Is Islam the problem, or can it be part of the solution? Can Islam be reformed from within, or is Muslim violence and hatred due entirely to the teachings and history of the Qur'an? These were some of the major issues raised at the Secular Islam Summit in St Petersburg, Florida, this week.
A landmark event, the summit brought together such brave and eloquent defenders of freedom and conscience as the scholar Ibn Warraq (his nom de guerre); Iranian exile and activist Banafasheh Zand-Bonazzi; Austin Dacy of the Center for Inquiry; as well as many other Muslim and ex-Muslim dissidents.
Most were incredible orators, some were entertainers, others were deep and mournful thinkers. They included:
* Egyptian-born Dr. Tawfik Hamid, who was once a "colleague" of Osama bin Laden's second in command, Al-Zawahiri.
* The Gandhi-like Dr. Shahriar Kabir, Bangladesh's leading human rights activist.
* Tashbih Sayeed, Pakistan's foremost opponent of radical Islam, a man of few, but fiery words.
* Dr. Afshin Ellian, an Iranian professor in exile in Holland, a close friend of Aayan Hirsi Ali, and a man of genial wit and wide-ranging knowledge.
* Egyptian-Palestinian-American author, Nonie Darwish, a warm but absolutely uncompromising thinker and speaker.
* Syrian-American psychiatrist, Wafa Sultan, the woman who became instantly famous for her debate on Al-Jazeera TV. A small, trim woman, she is a towering speaker, theatrically thrilling and passionate.
Indeed, there were so many excellent speakers that I cannot do them all justice here. For now, let me focus on only two. The opening speeches were delivered by Ibn Warraq, a consummate intellectual and committed secularist, and Irshad Manji, the best-selling author and a onetime master of the spunky sound bite who is now a bit more moderate and modest in tone.
Ibn Warraq spoke of the dangers that Muslims in the Islamic world face for speaking the truth about Islam, including prison, torture, exile and death. Proving his point was the fact that a number of invitees to the summit from Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia did not attend after receiving one too many death threats or after being told that their families would be targeted if they chose to attend. Most writers have been stopped in their tracks by such Muslim-on-Muslim repression.
Warraq explained that he wants an Islamic "Enlightenment," a la John Stuart Mill, rather than a "Reformation," which he considers mere tinkering. He believes that Western values are universal, although he felt that most human rights initiatives within the West, including the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, are "hopeless" and will not push sovereign Muslim tyrannies toward reform. He mourned the fact that the West continues to "apologize for colonialism and racism" and that Turkey still "refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide."
A running theme of Ibn Warraq’s remarks was the unjust treatment of Muslims in Islamic countries. For instance, he insisted that "protecting non-Muslims in Muslim societies" is crucial and can "lead to pluralism and tolerance for Muslims as well." He called for a "legal recourse" within the Islamic world for the widespread denial of freedom of speech. He "demanded the re-writing of anti-American, anti-Israel, and anti-Jewish text-books, especially in Saudi Arabia and Egypt,” adding that he considers such hatred "scandalous." Warraq also implored "women's groups in the West to defend Muslim women" under siege.
In this connection, he assailed the "inconsistency and hypocrisy of the "western multi-culturalists, including feminists" and stated that the "law of the western secular state must override religious law when religious law denies basic human rights." Some European police -- he mentioned Sweden in particular -- still return the victims of family violence to the families that will kill them. In his view, the "rights of women are central to Islamic reform.” Warraq summed up his views on reform with the following credo: "No to female genital mutilation; no to forced and polygamous marriage; no to gender separatism."
Irshad Manji spoke next. She began with the wise observation that "courage is not the absence of fear but the recognition that some things are more important than fear." Manji, whose entourage included a young woman in hijab, described herself as a "person of faith but not a dogmatist." Manji found support for her moderation in a quote from the Qur'an, which "tells us to oppose your family" when the truth or true inner struggle is at stake. She pointed out that the "Qur'an says nothing about the proper form of government," which suggests that Islam should remain a private faith, not a political movement or a government.
In Manji’s opinion, "this silence is deliberate and gives us room to experiment with a different form of government." Calling for "Muslim pluralism,” Manji decried theocratic governments. In this regard, Manji commented that someone "should tell President Bush that he should not have empowered the theocrats in Iraq."
Manji proved an equal opportunity critic. She castigated "missionary atheists" who are so "angry that they resemble religious fundamentalists." At the same time, she criticized those Muslims who are so "submissive to authority that they cannot stand up to (unjust or tyrannical) authority." Agreeing with Ibn Warraq about the universal nature of human rights, she condemned the popular view that we are "not supposed to criticize another culture" if we are not part of it.
Manji shared Warraq's view that "more Muslims have been raped, tortured and murdered by other Muslims than by westerners." Moreover, she suggested that those in the Islamic world who make this argument have not considered its full implications. How can we "criticize the military culture in Guantanamo if we are ourselves are not military personnel? And, how can Muslims criticize American foreign policy if they are not American citizens?"
Finally, she made a point that I have made many times -- and which has gotten me demonized as a “racist” -- namely, that so-called western "anti-racists" are really acting as "racists" when they hold Muslims to lower standards out of some misguided notion of respect.
There was much more on offer at the summit. Other subjects of discussion included the war between Sunni and Shiia Muslims; the nature of jihad; and the Islamic Caliphate. It is worth noting that the tenor of the week was very different from what many have come to expect from conferences on Islam. Nearly every single speaker spoke up for Israel and for Jews, pointing out that both have been terribly abused by the Islamic world, as has the West in general. The conference also presented a declaration in English, Arabic, Bengali and Persian. which may be viewed in English at http://www.secularislam.org.
One might think that the western media would have flocked to the summit in droves. It’s not every day, after all, that Muslim reformers and dissidents gather for a forthright discussion about the troubles of Islam and the Islamic world. Such was not the case. Both the Associated Press and NPR promised to come but did not show.
To be sure, there were some notable exceptions to the media blackout -- CNN's Glenn Beck devoted an entire hour to interviews with conference speakers; Bret Stephens covered it for the Wall Street Journal as did Jay Tolson for U.S. News and World Report and Christina Hoff-Sommers for The Weekly Standard -- but the various papers of record in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles were, to the best of my knowledge, missing in action.
Curiously, both al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, not previously known for their support of Islamic reform, covered the conference, which aired live and in Arabic. It is an unhappy irony that these noble dissidents should face ostracism and grave danger in Muslim lands and only to be similarly ignored by the Western intelligentsia and media.
Nonetheless, the summit was a remarkable success. As a participant, I was privileged to stand in solidarity with these dissidents. They are our best hope in the fight to win hearts and minds.
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