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When I said I'd cover the Secular Islam summit I wasn't lying. We had a special insider at the conference to report to us from a perspective we can understand: practicing Muslim, since I figured there wouldn't be very many of those there. Here is her email to me. Now this is some down home good gossip.
Say hello to Saudi Salima, the added emphasis is hers:
This weekend, I attended the Secular Islam Summit in St. Petersburg, Florida. Since I live within driving distance of where the Summit was being held, I decided that, as a Muslim, I should attend and see what exactly the Summit was about. Having read a lot of negative things about the conference, I wanted to see just how Islam was discussed, and I was particularly interested in the notion of Islamic reform. I heard that Irshad Manji was one of the speakers, and I really wanted to see how she, professing to be a Muslim, discussed Islam. I was also interested in whether or not she, as one of very few Muslims there, would stand up for Muslims or engage in Muslim-bashing. Saturday, March 4, 2007: Secular Summit
The Summit started with keynote speeches by Ibn Warraq and Irshad Manji. Ibn Warraq is an atheist, and his talk was highly academic in nature, and I didn’t connect with the content- or the injections of humor. However, in retrospect, he was one of the more Islam-friendly non-Muslims at the Summit.
One thing I have to say for the Summit is that they welcomed, with open arms- free press. Al-Jazeera was here, covering the events- showing the Summit’s willingness to have present coverage that might be assumed to be unwelcome.
Manji’s keynote was next, and I was armed and ready to disagree with her, even though I was curious about Islamic reform. Frankly, I was also intrigued by her as a figure. I read her book last month, and while there were things I agreed with, I took serious issue with her position on Israel. Even still, she is one of the only “dissenters” I believe gives Islam a fair chance at all.
I was actually very impressed with Manji’s talk - the basic premise of which was that religion, namely Islam, has the potential to be used for good - and that potential must be tapped into. Toward the beginning of her speech, I started to write down as many lines as I could, and one of the first to strike me was this: “Maybe it’s because I believe Muslims are capable of better that I remain a person of faith. And proudly so.” She followed this up by talking about how she receives angry letters from atheists telling her that she needs to leave the faith, and that faith is nothing but a “fairytale” because it is something that is not tactile. She even said that such angry, “missionary atheists” are just as bad as the fundamentalists they claim to be working against. Contrary to many criticisms of her, she didn’t say anything remotely anti-Islam. She cited the fact that her religion keeps her curious, empathetic, disciplined, and devoted to answering to no one but Allah. She also stated that she believes George Bush’s tactics in promoting Shar’ia law in Iraq disrespects Islam.
What struck me most is that Manji repeatedly referenced her faith, and her strength in it, in the face of people who were openly speaking about how Islam is NOT reformable. There were a few delegates who insulted Islam outright, and it seemed like Manji took an extra effort in preparing her remarks to DEFEND Islam.
I don’t know if it is more damaging to her cause to associate with the likes of Wafa Sultan despite her beliefs - since those Muslims not attending the conference see only their names enjoined, rather than hearing what it is she had to say. That’s why I’ve discussed it here - I do believe that she has a lot of very good things to say- and at the very least we should know what those things are. Decide for yourself whether or not you agree.
Despite having been impressed with her talk, and her candor with the crowd - I did disagree on one rather significant point. When Manji discussed the role of non-Muslims in the conversation, she illustrated how she believed they should respond to Muslims who think they should stay out of the situation. She asked non-Muslims to say “Why are you racially profiling me? Why are you reducing me to the color of my skin and my non-Muslim heritage?” She than said that racially profiling non-Muslims is just as unethical as racially profiling Muslims themselves. Now, I see what she’s getting at - non-Muslims do have a stake in the conversation - but I disagree with the notion that this is racial profiling. Legacies of colonialism and racism place Muslims and other minorities at a very different power level than their more privileged counterparts- non-Muslims, the global north, etc. Racism truly doesn’t “go both ways”. When I later had the opportunity to question her on this point, she said that there's also a history of South Asian and African oppression under Arab Muslims and so shoud non-Arab Muslims - the majority - be permitted to profile Arab Muslims at airports? She makes a good intellectual point, but I don't think she gets the emotional impact that Western colonization has had, and still has, on the ummah - and on oppressed peoples worldwide.
Despite disagreeing on this point, I still feel that Manji stood up for Islam very strongly (yeah it was weird for this to be so obvious), and delivered her message with a very clear sentiment of wanting the best for Muslims. She also seemed to really have a humility before Allah, who, she said, “dwells restlessly” in her conscience. She quoted the ‘divine imperative’, Qu’ran 4:135, as one of her inspirations: “Believers: conduct yourselves with justice, and bear true witness before God- even if it be against yourselves, your parents, or your family”.
