RELIGION: by Joseph PoprzecznyNews Weekly
Call to reform and modernise Islam
, July 7, 2007
When future historians look back at the first decade following Al-Qaeda's September 11, 2001, strikes on America soil, they're likely to conclude that the most significant counter-measure against the ideology that inspired those murderous attacks was taken early this year and well away from the Islamic world. Joseph Poprzeczny reports.On March 5, a group of secular and reformist Muslims held what they called a Secular Islam Summit in the west coast Florida city of St Petersburg, and released what is known as the St Petersburg Declaration.
All its endorsees, in one way or another, have grappled - and are still grappling - with the many profound questions arising from the fact that so many aspects of the faith of their ancestors and of their own early lives are so markedly at variance, indeed, diametrically opposed, to their humanistic desires.Secular Muslims
The now four-month-old declaration that was formally read out in English by the best-selling Pakistani author, Ibn Warraq, now living in America, stated:
"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 unfree.
"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:
• reject Sharia 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;
• eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honour killing, forced veiling and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women;
• protect sexual and gender minorities from persecution and violence;
• reform sectarian education that teaches intolerance and bigotry towards non-Muslims; and
• 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 orthodoxy.
"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;
• to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha'is and all members of non-Muslim faith communities: we stand with you as free and equal citizens;
• and to non-believers: 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 choose for themselves."
This declaration was endorsed by 14 eminent authors and scholars, most of whom attended the St Petersburg Secular Islam Summit.Endorsers
The endorsers are: Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Magdi Allam, Mithal Al-Alusi, Shaker Al-Nabulsi, Nonie Darwish, Afshin Ellian, Tawfik Hamid, Shahriar Kabir, Hasan Mahmud, Wafa Sultan, Amir Taheri, Ibn Warraq, Manda Zand Erwin and Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi.
Darwish, an Egyptian, read the declaration in Arabic - others presented it in Bengali, Urdu and Farsi.
She believes the declaration will resonate with untold millions cross the Middle East.
The summit's chairman and main organiser, Warraq, is a specialist Koranic scholar who in 1996 published the groundbreaking work, Why I am not a Muslim
Warraq has edited a series of anthologies: What the Koran Really Says: Language, Text, and Commentary
; The Quest for the Historical Muhammed
; The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam's Holy Book
; Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out
; and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, and the Influence of Pre-Islamic Poetry
His latest book is: Defending the West: A Critique of Edward Said's Orientalism
Before the summit he said: "What we need now is an Age of Enlightenment in the Islamic world, of the Islamic mind-set or worldview.
"Without critical examination of Islam, it will remain unassailed in its dogmatic, fanatical, medieval fortress; ossified, totalitarian and intolerant. It will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality; originality and truth."
Somali-born author and a former Dutch member of parliament, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who attended last month's Sydney Writers' Festival, although not present at the St Petersburg, Florida, Summit, endorsed the declaration prior to its release, as did the noted Iranian-born international columnist and author, Amir Tahiri.Head-on challenge
Although future historians may debate aspects of the declaration's impact, none will be able to contend that this boldly-worded manifesto didn't confront head-on the revolutionary Islamic ideology known as Salafi Jihadism, which lies at the heart of the struggle going on wherever Muslims live, especially the Middle East but also across Europe.
Salafi Jihadism is a worldwide religious revivalist movement that seeks to create a super-Islamic state - the new or resurrected Caliphate - which would embrace all Islamic lands, from Morocco to the Philippines, including southern Spain, south-eastern Europe, central Asia, much of the Indian sub-continent and the South-East Asian archipelago.
According to Egyptian-born terrorism expert, Dr Mamoun Fandy, Salafism is an orthodox, and fundamentalist, interpretation of Islam that yearns for the days and ways of the Prophet Mohammad.
"The word Salafi
means the past, the previous generations," says Fandy.
"Salafis are those people who believe in the teachings of Islam, based on the dictates of the previous generation. And by the previous generations, they mean the generations of the followers of the Prophet who came after him, in the eighth century.
"That's the literal translation - that those who subscribe to the notion of Salafism are those who are unhappy with the interpretation of Islam today, and they want to go to the origins of Islam and what was intended to be in the time of the Prophet and his companions."
America's leading expert on Salafism, Marc Sageman, in a June 2003 statement to the US National Commission on the September 11 attacks, argued that Salafism's roots can be found in modern-day Egypt.
"It is the violent culmination of Muslims' attempts to come to terms with their fallen glory," Sageman said.
"Just a few centuries ago, Islam was the most vital and dominant religious force in the world. Now, the lands of Islam are under Western political and economic dominance. Western cultural, social and technical achievements have eclipsed past Muslim grandeur and now challenge core Islamic beliefs.
"Over the past three centuries, revivalist Islamic movements have tried to answer this challenge. One of their answers is to return to pure and authentic Islam, as practised by the Prophet and his companions.
"To them, 'Islam is the answer' and only a re-creation of the practices of their devout ancestors - Salaf
in Arabic - will bring glory and prominence back to Muslims.
"Salafists advocate a strict interpretation of the Koran and they view with scepticism any later innovation, for it might be a heretical corruption of the original message.
"Their main ideologists include Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who forged an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, a local tribal chief of the Arabian Peninsula two and a half centuries ago; Hasan al-Banna, Mawlana Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri."
Nothing could be further from Salafism than the St Petersburg Declaration with its emphasis on tolerance of all beyond the intended Calliphate's boundaries and its rejection of theocratic rule - its opposition to "Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms" and its preference for "liberty, rationality, and tolerance".Despised
Salafists not only despise all who endorsed the St Petersburg Declaration, since the 14 signatories seek a tolerant secular order worldwide, but also modern-day Muslim nations that haven't instituted Sharia and the strict Koranic law.
The summit's Iranian-American organiser Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi declared: "The summit hopes to encourage a new global movement for reason, science, and secular values within Islamic societies."- Joseph Poprzeczny.