Islam began as one of many religions in Arabia. It taught simple monotheism, emphasized divine justice, and encouraged helping the poor, widowed, and orphaned. Mohammed was convinced that he had divine truth, but few paid attention to him except to mock him. After twelve years of unsuccessful preaching and persecution, he went to Medina with his followers in 622 AD. There he unsuccessfully attempted to convert the city’s inhabitants. Historically, this failure marks the beginning of the politicization of Islam and the subjugation of non-Muslims within Muslim-ruled areas.
Mohammed’s revelations changed. He began talking about Islam as both a religion and a divinely mandated way of life for mankind, to be imposed by force if necessary. Politics married theology, and Mohammed started a bloody military campaign to conquer and convert Arabia. This spelled the end of religious pluralism in the Arab and Muslim world.
It has been almost 1400 years since Mohammed claimed his first revelation, and the Muslim mixture of politics and religion remains a problem. But this past spring witnessed a historical first with the Secular Islam Summit in St. Petersburg, Florida. Religious Muslims, secular Muslims, and ex-Muslims from around the world gathered to discuss how to separate Islam as a religion from political affairs. While there many differences, all speakers agreed that Islam cannot remain both a political and religious teaching. For its own survival, it needs to choose.
Ibn Warraq stated that Islam itself is the problem that leads to terrorism. He denied that poverty, the Arab-Israeli conflict, or U.S. foreign policy caused terrorism, but rather an Islamic ideology found in the theology. He emphasized defending human rights, protecting Western values in Western society, and teaching Islamic nations to take responsibility. He encouraged Islamic nations to hold their leaders, particularly in Iran, accountable for crimes against humanity, and he demanded accountability from Saudi Arabia and Syria for promoting hate through school textbooks, “tinpot Mullahs,” and national leaders.
Invoking the secularization of the West through Biblical criticism, Warraq reasoned that aggressively promoting Koranic criticism and intellectual debate would facilitate a secularized environment. He also proposed creating human rights centers, pushing for restructuring the “hopelessly politicized” UN Human Rights Commission, and defending minorities in Muslim societies, such as Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, apostates, and atheists. He especially urged the West to take a strong stand in supporting these minorities by demanding their fair treatment, while shunning political Islamic movements.
While Warraq encouraged Koranic scholarship in order to prompt Muslims to question their faith and its practices, others believed that Islam itself encourages such questioning and exploration. One of these was the self-proclaimed Muslim “refusnik” and author of the bestseller The Trouble with Islam, Irshad Manji. Manji advocates that Muslims claim the right to consider alternative interpretations of Islam in their daily lives.
Manji, who was raised a Muslim and still considers herself one, said that Islam taught her discipline, self-control, and helped her to stem desires such as greed. Although she is a fervent critic of Islam, she believes that Islam is capable of great things when distinguished from fundamentalism. Instead of adhering to what she defined as a dogmatic, fearful Islam, Manji wants to build on the creativity and beauty of Islam’s past through great Muslim thinkers such as Ibn Rushd, Rumi, Moghul Emperor Akbar, and others. In order for Islam to modernize, it must reclaim this breadth. This tradition of pluralism, called “ijtihad” in Arabic, is one of the keys to restoring Islam to its potential.
In accordance with ijtihad principles, Manji emphasized the importance of a society in which all religions can co-exist. Calling herself a Muslim pluralist, she chastised George Bush for “empowering theocrats” who want to institute an Islamic theocracy and Sharia law in Iraq’s new constitution. She also said that it was an insult to Islam to believe that Muslims can only live in an Islamic society. For Manji, any kind of Islamic teaching that values ignorance, violence, or hatred is not a part of Islam at all.
Another speaker, Tawfiq Hamid, was a former associate of Al Qaeda terrorist Ayman al-Zarqawi and was active in the Egyptian radical movement Jamaat Islamiyya (JI) during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Hamid was born into a secular family, but joined JI as a teenager when he became interested in religion. Zarqawi assigned him to train as an anti-Christian polemicist, but after reading the Bible Hamid began to question JI’s teachings, as well as many of Islam’s more violent practices. Instead of following Zarqawi, Hamid formulated a peaceful version of Islam and left JI and, later, Egypt.
Hamid gave a profound insight into Islamic terrorist psychology. Speaking from his own experiences, he described three steps used to indoctrinate young men into radicalism. First, new members are forced to cease asking questions about Islamic doctrine and to merely accept what is taught in the mosque. He explained how terror groups do this by using passages from the Koran and Hadeeth to threaten the disobedient with hell and eternal damnation. Second, terrorists emphasize the afterlife over the present life, with promises of wealth and especially lustful women for the faithful. In conservative, poor, class-stratified, and culture-bound societies, dreams of an extravagant life are very appealing. Finally, they teach new jihadis to hate non-Muslims or Muslims not living in strict accordance with the law. This hate justifies violence against innocent people.
Although Hamid still considers himself a Muslim, he doesn’t believe that Islam should be allowed have political power. He described the Islamization of government in terms of a cancer, infecting and destroying a healthy body unless it is removed with quick and direct force. In his view, terrorists and Islamic political activity need to be squashed without apology and a secular, pluralistic worldview maintained in order to preserve peace between people.
