Why moderate Muslims don't matter

One of things that annoys me about life is the people who claim to sincerely care about Islam and yet turn around and say that they want Islamic moderates to rescue Islam from the fanatics. In my not so humble opinion, people who are looking for moderate Muslims to step up to the plate and rescue Islam from the hands of fanatics are either hypocrites or deluded. They should just cut right to chase and say that they want to destroy Islam.

After all, a religion dominated by moderates is a dead religion. It has always been this way and it always will be this way. In other words, a desire to see moderates take over the Islamic faith is the same as a wish to see Islam destroyed.

I don’t want anyone to mistake my meaning. There is nothing special about Islam that makes this so. All religions are this way. Those who want the Catholic Church to become more moderate are making the same mistake (or being equally hypocritical) as those who desire Islam to be more moderate. Moderation is the death of all religions.

All that is needed to prove this point is a brief look around you. Christianity is dying (if not dead) in Europe and full of life in America. Look closer at America and you will see that the moderate churches are dying and the conservative churches are growing. Look around the world and you will see that it is a conservative Christianity that is growing in popularity in the third world, not the “moderate” European kind.

Most of the historical splits in the Church were between those who were “moderate” and those who were not. If you read Luther’s speeches for example, you will find that his main complaint against the Catholic Church was that it was too lax in enforcing standards. And how did the Catholic Church defend its self from the Protestant threat? It became more conservative.

Look at any church split and if you can identify a “moderate” side to the split then you can identify the side that went on to stagnate and eventually die. But often you will find that the conservative side to that split continued to grow and expand (though sometimes they are absorbed by other conservative bodies).

The same thing can be said of the Islamic faith. It is not moderate Muslims who are preaching in jails. It is not the moderate Muslims who are providing social services for their poorer brethren. It is not the moderate Muslims who are doing the most to fight corruption. It is not the moderate Muslims who bring order.

The fact of the matter is that fundamentalism is the life blood of any religion. A religion that no longer has fundamentalist believers is a religion that does not have long to live.

Why is this so? Why can’t a “moderate” religion grow and thrive?

To answer that question you need to be up front by what you mean by moderate. To most people, a moderate religion is one that is less contrary to basic human nature. In another words, a moderate religion will impose little or no regulations on such things as the human sex drive or on people’s eating habits.

More importantly, a moderate religion is one that does not separate itself off from the rest of humanity. In other words, believers in a moderate religion do not think of themselves as the chosen people or that they possess the only means to salvation.

On the surfaces, the appeal of a moderate religion appears to be obvious. They impose little or no cost on their members. You can be moderately religious and live like everyone else. What is there not to like?

But the flip side to that is that a moderate religion provides no benefits to those that practice it either. If religion is not going to change you and it does not make you special what good is it? You might as well end the farce and be irreligious.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, provides a lot of benefits that you cannot get unless you are religious. Consider the Amish, for example.

Many people desire the benefits of the Amish way of life. Their skillful craftsmanship, their beautiful homes and businesses, and their excellent cooking all excite people’s admiration and envy. You could fill a whole library with the various coffee table books that are devoted to photos of the Amish and their works.

But the thing about the Amish that gets the most respect is their close knit community. People wish they lived in a community where nobody worried about their neighbor cheating them. People wished they lived in a community where everyone would come and help them in event of a disaster.

Yet the Amish don’t have all those things because they are lucky. They have to pay a steep price to acquire those benefits. The Amish version of Christianity imposes a long list of regulations on its members that cover almost every aspect of life. Compliance with those regulations is strictly enforced. Those who fail to comply are expelled from the group and cut off from all communication from the rest of the members.

The Amish are so strict that they outdo most of the radical Muslim sects in terms of regulations. But of course, belonging to those Muslim groups does not offer the same benefits that belonging to the Amish does. You get what you pay for, so to speak.

This is the secret of all successful religions. They impose a cost, but they provide a return. “Moderates” in a religion are those who feel that returns are no longer worth the costs, but don’t want to take the step of totally doing away with the benefits. So they try to lessen the cost of their religion. But the end result of their efforts is a religion that provides the least benefits. Even in religious matters, there is no such thing as a free lunch.

