What Moderate Muslims Need to Understand

06/30/2015 10:52 am ET | Updated Jun 29, 2016

In the recent years, there have been growing concerns that Islam's, and since Islam is one of the major religions of the world, therefore world's major problem is Islamic radicalization. These concerns are being voiced in various countries and have yielded various reactions ranging from apologetic defense (whereby some of the western liberals interpret it as a "reaction' to US hegemony) to outright xenophobia.

Radicalization is a major problem and there is no question about its lethal potential to inflict harm in the form of religious extremism and terrorism. However, it though present, is not as widespread in the Islamic world as is often projected by the media. If a major section of Muslims was actually radicalized, the situation would have been far worse. Most of the Islamic world, whether ruled by democratically elected leaders or by autocratic strongmen, is by and large NOT radical. In fact an overwhelming majority does not endorse or support suicide bombings.

What actually has happened is that a critical mass has become radicalized whereas a substantial majority remains moderate. In fact the Islamic world itself has faced the biggest brunt of terrorism and therefore there is no way they can endorse it. Religious extremists are a fringe and they do not need to expand beyond that as they are not trying impose Shariah (Islamic Law) through electoral process.

In my opinion, the biggest problem confronting Muslims is their state of denial about the presence of extremists in their midst and their complete inability to self introspect. Even today, a huge percentage of Muslims do not believe that 9/11 attack was conducted by Arab Muslims. In fact a PEW research center poll in 2011 found out that even a decade after 9/11, there is no Islamic country ( out of those who were included in the sample) where even 30% of the Muslims believe that Arab Muslims executed 9/11 attacks. And it even includes apparently very secular countries like Turkey where a whopping 73% of Muslims believed that 9/11 was not conducted by Arab hijackers.

This denial is far more widespread and in some ways even more precarious than the extremism itself. Extremism, IF recognized as a problem, can be fought through a combination of ideas and military action backed by political will. However, if the large chunk of Muslim world is in denial then this attitude inadvertently helps the militants by giving them "soft" support. Most importantly, when you are not able to recognize a problem then there is no way that you can actually expect to counter it.

For example In Pakistan, we have been reeling under extremism for a long time now and even now the mainstream media continues to come up with complex conspiracy theories according to which militancy is not homegrown but planted by the foreign powers jealous of Islamic "fortress" Pakistan. This mindset has generated a lot of problems, chiefly being our inability to self introspect, identify the core issue and then enough muster collective political will to fight militants. Obviously if militancy is construed as a foreign conspiracy then fight against militants becomes fight against "Pakistani" people, militants become victims and war on terror becomes "their" war.

I vividly remembered what happened in Swat ( region near to Islamabad) around 6 years ago. Militants in a series of aggressive steps took over the entire Swat region near Islamabad. As they kept on annexing town after town by force, stories started to emerge about their degrading attitude towards women, burning of schools and steps to curb even the basic liberties of life.

In fact there was even a flogging video which showed a woman being lashed in public for the "crime" of coming out of her house unaccompanied by a male family member. Despite the clear evidence, a majority of the TV watching Muslim population of Pakistan simply refused to believe it. Every news was labeled as Western propaganda being carried out through their funded NGOs and their own media. In fact even when a clear evidence was presented in the form of video, the entire local media's thrust was on proving it as a fake. The entire nation seemed to be in denial and media was actually pressurizing the government NOT to take any action against militants as according to Pakistani population they were nothing but victims of western propaganda.

Then militants forced the government to sign a deal which would enforce strict Islamic law in the region. As the deal was being signed, the TV anchors were actually appreciating the step and trying to spin all the criticism as western propaganda. Literally no TV channel was interpreting it as a deal brought through coercion. In fact none of them were even critical of the hard-line contents of the deal itself, which if successfully implemented, would have resulted in virtual elimination of basic liberties and complete enslavement of women. At that point USA repeatedly criticized the deal and tried to persuade the government not to sign it. However, the government under huge domestic pressure was unable to muster collective political will and therefore ceded to the demands of militants.

The next day after signing the deal, the leader of the movement, Sufi Muhammad spoke to a crowd of thousands in Swat and threatened to attack Islamabad if his version of Islam was not implemented across Pakistan. Since the speech was broadcasted live and there was no way that the people could deny the actual words spoken, there was a huge shock. Finally people understood that Swat was indeed under militants. Although this led to a belated army action but people instead of blaming the hard line Islamic militants started to point fingers at USA!!! Suddenly the "freedom fighters" of Islam became paid agents!!!! What happened in Swat is a classic example of how denial ends up supporting the militants.

Eventually the Pakistan's population has turned against Taliban and finally the action is under way. The opinion finally turned in favor of a military action particularly after the gruesome terrorist attack on school children in the city of Peshawar. However, this action could have taken place much earlier if we had not been in denial. Even now, majority is thinking that India is behind that attack and a host of other TTP activities. This once again takes the focus away from the real issue which is of religious indoctrination instilled in huge Madrassah network of Pakistan. By obsessing over India, we are in fact ignoring the real causes and consequently although the current breed of terrorists may be eliminated due to ongoing military action, in future new breed extremists will continue to emerge.

Closely linked with this denial is the habit of coming up with the apologetic defense whereby extremists acts like suicide bombings are justified as a reaction to some ( real or perceived) atrocities committed by the West. The apologetic defense, although not denying the existence of the problem, does something even worse: it actually creates sympathy for militants rather than revulsion. Today it is hardly surprising that a military response by Israel draws far more public condemnation from Muslims than gruesome atrocities committed by extremists groups like ISIS. Likewise a few killed by US drone attacks have enraged more Pakistanis compared to literally thousands killed by Islamic militants.

Some of the western thinkers also have a tendency to fall for apologetic defense. What this point of view fails to grasp is that religious extremism though at time fueled by international events is irrational in nature. You can not cure it through "understanding of the victim" approach. Plus even if that interpretation is true (which I don't think), we need to realize that international events are largely out of the locus of control of the Muslims and they can not hope to cure real extremists in their midst just by lamenting about so called atrocities of the West.

It is this twin faceted mindset of the MODERATE Muslims, which gives soft support to a small minority of the hard-line Muslims and allows them to flourish. The irony is that moderate Muslims actually condemn suicide bombings and other extremist acts and yet due to their peculiar mindset end up inadvertently strengthening the extremists. And as long as Muslims do not realize it, they will keep on strengthening the forces of nihilism and allows the fringe of hard liners to dominate.