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December 21, 2004



It seems to me that Levinson raises a good point, with one caveat. His discussion of reaching "immoderate" ends through moderate means is not really about moderation so much as it's about liberalism. If one rereads his statement as "using liberal means to achieve liberal ends..." then his critique falls in line with much of the Journal of Democracy literature and similar writing on the question of "Islamic democracy" from the past few years (with the concomitant pitfalls).

While committed liberals can launch this critique, they neverless have to own the fact that liberalism is not a universal value, but is, in fact, an ideology as much of its time and place as any other system of thought. We may like it (sure, I would prefer to live under a liberal constitution), but we are compelled to understand that others may find it quite acceptable to struggle against it. In fact, if we reread Levinson's critique as one about liberalism, it points to the inevitably fascinating porousness of liberalism - the ways in which its institutions can be used to subvert its foundation. This is a phenomenon in ample evidence, and not only in countries with active Islamist movements.

Scott Martens

Levinson is, I think, touching a sensitive point that seems to be a real problem in debates over the role of religion in society. Levinson seems to be defining moderation not by the things people are advocating but by the processes that bring them there. In this sense, one might well view Qaradawi and Ramadan as parallel to people like Billy Graham and Ralph Reed: all of them take the traditional framework of their faith seriously and insist on using traditional kinds of principles and reasoning to choose what they advocate. (Well, Qaradawi and Graham fit this model anyway. I'm not the person to judge how well Ramadan fits standard Islamic theological reasoning but I have the impression that it's not very well; and Ralph Reed is more mercenary than crusader.)

And, if this was a rareified debate over points of theology in some academic framework, I might agree to Levinson's standards. But if the goal here is to find ways to live in peace with Muslims and foster social progress in the Islamic world, defining moderation in this way seems very counter-productive. The Anglican Church has the sort of reformist vision of Christianity that parallels what I think he has in mind as reformist Islam, but the Anglican Church is far from moderate in the minds of most anglophone, and nearly all American, Christians. If we were to view it as an institution through which we could conduct a dialogue about secularism in the Christian world, we'd just look stupid. The Anglican Church is as alien to American evangelicals as atheism is, possibly more so.

Defining moderation in terms of what concrete actions people advocate opens up possibilities that defining it in terms of principles and processes doesn't. Billy Graham is, at least arguably, a moderate evangelical. This is not because his theology is moderate but because, when asked about his stance on homoseuality is explicit that it is a sin, but that it is no different from cheating, stealing, lying or having straight sex outside of marriage. Billy Graham opposes homophobic violence and has at least not spoken out in favour of laws that explicitly target gay people nor against laws that protect them. The same cannot be said for Jerry Falwell, Ralph Reed or Pat Robertson.

If people had to agree on the reasons why something is a good idea in order to agree to do it, very little would be done. Non-Muslims will never agree with Muslims on the theological reasons why Islamist violence is wrong. It's logically impossible. Ergo, if we are to have dialogue with moderates, we need to define moderation in terms of what people actually advocate, not on things like their style of thought or readings of texts.

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