The Fate of Muslim Moderates

By Elliot Jager
Monday, March 21, 2011

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.

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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