The Reason You Can't Always Hear the Moderate Muslim Voices

10/16/2014 05:34 pm ET Updated Dec 16, 2014

Every day I hear and see the calls for moderate Muslims to speak out and stand up to extremism. And moderate Muslims should and do just that when they see their religion being hijacked.

In my work as a professional journalist and author who has covered the Muslim and Arab world for a decade I have seen moderate Muslims try and speak up in the face of adversity. However their voices are drowned out and the very same people who make the call rarely support them.

The West plays a role in muzzling these voices as it turns to Middle Eastern governments who quell dissenting views of their regimes. Islam today is being cannibalized by cancerous strains of fundamentalist religious ideologies that are promoted by wealthy and powerful Middle Eastern countries extinguishing moderate hopes in the Muslim world.

Many of these countries are considered American and Western allies.

In Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy's fifth fleet, a pro-democracy activist goes on trial this month for demanding democratic reforms. The country has even imprisoned activists in the past for criticizing the monarchy on twitter.

In countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar citizens who try and stand up to the regimes and call for democratic rights are regularly imprisoned and sentenced with lashings. In Saudi, even teaching Islam that does not conform to the House of Saud's interpretation is often considered illegal and individuals are routinely prosecuted for it.

Turkey, a NATO member, has imprisoned more journalists than any other country in the world. And in Pakistan journalists continue to be killed for writing critical stories about the government, military, and religious authorities.

Although Iran is not considered a Western ally, they have used their influence to prop up conservative Shia groups in countries like Iraq and Lebanon. Inside its own borders six Iranians were arrested this year and subsequently sentenced to lashes and imprisonment for something as simple as making a music video to the Pharrell hit song 'Happy.' They were detained for the violation of Islamic laws in that country that include dancing with members of the opposite sex amongst other crimes.

Without political freedoms it is impossible to expect religious freedom. And when the state is religiously extreme, as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, it is impossible to imagine moderate Muslims having the freedom to promote a tolerant view of Islam.

In my book The Secret Sky I explain how easy it is to manipulate young Muslim children to adopt an extremist interpretation of Islam when that is all that is prescribed to them. Afghanistan may be the backdrop to my story, but the story of manipulation is one that is repeated throughout the Muslim world.

For decades now, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been supporting and funding the spread of Wahhabism. Providing schools an interpretation of the Quran that adheres to their ridged standards of Islam. And in recent decades, they are exporting these fundamentalist interpretations to Mosques and communities in the West.

Radical Islam is a fairly new occurrence in Afghanistan and many other countries, often introduced in a time of war and turmoil -- recruiting the young, vulnerable, and poor. The remnants of a moderate form of the religion have all but disappeared in modern day Afghanistan as both Sunni and Shia extremists gain momentum through the patronage of outside actors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. In many countries today, Islamic scholars are afraid to teach tolerance for fear of being killed by extremists in their communities.

For centuries, radical Islam was a fringe element and was seen as an outlier of the Muslim world. It has gained influence only in the last several decades.

In the Quran, and in all its traditional interpretations, Muslims are instructed to be tolerant towards all people especially those who believe in the one God -- particularly Jews and Christians who are called kitabi or 'people of the book.' The Quran also states that only God will decide between the believers and non-believers (atheist, polytheists, and others) on the Day of Judgment on who may enter paradise.

But this key principle is not taught today in the extremist strains of Islam. Instead they focus on divisive interpretations turning their followers against both non-Muslims and Muslims who differ in thought.

In the end religion -- all religions -- boil down to interpretation. Islam is not the enemy to Western ideals -- those who follow dangerous interpretations are. There are many Muslims throughout the world who stand up for equality, peace, and women's rights. But they are usually the first to be shut down by America's allies and other extremists' voices.

Extremists are empowered by everyone who does not acknowledge the varying interpretations of Islam. It allows them and the world to believe that their way of Islam is the only way. And it is not just non-Muslims who are guilty of this. Muslims from all walks of life need to also heed this lesson of tolerance, understanding, and acceptance. In the end, as said in the Quran, God is the only judge.

Atia Abawi is a former CNN and NBC News foreign correspondent and author of newly released novel from Penguin Group, The Secret Sky.