapidly that it's easy to get confused about what's happening. The plot is further confused by the presence of a CIA agent, Stan Marshal, who has some unintelligible dialogues with Qudziat, the Afghan journalist to whom he promises to give the chip. But once he's out of the way, the story careens onwards, hit and miss. It loses some momentum in the middle, with scenes that stretch on longer than they need to, especially in the battles that take place in Karachi. But it redeems itself at the end with a conclusion that is less predictable than you'd think, and finishes on a strangely beautiful and melancholy note.

One of the most interesting characters is Dost, an Afghan intelligence agent who cooperates with the CIA and serves as the moral centre of the story. In the end, it's his actions that turn the movie in an irreversible direction. You'd think it would be Cash (played by Shaan), but he's more of a loose canon, thrust into the whole plot not entirely of his own volition. But there's a certain mechanical aspect to his acting, as if he's really just phoning it in. There's also some needless backstory about his first dead wife and his two sons who won't accept his second wife. I would have thought it a more interesting choice to make him a single dad raising two sons, or a son and daughter, and focus on developing those relationships.

Perhaps that's because the actress who plays Natasha, his wife, is terrible. The women in the film are probably the weakest part in the whole movie, from Natasha to Qudziat to the woman who plays the CIA superior back in Washington DC. Lots of bad acting, bad accents, and wooden expressions to go around. Why, oh why, do we have such a hard time finding good actresses for our cinema (I had a similar complaint about the women in Waar)? Probably the best female characters in the movie are the Madam and her prostitutes in a shootout scene that takes place in a brothel, and that's only because abject fear is required from them as far as the acting goes. Pakistani directors must avoid going for glamorous faces, and search harder for more accomplished actresses, even if they don't have model-like looks or bodies.

Anyway, that aside, the film serves up arresting visuals and beautiful music, two of the most important aesthetic elements in a movie. I also found the script serviceable, although some of the dialogue was clunky and it needed a certain oomph element from the actors to kick it up a notch or two - it was easy to ruin the words with overacting. Good editing could have cut down the movie by half an hour and made the plot easier to follow. For example, the celebration and march scenes in Kabul at night, meant to encapsulate all the hope and love that Afghans feel for their country, needed to be used merely to season the film with imagery, rather than serve as filler for countless minutes. The fight scenes, similarly, had a lot of gratuitous gore that I could have done without.

In all, 021 is an entertaining film. Not flawless, but I'd definitely like to see more from the team consisting of Jami and Azaan Sami Khan and Summer Nicks (who lends his expertise in co-direction and an interesting turn as a CIA analyst). And I wouldn't demand my money back.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

No Niqabs at the Opera, Please! We're French

Yesterday I read a report about how a woman wearing a niqab was thrown out of the Bastille Opera in Paris.

Apparently the woman, visiting from a Gulf State (UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia or thereabouts), went to the opera with her husband. They were sitting in the front row, which made them easy to spot. Some of the singers saw her, and disliking the fact that they were performing for a "faceless" member of the audience, they threatened to stop singing unless she removed her face veil. An inspector opera official came up to the couple at the interval and told the woman she had to take off the niqab. She refused Her husband refused on her behalf, and the couple left.

Now I'm no fan of niqab (I think I've made that pretty obvious over the years), but when I read the report, my first reaction was one of disgust and horror.

I'm well aware of the niqab laws in France that ban a woman from covering her face in public spaces. The only place she's allowed to do this is in a private car, or "worshipping." (Never mind the fact that Muslim women aren't supposed to cover their faces while praying, which shows a somewhat deliberate ignorance on the part of the French government in allowing a woman to do something that isn't kosher in the first place).

I went to a talk given by the French Consul-General last year in Karachi explaining the veiling law. The justification given was of France's commitment to secularism. Also, the French consider it very rude for a person to go about with their face covered in public. And in France, politeness should have been up there with "liberte, egalite, fraternite" when they created the Republic.

In essence, I have no problem with this particular law. If the French want to make a law that says you have to carry an egg on a spoon all around Paris, I'd find it weird, but their country, their laws. I can see the logic that covering your face in public might pose a security risk, although I'm not sure whether they stop you from wearing a flu mask because they think you'll rob a bank while wearing it. I'd find it easy to obey a law like this because I don't wear niqab.

I believe in France there are perhaps less than a hundred women out of a population of several million who actually veiled their faces in public. It seems odd that you'd enact a law just for these few women. But then we get into the real reason the law was enacted. The French government believes that this law stops Muslim women from being oppressed. Because covering their faces means oppression.

