Muslim protesters carry signs reading Behead all those who insult the Prophet

Christian reactions to radical Muslim attacks

Hurt hearts are hardened

It’s human nature. Hearts harden when the ones we love are harmed. We become angry and may act in an unChristian-like manner towards those who harmed us. But it’s not the Christian way.

Hamas terrorist attack against Israeli bus

As I write this, thousands have died after the radical Islamist organization Hamas, invaded Israel slaughtering and kidnapping thousands of people, including women, children, and infants. We search for reasons for the carnage. We try to understand how it could happen. We wonder if all Muslims are “evil” and if Islamic beliefs are somehow to blame. How are we supposed to respond to the religion of Islam when we witness radical Muslim extremists slaughtering innocent people while “moderate Muslims” remain silent? How do we restrain our rage?

First, who are the “radical Islamists”?

Terrorist weapons found in mosque during raid

One prominent Turkish Islamic cleric, Fetullah Gülen said, “No terrorist can be a Muslim, and no true Muslim can be a terrorist.” However, Islam only requires a believer to affirm “there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger.” Jihadists believe this, so by definition, they are Muslim. There’s no argument around that. Muslim extremist are acting in a manner they believe their religion requires.

But not all Muslims follow the same beliefs as radical Islamists. Even within branches of Islam, the religious tenets differ. Take the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. Over the past 100 years, they have engaged in vicious attacks in the name of Islam. In fact, the radical Jihadist Hamas is a part of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood. But less than 300 miles away, Sunni Muslim Brotherhood members are peacefully running Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

If the beliefs within Islam can be so patently different, why don’t “moderate Muslims” speak out when radical Muslims attack?

What is a “moderate” Muslim?

The four circles of Muslim followers

I read a research paper that categorized Muslims into four camps or “circles.” Why Muslims must be “categorized” in the first place will be discussed later, but assigning labels to the various levels of Islamic beliefs may help us understand what the majority of Muslims truly believe.

Jihadist Muslims

At the innermost circle were the Jihadist Muslims, the militant terrorists who wanted to impose their interpretation of Islam on everyone else. They use violence and threats to force submission. Their numbers are considered exceedingly small, but they are organized and very vocal.

Islamist Muslims

Islamist Muslims often support the actions of Jihadist Muslims but don’t directly participate in the violence. This group may truly sympathize with Jihadists, or they may indicate support out of fear. They often equate Islam with politics and seek to be governed by Islamic ideology. Like the Jihadists, they would like to see Islam rule over all other religions and have little sympathy for the “infidels.” Their numbers are fairly large, sometimes making up a majority of the population of some poorer, “third world” countries. It is believed around 10-15% of all Muslims (between 160 and 240 million people) fall in this circle, including entire populations of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Conservative Muslims

The third circle represents a majority of Muslims in countries like Egypt, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the smaller countries making up the Gulf States. We call them “traditional Muslims,” and they often align with the Saud Wahhabism branch of Islam that takes the words of the Quran to be unbending and true. However, they do not view Islam as a political ideology.

Pluralist Muslims

Finally, the Pluralist Muslims are considered non-traditional Muslims, often falling under the influence of the West. They follow a broader interpretation of the Quran and seek to live peaceably with followers of other religions. They likely make up around a quarter of all Muslims around the world.

Ambiguity in the Quran causes confusion

It comes as no surprise that there is such a wide variety of Islamic beliefs. As I wrote in this article about a Christian reading the Quran for the first time, the language of the Koran is both angry and peaceful. In the early period of the religion, when Muhammad first received this call, his writings were kind and peaceful. But as he rose to power in Medina and subsequently conquered Mecca (630 AD), the language became harsh and militant.