While Hamid encouraged the secularization of Islamic society, some speakers asserted that secularism has enjoyed a long history in certain Muslim societies. Speaking along these lines was Jordanian scholar Shaker Nabulsi. He traced this history, beginning with the Islamic Umayyad dynasty in 656 AD with Uthman’s (the third Islamic caliph) death and the struggle for the next caliph.
According to Nabulsi, the secularization of Muslim society began less than thirty years after Mohammed’s death, due to competition between two potential successors. One claimant, Mu’awiyah, the son of Muslim devotee Abu Sufyan, was elected by the majority of Muslims. The second claimant was Ali, Mohammed’s cousin, who believed that Mohammed wanted leadership to be kept within Mohammed’s family line. Ali and his followers (Shia) rebelled against Mu’awiyah. Although Ali reached a peace with Mu’awiyah, Nabulsi argued that the conflict counterposed secular and sacred power.
Nabulsi then traced a contentious relationship between the ulama (religious scholars) and the Umayyad, Abbasid, and even Ottoman states. Some caliphs not only downplayed God, Islam, or the Koran but openly rejected God. One such leader was Umayyad caliph Yazid. Upon his ascension to power, it was said that he closed the Koran, looked at it, and said “This is my last obligation to you.” Other leaders, such as caliph Abdel Malik suppressed religions and mosque-state relations, at one time telling a group of ulema that “I will behead a person who is telling me to fear god.” This same tension continued into the Abbasid, and even the later Ottoman dynasties.
For Nabulsi, the most secularized Islamic caliphates corresponded with the greatest religious pluralism, prosperity, and intellectual discussion. In contrast, rulers who wanted the unity of deen (Islamic religious power) and dunya (secular power) found themselves facing infighting and unrest. Secularism turns out to be a requirement even for a Muslim majority society in order to sustain democracy and coexistence with non-Muslims.
Bengali human rights activist, journalist, filmmaker, and secularist Shahriar Kabir expressed similar secularism. Kabir proudly proclaimed that in 1972 Bangladesh became the first Muslim nation to adopt a secular constitution. Quoting Sheik Mujib, the founder of modern Bangladesh and the key proponent of the secular constitution, he noted that secularism does not mean the suppression of religion, but rather the separation of religion from the state in order that faith “may not be used as a political weapon.” However, Kabir noted that the constitution was short-lived. After Mujib’s assassination in 1975, Islamic groups took power and now militant Islamic groups are plentiful.
Kabir reported that Bangladesh had a long history of religious tolerance and acceptance with Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims. Bangladesh’s first experiences with Islam involved the peaceful and mystical Sufi Islam. He also noted how throughout all of Bangladesh’s history, there has been a strong secularist tendency. He concluded that the goal of secularism in a Muslim-majority country is to stop the political use of religion.
But can Islam really be separated from politics? Ex-Muslim secularist Wafa Sultan did not see how. In her view, the only fix would involve replacing the entire theological foundations of Islam.
While she praised the idea of moderate Islam, she questioned where the moderate Muslims were in speaking out against terrorism. She called for a renewed look at Islam, emphasizing that Islam must be changed in order to accommodate modern sensibilities. Muslim clerics should stop promoting violence, killing, or hatred in the name of Islam. Additionally, the West must stop fearing being called prejudiced by Muslims for their suspicion of them, while the Muslim world must accept criticism for supporting terrorists. Most importantly, it is crucial for the West to defend itself.
Media commentator Walid Phares noted that the process of modernizing Islam and stopping terrorism is inherently connected to intellectual and societal change. He warned that terrorists have been very clear about their goal of dividing the world into Muslim and non-Muslim “planets.” He criticized Western society, and particularly the educational system, for failing to address these problems in a non-partisan manner. Phares called for an “intellectual revolution within the Islamic community by Muslims and non-Muslims,” with the goal of creating pluralism and coexistence for Muslims worldwide.
In addition to these speakers, there were many others with fascinating backgrounds. Speaker Nonie Darwish was the daughter of an Egyptian military commander and Muslim Brotherhood supporter assassinated by Israeli special forces. She now runs Arabsforisrael.com and is a speaker in support of human rights in Muslim nations. Speaker Afsheen Ellian fled Iran at 17 by camelback to Afghanistan. He came as a refugee to the Netherlands, where he is now a professor. Bengali-born Canadian speaker Hassan Fatemolla, who works as a journalist, playwright, and activist, presented his experiences in opposing the addition of Sharia law into Canada’s justice system.
The conference culminated in the St. Petersburg Declaration, an appeal to Muslims, non-Muslims, and non-religious people to unite for freedom of religion. It denounces the rigid Islamic orthodoxy commonly preached in Western mosques and demanded rejection of Sharia law, honor killings, and any teachings that promote hate or violence. It also supports the idea that Islam can survive as a personal faith that can coexist alongside other religions, but not as a political and religious ideology. Delivered in English, Arabic, Farsi, and Bengali, it marked a historical first where Muslims and non-Muslims stood together to call for reform in the Islamic religion and in Muslim nations.
Andrew Bieszad’s report on the Conference on Secular Islam will appear in TELOS 139 (Summer 2007).