I have argued in the past that I have problems with the face veil because it isn't an obligation in Islam, but orthodox male clerics have gone around telling women that it is obligatory, that it is the only way into heaven for a woman, and that women who don't veil are immoral. I think this is a form of mental oppression, if not physical oppression. Women listen to this reasoning, or arrive at it themselves, and take on the veil in order to feel more pious.

I also think that the niqab has taken on a political meaning in the West, where women wear it to assert their Islamic identity in opposition to a Western, secular identity. And in France, where relations between French authorities and the Arab/North African populations are pretty awful, I can see how some French Muslim women want to make a public statement about their cultural identity merged with their religious identity.

Now, which supersedes the other? The right to not veil or the right to veil? The French government is obviously on the side of "the right to not veil," thus trampling on the rights of those who choose to veil. This is the mirror opposite of countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia, where there is no right to "not veil."

(Neither country requires a woman to cover her face, but many women in Saudi Arabia do because it's in that culture. You cannot cover your face while performing the pilgrimage at Mecca, but there are women who try to get around that stipulation by wearing strange bee-keeper's getups that keep the veil several inches off your face.)

I dislike the niqab immensely. I would never wear it. But in the end, what I think doesn't matter. Every woman must be free to choose whether or not she wants to wear a niqab. The French Government doesn't believe in this principle, to their detriment, I think. Unlike other detractors, though, I don't think a woman choosing to wear niqab is a form of Stockholm Syndrome. I do think wearing a niqab is an example of us making the religion more difficult than it needs to be, and we are enjoined in the Quran to make our religion as easy as possible for ourselves.

What happened at the Opera was a disgrace. It was highly unprofessional of the singers to declare they would not go on if the woman did not take off her veil. Then again, they were singing La Traviata, which is one of the most boring operas on earth, so perhaps they needed a little excitement. The Bastille Opera should have not thrown the lady out of the opera in the middle of the show. They should have stopped her from entering in the first place, and warned her beforehand about the veil rule. And if she did not obey, then she should have been reported and asked to pay a fine, not publicly humiliated in front of an entire audience. The whole episode was characterised by extreme rudeness, and I know no French person that would be okay with any of this.

As someone on Twitter said, it is very odd to create a rule meant to help a woman you think is oppressed, and then punish her for that "oppression."

But then again, the French government thought that making a point about the plight of Muslim women was more important than being logical.

*I later found out that it was an opera official who came up to the couple, and the husband decided that they would both leave. So as my friend Ingrid Therwath, a French journalist, says:

what I really find shocking in this whole episode is that a law passed by a largely male assembly was enforced by a male official and that it's the husband of the veiled woman who decided to leave. So much for women's emancipation!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

GamerGate and the Taliban: What do Anita Sarkeesian and Malala Yousufzai have in common?

By now everyone's heard of Malala Yousufzai, but not everyone has heard of Anita Sarkeesian, the Canadian-American feminist who created the Tropes Vs. Women Tumblr, the Feminist Frequency video blog, and the Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games Youtube series. Her work focuses on examining women in popular culture, mainly film, television, and video games, and deconstructing the tropes that continue to place women in stereotypical, sexist roles in those mediums.

From the Tropes. Vs Women in Video Games site:

The Tropes vs Women in Video Games project aims to examine the plot devices and patterns most often associated with female characters in gaming from a systemic, big picture perspective. This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember that it is both possible (and even necessary) to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it's more problematic or pernicious aspects.

I went to the Youtube video and watched the first episode, "Damsels in Distress" and found it a robust critique of women's disempowerment in video games. Instead of heroes with agency and power, they are ditzy princesses, sexualised and powerless, dependent on a male hero to rescue them from their terrible plights. They are often shown beaten, subdued, and nude. They are portrayed as "fundamentally weak, ineffective, or ultimately incapable," and influence our cultural and social ecosystems, where "backward sexist attitudes are already rampant." These just go on to reinforce the global stereotype that women are "frail, fragile and vulnerable."

It's very much in line with feminist thinking on the issue, and the video wouldn't be out of place in a senior-level seminar at Wellesley (my alma mater). The analysis is well done, supported by dozens of examples from the video game world right from the beginning, and challenges the subordinate position in which women are "not the playing teams, but the ball" in almost all video games created over the last thirty years.

