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The Fate of Muslim Moderates

Salman Taseer, Zafer al-Masri.

The recent uprisings in the Middle East seemed, at least at first, to send a reassuring signal to Western observers: not only did genuinely moderate Muslims exist, and not only were they capable of finding a political voice, but there was reason to hope that, given time to organize and grow in strength, they might succeed in winning out against the voices of repression and Islamist extremism.

Relevant Links
To Die for a Cause  Robert Mackey, New York Times. The only Christian in Pakistan’s cabinet insisted he would not be stopped from opposing his country’s blasphemy law despite threats to his life by Islamist extremists—threats on which they made good. (Video)
A Rising, Bloody Tide  Economist. With the ascendance of militant Islam, Pakistan is seeing a wave of high-profile assassinations that has been intimidating and silencing academics, students, and freethinkers.

As events have unfolded, this early optimism has faded. There is indeed still cause for hope, but clearly the struggle will be long and hard. And then there are also the lessons of history, and of contemporary experience, to consider. One such lesson, a bitter one, concerns the fate of all too many freethinkers in the Arab and Muslim world. Quite apart from the mass-casualty suicide bombings carried out by Muslims against their fellow Muslims, now obscenely routine in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, pinpoint assassinations intended to snuff out individual moderates have exercised a no less devastating impact on political reality in the Muslim world.    

The list of such assassinations is long, and the targets include any number of figures in positions of power. The most recent such victim may have been Salman Taseer, the cosmopolitan governor of Punjab province in Pakistan, whose murder in January was the most significant since the 2007 killing of former premier Benazir Bhutto. (Taseer was followed to the grave in early March by still another moderate Pakistani politician, Shahbaz Bhatti, who had the distinction of being a Christian.)

Obliterated Muslim heads of state include Jordan's King Abdullah, shot at al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in 1951 on suspicion of willingness to make peace with Israel, and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, murdered in 1981 for having actually done so. Algerian president Mohamed Boudiaf was shot dead in 1992 by an Islamist bodyguard, and Lebanon's Sunni prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was killed in 2005 by Hizballah. (Lebanon's president, Bashir Gemayel, another Christian, was assassinated in 1982 for meeting with Israel's premier Menachem Begin.) Tehran, too, has a bloody history of wiping out its moderate leaders, including former premier Shapour Bakhtiar in 1991.

Particularly vulnerable, as the list suggests, are those who advocate coexistence with Israel, and most vulnerable of all are Palestinian Arabs inclined in that direction.

Historically, the leadership of Palestinian society was divided between fanatics led by the former mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, and relative moderates whose ranks included notable families like the Nashashibis. The moderates had reluctantly concluded that the Zionists could not be defeated and that coexistence was in the Palestinian interest. But by the 1920s and 30s, efforts were already under way to radicalize Palestinian village leaders and incite violence against "collaborators." The story, told by the researcher Hillel Cohen in Army of Shadows, culminated in a succession of murderous riots that, by the time Israel was established in 1948, had taken the lives of hundreds of Palestinian moderates.

The pattern continued after 1948. Twenty-five years ago this month, Zafer al-Masri, the forty-four year-old mayor of Nablus, was assassinated on the doorsteps of city hall by Palestinian gunmen on the supposition that al-Masri, said to have close ties to Jordan, was planning to negotiate with Israel under its auspices. The same intransigent political culture that regarded contact with Israel as an act of treason punishable by summary death would ultimately spawn not only Fatah and Hamas but also the allegedly moderate Palestinian officials running the West Bank today.

One such official is Saeb Erekat, among the most accommodating figures in the PLO hierarchy. Speaking confidentially, Erekat has assured Western diplomats that the Palestinians are prepared to compromise on the issue of refugees. Publicly, however, he has continued to insist on the "right of return" to Israel proper of "seven million" refugees and their descendants. Whatever the motivation for Erekat's duplicitous statements, the net effect has been that the Palestinian masses remain unprepared for compromise—which is to say, unprepared for peace. 

