Where are the Muslim moderates?
That is a question that many in the West have been asking in recent years. Now it’s possible to provide an answer: They”re in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Between March 4 and March 7, the city is hosting the first ever Secular Islam Summit. Organized by the Center for Inquiry Transnational, an organization that promotes “science, reason, free inquiry,” as well as countless activists, the conference features more than two dozen speakers and about two hundred participants with varying religious and political backgrounds and nationalities. It is among the first conferences to bring together Muslim intellectuals for the purpose of discussing the threat of Islamic jihadism and finding secular and liberal expressions of Islam.
The opening remarks of the conference were given by two famous Western-based Muslim dissidents. First to speak was Ibn Warraq, the author of several volumes on secular Islam. In his sophisticated introduction to the Islamic “intellectual movement,” he laid out the philosophical basis for a full separation between religion and state in the Muslim world. Advocating universal values and a global reform of education, he also called for regime change in many countries, including in Iran, encouraged the formation of organizations to promote human rights in the Islamic world, and, in an interesting and twist, called on reformists to “take Mullahs to courts for issuing fatwas.”
Notably, Ibn Warraq made no attempt to justify or rationalize Islamic extremism. Considering that oft-asked question — “Why do they hate us?” — he offered an unambiguous answer: “They hate us because they were taught to do so.” Although Ibn Warraq said that he has already “left” Islam, his call for Muslim societies to undertake religious reform was compelling and urgent.
The second to address the summit was Irshad Manji. Born in Africa and raised in Canada, the best-selling author told the audience that the response to jihad is Ijtihad, an Islamic legal term used to denote an independent interpretation of the legal doctrine. Applying this reinterpretation to Islamic religious texts, including the Koran, would, according to Manji, defy and ultimately curb the influence of Islamic fundamentalists. She argued that there are many verses in the texts that can help a new interpretation defeat the narrow reading preferred by the Islamists.
Unlike Ibn Warraq, Manji revealed that she is still a Muslim and pledged to fight for her “Islam.” In conclusion, Manji invited non-Muslims to take part in the debate alongside reformist Muslims. To Muslim protests that their religion is their own business, Manji countered: “If they tell you have no business in Muslim affairs, tell them they have no business meddling in non-Muslim affairs.”
Following these opening remarks, the conference presented several discussion panels. The first panel, titled “Inside the Jihadi Mind,” included the Egyptian-born writer Tawfiq Hakim, who noted that the roots of Islamic terrorism are to be found in a political ideology that pretends be a religious doctrine. In his turn, Iraqi journalist Nibras Kazimi elaborated on the “mind of the Jihadi generals.” Other Muslim intellectuals, such as Shahriar Kabir from Bangladesh, Dr. Shaker al Nabusli from Jordan and Dr Afshin Ellian, a Dutch-based Iranian, addressed the relationship between traditions and Sharia laws.
Another panel on the separation of Mosque and state in the Islamic world included Jordanian activist Salameh Nematt, Hasan Mahmoud from Bangladesh and this author. During the panel, we discussed international law and politics and the Islamist movement.
In my presentation, I focused on the multiple areas of international relations where jihadi concepts — such as jihad, infidels, Caliphate and dar el-Harb — have to be addressed not only by the dissidents but also by Islamic countries. These terms from early Islamic history may have been part of the norms of world politics and religious wars 1,300 years ago, but under the current international system there is no place for jihadism and its derivatives, which have no respect for international law. Reformists may not agree on all aspects of the current crisis within Islam, I argued, but together they nonetheless represent a critical development: a form of Muslim resistance to jihad. Muslims should be able to draw distinctions between religious identity and militant ideology, thereby liberating themselves from jihadism. I also argued that the West has abandoned the anti-jihadist Muslims for decades and deplored the fact that Western governments, not excluding the US, have long been advised by apologists for jihadism instead of liberal Muslims.
There were many other panels scheduled throughout the week. For instance, Nonie Darwish from Palestine, Wafa Sultan from Syria, Zeino Baran a Turkish American scholar, and Iranian native Manda Zand Ervin are slated to address such subjects as secularism, women, terrorism and Islamism. All in all, it is an eclectic mix of topics with none of the speakers fitting into the molds of apologist and extremist that many have come to associate with conferences on Islam.
Te be sure, this is not the first time that Muslim authors and critics of the dominant religious and cultural order within their own community have debated these issues. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the last Caliphate and with the rise of Salafism, joined in the 1970s by Khomeinism, countless intellectuals have experienced harsh conditions and met tragic destinies as they rose to oppose fundamentalism and pressed for reforms. High-profile authors and intellectuals have spoken against authoritarianism and Islamism on the Indian subcontinent and the sub-Saharian desert. Dozens of journalists and academics have called for a global debate on the developments of politics and ideologies within Muslim countries. Back in 1994, for instance, a group called the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights met in New Jersey to address similar concerns. Dissidents have been meeting in many countries and cities in the last decades, an unmistakable if little-noticed theological and literary rebellion that illustrates the larger cultural conflict raging within Islam.
In a cruel irony, attempts by hard-liners to silence these reformers have often received more attention than the reformers themselves. In the 1980s, Salman Rushdie of India was targeted with a fatwa from the Ayatollah Khomeini for the publication of his book Satanic Verses, which Islamists judged heretical. Since then, the dissident author has kept a low profile. Similarly, in the early 1990s, author Mustafa Jeha was assassinated in Beirut for publishing a book titled Crisis of Mind in Islam. In keeping with this history, before the Secular Islam Summit even took place, internet-based attacks were unleashed against the conference and its participants by pro-Wahabi, Salafi and Khomeinist web sites and bloggers. Al-Jazeera sent a crew to interview the participants and also to air “opposing views” from leaders of the local community in the area. In its afternoon shows, the network sought comment from a local representative of the Islamist advocacy group the Council on American Islamic Relations.
In one respect, reformists have also hurt their own cause. Until recently, they have not acted collectively and have seldom met, making their task that much more difficult. This week’s conference is a welcome departure from this tradition. The Secular Islam Summit is an excellent example of what could occur if the United States, Europe and the international community would seriously consider supporting the Muslim intellectuals who seek pluralism, human rights and democracy: They would gain important allies in the war of ideas and the “War on Terror.”