A unusual conference, taking place on the West coast of Florida, drew the attention of many observers of the War of Ideas: The first Secular Islam Summit. Organized by the Center for Inquiry Transnational and various activists, the meeting included two dozen speakers and about two hundred participants from various backgrounds and nationalities. It took place at the Hilton, St. Petersburg, just before and in conjunction with the Intelligence Summit which took place in the same location.
But this meeting, unlike many other Muslim intellectual conferences in the West or even worldwide, was aimed against Jihadism and for a secular and liberal expression within Islam. It wasn’t the first time Muslim authors and critics of the dominant religious and cultural order within their own community spoke out, wrote about or debated the issues.
The history of dissidence within the Muslim world, particularly in modern times, is rich and diverse. It is also full of drama and violence, particularly against the dissidents themselves. Since the mid 1920s, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the last Caliphate, and with the rise of Salafism, joined in the 1970s by Khomeinism, dozens of intellectuals experienced harsh conditions and met tragic destinies as they rose to oppose fundamentalism and press for reforms. That history has yet to be written thoroughly and taught in the mainstream educational systems. High profile authors and intellectuals have spoken out against authoritarianism and Islamism from the sub Indian continent to 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. And with the post 9/11 era, more questions have fused worldwide from Western and non-Western quarters. “What went wrong in the Muslim world?” wrote Bernard Lewis? “Why do they hate us?” titled the press after the 2001 attacks. And since then, many among the public asked, without hearing convincing answers, “But where are the moderates (within the Muslim world)?”
The St. Petersburg meeting is not the first meeting where Muslim intellectuals (and non-Muslims) met and attempted to answer these difficult questions. Back in 1994, a 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 and have produced high profile cases of theological and literary rebellion have illustrated the cultural conflict within Islam.
In the 1980s, Salman Rushdie of India got his fatwa for the publication of the Satanic Verses. Since then, the dissident author lives in the underground. In the early 1990s, author Mustafa Jeha was assassinated in Beirut for publishing the Crisis of Mind in Islam (Mihnat al Aql fil Islam). Across the Mediterranean and on two continents, other Muslim “revolutionaries” (described as apostates by their Jihadi enemies) have challenged the dominant ideological paradigm. But until recently, they never decided to act collectively, and until the meeting in St. Petersburg in Florida, they hadn’t decided to meet. Hence when a few among them (with well-known names in the field of dissidence) decided finally to get together and face the world, they have knowingly or not, begun to change the world. This was, as I saw it, a first small step in the right direction.
The opening remarks were given by two famous Western-based Muslim dissidents. The first to speak was Ibn Warraq, the author of several volumes on Secular Islam. Elaborating on a long and sophisticated introduction to the “intellectual movement”, he laid out the philosophical basis of full separation between religion and state in the Muslim world. But Ibn Warraq said he already “left” Islam and his call was to reform the “relationship” between Muslim societies and religious laws. He advocated universal values and a global reform of education. On political grounds, he called for a regime change in many countries, including in Iran, the formation of Human Rights centers, and in an interesting and new twist, he asked to “take Mullahs to courts for issuing fatwas.” His conclusion was simple: “they hate us because they were taught to do so.”
The second to address the summit was the “refuznik” Irshad Manji. Born in Africa and raised in Canada, the best-selling female author told the audience that the response to Jihad is Ijtihad. In short, reinterpretation of the religious texts (and the Koran), according to Manji would defy the Fundamentalists. Unlike Ibn Warraq, Irshad said she is still a Muslim and she will fight for her “Islam.” She argued that there are many verses in the texts that can help a new interpretation defeat the tight reading by the Islamists. In conclusion, Manji invited non-Muslims to take part in the debate along side with reformist Muslims: “If they tell you they have no business in Muslim affairs, tell them they have no business meddling in non-Muslim affairs.”
The first panel included Tawfiq Hakim from Egypt who underlined that the roots of Terrorism are found in the ideology that pretends being a religious doctrine. Nibras Kazimi from Iraq elaborated on the “mind of the Jihadi generals.” Other intellectuals, such as Shahriar Kabir from Bengla Desh, Dr Shaker al Nabusli from Jordan and Dr Afshin Ellian a Dutch-based Iranian, addressed the relationship between traditions and Sharia laws. At the end of the first day the last panel, with Salamat Neemat from Jordan, Hasan Mahmoud from Bengla Desh and I discussed international law and politics and the Islamist movement. The following day, Nonie Darwish from Palestine, Wafa Sultan from Syria, Zeino Baran a Turkish American scholar, and Manda Zand Ervin from Iran addressed secularism, women terrorists and Islamism.
Interestingly enough, and before the summit took place, internet-based attacks were unleashed against the conference by pro-Wahhabi, Salafi and Khomeinist web sites and bloggers. Al Jazeera sent a crew to interview the participants and also air “opposing views” from leaders of the local community in the area. In its afternoon shows, the network had a local representative of the advocacy group CAIR and Dr. Nabulsi from the conference “cross fire” about the conference.
In my presentation, I focused on the multiple areas of international relations where Jihadi concepts have to be addressed, not only by the dissidents, but also by so-called mainstream countries. The concepts are: Jihad, infidels, Caliphate and dar el Harb. These terms from early Islamic history may have been part of the norms of world politics and religious wars at the time, i.e., 1300 years ago, but under the current international system there is no place for Jihadism and its derivatives which would cause international law to disintegrate. In this conference, I argued, even though the global reform movement may not agree on all aspects of the crisis, it could constitute a broad Muslim resistance to Jihad. I termed the latter concept so that Muslims who can make the distinction between religious identity and a specific militant ideology can initiate a debate and liberate themselves from Jihadism. I also argued that the West has abandoned the anti-Jihadist Muslims for decades, and I deplored the fact that Western Government, the U.S. included, have been advised by Jihadi apologists instead of liberal Muslims for decades.
In a sum, the Secular Islam Summit may have not been as large as the Wahhabi- or Khomeinist-funded and -supported conferences around the world but it certainly gave an 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: a surge in the War of Ideas that could push the War on Terror to conclude faster, and with much better results.
The original article can be found at http://www.familysecuritymatters.org/