It's also quite a shock to realise that these tropes were fed to almost all of us as children eagerly consuming these video games without question. Things have only changed when women have started entering the video game industry and challenging these stereotypes, creating games where women are the protagonists, and don't employ sexuality or helplessness in creating their characters. A feminist analysis of the gaming industry is probably something I wouldn't have thought of, not being heavily immersed in anything more challenging than Candy Crush, but it's a welcome addition to the world of feminism.


Apparently this burgeoning feminist movement within gaming culture has created such a strong backlash that women like Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Sarkeesian have been subjected to the most hideous kind of sexual harassment, online and off, from angry men who don't want their sexist stereotypes touched.  Both Wu and Sarkeesian have actually had to leave their homes because angry gamers have threatened them or released their home addresses online. Go here and here to read about the background and tell me if you don't find it absolutely shocking.

Sarkeesian has in fact had to cancel an appearance at the University of Utah to speak because of death threats that the university could not mitigate or protect her against. Brianna Wu was taking Adam Baldwin to task on Twitter yesterday, berating him for not realising that his ham-fisted (or ham-mouthed) opinions could "literally get me killed."

On the other side, the people (men) who attack Sarkeesian, Wu and Quinn think there's some sort of conspiracy from feminists and the lefty press to take their freedom to express themselves in their gaming world away from them, or something like that.

And here's where the parallels to Malala Yousufzai come to mind. Malala stood up for the feminist right of girls to get an education. She stood up to some of the biggest misogynists in the world, the Taliban; she was threatened with death and actually came to grave physical harm because of her beliefs. Even after she's won the Nobel Prize, detractors think her entire existence is a conspiracy against Pakistan or the Muslim world, a declaration that this mythical, monolithic entity's values and norms are being derided and threatened.

The death threats against Anita Sarkeesian and her peers, the entire campaign of harassment represents a similar situation to Malala's, but at a different level. Malala's struggle actually played out in the real world because patriarchy and misogyny are still common currency in Pakistan; she was physically prevented from going to school, she was physically shot in the head, she had to physically leave the country. For now Sarkeesian and her peers are receiving death threats, but how long before it actually turns into real-world violence?

In America and Europe, misogyny exists, but a lot of it has to exist symbolically because there are legal and social mores in place that forbid it from being acted out as pervasively as in Pakistan. So people who can't be misogynistic in everyday life can go online or into a gaming world and be as misogynistic as they like, virtually beating up or killing women or raping them, rescuing them, reducing them to one dimensional video game characters with no voice and no purpose other than as objects to be rescued or disposed. In Pakistan, if you want to be a misogynist, you just have to step outside and take a deep breath, and look all around you. Or you can just do it in your home, and there's no law to stop you and no police to take you to jail where you belong.

And if you threaten that misogyny, as Sarkeesian and her peers have done, you will get the same angry backlash, the same death threats, the same hatred directed at you as Malala has received. Here is where the difference between men in my part of the world and men in that part of the world suddenly disappear and all are reduced to men who, in the words of Stieg Larsson, hate women. I don't see any difference between the gamers who threaten Sarkeesian with death and the Taliban who actually wanted to shoot Malala to death.

Do you?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Islam and Gender Equality

An undergratude student doing a thesis in the UK on secularism in France wrote to ask me some questions relating to her research on the French government's laws on veiling. Here, in edited format, are my answers to her questions.

How compatible is Islam with the notion of sexual/gender equality?

Before I answer this question, we have to make sure we know what we’re talking about when we talk about “Islam”. Are we talking about “Islam” the religion, or the cultures and countries in which Islam is prevalent?

Islam as a religion propagates the idea of gender equality. We see in the Quran that men and women are rewarded equally or punished equally for the same good or bad deeds. Women do not have diminished responsibility due to any perceived spiritual weakness, and both men and women can achieve the highest station of heaven or the lowest station of hell.  There is no concept of original sin.  There is no concept that Eve was responsible for the fall of man (she isn’t even mentioned by name in the Quran, nor is it said that she was created from Adam’s rib).

Also, Islam recognizes the “third gender” – taken commonly to mean hermaphrodites. Verses in the Quran speak of their existence and have been taken in Pakistan as justification for giving national identity cards to transsexuals (this might be of interest:

There are differences in the requirements of Islamic practice due to biology – women perform special rites for purification after menstruation or childbirth, for example – in terms of soul and spirit, men and women are equal. There are allowances made for women because of physical weakness or temporary disability: again, during or after childbirth,  a woman may not be able to provide for herself. So a man is obligated to take on her responsibility and the financial burden of the children he fathers. This is basic biology which Islam does not ignore. It seems quaint or regressive to us from our modern perspective, but to make a man financially responsible for his partner and offspring is an ideal that we have yet to achieve in our modern societies!

