Dialogue Plus Pressure

by Conor Friedersdorf

Ross Douthat takes on the controversy about how non-Muslim Westerners should relate to spokesmen for a moderate Islam.

I hold no particular brief for Tariq Ramadan, and his critics have provided ample evidence of his slipperiness over the years. But we have to be able to draw intellectual distinctions on these matters, and if we just lump a figure like Ramadan or any Muslim leader who has one foot solidly in the Western mainstream but a few toes in more dangerous waters into the same camp as Islam’s theocrats and jihadists, then we’re placing an impossible burden on Muslim believers, and setting ourselves up for an unwinnable conflict with more or less the entirety of the Muslim world. The Andy McCarthy conceit, which holds that anyone (like Ramadan, and like Rauf) who cites or engages with illiberal interpreters of Islam automatically forfeits the title “moderate,” seems out of touch with the complexities of religious history; moreover, it’s a little like insisting circa 1864 that Pope Pius IX’s critique of religious liberty and church-state separation requires American Catholics to immediately sever all ties to the pope. It’s both dubious in theory and self-defeating in practice.

But making these kind of distinctions doesn’t require us to suspend all judgment where would-be Islamic moderates are concerned. Instead, dialogue needs to coexist with pressure: Figures like Ramadan and now Rauf should be held to a high standard by their non-Muslim interlocutors, and their forays into more dubious territory should be greeted with swift pushback, rather than simply being accepted as a necessary part of the moderate Muslim package.