Islam’s Other Radicals – Secular Islam Summit

Bret Stephens, WSJ

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — At this landmark Summit on Secular Islam, there are no “moderate” Muslims.

There are ex-Muslims: People like Ibn Warraq, author of “Why I Am Not a Muslim,” who doesn’t want an Islamic Reformation so much as he does a Muslim Enlightenment. There are ex-jihadists: people like Tawfik Hamid, who, as a young medical student in Cairo, briefly enlisted in the Gamaa Islamiya terrorist group and who remembers being preached to by a mesmerizing doctor named Ayman al-Zawahiri.

There are Muslim runaways: People like Afshin Ellian, who in 1983 fled Iran — and the threat of execution — on camelback and is now a professor of law at the University of Leiden in Holland. (Now threatened by European jihadists, he lives with round-the-clock police protection.) There are experts on Islamic law: People like Hasan Mahmoud, a native Bangladeshi who, as director of Shariah at the Muslim Canadian Congress, was instrumental in overturning Ontario’s once-legal Shariah court last year.

There are even a few practicing Muslims here, such as Canadian author Irshad Manji. Ms. Manji, whose documentary “Faith Without Fear” airs on PBS next month, describes herself as a “radical traditionalist” and draws a sharp distinction between Muslim moderates and reformers:

    “Moderate Muslims denounce terror that’s committed in the name of Islam but they deny that religion has anything to do with it. Reform-minded Muslims denounce terror that’s committed in the name of Islam and acknowledge that our religion is used to inspire it.”

The difference is not trivial. For more than five years, the Bush administration has been attempting to enlist the support of the so-called moderates in the war on terror — its definition of “moderate” being remarkably elastic, to put it charitably. To take one example, administration emissary Karen Hughes has “reached out” to such figures as Sheikh Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, head of al-Azhar theological university in Cairo, with whom she had a “wonderful meeting” in September 2005.

Sheikh Tantawi, adept at talking out of both sides of his mouth, had earlier approved a fatwa calling on the Iraqi people to “defend itself, its land, and its homeland [against the U.S. invasion] with all means of defense at its disposal, because it is a jihad that is permitted by Islamic law. . . . The gates of jihad are open until the Day of Judgment, and he who denies this is an infidel or one who abandons his religion.”

Undersecretary Hughes is not at this summit, of course, nor is anyone else from the State Department, nor is the U.S.-funded al-Hurra Arabic TV station — facts archly noted by the conferees. In the quasi-official U.S. view, the speakers at this conference amount to an exotic, publicity-seeking fringe group, with whom close association is politically unwise.

Al-Jazeera, however, is here, suggesting that the real Arab mainstream better appreciates the broad interest the conference’s speakers attract in the Muslim world, as well as their latent power. Perhaps this is the flip side of the appeal of extremist Islam, an indication that what Muslims are mainly looking for are radical alternatives to the unpalatable mush of unpopular autocratic governments, state-approved clerics like Sheikh Tantawi, and Saudi-funded “mainstream” organizations such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Radicalism, at least of a kind, is certainly what this summit provides via Wafa Sultan. Dr. Sultan, a Syrian-born psychiatrist now living in the U.S., came to widespread public attention last year after she debated a Sunni cleric on al-Jazeera. “Only Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches,” she observed. The televised clip, translated by Memri, has been downloaded on YouTube more than a million times.

Dr. Sultan, whose outspokenness has forced her and her family into hiding, is here to receive an award from the Center for Inquiry, the summit’s organizer and lead funder. She accepts it by saying: “I don’t believe there is any difference between radical Islam and regular Islam.”

The view is shared by some, though by no means all, of the conferees. “Salafists cannot imagine Islam without the killing of apostates,” says Dr. Hamid, who also now lives in hiding. “To them, the religion is a house of cards: Remove one element, and the whole structure collapses.”

Another conferee subscribes to the Salafist logic, though he dissents from the religion as a whole. “Truth is,” he admits, “to be a Muslim democrat you have to be a bad Muslim.”

In this view, the baggage of Shariah and hadith — the traditions in which some of the most violent Islamic injunctions are to be found — are as central to Islam as the Quran itself. Hasan Mahmoud disagrees. “Most Muslims don’t even know what the Shariah laws are,” he says. “The moment you actually show them what the laws are, they can understand they’re unjust.” Mr. Mahmoud illustrates the point by observing that, under Shariah, a husband does not require a witness to divorce his wife. “But the Quran says that if you want to divorce your wife, you need two witnesses. With Muslims, this kind of thing works magic.”

Mr. Mahmoud spreads his gospel partly by way of cheaply produced DVDs, which seems pretty crude until one recalls that Ayatollah Khomeini, during his exile in Paris, spread the gospel of Islamic revolution by way of audio cassettes. Other conferees also have their Web sites: Alamgir Hussain, from Singapore, has; Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi, the conference’s moving spirit, puts out; other conferees write for and so on. These are the “frugal chariots,” to borrow a phrase from Emily Dickinson, that bear the Muslim reformer’s soul.

A fair bit of U.S. government money is being spent on conference security, including from the FBI. Still, it’s remarkable that the government, given the huge resources available from places like the National Endowment for Democracy, provides no funding or support for this conference or its various participants.

Here are two questions for the government: If Mr. Warraq, Dr. Sultan et al. are really irrelevant to the larger Muslim debate, why are the jihadists so eager to kill them? And if the jihadists want to kill them, don’t they deserve support as well as security?

March 6, 2007 | 2 Comments »

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