But then we have the problem of culture. And the cultures in which Islam is practiced are heavily patriarchal. So these biological allowances have been turned by them into weaknesses, and then justification for keeping women in a subordinate position due to their biology. Not only this, but the Quran and teachings of the Prophet are twisted very far from their intended meaning to cement the inferior position of women in Islamic societies.

Is the concept of sexual equality and feminism something that can be compared across vastly different cultures according to one fixed (western) benchmark? Or are these concepts relative and must be treated as such?

Cultures are manmade creations, or human-made creations, and as such, reflect the strengths and weaknesses of all of humanity. A country in which Islam is the most prevalent religion will be eager to propagate the headscarf as the most desirable attire for women. A country in which Islam is feared and hated will aspire to portray a woman in a headscarf as an oppressed slave. We would be foolish not to see the subjectivity in both stances. We would also be foolish not to see the imposition of belief and choice on women by governments that are, usually, male-dominated across the world. Does the French government have the authority to make decisions on behalf of Muslim women’s religious beliefs? If so, they are not as secular as they like to think.

Ultimately, you will bring what you are to Islam. If you are a misogynist, your Islam will be misogynistic. If you are a humanist, your Islam will be humane. If you are feminist, your Islam will be feminist. Islam has room for all and much more. Any attempts to shoehorn it into one particular rigid worldview are futile and demeaning to both the religion and its followers, who are vastly diverse populations with many different ways of thinking and living.

This post was edited using Grammarly's editing app. Grammarly is an automated grammar checker that can help you improve your writing skills. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

War and the Quran

Over the last week, I've been following the debates going on in the media about Islam, between CNN and Reza Aslan, and then between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, Nicholas Kristof and Ben Affleck. The latter panel was fascinating in that it involved five American men and no Muslims on the panel, but I guess that's the way they like to do things over there.

Kristof has written his analysis here, in a piece called Diversity in Islam, while Reza Aslan has written his analysis here, in a piece called Bill Maher isn't The Only One Who Misunderstands Religion. Both pieces are excellent and I recommend them highly for their attempts to bring nuance into a very clumsy debate which silences Muslims completely (No news yet about anything from Maher or Harris).

Aslan referenced a verse in the Quran, in Surah Tawba, verse 5, as a way of showing that there are contradictions in all religious scriptures and holy books.
The same Quran that warns believers “if you kill one person it is as though you have killed all of humanity” (5:32) also commands them to “slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5).
My curiosity piqued by this sentence, I thought I'd go to my trusty commentary on the Quran by Shaykh Muhammed Al Ghazali for more understanding (it's really good to read commentaries because they give depth, historical context, and further explanations than what the Quran provides. God isn't big on footnotes, I've discovered).

Ghazali's explanation of Surah Tawbah starts with a verse from a different chapter, in Surah Yunus, verse 41, where the Prophet, peace be upon him, explains,

"My deeds are mine and your deeds are yours. You are not accountable for my actions, nor am I accountable for what you do." (Surah Yunus, verse 1)

Then, another disclaimer, at the start of Surah Tawba:

[This is a declaration of] disassociation, from Allah and His Messenger, to those with whom you had made a treaty among the polytheists. 

These verses, explains Ghazali, indicate that the circumstances in Muhammed's life were extraordinary, and his actions were also extraordinary. He received them from God as guidance for what to do in a time when the early Muslims numbered in the few hundreds, and were in danger of being destroyed by detractors who didn't want the young religion to take root in Arabia. Those enemies of Islam instigated "a series of military expeditions and incursions against the Muslims." Nor could, writes Ghazali, Muslims after the death of Muhammed look at his actions, conduct war, and pretend that they were simply following his example in this particular case.

