The myth of the ‘moderate Muslim’

Deconstructing the mythic “good versus bad” Muslim paradigm.

Muslims pray as they take part in a protest against presidential candidate Donald Trump outside of his office in Manhattan, New York [REUTERS]
Muslims pray as they take part in a protest against presidential candidate Donald Trump outside his office in New York [Reuters]

After winning four pivotal presidential primaries on April 26, Hillary Clinton drew a line between “hard working, terror-hating Muslims” and (Muslim) terrorists.

In front of a raucous audience of supporters in Philadelphia, Clinton – the presumptive presidential candidate for the Democratic Party – only made mention of Muslims in relation to terrorism, and reaffirmed the mythic “good versus bad” Muslim paradigm. 

Muslim Americans were either “terror-hating” or terrorists, slotted into one of these two caricatured categories with no space in between, or existential affiliation beyond.

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Within the broader context of counter-radicalisation policing, whereby local law enforcement monitor Muslim spaces through electronic surveillance and the seeding of informants, Clinton’s rhetoric presented Muslim Americans with an already familiar, yet never more threatening, ultimatum: choose the moderate brand of “terror-hating” Muslim identity sanctioned by the state, or be branded with the suspicion that invites its scrutiny, surveillance, and civil liberties infractions.

The ‘good Muslim’

Much ink, many film reels, and an infinite number of news headlines have focused on bad Muslims.

From terrorists to dictators, foreign transgressors to fabricated threats, Muslim identity is marred by almost every imaginable negative stereotype and menacing trope. Representations of good Muslims, in every medium, are few and far between.

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Indeed, the hegemony of the evil or “bad Muslim” has entirely eclipsed illustrations of “good Muslims”, and in instances where the latter are the subject of focus, are engaged in stifling terrorist acts, or stopping radicalisation.

Like the 'bad Muslim', the identity of 'good Muslims' is inextricably tied to terrorism.


Like the “bad Muslim”, the identity of “good Muslims” is inextricably tied to terrorism.

Both characterisations are rooted in that common baseline, which gives rise to linear caricatures that overshadow representations of “good Muslims” as Olympians or scholars, victims of gruesome violence and even mayors of world-class cities.      

Societal understandings of “good Muslims” are just as narrow as its conception of the “bad Muslim” terrorist.

The state’s framing, particularly as it heavily invests into and expands its counter-radicalisation anti-terror programme, doesn’t seek to dismantle this good versus bad Muslim binary – but is doubling down on it.

Clash of radicalisations

For Muslim Americans, demonstrations of good citizenship are tied to terrorism. Namely, condemning any and every act that involves a Muslim culprit. Apologising for the actions of a deviant, distant view. And routinely on deaf ears, collective statements against the savage acts of savage actors such as ISIL (also known as ISIS).

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [Reuters]
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton [Reuters]

Muslim Americans are riddled with the assignment of collective guilt that obliges them to disavow or apologise for entirely unrelated actors, or completely unconnected actions.

The popular “good” or “moderate Muslim” construct, now aggressively pushed forward by the state, and the “clash of civilizations” worldview more evident in US President Barack Obama’s recent rhetoric, forces Muslim Americans to choose a side.

Unfortunately, there are only two sides, and selecting the wrong side leaves one vulnerable to identification as a bad Muslim, followed by the surveillance and state violence attendant with that classification. 

The counter-radicalisation policing model, which I dub the “new PATRIOT ACT“, is founded itself upon a radical baseline. Namely, that the prospect of becoming a terrorist only rises from Islam, and no other ideology.

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Terrorism is not only conflated with Islam, but exclusively tied to it and nothing else. This problematic tenet, which forms the very foundation of counter-radicalisation policing, informs how the FBI, local law enforcement, and Muslim American interlocutors and informants advance counter-radicalisation programming.


The latter, Muslim Americans themselves, fill the role of the “terror hating Muslims”, fully invested in performing the state’s narrow conception of what it means to be a good Muslim.

Not only those who conform their religious practice with western, liberal sensibilities, but perhaps more importantly within the American context, facilitate the surveillance’s state reach into private Muslim American geographies in the name of preventing radicalisation.

The ‘progressive Muslim informant’

These moderate Muslims, for the state, are the quintessential Muslim model minority.         

Little is known about counter-radicalisation policing outside government institutions and grass-roots Muslim discourses.

Hillary Clinton participates in a Homeland Security Roundtable with Muslim and community leaders at the University of Southern California [EPA]
Hillary Clinton participates in a Homeland Security Roundtable with Muslim and community leaders at the University of Southern California [EPA]

The state has capitalised on grassroots ignorance, and opponents have thus far been ineffective with educating Muslim Americans at the grassroots level about the range of free exercise, free speech and privacy threats posed by the programme.

The urgency to inform communities, particularly indigent and working-class Muslim American spaces where counter-radicalisation is disproportionately deployed, is especially pressing.  

Yet, disentangling Islam from radicalisation is perpetually complicated by the state, and more so, the growing front who embrace the moderate Muslim mantle.

A front that has expanded under a Democratic White House, expedited by an outwardly progressive administration that enables Muslim liberals or democrats to engage in a fashion impossible under a Republican White House. 

Therefore, while expansion of the surveillance state under Obama is reality-politik, his party affiliation and racial identity broadens the net of who can serve as a native informant, and specifically, the “progressive Muslim informant” or counter-radicalisation proponent. 

Fringe voices

Indeed, Muslim American engagement with former president George W Bush was limited to fringe voices from the right or “establishment scholars”, who traded academic objectivity for influence with the establishment. The vast majority of Muslim Americans, while Bush was in office, distanced themselves from these native informants.

This paradigm hasn’t changed under Obama. But the surveillance structures that stand atop have expanded, and the explicit derision of Islam expressed by Bush, and perfected by Donald Trump, are sugar-coated with tolerant language, Ramadan dinners, and belated mosque visits

Smitten, Muslim Americans from the left and centre rushed to Obama’s aide, and stood by him as he quietly broadened and deepened surveillance of Muslim Americans, and coupled US PATRIOT with counter-radicalisation. 

These Muslim moderates, who are functionally wed to the notion that extremism is exclusive to Islam and radicalisation limited to Muslim actors, are the “terror-hating” Muslim Americans Hillary Clinton called out to on April 26.

A manoeuvring rank and file, inside and outside of government, who are further embedding the very “good versus bad” Muslim binary that has long plagued Muslims in America, and diminished their citizenship and how Muslim identity is seen and understood.  

Being moderate, in the expanding witch hunt for Muslim radicals, has never been so bad.

Khaled A Beydoun is an assistant professor of law at the Barry University Dwayne O Andreas School of Law. He is a native of Detroit.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.