History’s unicorn: The moderate-turned-reformer

Ali A. Rizvi recently posted “An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims” in the Huffington Post in which he urges moderate Muslims to give up the belief that the Quran is the infallible and literal word of God.  “Islam,” he says, “needs reformers, not moderates.”  And he goes on to define reformers as people who “change things, fix the system and move it in a new direction.”

The big challenge in this call to action, according to Rizvi, isn’t making change happen.  It’s acknowledging that something is broken.  Not that it’s being portrayed as broken by extremists, but that it is actually broken.

Rizvi reminds us that the Prophet Muhammad, himself, was a vigorous reformer, as was Jesus, and that Islam and Christianity both arose out of reform movements.  He closes his essay with the kicker, something everyone, wherever you fall on the religious or political spectrum, should keep in mind:  Openly challenging problematic ideas isn’t blasphemy or un-patriaotic – it’s what Mohammed, Jesus and all the American Founding Fathers did, and what they taught others to do as well.

Rizvi wrote his piece in response to the recent violence in Paris, Beirut, Syria and Kenya, and his topic is moderate Islam.  But the points he raises apply to all of us who are moderate in our beliefs.  To the moderate Christians who point to extremists spewing hate language about homosexuals and say, “That’s not me.  That’s not what Christianity is.”  To the moderate Republicans who point to extremists attacking women’s health centers and say, “That’s not me.  That’s not what a Republican is.”  To the moderate liberals who point to University leaders who no longer allow conservative views to be publicly shared on campus and say, “That’s not me.  That’s not what liberalism is.”

Sitting in the middle and holding fast to our beliefs, even when they are being used by fanatics to promote hatred and violence, does not make the world a better place.  Dismissing an extremist’s use of political or religious orthodoxy as “a perversion” is not an act of courage.  Nor does it promote kindness, progress or peace.

Here’s another thing that “speaking moderate” doesn’t do.  It doesn’t remove suspicion of or build support for our own mainstream religious or political views. This is a problem Islam currently faces among non-Muslims all over the world.  But Islam isn’t the only thing taking a beating from radicalism.

In the U.S., Christianity and voter participation are both in decline.  Thanks in large part to our loud and offensive extremist minorities, a growing number of Americans are suspicious and fearful of religion and politics.

What is the moderate majority doing to turn these trends around?

Rizvi’s piece hit me hard.  As a political moderate, I’m quick to criticize extremism on both the right and the left.  And as a moderate liberal, I’m particularly wary of the political correctness that has taken over our public discussion.  There should be rules for debate – empathy, respect, and intelligence.  But beyond these, debate should be open.  No fences.  And it should be uncomfortable.  Because when we get to a place at which everyone in the audience is nodding his or her head in happy agreement during a political candidate debate, we have come to a time when all our candidates are disingenuous, craven, cynical, empty and liars.

And no, I don’t think we’ve quite gotten there yet.

I can talk reasonably with almost anyone about liberal politics.  But what do I do when I hear about a student who has been kicked out of college for expressing sexist, racist or other unpopular views in a legitimate forum, without using violence, harassment, threats or vandalism?  I may make an indignant comment about free speech to my friends.  But I have never spoken out against this in a public forum, protested this injustice among my fellow liberals, or openly questioned the mainstream liberal views that foster this form of extremist persecution.

I know it’s not easy being a moderate-turned-reformer.  In fact, this kind of person is history’s unicorn.  But as extremism continues to grow in influence and impact across multiple aspects of society, moderates have a responsibility to do more than speak as the voice of reason.  We have to act, to lead reform.  And this begins with questioning the very foundation of our own beliefs and having the courage to say — out loud and on Twitter — “I think the Bible writers got it wrong in a few places.”