Therefore, the instructions on how to conduct a defensive war in those times - not for all time or all circumstances, as so many extremist Muslims believe, mistakenly - came down into the Quran, and we see them listed in Surah Tawba, one after the other. They were not meant to be
"a declaration of war" on all non-Muslims without exception. Phrases such as "...and fight the unbelievers altogether" have been culled from the text and taken to mean all non-Muslims, without exception, omitting the sentence that says "as they too fight you altogether" (Ghazali, p. 178)

But what's this?
Some also understood the word "people" in verse 3, which says "this is a proclamation from God and His messenger to the people on the day of the greater pilgrimage..." to refer to all humankind, overlooking the exceptions and comments that follow in the same verse (italics mine) 
The exceptions are: "those idolators who have honoured their treaties with you in every detail and have not aided anyone else against you." (Ghazali, p. 178)

Hang on a second. So the Quran makes a distinction between warring idolators, or unbelievers, and those who have honored treaties of peace between Muslims and non-Muslims.  Then, the Quran further classifies the "innocent people who have no inclination to support either of the fighting sides" (Ghazali, 178).
And when an unbeliever seeks asylum with you, give him protection so that he may hear the words of God, and then enable him to reach his place of safety, because such people have no knowledge (Surah 9:6)

Then, the Prophet is instructed to give his enemies a four-month ceasefire, in which they could reconsider their plans to fight the Muslims. This came during the Hajj in that year, further strengthening the idea that these instructions were for that specific time period.
So long as they keep faith with you, keep faith with them (9:7)
It's clear to see from these instructions, and Ghazali goes on for quite a time about this, that the caveats that these polytheists would never honour their treaties with the young Muslims, that the permission to then go to all-out war with them, and to destroy their armies, are not to be applied to relations with all non-Muslims in all times.

We also get an explanation of the jizya, the tax that was levied upon non-Muslims. Today, fear mongers love to scream about this tax, saying that all Muslims want to turn all non-Muslims into "dhimmis" who force them to pay "jizya". But Ghazali demolishes this argument as well by explaining how the jizya is applied:

"It is not due from those who are neutral and have never taken up arms against the Muslim state." (Ghazali, 183)

Instead, those (who should pay it) are people who did try to fight and oppose the Muslims, and once the war is over and they have been defeated, even they are allowed to live in peace under Muslim authority and practice their beliefs, while paying this levy.

By no means am I trying to say that I have understood these commandments fully, but with a little help, I am able to understand that warfare, while written about in the Quran, is limited to defensive war, is prohibited if peace treaties are made and honoured, and cannot be enacted upon neutral or innocent or peaceful non-Muslims.

Anyone who says otherwise, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, is not reading the Quran very carefully at all, or is deliberately misinterpreting and distorting its words for their own agenda. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Myth of the Moderate Muslim

The World Wildlife Foundation recently put out the alarming statistic that the earth has lost half its wildlife in the past 40 years. Along with the Caspian Tiger, the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, and the Pyrenean Ibex, the Moderate Muslim has also died out or gone extinct, if you listen to the current discourse on Islam and terrorism. This organism has now entered the realm of mythology, and was probably last seen circa the summer of 2001, when it was still possible to self-identify as a Muslim and not be strip-searched at the airport when attempting to board a flight for any Middle Eastern destination.

In fact, I have a poster put out by the Muslim Council of America* that shows this magnificent beast in its natural habitat, wearing a colorful scarf on her head, with her arms around a Jew on one side and a Hindu on the other. The smile on her face speaks of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, acceptance. Ah, how it makes me long for the good old days, when Muhammed was just a name for your baby, and not the name of every other character on “Homeland”. 

The use of the phrase “moderate Muslim” is troublesome to begin with - as Nathan Lean so eloquently writes in the New Republic, it comes attendant with its burdens of expectation.  Lean calls the idea of the “moderate Muslim” intellectually lazy because the “moderate Muslim” is shorthand for “the Good Muslim” (his words) or, “the Muslim who doesn’t want to kill us” (mine). And Muslims strive hard to fit the profile of what non-Muslims think a moderate Muslim looks like: someone who lives in America, perhaps, as opposed to Pakistan. Someone who espouses Western thinking on women’s empowerment, LGBT rights, who maybe likes to drink a little (or a lot), someone who definitely doesn’t wear the veil or grows a beard un-ironically. They have to work this hard to efface every aspect of their Muslimness that might scare non-Muslims, because their jobs, their social acceptance, and their security depends on it. 

I asked Twitter, my informal pollster, what exactly the moderate Muslim is. “Spiritually ignorant, religiously apologetic, guilt-ridden, conservative about pork, liberal about vodka, confused, ambiguous” Shahjehan Chaudhry told me. “No such thing,” came another from Dream Big. “It’s just supposed to be common sense, none of the added stupidness on top.” Someone calling himself Enlightened Muslim wrote back, “Ordinary Muslims like you and me.” And Maida Sheikh, who sports a lovely grey scarf on her head in her Twitter display photo, wrote, “Me. I’m a moderate Muslim, oh wait, so are you. Isn’t ‘moderate’ a relative term?”