In “Talking to the Muslim World: How, and with whom?” Amitai Etzioni wrote:

“The Qur’an and hadith – like Christian and Jewish texts – contain passages that justify violence and others that reject it. Both are part of Islam. The Qur’an does include an exhortation to ‘Slay the idolaters wherever you find them’, and says: ‘I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them’. In the hadith, we may read: ‘I have been commanded to fight against people so long as they do not declare that there is no god but Allah’ and ‘Killing unbelievers is a small matter to us’. Observers of such exhortations may be called warriors; ‘jihadists’ seems closer to the common parlance.”

One finds in the same texts: ‘And do not take any human being’s life – that God willed to be sacred – other than in [the pursuit of] justice’; and again: ‘The taking of one innocent life is like taking all of Mankind […] and the saving of one life is like saving all of Mankind’.

There are also exhortations to peace and compassion in the hadith: ‘Someone urged the Messenger of God, “Call down a curse upon the idol-worshippers!” whereupon he said: “I have not been sent to curse. I have been sent as compassion”’. And again: ‘A strong person is not the person who throws his adversaries to the ground. A strong person is the one who contains himself when he is angry. These are the texts on which non-violent, moderate Islam draws’.”

With such a wide range of thoughts in the religion’s foundational documents, the varying degrees of tolerance for those outside their religion come as no surprise.

Is Sharia law the defining line for Muslims?

Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Sharia law, or Islamic law, is a set of religious principles derived from the Quran and the Hadiths (attributed reports about what Muhammad said and did). Sharia Law serves not just as a moral guide for Muslims but also as the official legal code, including business transactions and criminal justice. It has been described by RAND as “the dividing line between moderate Muslims and radical Islamists.” Sharia Law ideologies are commonly used to justify terrorist attacks.

If Sharia Law defines radical Muslim ideology, the following table suggests the level of support for radical extremism in countries that implement Sharia Law. The table (from Pew Research) shows the percentage of Muslims that support Sharia Law and the official law in their country.

  • Afghanistan: 99%
  • Iraq: 91%
  • Palest. Territories: 89%
  • Malaysia: 86%
  • Niger: 86%
  • Pakistan: 84%
  • Morocco: 83%
  • Djibouti: 82%
  • Bangladesh: 82%
  • DR Congo: 74%
  • Thailand: 77%
  • Egypt: 74%
  • Indonesia: 72%
  • Jordan: 71%
  • Nigeria: 71%
  • Uganda: 66%
  • Ethiopia: 65%
  • Mozambique: 65%
  • Kenya: 64%
  • Mali: 63%
  • Ghana: 58%
  • Tunisia: 56%
  • Senegal: 55%
  • Cameroon: 53%
  • Liberia: 52%
  • Chad: 47%
  • Kyrgyzstan: 35%
  • Lebanon: 29%
  • Kosovo: 20%
  • Bosnia: 15%
  • Albania: 12%
  • Turkey: 12%

The table ranks countries by their level of support for Islamic extremism. They tend to be among the poorest, least educated countries in their region.

So what is a “moderate Muslim?”

There is no definition or concrete characterization of a “moderate Muslim.” One prominent Muslim professor says a moderate Muslim is “reflective, self-critical, pro-democracy and pro-human rights.” However, another Muslim scholar insists there is no “moderate or radical Islam; there is only one Islam: All other expressions are falsehoods espoused by hypocrites or apostates.”

Perhaps the best definition comes from A.I. Khadr, who penned “The Truth about the Moderate Muslim See by the West and its Muslim Followers.” Translated into English, it says:

