The term “moderate Muslim” is still Islamophobic.

George Lakoff is a professor of cognitive linguistics at UC Berkeley, and the author of Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. While Lakoff’s book is generally a great instructional tool for American progressives, he is still encumbered by a Western bias, which is evident in his framing of Islam and Muslims. Lakoff’s hidden assumption is that Islam is fundamentally violent, but that Islam in moderation is tolerable and acceptable. That is, Lakoff’s prototype of Islam is that Islam is centrally violent, and his concept of a non-violent Islam is that it is atypical or non-prototypical. Moreover, Lakoff accepts a worldview in which “Islam” and “the West” are polar opposites, and that a non-violent Islam is non-violent because it falls somewhere on the continuum between “Islam” and “the West”. Within this frame, of course, “Islam” is violent and “the West” represents non-violence.

Lakoff frames terrorism as arising from cultural difference.

Lakoff is a progressive, but his understanding of “radical Islamic fundamentalists” is borrowed from American conservatives’ understanding of “Islam”. Instead of dismantling the conservative frame that characterizes Islam as inherently violent and backwards, Lakoff keeps the conservative frame and adds the disclaimer that this characterization is not representative of most Muslims. In Don’t Think of an Elephant, p. 59, Lakoff writes:

The question that keeps being asked in the media is, Why do they hate us so much?

It is important at the outset to separate moderate-to-liberal Islam from radical Islamic fundamentalists, who do not represent most Muslims.

Radical Islamic fundamentalists hate our culture. They have a worldview that is incompatible with the way that Americans—and other Westerners—live their lives.

One part of this worldview concerns women, who are to hide their bodies, should have no right to property, and so on. Western sexuality, mores, music, and women’s equality all violate their values, and the ubiquity of American cultural products, like movies and music, throughout the world offends them.

A second part concerns theocracy: They believe that governments should be run by clerics according to strict Islamic law.

A third concerns holy sites, like those in Jerusalem, which they believe should be under Islamic political and military control.

A fourth concerns the commercial and military incursions by Westerners on Islamic soil, which they liken to the invasion of the hated crusaders. The way they see it, our culture spits in the face of theirs.

A fifth concerns jihad—a holy war to protect and defend the faith.

A sixth is the idea of a martyr, a man willing to sacrifice himself for the cause. His reward is eternal glory—an eternity in heaven surrounded by willing young virgins. In some cases there is a promise that his family will be taken care of by the community.

These are standard stereotypes of Muslims, including the Orientalist notion that West Asians are licentious, and have a stronger, more primitive motivation towards sexual gratification than white Westerners who restrain themselves. Although the assumption that terrorism is fueled by cultural difference (i.e., “radical Islamic fundamentalism”) originates from stereotypes of non-Western barbarism rather than empirical evidence, Lakoff’s claims in the above excerpt will not be debunked in this post. The quotation merely illustrates that Lakoff’s description of “radical Islamic fundamentalism” is essentially the same as the typical American right-wing frame of “Islam”.

Lakoff frames non-violent Muslims as “moderate Muslims”.

Lakoff is usually careful about avoiding language which supports a conservative frame, but ironically, he uses language that supports the frame that “true Islam” is violent, while Muslims who are non-violent must be “moderate Muslims” who do not completely adhere to Islam. On p. 60, Lakoff writes:

What about the first cause—the radical Islamic worldview itself? Military action won’t change it. Social action won’t change it. Worldviews live in the minds of people. How can one change those minds—and if not present minds, then future minds? The West cannot! Those minds can only be changed by moderate and liberal Muslims—clerics, teachers, elders, respected community members. There is no shortage of them. I doubt that they are well organized, but the world needs them to be well organized and effective. It is vital that moderate and liberal Muslims form a unified voice against hate and, with it, terror. Remember that Taliban means “student.” Those who teach hate in Islamic schools must be replaced—and we in the West cannot replace them. This can only be done by an organized, moderate, nonviolent Islam. The West can make the suggestion and offer extensive resources, but we alone are powerless to carry it out. We depend on the goodwill and courage of moderate Islamic leaders. To gain it, we must show our goodwill by beginning in a serious way to address the social and political conditions that lead to despair.