So in other words, everyone knows that the moderate Muslim exists, but nobody seems to really agree on what he or she looks like, how he or she acts, behaves, what she believes in, how he or she practices. Is a moderate Muslim someone who wears a face veil or a full length beard but hates everything ISIS is doing and wants nothing more than to live in peace? Is a moderate Muslim someone who goes clubbing and drinking but hates the United States for its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine? Is a moderate Muslim a man with two wives who sends his daughters to school? 

Let me say it right here: the “moderate” Muslim has always been a myth, or perhaps more of a mirage, a destination just ahead in the distance, and when you think you’ve gotten there, it recedes from your grasp only to appear further ahead down the road. 

Before the Heritage Foundation invites me to become its latest scholar, let me explain. I don’t mean the usual tired argument that all moderate Muslims are terrorists in vitro, ready to give up their moderate disguise at the first opportunity to commit violence, as Pamela Geller attempts to assert with her crude attempts at mixed-media artwork on the buses of New York City. Nor do I mean that moderate Muslims are a silent and voiceless majority, useless in the face of Islamist extremism, and therefore their existence as the nearly 99% of Muslims worldwide doesn’t count on the world stage, as Bill Maher has explained countless times to anyone who will listen. 

These gross oversimplifications of the status of the moderate Muslim aside, there is an even deeper attempt to drive the moderate Muslim out of existence - by simply denying that the moderate Muslim exists at all. “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. In today’s world where the intellect rules all, the “moderate Muslim” corollary is “You think, therefore you are not.” The argument goes like this: nobody would be a (practicing) Muslim if they thought hard enough about their religion. After all, that little black book, the Quran, tells them to kill non-Muslims, to enslave women, to be violent as a matter of ideology. Muslims define themselves by faith - which is, in today’s times, the opposite of thinking - and so faith and thought are incompatible. Think hard enough about what you are, and you’ll find you don’t actually exist at all.  To be a moderate Muslim is to not think about what your religion asks you to do. 

Of course, this is an illogical argument, because it ignores what the Quran overwhelmingly requires Muslims to do: be kind and compassionate, practice charity, non-violence. The Quran asks Muslims to read the Quran and reflect on the signs around them as markers to the existence of God and the truth of the message. The Prophet instructs Muslims to tread the “middle path” - the path of moderation. There’s no need to call up chapter and verse to illustrate this - it’s all been done before by Islamic scholars and interpreters from every sect, race, gender, and geographical location. Anyone who denies that this is the greater tenor of the Quran is doing the equivalent of sticking his fingers in his ears and saying “LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

What the Quran doesn’t do is tell Muslims how to define that path other than to “avoid extremes”.  And further compounding the problem is that the goalposts of what defines “moderation” change as our world changes. One year - say in the year 2000 -- a moderate Muslim is a person who has a miniature copy of the Quran in her Volvo. The next, in 2001, it’s a Muslim who doesn’t kill people.

Islam doesn’t deny that violence or warfare exists in the world. The Quran tells Muslims they are restricted to fighting only defensive wars, and how to behave themselves during those times.  This instruction, in the 7th century, was seen as an extremely moderate, if not downright progressive, stance. That there could be limits on warfare, on how to behave with prisoners, on not killing captives and on insisting that widows and orphans be protected in the enemy camp was revolutionary. Today, with our ideas of humanitarian treatment of prisoners, legal rights and Geneva Conventions (and who listens to those anyway), it seems inadequate. In the Middle Ages, with their penchant for slaughtering everyone in the most gruesome ways possible, it would have been seen as downright cowardly. 

(The demand on the “moderate Muslim” is to renounce any kind of warfare whatsoever -- “give up armed jihad!” is the common refrain. I find this laughable, as nobody else in the world is told to get rid of their armies, weapons, expansionist, colonialist, imperialist, and other designs with quite the same conviction as the moderate Muslim. The “extremist” Muslims are presumably not listening, or too busy posing for jihad selfies)

So, in short, it isn’t whether or not the moderate Muslim actually exists. It is that our perception of what a moderate Muslim is is never a fixed point, because the definition of moderation is always evolving. And when it is imposed upon you by an outside force, rather than your own internal convictions, who could blame you for being “confused and ambiguous” or even, like a character in a Kafka novel, beginning to doubt if you even exist? 

*This organization, too, is sadly mythological