The systematic slaughter of genuine moderates, instead of giving pause to Western commentators, has instead led them to define moderation down.  Only by that inverted yardstick can an obdurate Mahmoud Abbas, now two years into his boycott of negotiations with Israel, be labeled a "moderate." As for the genuine moderates speaking out against the Hobbesian state of their existence in Arab lands, they all too often have found life to be not only solitary, poor, nasty, and brutish, but cut tragically short.  

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Larry Snider on March 21, 2011 at 8:19 am (Reply)
It has not been easy to be a so-called moderate Middle Eastern leader vis-a-vis Israel and stay alive although King Abdullah II of Jordan is there and Hosni Mubarak, although recently thrown out of Egypt's leadership, held onto the reigns of power for some thirty years. The Saudi monarchy still presides although maybe now with an asterisk next to it as the world awaits the continuing fallout from Arab Awakening.

It is my hope that the current revolution in the Middle East will bring a measure of freedom to people in Egypt and other lands and allow the evolving governments to establish new and not altogether negative relations with the State of Israel. History is tarnished by blood on all sides.
Ellen on March 21, 2011 at 8:59 am (Reply)
This unwillingness to look at the heart of what is wrong with the Arab political culture is the characteristic of our Western opinion elites (most of them), who don't want to look into that particular heart of darkness. After every political upheaval, Western journalists will find a couple of Arab or Iranian spokesmen who wear suits, look dapper and speak with the polished accents of those who have studied in European or American universities and are able to to speak the Orwellian doublespeak that characterizes that environment - ie, political correctness. Impressed with the success of their own brainwashing, they pronounce these people to be "progressive voices" or "moderates' who must be supported by Western powers so they can take power.

We all remember those treasured Iranian moderates who disappeared into a luxurious exile in Paris subsequently. But we should also remember the equally treasured Palestinian moderates like Sari Nusseibeh, Hanan Ashrawi and a host of others whose names have already been relegated to the archives. Whatever happened to these people who came to prominence after the 1987 intifadah? The were subsequently seen to be the empty shells that they were - completely unrepresentative of the society they claimed to represent and ultimately powerless. The latest of these media creations is Salam Fayyad, whose party has 2% support in West Bank Arab public opinion.

We will now find out whether political and cultural moderation has a chance today in the Arab world, even after the manifest failures for over 60 years of the more exciting extremist ideologies of panArabism and Islamism. I doubt it, but this is their final chance before these societies sink into ruin, as Hillary Clinton recently warned.
Mannie Sherberg on March 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm (Reply)
The results of the weekend election in Egypt are not encouraging. It looks like the Muslim Brotherhood is on its way to taking over the country -- and it also appears that things are not about to get better for Egyptian Christians. So far, I can't see a single indisputable sign that things are looking up for Muslim moderates in the Middle East or anywhere else. If anything, the march forward of Sharia continues -- unimpeded and seemingly inexorable.
Leslie W. on March 21, 2011 at 5:10 pm (Reply)
It looks nasty throughout the middle-east. Muslim moderates want a change of pace but the elders are stuck in a refusal to admit that extremism breeds only destruction and ruin. It does not give any room for positive change. It is a shame to think that after weeks of non-violent demonstrations to evict a 30yr tyrant a new tyrannical force will be taking his place as the 'new' Egypt. Didn't I hear many say they did not want religious influence in their new government? If the Muslim Brotherhood comes into standing then nothing but blood will line all borders in all of the middle east.
Sam Schulman on March 21, 2011 at 9:03 pm (Reply)
One might add the name Musa al-Sadr to the list, leader of Lebanon's Shi'a and founder of the Amal militia, who in hindsight deserves the status of moderate (yes, he is a distant relative of Iraq's Sadr). His name is in the news nowadays, even though he disappeared in Libya in 1978. In the early days of the Libyan uprising, his relatives spread the rumor that he had been held in some dungeon in Gaddafi's realm and was still miraculously alive - but it is more likely that Gaddafi's henchmen murdered him unceremoniously in 1978. Gaddafi swears that he got on a plane to Rome. Fouad Ajami wrote a wonderful book on him early in his career, "The Vanished Imam," which all who read this would admire.

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