While Lakoff identifies as a “progressive”, his use of language supports the following narrative:

Islam is bad, violent, repressive, and backwards, while the West is good, peaceful, liberal, and advanced. Islam and the West are cultural opposites. Not all Muslims, are bad, however, because Muslims can exist on the continuum between Islam and the West. A Muslim who lies in the middle between Islam and the West is better than a Muslim who lies closer to Islam. If a Muslim is peaceful, then it must mean that this Muslim is Westernized, because peacefulness comes from the West and violence comes from Islam. If a Muslim is non-violent, it must be because this Muslim is less Islamic and follows Islam only in moderation.

The problem with this narrative, of course, is that it supports a Eurocentic, Orientalist, and Islamophobic frame that originated in British and French colonialist attitudes from several centuries ago. While the disclaimer “not all Muslims are violent; there are moderate Muslims,” or “most Muslims are not violent; most Muslims are moderate Muslims,” appears “progressive” relative to blatant Islamophobic bigotry, it still frames Islam as essentially violent. Instead of rejecting the conservative frame, Lakoff perpetuates a modified or compromised version.

Alternatives to the problematic term “moderate Muslims” could be “ordinary Muslims” or “Muslim civilians”.

(However, this alternative concept would not fit into Lakoff’s simplistic solution to eliminate terrorism. There are over 1.25 billion Muslims in the world separated by geography, nationality, language, wealth, etc. Expecting over 1.25 billion people in the world who have little in common except religious identification to self-organize is much more ambitious than expecting American progressives who have at least the same nationality and language to be self-organized. For the latter, Lakoff had to create a now-defunct Rockridge Institute to attempt to achieve this.)


Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives. White River Jct. (VT): Chelsea Green Publishing.

14 Responses to “The term “moderate Muslim” is still Islamophobic.”

  1. msliberty Says:

    Hi. I’ve been following your blog for a bit, and I like what I’ve read!

    Regarding your point that people construe “moderate” as “not following the true teaching”: don’t you think this partly stems from a Christian-fundamentalist understanding of all liberal religion? Of course it’s also about anti-Muslim bias, probably more prominently. But casting the “liberal” or “moderate” within a religious society as “the one who isn’t *really* a believer” is a pattern that U.S. Christian fundamentalists enact in our culture as well.

    Interesting stuff. I hope you give Lakoff the heads up about this.

  2. Dori Says:

    This kind of frame is not uncommon in literature about the Middle East and Islam (its my area of study) even at a high academic level.

    What kills me the most is the constant repetition of that question “Why do they hate us?” without any follow up by ASKING “them” or even making an attempt to dig deeper than the surface.

    This framing of the conversation serves to perpetuate this idea that the supposedly “enlightened” West doesn’t have to look at how our actions effect those we act against. I have had people attempt to debate with me that we can’t even talk to “those people” until they stop “teaching hate.” They refuse to accept that we might have to give a little to get a little. Its astounding.

  3. Restructure! Says:


    But the Christian-fundamentalist understanding doesn’t perceive itself as inherently violent. Most people don’t think of Christian fundamentalists as violent people; Christian fundamentalists are perceived as deluded and homophobic and hateful, but not necessarily violent. However, most people think that Muslim fundamentalists are usually violent people, even terrorists.

    Note that Lakoff says, “moderate, nonviolent Islam”, as if Islam is violent by default.

    Or maybe I’m misunderstanding what you are saying?

  4. Nquest Says:

    One thing absent from Lakoff’s book and typical of Western bias (and ignorance) of Islam is attributing the cultural practices in certain countries to Islamic mandates. For some reason, the modest/formal dress code of orthodox Jews, e.g., doesn’t translate into people making the form of dress, etc. synonymous with Judiasm.

    Aside from that, most Westerners reference the cultural practices in certain Arab countries and call those things Muslim/Islamic culture when Islam is practiced in non-Arab countries — e.g. in Africa, in the Philippines and in Indonesia (where the largest Muslim population is) where cultures differ; so, too, does the level of freedom and equality of women in those varied cultures.

