“Not-Too-Islamic” Muslims

By Yasmin Mogahed
Freelance Journalist – Wisconsin
March 07, 2005


Answering his first question in a 2004 presidential debate, Senator John Kerry explained that America needed to isolate the “radical Islamic Muslims.”

“I have a better plan to be able to fight the war on terror by … beginning to isolate the radical Islamic Muslims, not have them isolate the United States of America.”

At first, the statement sounded redundant—even uneducated. A Muslim is, by definition, a follower of Islam, and is therefore, by definition, “Islamic.” Saying “Islamic Muslims” was a lot like saying “American Americans.”

So was Kerry just being repetitive? Or was his statement perhaps more telling than even he realized? Are all Muslims “Islamic”? Well, the truth is, no. Not the good ones, at least.

More and more, the underlying assumption seems to be that Islam is the problem. If Islam, as a faith, is in essence radical, the less “Islamic” something is the better. And thus a “moderate Muslim”—the much coveted title—is only moderately Muslim, and therefore only moderately bad. Saying this would be like telling someone to only be “moderately black” so as not to be too violent.

Conversely, a Muslim who is too “Islamic” is then by definition “radical”—a “radical Islamic Muslim”—and must be dealt with (isolated).

In fact, Mona Mayfield understood these rules well when she defended her husband—wrongfully accused of participating in the Spain bombing.

“We have a Bible in the house. He’s not a fundamentalist—he thought it was something different and very unique,” Mayfield told the Associated Press of her husband’s conversion to Islam.

To prove his innocence, Mayfield tried to downplay her husband’s commitment to Islam. She even felt the need to justify his conversion—as if that were his crime.

Mosque administrator Shahriar Ahmed took a similar approach to defend Mayfield. “He was seen as a moderate,” Ahmed told reporters. “Mayfield showed up for the Friday ritual of shedding his shoes, washing his bare feet and sitting on the carpets to hear services. He did not, as some devout Muslims do, pray five times a day at the mosque.”

The implication here is that Brandon Mayfield’s guilt or innocence was in some way related to how many times he prayed at the mosque. Ahmed even went on to assert, “He was on the less religious side if anything.”

These “less religious” icons of what an “acceptable” Muslim should look like can be found all over the media. Irshad Manji, media entrepreneur and author of The Trouble with Islam, is one of the most celebrated of these icons. Manji is widely published and has appeared in all the top media outlets. She even received Oprah’s Chutzpah Award for “gutsiness.”

Although Manji refers to herself as a “Muslim refusenik,” the media refers to her as the model of a “practicing Muslim.” Daniel Pipes, a board member of the United States Institute of Peace, calls her a “courageous, moderate, modern Muslim.” But interestingly, Manji’s ideas have less to do with Islam than Pipes’ ideas have to do with peace. A Washington Post article describes Manji’s epiphany about prayer—the cornerstone of the Islamic faith:

Instead, she said, she began praying on her own. After washing her feet, arms and face, she would sit on a velvet rug and turn toward Mecca. Eventually, she stopped this as well, because she did not want to fall “into mindless submission and habitual submissiveness.”

Manji is welcome to her opinion about this practice of 1.5 billion people worldwide. She is also welcome to abandon any and all of these practices. But Manji is not simply depicted as an insignificant woman who decided not to pray. Her personal decision to abandon central tenants of her faith—so long as that faith is Islam—is portrayed as a fight for freedom. A fight against tyranny. She is “courageous” and “gutsy,” a model for other not-too-Islamic Muslims to follow.

Making this the model is like asking someone not to be “too black” or “too Jewish,” as if these were in essence bad or violent, and anyone who struggled only to be “moderately black” or “moderately Jewish” was a freedom fighter.

For example, Manji told the Washington Post, “The violence is going to happen, then why not risk it happening for the sake of freedom?”

Yes. Freedom is good. Manji may have said it better. Kerry may have said it subtler. But a business management professor at California’s Imperial Valley College said it truer: “The only way to end Islamic terrorism is to eliminate the Islamic religion.”

But regardless of how you say it, one thing is for sure: when it comes to Islam these days, less is definitely more.

Yasmin Mogahed is an Egyptian-American journalist based in Wisconsin, USA.


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