On Moderation

When he had put the last touches to what he had begun, the artificer balanced his own body between the two wings and hovered in the moving air. He instructed the boy as well, saying ‘Let me warn you, Icarus, to take the middle way . . . Travel between the extremes.’

– Ovid’s Metamorphoses (translated by Anthony S. Kline)


London’s new mayor, Sadiq Khan, is by his own admission a moderate Muslim. He lies somewhere in the middle of that continuum between Zayn Malik and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. On the one hand he’s unlikely to appear tattooed and shirtless in music videos. On the other, he won’t make London the capital of a European caliphate.

Unlike Mr Khan, many mainstream Muslims who denounce extremism are uncomfortable with the label “moderate.” It implies their faith is watered down, that they are religious dilettantes, half-hearted practitioners of Islam Lite™, part-time interns rather than full employees of Allah Inc., less than hardcore. As Ed Husain, founder of Quilliam, a London-based think-tank, puts it:

We use the designation “moderate Islam” to differentiate it from “radical Islam.” But in so doing, we insinuate that while Islam in moderation is tolerable, real Islam—often perceived as radical Islam—is intolerable. This simplistic, flawed thinking hands our extremist enemies a propaganda victory: They are genuine Muslims. In this rubric, the majority, non-radical Muslim populace has somehow compromised Islam to become moderate.

What moderates religion? Presumably education, rationality and early exposure to Western culture. Secular identities become more important than religious ones. A moderate Muslim pop star is a pop star first and a Muslim second. A moderate Muslim MP is unlikely to have purely religious reasons for voting for or against a measure. In his book Fairness Not Favours: How to Reconnect with British Muslims, Mr Khan writes:

Just as ordinary citizens have multiple identities, so do MPs. I did not come into Parliament to be a Muslim MP. And I have never held myself out as a Muslim spokesperson or community leader. I am Labour first and foremost. I am also a Fabian, a father, a husband, a Londoner, and yes, of Asian origin and Muslim faith.

Reassuring – but I suspect anyone willing to put his or her religious beliefs on the back burner isn’t committed to their absolute truth. Take so-called “moderate Christians,” a subspecies with which I am intimately familiar. They may participate in (or be sympathetic to) religious ritual, and they may take advantage of the support networks and sense of community provided by their faith, but they rarely bother with religious doctrine.

[At the moment the top definition of “moderate Christian” on Urban Dictionary, submitted four years ago by one 666dmetal666, is “someone who doesn’t believe anything in the Bible, doesn’t go to church, sins on a regular basis, but believes God exists anyway.”]

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