    All we have to do is reflect on the post-9/11 tragedy where a Sikh was mistaken for a Muslim to see just how confused Americans/Westerners are about Islam and Muslims. No doubt, the person who killed the Sikh figured he had Arab features…

  5. msliberty Says:

    Sorry, Restructure; I wasn’t trying to say anything about violence. I was trying to point out an ironic pattern in suppression of liberal theology. Christian religious fundamentalism defines itself as central to the religion, even if the interpretations of Christianity are dubbed “moderate” are equally spiritually valid to their adherents. So when they orientalize Islam and make mainstream the belief that “moderate” Muslims must be defined by their relationship to hyperconservative Muslims, the picture of a radical, violent fringe group they are painting is really a self-portrait…

    I hope that makes sense. Of course there are differences, but my point goes like that.

  6. Iftikhar Ahmad Says:


    British schools are not doing enough to tackle racism and promote race relations. Many teachers are unaware of racist attitudes amongst pupils. Schools have a responsibility not only to deal with racist incidents but also to prepare pupils for life in a multicultural and multiracial society.

    Children from minority groups, especially the Muslims, are exposed to the pressure of racism, multiculturalism and bullying. They suffer academically, culturally and linguistically: a high proportion of children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin are leaving British schools with low grades or no qualification.

    In the 1980s, the Muslim community in Britain started to set up Muslim schools. The first was the London School of Islamics which I established and which operating from 1981-86. Now there are 133 schools educating approximately 5% Muslim pupils. Very few schools are state funded.

    The needs and demands of Muslim children can be met only through Muslim schools, but education is an expensive business and the Muslim community does not have the resources to set up schools for each and every child, and only eight Muslim schools have achieved grant maintained status.

    This leaves a majority of children from Muslim families with no choice but to attend state schools. There are hundreds of state schools where Muslim pupils are in majority. In my opinion, all such schools may be designated as Muslim community schools with bilingual Muslim teachers as role models.

    Prince Charles, while visiting the first grant maintained Muslim school in north London, said that the pupils would be the future ambassadors of Islam. But what about thousands of others, who attend state schools deemed to be “sink schools”?

    The time has come for the Muslim community – in the form of Islamic charities and trusts – to manage and run those state schools where Muslim pupils are in the majority. The Department for Education would be responsible for funding, inspection and maintenance.

    The management would be in the hands of educated professional Muslims. The teaching of Arabic, Islamic studies, Urdu and other community languages by qualified Muslim teachers would help the pupils to develop an Islamic identity, which is crucial for mental, emotional and personality development.

    In the east London borough of Newham, there are at least 10 state schools where Muslim pupils are in the majority.

    The television newscaster Sir Trevor McDonald is a champion of introducing foreign modern languages even at primary level in schools in Britain. The Muslim community would like to see Arabic, Urdu and other community languages introduced at nursery, primary and secondary schools along with European languages so that Muslim pupils have these options.

    In education, there should be a choice and at present it is denied to the Muslim community. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I floated the idea of Muslim community schools, I was declared a “school hijacker” by an editorial in the Newham Recorder newspaper in east London.

    This clearly shows that the British media does not believe in choice and diversity in the field of education and has no respect for those who are different.

    Muslim schools, in spite of meager resources, have excelled to a further extent this year, with two schools achieving 100% A-C grades for five or more GCSEs. They beat well resourced state and independent schools in Birmingham and Hackney.

    Muslim schools are doing better because a majority of the teachers are Muslim. The pupils are not exposed to the pressures of racism, multiculturalism and bullying.

  7. Lxy Says:

    The term “moderate Muslim” is an American Newspeak euphemism and usually in practice designates those Muslim nations or groups that are obedient to the American Empire and its geopolitical “interests.”

    Moreover, America instinctively slaps these “moderate” vs. “radical” propaganda labels on any political group or nation in general according to whether they serve or resist American imperialism.

    Hating America’s alleged values of freedom and liberty has nothing to do with it–unless, perhaps one means hating American values exemplified by Abu Gharib torture, the Gitmo Gulag, or secret CIA prisons around the world.

    Indeed, if the use of violence is a metric of fundamentalism, then America and the West IN GENERAL (not just Christian Fundamentalists) should be considered the most fundamentalist threats on this planet by far.

    For example, America’s economic and military wars against Iraq have murdered millions of people (most of them Muslim)such as evidenced by Operation Desert Slaughter in 1991; the economic sanctions and bombings in the 1990s; or the current US invasion/colonization of Iraq.

