As I’m watching the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) take over important parts of the levant, and as I witness Abdel Fattah al Sissi getting sworn in as Egypt’s president, I couldn’t help but think of “moderation”, an idea that is central to our political discourse in the Muslim world and central to the way foreign powers like to talk about us.
Moderation is often touted as a solution to all our problems. Just yesterday the ex ambassador to Syria Robert Ford got in on the action and told us that we should arm more “moderates” to fight the Assad Regime… But what if the quest for moderation itself was a source of trouble? What if moderation was one of the causes of our repeated historical tragedies?
Meet the Moderates
One cynical way of defining a moderate is that he is someone who doesn’t have anything he’s willing to die for. As I wrote in a tweet: People die for country, for belief, for ideology, for loved ones, for money. Nobody dies for the cause of “moderation.”
Moderates don’t want trouble. We could even call this their defining characteristic. They want their businesses to prosper, their kids to grow up in good health and they don’t want to think of bothersome ideas that sound good on paper but that effectively mess with their livelyhoods. At first signs of serious trouble, rich moderates immigrate, poor moderates become refugees and those who are stuck either surrender to their oppressors or die. When Syria occupied Lebanon, Lebanese moderates “worked with” the Syrian dictator.
Moderates Hate Uncertainty
Across the Arab world, there was a big sigh of relief among many moderates when Abdul Fattah al Sissi was sworn in as the President of Egypt amid cries of “Egypt is back!”.
Is Sissi a moderate? You judge: His courts just sentenced Alaa Abdul Fattah, an activist who did nothing more than break an anti demonstration law with 15 years of prison. Before that, many “moderates” breathed a sigh of relief when hundreds of Islamists were summarily handed death sentences for allegedly demonstrating and killing a policeman. There is an active attempt by the Egyptian military elite to restore the “rule of fear” that kept Mubarak in Power (until he fell that is).
But Arab moderates love Sissi. Dictators serve a very important role for Arab moderates. They deal with the dirty business that is preventing people from living normal lives (remember, avoiding trouble is a moderate’s defining characteristic). It’s a win-win situation: Dictators get power and prestige while moderates get to go about their businesses without worrying about obnoxious moralists telling them what they can drink and eat and how their daughters should dress and how often they should pray. The calm creates stability, stability creates business and jobs and moderates love that.
With luck, you get a couple of generations of stability accompanied by good public education and you end up with a high litteracy rate and a semblence of democracy like Turkey or Tunisia, where the anti-clerical become a large part of the population and begin calling themselves “secular” instead of “moderates”.
Moderation as an end in itself
My favorites words to describe good politicians are “pragmatic” and “reasonable”. But these words, like the word “moderate”, are usually auxiliary to a main, defining ideology. For example: A pragmatic conservative. A reasonable liberal. A moderate socialist.
But in this part of the world, we use the word “moderate” as an end in itself, as a way to distinguish us from “extremists”. In our tribal societies, moderation is the secret handshake that tribes use to tell each other that they neither want trouble nor want to cause any. But what happens when one of the tribes becomes a bully? This is when a dictator (or foreign powers in Lebanon’s case) comes in handy
An army that will fight in the name of moderation is a mirage. A real ideology should be behind a fighting doctrine: Be it nationalism, “Freedom” or a religious belief.
The next best option is a dictator, and you can call him “moderate” if you want