SECULAR ISLAM ON THE RISE
Phyllis Chesler is the well known author of classic works, including
the bestseller Women and Madness (1972) and The
New Anti-Semitism (2003). She has just published The
Death of Feminism: What’s Next in the Struggle for Women’s
Freedom (Palgrave Macmillan), as well as an updated and
revised edition of Women and Madness. Her website 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.
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.
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.
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.
explained that he wants an Islamic "Enlightenment,"
à 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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
THE ST. PETERSBURG
We are secular
Muslims, and secular persons of Muslim societies. We are believers,
doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle,
not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the
We affirm the
inviolable freedom of the individual conscience. We believe
in the equality of all human persons.
We insist upon
the separation of religion from state and the observance of
universal human rights.
We find traditions
of liberty, rationality, and tolerance in the rich histories
of pre-Islamic and Islamic societies. These values do not
belong to the West or the East; they are the common moral
heritage of humankind.
We see no colonialism,
racism, or so-called “Islamaphobia” in submitting
Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate
human reason or rights.
We call on the
governments of the world to:
law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion
in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and
apostasy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal
Declaration of Human rights;
such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling,
and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women;
protect sexual and gender minorities from persecution and
education that teaches intolerance and bigotry towards non-Muslims;
foster an open public sphere in which all matters may be discussed
without coercion or intimidation.
We demand the release of Islam from its captivity to the totalitarian
ambitions of power-hungry men and the rigid strictures of
We enjoin academics
and thinkers everywhere to embark on a fearless examination
of the origins and sources of Islam, and to promulgate the
ideals of free scientific and spiritual inquiry through cross-cultural
translation, publishing, and the mass media.
We say to Muslim
believers: there is a noble future for Islam as a personal
faith, not a political doctrine;
Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and all members of
non-Muslim faith communities: we stand with you as free and
and to nonbelievers:
we defend your unqualified liberty to question and dissent.
Before any of
us is a member of the Umma, the Body of Christ, or the Chosen
People, we are all members of the community of conscience,
the people who must chose for themselves.