    American Genocide In The Middle East: Three Million and Counting

    A Million Iraqi Dead?
    The U.S. press buries the evidence

    September 2007 – More than 1,000,000 Iraqis murdered

    Then, there is America’s little crime against humanity called the Vietnam War, which killed millions of SE Asians in the 1960-70s, or the inconvenient fact that the USA itself is a colonizer nation founded upon Native Indian genocide and African slavery….

    But hey, as long as you can masquerade as a champion of Freedom and Democracy like the USA, you can demonize any country, religion, or people … and get away with it.

    And this George Lakoff example in general reveals how White Supremacy and racism are connected to a fundamental geopolitical system: American imperialism.

    This imperial racist worldview is one that is not limited to the Right Wing but is possessed by self-styled American progressives as well–who in reality are largely the “left wing of the American Empire” and often believe in the cult of US Moral Exceptionalism just as fervently as any conservative.

    And I think one of the essential problems with “anti-racist activism” in the USA is that it refuses to make this important political connection between (White) racism and American/Western imperialism.

  8. Restructure! Says:


    This imperial racist worldview is one that is not limited to the Right Wing but is possessed by self-styled American progressives as well–who in reality are largely the “left wing of the American Empire” and often believe in the cult of US Moral Exceptionalism just as fervently as any conservative.

    This is so true, and most Americans of color believe in US moral exceptionalism as well.

    And I think one of the essential problems with “anti-racist activism” in the USA is that it refuses to make this important political connection between (White) racism and American/Western imperialism.

    That’s a really good and interesting point. US anti-racist activism is focused on helping Americans of color, but US white racism has tremendous effects on the non-American world, costing millions of lives.

  9. jwbe Says:

    >And I think one of the essential problems with “anti-racist activism” in the USA is that it refuses to make this important political connection between (White) racism and American/Western imperialism.

    yes, very true

  10. Eclectic Says:

    The post was very illuminating, reading the title made me have one of those eureka moments where I knew what you were getting at before even reading the explanation. Even though I never would have noticed this on my own.

    I wonder however, if the solution you propose isn’t problematic in itself. Referring to “ordinary” Muslims implies that there is some form of Islam that is normal. Other forms of Islam (Radical, Liberal) are somehow abnormal. Doesn’t this essentialize Islam? There is the normal, everyday Islam and then there’s those radical, liberal and progressive forms.

    It seems that Islam is still being essentialized, it’s just that the choice of the “essential” form of Islam is being shifted over to one that presents it in positive terms.

    Is there such a thing as ordinary Islam? Is there such a thing as an ordinary Muslim? Ordinary christianity? An ordinary Christian?

  11. Restructure! Says:


    I wasn’t too comfortable with the term “ordinary Muslims” either. I’ll go with “Muslim civilians” then.

    Most Muslims I know are liberal Muslims, so they are the “ordinary” Muslims to me.

  12. Eclectic Says:

    I know I’m picking at a knit here, so feel free to ignore me. But surely there are radical, moderate and liberal Muslim civillians.

    This is where I have some sympathy for Lakoff’s dilemma. He’s trying to differentiate amongst different “types” of Muslims. How do you do this without essentializing Muslims in some way?

    An alternative interpretation of his categorization of Muslim types could simply be “There are different types of Muslims. Some are moderate, some are radical, some are liberal. The only ones able to change the minds of the radicals will be the moderates and the liberals.”

    How else can he talk about the different types of Islam without essentializing it in some form?

  13. Restructure! Says:

    ‘Radical’ is also a broad category, but when it comes to Muslims, people use it the term to refer to the terroristy kind. There are also radical left Muslims, like Muslim communists.

    What do you mean by ‘moderate’? Moderate of what?

    I also find the idea laughable that liberal Muslims can change the minds of the terroristy Muslims. The idea would work if Muslims were some kind of hive mind, but it doesn’t work like that. That’s like saying left-wing Christians in Toronto who support same-sex marriage have a chance of convincing right-wing Christian fundamentalist abortion clinic bombers in the American South, because both are Christian.

  14. Eclectic Says:

    Yeah, I had the same thought about “moderate” after posting. It only makes sense to call someone moderate in relationship to the violent radical fundamentalists. If there weren’t any violent radicals, calling someone moderate doesn’t make sense.

    Perhaps “mainstream?”

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