The precise motivations of “Jihadi John”, the man believed to be a former British rapper who appeared in the execution video of the American journalist James Foley distributed by the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIL), will long be debated by those concerned about the radicalisation of Muslim youth in western societies. What is not in doubt now is the degree of certainty in his cause that led him from the stately mansion blocks of Maida Vale, a north-west London suburb, to the cities and deserts that the terrorist group he joined last year have turned into violent wastelands.
There is nothing wrong with certainty – which to an extent may well be an essential attribute of leadership, especially if it is evidence of a well-thought out worldview and direction. Such sureness of purpose was generally applauded in Lee Kuan Yew’s steering of Singapore on its decades to success, for instance, and his perceived lack of it is one of the chief criticisms currently levelled against Barack Obama in the US.
But when certainty is unmediated by reflection, interpretation and above all by moderation, it can be very dangerous indeed. The 20th century featured far too many who were deadly certain of the righteousness of their views, from Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four who oversaw the disastrous Cultural Revolution in China, to the numerous dictators who inflicted untold human rights abuses on Latin American countries in the name of anti-Communism and the defence of “freedom”.
The Star newspaper in Malaysia, from where I have just returned, is currently running a series of full page adverts in which its columnists urge the virtue of moderation. It is part of a wider campaign, and indeed, one of the signature initiatives of the country’s prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, has been to launch a Global Movement of Moderates (GMM).
He stated at the UN General Assembly last year that “at the international level, moderation can guide our approach to the great global challenges of our age: violent extremism, sustainable development and equitable growth.”
But it can be hard to speak up for moderation, as the GMM’s Saifuddin Abdullah recently noted, saying that its proponents were often low-key and that they needed to “reclaim the centre stage”.
Moderation can be criticised for providing insufficiently strong meat, or mistaken for a reflexive centrism that triangulates between whatever the current polarities are. The British politician Paddy Ashdown was lampooned for supposedly taking such a position when he was leader of the Liberal Democrats in the early 1990s, with the satirical television puppet show Spitting Image having him crop up all of a sudden to opine “I am neither in this sketch nor not in it, but somewhere in between”. This, despite the fact that he was a former special forces officer and later the UN High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina – hardly the résumé of a man likely to be indecisive or of weak opinions.
But it stuck, as does the suggestion that moderation is often merely indifference masquerading as a slightly more noble sentiment. It is, or should be, a far harder path than that, as the wise have acknowledged over the centuries. Aristotle wrote that “the virtue of justice consists in moderation, as regulated by wisdom”. Augustine of Hippo declared that “complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation”.
It is an obligation according to the monotheistic religions, a point put in typically provocative manner by another Malaysian leader, the former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
“I’m a fundamentalist Muslim,” he has said, waiting for the shocked look on his interlocutor’s face before explaining what he meant by that.
“If you follow the true teachings as found in the Quran and the verified traditions of the Prophet, you will ... have to be moderate. That’s the teaching of my religion, I must be moderate.”
Dr Mahathir’s comments underline that, far from being the consequence of a feeble lack of conviction, moderation requires a discipline that can involve having to tamp down the fiercest and most understandable of emotions.
What a setting aside of the most painful feelings was necessary for South Africa, for instance, to let a Truth and Reconciliation Commission smooth the transition after the apartheid regime had massacred, tortured and oppressed the majority black population throughout the country’s history. Far easier to have let loose a vengeful fury of justice.
Equally heroic in their moderation were the words of East Timor’s president Jose Ramos-Horta when Indonesia’s long-time dictator Suharto lay on his death bed in 2008. Suharto had overseen the invasion of East Timor in 1975 and stood accused of genocide after up to one quarter of the former Portuguese colony’s population died during the subsequent occupation. Yet only nine years after his country was finally released from Indonesia’s grip Ramos-Horta felt able to call on the East Timorese to forgive Suharto and said he would ask the Pope to pray for him.
These are the acts of moderates, those who have wrestled with impulses that might appear at first to be obvious and certain in their justice. To fail to make such an effort, however, runs the risk of some ending up like Jihadi John, whose embrace of a cruel and extreme certainty appears unlikely to have involved much questioning and hard personal struggle.
The necessity of that was once observed by the English philosopher and statesman, Francis Bacon.
“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.” Bacon was writing in the 17th century, but his words remain as good a clarion call for the path of moderation today.
Sholto Byrnes is a Doha-based commentator and consultant