  • Radicals want the caliphate to return; moderates reject the caliphate.
  • Radicals want to apply Sharia Islamic law; moderates reject the application of Sharia.
  • Radicals reject the idea of renewal and reform, seeing it as a way to conform Islam to Western culture; moderates accept it.
  • Radicals accept the duty of waging jihad in the path of Allah; moderates reject it.
  • Radicals accept those laws that punish whoever insults or leaves the religion [apostates]; moderates recoil from these laws.
  • Radicals respect and revere every deed and every word of the Prophet – peace be upon him – in the hadith; moderates do not.
  • Radicals oppose democracy; moderates accept it.
  • Radicals see the people of the book (Jews and Christians) as dhimmis; moderates oppose this view.
  • Radicals reject the idea that men and women are equal; moderates accept it, according to Western views.
  • Radicals oppose the idea of religious freedom and apostasy from Islam; moderates agree to it.
  • Radicals desire to see Islam reign supreme; moderates oppose this.
  • Radicals place the Koran over the constitution; moderates reject this assumption.
  • Radicals reject the idea of religious equality because Allah’s true religion is Islam; moderates accept it.
  • Radicals embrace the wearing of hijabs and niqabs; moderates reject it.
  • Radicals reject universal human rights, including the right to be homosexual; moderates accept them.
  • Radicals support jihadi groups; moderates reject them.

By and large, most Muslims do not like terms like “moderate, progressive, or liberal” because they suggest the individual “sold out” to the other side and adheres to a loose interpretation of Islam.

Why don’t moderate Muslims speak out against radical Islamic extremism?

Every time Islamic terrorists blow something up, the world begins seeking the opinion of moderate Muslims as a counterpoint to help ease the pain and convince themselves that not all Muslims are bad. Some Muslims agree that moderate Muslims are not vocal enough. Syed Mansoor Hussain said,

“But the most glaring failure has been on the part of us mainstream Muslims in not evolving a redefinition of Islamic postulates that would have left no room for the radicals to misuse Islam and our holy book, the Quran, for their nefarious purposes.”

Similarly, Sultan Shahin added,

“I feel that it is the total passivity of mainstream Islam, the nonchalance of the moderate Muslims that is largely to blame for this state of affairs.”

The reason moderate Muslims do not denounce radical terrorism is complex. Humans are complex by nature, and as with most reactions, there are a variety of factors involved in their actions.

There are large numbers of poor, uneducated Muslims

Muslim followers often come from poorer, less educated countries. A 2017 study showed the Muslim rate of advanced education (beyond high school) ranked the lowest in the world – below Hindu, Jewish, Catholic, Mormon, and mainstream Protestant. They are often disadvantaged and marginalized. They may see radicalism as their only means of escape.


Imagine if the Christian Crusades had occurred in modern times. In the name of Christianity, the Crusaders killed an estimated 2-6 million people. How would you react to that today? Likely with shame and embarrassment. In fact, we have those very feelings even today when people mention the Crusades. But we don’t go out of our way to denounce it, preferring to sweep it under the rug. It’s rarely mentioned at all.

Many Muslims feel the same way. The very act of terrorism is so far from their system of beliefs they feel no need even to attempt to denounce it. To them, it has nothing whatsoever to do with their religion. Instead, it’s some bizarre offshoot of a bunch of whacko psychopaths who just so happen to operate under the banner of Islam.

A divisive religion

Radical Islamist insurrection in Iraq 2014

Let’s address the elephant in the room – Islam is a divisive religion. I once read the Koran from cover to cover with a fresh, Christian set of eyes. As I wrote in this article, I did not find Islam as violent as some claim. Sure, there were single sentences here and there that espoused violence, but we find the same thing in the Old Testament. You can’t take a single sentence out of context and define the entire book by it. But I did find the belief system to be shockingly divisive. You’re either Muslim, or you don’t matter.

Some moderate Muslims are unwilling to participate in violent acts – but they won’t condemn them either. Islam places a deep-rooted value on unity among the believers and strongly resists “fitna” (communal discord). Denouncing another Muslim for any reason is highly uncomfortable and, in some instances, forbidden. Moderates are reluctant to come forward and risk being accused of apostasy. It doesn’t matter what the act is. Some Muslims believe you keep your mouth shut and let God sort things out.

