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Opinion
 
Farish A. Noor, For The Straits Times

When under attack, moderates must fight back

Moderation is a political choice. The individual and the state have to defend it in a non-violent way against encroaching radicalism

Published on Aug 20, 2014 11:22 AM
 
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Living as we do at a time when violent sectarian currents seem to be growing stronger among most religious communities across the world, there is a need to revisit the idea of moderation, and to locate it in the context of real-life political struggles.

Years ago I penned a short monograph entitled New Voices Of Islam while working at an institute in Leiden, the Netherlands. The work comprised half a dozen interviews with moderate and progressive thinkers from across the Muslim world, most of them academics and activists, who were promoting religion as a progressive force of change and social evolution.

Though they and I were never really comfortable with the label "moderate", they had, by then, come to be known as such. But anyone who thinks that being a "moderate" believer means living an easy, relaxed, cushy life should think again: Of the six intellectuals I interviewed, all of them had been the victims of death threats, abuse and attacks.

One had his house pipe-bombed, another narrowly escaped the gallows, yet another had been under arrest. Throughout their lives they lived in a state of perpetual pressure and harassment, and even after my book was published many of them remained the victims of routine violence. So much for the "comfort" that moderation affords you.

What was true then remains true today. Indeed, it seems to be the dangerous trend emerging in all the major faith communities across the globe.

In Myanmar, moderate Buddhist monks who have called for peaceful dialogue between the various religions in that complex and plural country have been labelled enemies of their faith and traitors to their ethnic community. Some have been harassed and faced boycotts. Some have also become the victims of online vilification campaigns.

The same is true for moderate Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka who opposed the politicisation of Buddhism and called on all religious communities to work together to build a more tolerant society.

In India, Hindu intellectuals and activists opposed to the rise of right-wing Hindu-based sectarian movements were called traitors.

In all these cases, "moderation" has been vilified on the grounds that it weakens the collective power of a particular religious or ethnic group - often the majority. At a time when religion is being harnessed for non-religious, even sectarian and nationalist ends, moderates are cast as the political enemy.

Such developments, however, do help us identify the meaning of "moderation".

The moderate position

First, being "moderate" in matters of religion and politics does not imply being weak or undecided on matters of faith. One either believes or does not. To be "moderate" in faith is about as nonsensical as being "moderately pregnant" or "moderately dead". To take a moderate position means to take a stand and to defend it - it is not a halfway house between uncertainty and nowhere.

Religious moderates today are those who take the view that there are limits to where and how far one can go in pursuing one's religious inclinations.

It may entail being committed enough to defend one's beliefs in public, and advocating an understanding and appreciation of the value of the sacred amid rampant consumerism and materialism. It may also involve calling for compassion for fellow human beings with the understanding that we all belong to the same mortal human family and come from the same creator.

But it does not mean pushing one's own beliefs at the expense of others or advocating the destruction of mosques, churches or temples. Nor does it involve suicide bombings and terrorist actions in the name of God. Here is where the moderates' line is drawn: where private belief cannot, and should not, be allowed to injure the beliefs of others.

It is important to note that being "moderate" does not entail being liberal or conservative. There are plenty of religiously conservative people who remain moderate in the manner that they express their religiosity, and who appreciate the fact that in religiously plural and complex societies the moderate position is chosen for pragmatic and political reasons.

One can be as conservative as one is inclined, as long as one does not overstep the line between the private and public domains, and does not attempt to claim or dominate that domain at the expense of others. Again, this underscores the fact that the moderate position is a political one, and that it is a position that is taken and defended. But if this is so, why is it that moderates the world over are being beaten back?

When the state must take action

When moderates come under attack, and when the very concept of "moderation" becomes a dirty word, we know that a seismic shift has taken place in society. It means that some members of society no longer accept the reality of the plural world they live in and aspire to create homogeneity instead. The attacks on moderates, the destruction of temples and monuments of the past, the burning of books, the re-writing of history, et cetera, are all familiar reminders of the age of unreason that blighted the 20th century.

Compounding matters is the fact that the moderate position itself is somehow seen as "weak" and "wishy-washy", a sort of yearning for a happy multicultural world that is not backed up with force and the capacity to defend itself.

That moderates are often in the firing line of extremists is hardly surprising, for it is unlikely that moderate intellectuals and activists would advocate a violent response to the attacks that they receive, any more than pacifists would go around arming themselves with automatic rifles.

This is where the state has to step in. Post-Sept 11, 2001, a host of states all over the world have committed themselves to a politically moderate position, even to the point of championing moderation in the public domain and in international relations. Numerous conferences and workshops have been written, books published, campaigns inaugurated - and yet as we can see in parts of the world like Syria and Iraq at the moment, the moderate cause seems to be a lost one.

One of the reasons why this is so is that states still do not seem to appreciate the fact that being moderate is a political choice, and that for states to make that choice they also have to commit themselves and the power of the state.

There is frankly little point in lauding the values of moderation and tolerance when states also allow space for radical sectarian groups to thrive and prosper in the same public domain. It is an invitation to open conflict and discord.

States can legislate laws that criminalise acts that demean and threaten others. They can also use the institutional powers that they have at their disposal - from the media to the education system - to emphasise the meaning and value of moderation.

In Indonesia, Minister of Religious Affairs Lukman Hakim Saifuddin has openly denounced the violent actions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and called on religious scholars to come together and help the state defend the plural and moderate stance of the Indonesian Republic.

Soon after, other religious leaders from various Islamic parties, and even the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars (Majelis Ulama Indonesia, or MUI) followed suit.

The Indonesian case is an example of moderation going beyond quaint words and sweet platitudes. That Indonesia's moderates feel the need to fight back - albeit in a non-violent way - to defend their plural society and to maintain the values of their respective religions is instructive.

It reminds us of the fact that moderation is a political choice, and that one has to be prepared to defend it. In the words of a young Indonesian activist whom I interviewed years ago: "It is not enough for us to be moderate any more - we must be radically moderate now!"

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Background story

Religious moderates today are those who take the view that there are limits to where and how far one can go in pursuing one's religious inclinations.