Defining Today’s Moderate Muslim

Times Staff Writer

Who is a moderate Muslim?

Is it Maher Hathout, the Los Angeles Muslim leader who has promoted interfaith relations and women’s equality but denounced Israel as a brutal apartheid regime?

Is it Tashbih Sayyed, a journalist based in Alta Loma, Calif., who praises Israel’s behavior toward Palestinians as tolerant and criticizes Muslims for corrupting Islam?

The question has come under intense debate since 9/11 as the public struggles to distinguish peaceful Muslims from Al Qaeda terrorists, and is at the heart of two Southern California skirmishes over who represents moderate Islam.


In a dinner scheduled for tonight, the American Jewish Congress plans to honor Sayyed and four others for what it sees as their friendly attitudes toward Israel and courageous efforts to reform Islam.

Gary Ratner, executive director of the Congress’ Western region office in Los Angeles, said the tribute is part of the organization’s global efforts to reach out to moderate Muslims in Pakistan, Indonesia, Albania and elsewhere, including sponsoring a dinner in New York last year for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.

“Israel is going to be a fixture in the Mideast,” Ratner said. “If there is ever going to be peace, there has to be accommodation with Muslims.”

The organization’s choice of honorees, however, has offended some Muslims, in part because three of them no longer practice the faith.

In contrast, a different award has offended some Jewish sensibilities: the decision by the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission to honor Hathout as a model of harmonious interfaith relations.

Hathout’s critics argue that his controversial statements supporting Hezbollah and denouncing Israel have exposed him as an extremist. The Egyptian native and retired cardiologist, saying his opponents have twisted his record, asserts that he has long condemned terrorism, launched interfaith dialogues and promoted an American Islamic identity that celebrates pluralism, democracy and women’s rights.

The commission is to vote Monday on whether to reaffirm or rescind the award.

Despite the dissent, Muslims, Christians and Jews named similar attributes when asked to define religious moderation. They included problem-solving without violence, affirmation of human rights, religious freedom and other Western values, and respectful attitudes toward women.


But on one key issue, there was sharp disagreement: attitudes toward Israel.

Ratner said his group believes support for Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state is central to the definition of a moderate because it speaks to the larger qualities of tolerance and acceptance.

Others, however, reject that as a litmus test.

“It’s un-American,” said John Esposito, Georgetown University professor of religion and international affairs. “Your principal and only obligation in terms of loyalty as an American is to America. You can have a variety of positions regarding foreign policy.”


Still others say labels and litmus tests aren’t terribly useful for either side.

“The question is ... can we find points of agreement, a place from which to build trust and move forward?” asked Rob Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles. “I deal with Jews every day whom I don’t consider moderate, but I don’t write them off. And we can’t afford to write off Muslims.”

Since 9/11, Esposito and others said, the quest for moderate Muslims has become widespread as policymakers, journalists, terrorism experts and religious leaders seek to understand Islam and assess who is “safe” and who is extremist.

Often, those seeking moderate Muslims are looking for people to affirm their own values, said Reuven Firestone, a professor of medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.


“When we say we want moderate Muslims, what we are really saying is that we want Westernized Muslims who have the same kinds of sensibilities we have,” Firestone said. “But that’s not realistic. It’s a false but human assumption that moderates must agree with us on most issues.”

To Firestone, moderates are those committed to settling disputes without violence and willing to hear and consider other points of view, especially those contrary to their own.

Others said that whatever yardstick is chosen must be consistently applied. If Muslims who condemn Israeli treatment of Palestinians are extremists, all Christians, Jews and atheists who feel likewise must be similarly described, said Khaled Abou El Fadl, a UCLA Islamic law professor and author of “The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists.”

Many said a key criterion for Muslim moderates is that they in fact be Muslim.


Among the Jewish Congress honorees are Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie, a self-described atheist, and two women who say they left the faith years ago, Wafa Sultan and Nonie Darwish.

Darwish is a Southern California writer and founder of Arabs for Israel. Sultan is a Corona psychiatrist, writer and activist who has said she is particularly concerned about women’s status in Islam.

“By honoring Muslims who are not practicing Muslims, the given message, even if unintentional, is that these people are good because they left the faith,” said Firestone, who recently returned from a six-month sabbatical in Cairo. “But there are hundreds of millions of moral, deeply believing Muslims.”

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Jewish groups have long tried to promote alternative Islamic leaders who may be friendly to Israel but in fact have little following among Muslims. “It’s a slap in the face,” he said.


But Ratner defended the selections.

“To me it’s a phonetic debate,” he said, referring to whether the awardees were practicing Muslims or not. “It’s about the reform of Islam so that the Muslim world and the West can live in peace and tolerance with each other’s values and beliefs.”

Two of the honorees say they are practicing Muslims deeply concerned about their tradition’s future and are unafraid to speak about it. Both Salim Mansur, a Calcutta native and Canadian political science professor, and Sayyed, the newspaper editor, said the Muslim world must stop blaming the West for its own ailments, including poverty, illiteracy, injustice or extremism.

Sayyed, 64, immigrated to the United States in 1981 to escape what he described as an increasingly radical practice of Islam in Pakistan. He said Muslims must reinvigorate their tradition with open debate even on sensitive questions. That includes, he said, whether Islam was spread by the sword or ideas, whether shariah is an outdated legal system for Muslims and whether the Prophet Muhammad’s actions were all divinely inspired.


But when he wrote an article last year calling for Islam’s reinterpretation, Sayyed said, he was widely condemned and threatened by fellow Muslims.

Mansur, too, said he was ostracized after writing columns for the Toronto Sun five years ago condemning the Taliban’s destruction of ancient Buddhist statues in Afghanistan and comparing it to the murderous Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. The backlash prompted him to stop going to his local mosque.

Both men, however, said they have no intention of falling silent.

“Because I love my faith, I have to raise my voice and challenge it from within,” Sayyed said.