Many Muslims do denounce extremism

Buildings destroyed by the Israelis during Israel's assault on Gaza

Many Muslims do publicly denounce Islamic extremism – we simply don’t listen. For instance, in 2015, 70,000 Indian clerics issued a fatwa against ISIS, al Qaeda, and other radical Islamic terrorist groups denouncing their actions and declaring they were “not Islamic organizations.” In another instance, 1.5 million Muslims at a Sufi religious festival in Rajasthan, India signed a protest record to declare their opposition to terrorism publicly. Neither was prominently featured in American headlines.

A 19-year-old Muslim student at the University of Colorado compiled a spreadsheet documenting instances where Muslims denounced terrorist accounts. In less than 30 days, she assembled a 712-page document. 

It’s not hard to find Muslims who denounce terrorism or radical Islamicism. You just have to take the time to look.

The paradox of subtyping Muslims by “radical” or “moderate”

It’s called “subtyping,” and it is insulting to Muslims

Since we cannot truly understand another person’s perspective unless we’ve walked our entire lives in their shoes, let’s once again imagine the Crusades took place today. Christians violently kill those of another religion simply because of who they are. Many of us disagree with the murders. However, there were a few far-right whackos who loudly supported their actions. The loud voices are heard and gain prominence in communities outside Christianity. They begin to ask – are you one of the “murderous Christians” or “good Christians”?

Taipei Grand Mosque Taiwan

The expectation that “moderate Muslims” denounce radical Muslims is a paradox called “subtyping.” It’s the process of categorizing someone based on a stereotype of the category. It’s insulting, degrading, and ignorant – yet we do it all the time. In the example of the modern-day Crusaders, we know how insulting it would feel if people constantly asked us if we were “bad Christians” or, more accurately, asked us why we were not constantly denouncing the bad Christians. That’s how subtyping feels to Muslims.

A 2011 survey asked Muslim nations how they characterized Westerners. A predominant category was “selfish” (68%), followed by violent (66%), greedy (64%), and immoral (61%). Each of these could be a subtype for Westerners. So I ask you, are you a violent American? Are you a selfish American or one of the greedy Americans? Or do you fall into the immoral American group? Yeah, subtyping doesn’t feel very good.

Islam – a tradition of complex contradictions

To subtype Muslims as moderate, radical, or something different altogether is an effort in futility. Islam is a much more complicated and complex religion than many Muslims are willing to admit. Noah Feldman, professor of Islamic Studies at Harvard University, once wrote:

Islam is not a religion in the usual Western sense or primarily a system of religious law or a set of orthodox beliefs, as many contemporary Muslims have come to believe. Islam is rather a welter of contradictions – including, at the same time, the tradition of orthodoxy and law and the contrasting, sometimes heterodox traditions of philosophy, poetry, and mystical thought. Today’s Salafists miss the contradiction and complexity because they see Islam as only rule and creed. In fact, it’s that and much, much more.

Image Credits:
• Radical Islamist insurrection in Iraq 2014 via YouTube by Qasioun News Agency with usage type - Creative Commons License, December 9, 2017
• Hamas terrorist attack against Israeli bus via IDF with usage type - Public Domain, October 19, 1994
• Terrorist weapons found in mosque during raid via IDF with usage type - Public Domain, January 12, 2008
• Buildings destroyed by the Israelis during Israel's assault on Gaza via International Solidarity Movement with usage type - Creative Commons License, January 12, 2009
• Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey via Wikimedia Commons with usage type - Creative Commons License, July 2, 2012
• Taipei Grand Mosque Taiwan via Wikimedia Commons by Chongkian with usage type - Creative Commons License, July 16, 2013
• Muslim protesters carry signs reading Behead all those who insult the Prophet via Flickr by Jamie Kennedy with usage type - Creative Commons License, September 15, 2012

Featured Image Credit:
• Muslim protesters carry signs reading Behead all those who insult the Prophet via Flickr by Jamie Kennedy with usage type - Creative Commons License, September 15, 2012