Investigating Moderate Islam: 7 Questions for Rosemary Corbett

In our interview series, “Seven Questions,” we ask some very smart people about what inspires them and how their latest work enhances our understanding of the sacred in cultural life. For this segment, we solicited responses from Rosemary Corbett, author of Making Moderate Islam: Sufism, Service, and the “Ground Zero Mosque” Controversy  (Stanford University Press, 2016). 

1) What sparked the idea for writing this book?

The idea for writing this book came in 2004, when I first heard Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam of a small Sufi-leaning masjid in Lower Manhattan, speak at Riverside Church in New York City. He was just about to launch his book tour, informing Americans about the nation’s “Abrahamic” (rather than “Judeo-Christian”) heritage and identity. Because I knew that even the term “Judeo-Christian” was a rather recent invention, and that American leaders and politicians had heavily promoted it during World War II (with varying success) in order to unify the country against external threats, I wondered what the politics were of this newer Judeo-Christian-Muslim formulation as articulated by Abdul Rauf. Specifically, I wanted to know how more average Muslims responded to the ideas the imam put forth and to the pressures they encountered to act as “moderates” after 9/11. Five short years later, Abdul Rauf announced plans for what would come to be derisively termed the “Ground Zero Mosque,” and his already popular ideas about moderation and Americanness gained more relevance than I had ever expected.

2) How would you define religion in relation to your work? Where do you see the sacred or sacred things in this book?

Religion is a highly contested term, and my work is heavily informed by scholars who have traced the power dynamics involved in foisting normative concepts of religion (generally ones derived from Protestantism) onto various non-Protestant and non-Christian practitioners–be it through legal regulations, social mores, or simply by using the term “religion” in non-Christian contexts where it might not apply. I try to keep those dynamics front and center in this book.

3) Can you summarize the three key points you’d like the reader to walk away with when finished?

The first thing that I hope readers will come away from this book with is the recognition that, although “moderate” religion seems like a fairly neutral term, it is actually a highly political concept and has long involved policing religious belief and practice, sometimes violently. (In fact, I wrote about the long history of the politics of “religious moderation” for  Oxford Research Encyclopedias, beginning with pre-Reformation Europe and extending through the present. Violence and coercion have been frequent companions of calls for moderation for centuries.) In other words, violence and coercion aren’t just what supporters of moderate religion seek to combat, they’re also what supporters (particularly state actors) of so-called moderate religion use as a means to achieve certain ends. This should immediately cause people to wonder about the power dynamics involved in designating something as moderate or immoderate. The self-proclaimed Muslim moderates on whom I focused in my book did not employ violence or anything like it, but they were certainly subject to the threat of it by various governmental and law enforcement agencies, and later by other citizens who opposed their project.

The second thing I hope people will recognize is that the notion that Sufism is inherently moderate or peaceful or apolitical is a product of orientalist power dynamics that are related to the state-led search for moderates mentioned above, and that this has powerful consequences that Muslims who practice Sufism cannot ignore. The good-Muslim/bad-Muslim binary is frequently written as Sufi vs. fundamentalist, and these generalizations are not useful, but actually harmful.  Finally, I hope that people will come away from my book with the recognition that any normative concept of religion, and in this case “moderation,” is inherently racialized, gendered, and shot through with economic assumptions and implications. In other words, “moderation” involves class, race, and gender distinctions that have real impacts in the world.

4) Who were intellectual models or inspirations for you as you wrote this book?

As mentioned, I’m indebted to scholars who have questioned the power dynamics behind and policy implications of concepts of normative religion (be it “moderation,” or even just “real religion” as opposed to “fanaticism”) and secularism. These include Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, Mahmood Mamdani, and–in the U.S. context, in particular–Janet Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini, Tracy Fessenden, Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Melani McAlister, Jasbir Puar, and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, among others.

5) What was the most difficult thing about writing the book? Did you encounter any unexpected problems or challenges?

The most difficult thing about writing the book was not the seven years of ethnography or the deep intellectual history, or even the years spent learning Arabic and Islamic history so that, as an Americanist, I could satisfy myself that I had the credentials to interpret Muslims’ lives and practices. Rather, the most difficult thing was rewriting the book after the Islamic community center controversy. It was trying to understand–in the midst of an intense escalation of Islamophobia and a realignment of politics in the wake of the first black (some alleged “Muslim”) president–what stories needed to be told now.

6) What’s the most unexpected response, critical or positive, that you’ve gotten about the book?

The book has been out for less than a year, so I’m still in a bit of suspense until reviews come out in academic journals. However, I was thrilled to see Stanford feature it as one of their lead publications in promotional material at the American Academy of Religion and American Studies Association in 2016. (And “see” is sort of metaphorical here — I was actually at home with my newborn when those conferences occurred, but generous friends sent me pictures of the press banners and displays.) I was also delighted by the invitation I received to discuss it on the New Books Network podcast under New Books in Islamic Studies, and by the reception that podcast has had.

7) With this book done, what’s up next for you?

Next, I return to some of the work I had been doing on Cold War-era scholars who shaped the study of “modern” Islam–work that was related to the material in this book but didn’t make it in. I have more archival research to do, but a piece of that project will come out in the new book I’m editing with Katherine Pratt Ewing on Sufism in India and Pakistan.

Rosemary Corbett is a Visiting Professor with the Bard Prison Initiative and focuses on religion and politics in the U.S.  She received a PhD in Religious Studies from Columbia University in 2010, where she also received an M.Phil., and certificates in Women’s Studies and Middle East Studies. Since then, Corbett has been a fellow at the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, and the Columbia University Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life. She is currently co-editing a book on Sufism in India and Pakistan with Katherine Pratt Ewing and working on her second monograph.