To be sure, there is a certain amount of cost-benefit analysis in the religious arena. High cost religions like the Amish are not the most popular thing in the world (although, in relative terms the Amish are growing faster than most liberal churches). But generally, people who don’t pay for anything don’t get anything. A religion will only survive if people are willing to pay for what it offers.

A moderate almost by definition is someone who is not willing to pay all that much for his religion. They wish to have all the fruits of an irreligious lifestyle without revoking their religious identity. But the fact that they don’t wish to pay much for their identity reveals that they don’t value what their religion offers all that much. Therefore, they don’t really care if it lives or dies. And so all moderate religions tend to die.

This should be obvious. But to many people in the secular west it is not.

I think that this is because many people do not understand the appeal of religion. They often imagine that it is simply a way of dealing with one’s fear of death. Tolerant people are willing to tolerate people who use religion to deal with their fear of death in the same way that they would tolerate people’s fear of snakes. But what tolerant people often cannot understand is why anyone would choose an expensive way of dealing with this fear. In their minds, a moderate religion should help you deal with your fear without all the nasty side effects posed by a radical religion.

But to look at religion as an answer to the fear of death is to miss the whole point. In order to fear death you have to want to live. In order to want to live, there must be something that gives your life meaning. Thus the core of all religions is the meaning for life that they offer. Without that meaning, eternal life would be worthless.

Indeed, it is the search for meaning that drives most people to become religious. The fear of death does not really figure into their calculations.

It is important to keep this in mind, because the meaning that the various religious offer can differ radically. Compare the Amish and Al-Qaeda for example.

Superficially their religious practices have a lot in common. They both have heavy regulations on what you can wear and how you should live. They both are big on purity from corrupting influences. They are both suspicious of the modern world. And we could list many more similarities.

And yet it is ridiculous to compare the Amish and Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is all about waging war and the Amish are all about domestic tranquility. It would make more sense to compare Al-Qaeda to your average New York liberal than it would to compare them to the Amish. At least your average New York liberal is not a complete pacifist like the Amish are. At least your New York liberals believe in participating in government. The Amish won’t even vote.

Why is there such a big difference between the Amish and Al-Qaeda even though they are both deeply religious and have superficially similar lifestyle regulations? It is because the meaning they offer is completely different.

To grossly oversimplify; the meaning that the Amish hold out to their faithful is the dream of perfect community. The meaning that Al-Qaeda holds out to their faithful is the dream of perfect power. The differences in their conception of what gives life meaning make for a world of difference between the two faiths.

Again, this should be obvious. But because many secular people see all religion only as an answer to the fear of death, they tend to group all “fundamentalists” together. They make no distinction between a Catholic monk who has taken a vow of poverty and preacher who teaches that God wants you to be wealthy, healthy, and wise. Because they are blind to these distinctions they are always surprised by the appeal of fundamentalists and always puzzled as to the best way to address that appeal.

That is why many secular people turn to “moderates” as their last best hope. They can best understand “moderates” out of all the religious people. So they hope that the “moderates” will convince the fundamentalists to be less religious. But the moderately religious will always fail in that task because moderates don’t really provide the answers that people are looking for in a religion. It is sort of like offering people non-alcoholic beer and expecting people to like it as much as the real thing.

If you want to convince me that there is good in Islam show me some Islamic fundamentalists that you think are good. I am willing to entertain the notion that there can be big differences between Islamic fundamentalists, just as there were big differences between Menno Simon and Martin Luther. I am sure my view on Islamic fundamentalism is skewed by all the media attention paid to those Islamic groups who like to make things go bang.

But don’t try to tell me that there is good in Islam and then turn around and try to use Islamic moderates as proof of that. At best, the Islamic moderates can destroy Islam over time. That hardly counts as proof that Islam is “good” in my book.

If you want to convince me that Islam can be a force for good in the world you will need to show me Islamic fundamentalists who offer a meaning for life that is at least somewhat compatible with the values that I hold dear. Only then will you have a case.

One Response to “Why moderate Muslims don't matter”

  1. […] This week’s essay of the week is from The Ape Man and it is called Why moderate Muslims don’t matter. It is a bit of a misleading title since Ape Man’s argument really applies to all religions. Nonetheless, it is a point that we don’t feel is given the proper consideration even in conservative circles. […]

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