Later in the day, I heard Manji having a debate about humanism with another delegate. A few people in attendance claimed that secular humanism (which is quite different than religious humanism) is the most logical belief system to have. Personally, this belief system makes no sense to me, as it denies the validity of divine texts and really seems to be self-serving. I heard Manji say several really important things. The fellow she was debating said that Qu’ran invariably leads to arrogance. She responded that the Qu’ran asks for humility in service of freedom. That is, wherever you open up the Qu’ran, you're never far from 3 key messages: 1) only God knows fully the truth, 2) therefore God alone can reward belief and punish disbelief, and 3) as a result of God's authority, we human beings must have humility with each other -- enough humility not to play God with each other. Our humility sets us free to ponder God's will without any obligation to follow a dictated interpretation. She added that the Prophet himself reportedly reminded Muslims that "differences of opinion in my community are a sign of God's mercy." Is this not a defense of free thought, expression and conscience? Then the humanist said that even if Islam would allow Muslims this freedom, Islam doesn't allow others. Manji acknowledged that many Muslims don't permit intellectual freedom, but they're violating the best spirit of the Quran. That we Muslims have to extend freedom of conscience to EVERYONE for a basic reason: anything less undermine's Allah's jurisdiction as the supreme judge and jury. So if Irshad (which is how I will refer to her from here on out) isn't a humanist, what is she? "A humanitarian," she told me later, "who believes that we pay tribute to God's creative powers when when we exericise our own creativity." As an aside she added that humanists are only helping Christian evangelicals like Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Leadership Convention, who says the Bible is very clear that people are more important than nature. No wonder he opposes sustainable development. Another example of humanism leading to arrogance - whether among religious types or secular ones.
There is another very interesting story from today. There was a young woman present wearing hijab. This young woman told me that Irshad had advocated for she and other young Muslims to have access to the conference. She also said that Irshad encouraged her to wear her hijab proudly, rather than conform to the rest of the crowd there. This young woman, a convert to Islam, was told by Wafa Sultan that she, as an American, as a non-Arab speaker, as a thinker- is not a “real Muslim”. Wafa rejects Islam altogether yet had the nerve to claim authority in the faith! I discussed this situation, which really upset me, with Irshad later. She told me that she once took on Sultan’s brand of missionary atheism when Sultan pulled rank on her by saying that due to her Arabic language capacity, “no one can challenge me on the Qu’ran”- I’m assuming that includes mullahs, sheikhs, scholars and others. Irshad told me that she actually offered to organize a debate between Sultan and a reputable Qu’ranic scholar, and Sultan denied. It seems that it is not Islam that makes people like Sultan so narrow-minded, but cultural baggage they carry with them.
Tomorrow, the summit will release its manifesto. Irshad tells me that it's not guaranteed she will sign. At the end of her speech, she read a manifesto written by a young Muslim in India named Akbar, whom she said is a key member of Project Ijtihad. He's the hope, and she challenged the summit not to alienate faithful Muslims like him -- or her. She also challenged the summit to think about how they would ensure that faithful, reform-minded Muslims understand that the summit is on their side. Irshad needs to see those challenges met in the manifesto in order to sign it.
Irshad plans to leave the Summit tonight. She tells me that she agreed to speak at the Secular Islam Summit, not the Intelligence Summit, which starts tomorrow. She isn’t interested in being associated with the Intelligence Summit or its activities, which is something else all together. It was great to meet Irshad because she and I were on the same side for once - I found myself pleasantly surprised. We don’t agree on everything, but I really appreciated her unapologetic defense of Islam.
March 5, 2007: Intelligence Summit
By now Irshad was gone and I pretty much thought that it was now time to beat up on the Muslims.
I didn’t attend all of the talks; but did go to see a panel with Nonie Darwish and Wafa Sultan as well as other speakers- including a gentleman who spoke about Prophet Muhammad. He was saying that one of the challenges within Islam, and how to have Islam fit into present-day society, is that Muhammad was not only a religious leader, but a statesman- so the legacy of that has led to difficulties separating mosque and state. I personally felt that it wasn’t reasonable to blame all present day problems on the Prophet, and I also didn’t appreciate that his personal life was insulted by both Darwish and Sultan. The panel went overtime because of how heated the debates got. Both Darwish and Sultan spoke against Islamic reform- and both made statements like “it is impossible to be an American and a Muslim”. It was very upsetting. Sultan’s perspective in particular was, not surprisingly, very anti-Islam.
Close to the end of the panel, Darwish said that it is impossible to be both American and Muslim (and that most Muslims aren’t “real” Muslims) and the room was heavy with anti-Islamic sentiment. Other notable defenders of Islam included Tawfik Hamid and Shahriar Kabir, both of whom impressed all weekend.
Anyway, at this point, a young woman I later found out is named Raquel Evita Saraswati, spoke. It turns out that she works with Project Ijithad, founded by Irshad Manji. She challenged both Sultan and Darwish on their points by discussing her own devotion to the faith, how she is absolutely a practicing Muslim, and that she felt that Darwish and Sultan were flawed in labelling who is a Muslim and who is not. She found this particularly problematic after Darwish had stated that Muslims needed to be free to think, to believe and disbelieve, and make their own choices. She stated that their claims to support pluralism and progressivism are incongruent with their archaic definitions of what a Muslim is and can be.
In response to allegations that the Qu’ran is a document created by humans, Saraswati interjected that while she doesn’t believe that the Qu’ran is the absolute perfect word of Allah, but the word of Allah passed through translating hands - she believes that it is divinely inspired and absolutely a sacred text. Darwish challenged Saraswati by saying that not enough Muslims have stood up to defend those persecuted in the name of Allah. Saraswati said that she agreed wholeheartedly. Darwish asked her where the Muslims are who will risk themselves for oppressed Muslims and non-believers. Saraswati stated: “I am here with my life to do just that- and Project Ijtihad seeks to protect the rights of all people to think critically without fear of violence”. She also challenged Sultan’s Islam-bashing and allegations that Islam can’t be reformed.
It was interesting to see the consistency in Project Ijtihad’s team- they absolutely stand up for Islam. I disagree with Saraswati about the perfection of the Qu’ran - I absolutely believe that it is the absolute and final word of Allah. I do, however, have to respect the fact that she stood up to such staunch atheism in order to defend Islam. It certainly ended the panels on an interesting note - and a high note for Muslims.