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Secular Islam Summit: Islam‚€™s Rebel Women Make Their Mark

by Alamgir Hossain

13 Mar, 2007

A lot has already been written about the recently held Secular Islam Summit at St. Petersburg (Florida), yet I did not want to miss out on writing a few words about the exciting experience of this unprecedented event. I was thrilled to meet up with the prominent writers and activists, namely Ibn Warraq, Tashbih Sayyed, Wafa Sultan and Nonie Darwish et al.

As the summit started, my first encounter was with Wall Street Journal‚€™s Bret Stephens who sat next to me. While chatting with him, I mentioned of, and other websites which publish my essays. I requested him to make review of this significant and rising ‚€œcyber movement‚€ by the secular and ex-Muslims to counter the rise of radical Islam.

Although the summit was supposed to mean for a call to secularization of Islam, fewer of the speakers, namely Irshad Manji, Tashbih Sayyed, Shaker al-Nabusi and Hasan Mahmud et al., presented a reformist secular perspective, while a dominant majority were of the view that Islam is hard to reform. Ahmed Bedier, the head of Council on American-Islam Relations (CAIR) of the area, who dropped by the summit and denounced the event as irrelevant to Islam recognizing the participants either as apostates or non-practicing Muslims, who did not represent the voice of the Muslim community. Given the dominantly critical views being expressed at the summit, Mr. Bedier could not be more accurate than this, although Tashbih Sayyed, who calls himself a Muslim, angrily trashed Mr. Bedier‚€™s comment. He claimed that it is not Mr. Bedier or CAIR, who represent the Muslim community in the USA but he and his likes of the summit represented the Muslims in America. I, however, was left to wonder how many of American Muslims would respond to Mr. Tashbih Sayyed‚€™s call and how many to CAIR‚€™s. In agreement with Mr. Bedier‚€™s comment, I was also left to wonder how many of those allegedly secular Muslims practice regular Islamic prayers and fasting. In fact, one prominent speaker from the secular-reformist camp confided with me that he was personally a straight-forward atheist.

Although the famed Ibn Warraq was at his intellectual best, it was a band of courageous women, whose brave and loud voices stole much of attention in the summit. The brave and firebrand Wafa Sultan was almost at her usual self, who, while accepting an award for courage, found the vindication of her dangerous and selfless mission by recounting the comments of two readers from the Middle East. One female supporter, who has compiled her essays into a book, wrote ‚€œit is the Koran for her‚€, while another supporter has found a ‚€œtrue prophet‚€ in Wafa Sultan. In her plenary lecture on the issue of ‚€˜oppression of women in the Islamic world‚€™, she concluded that even if a single woman became freed from the tyranny of Islam as a result of her mission, she would consider her mission a success amid roaring applause. In answer to a question about the compatibility of Islam to secular Western society, she bluntly replied that it would possible only if ‚€˜everything of Islam was changed keeping the name‚€™. She was also candid in CNN‚€™s Glenn Beck interview about the true nature of Islam: ‚€œI don‚€™t see any difference between radical Islam and regular Islam. Because Islam is not only a religion. Islam is a religion and is a political ideology deeply rooted in its teaching.‚€ Nonie Darwish, the other brave rebel women of Islam, was equally brilliant in her presentations. In response to a question, both Wafa Sultan and Nonie Darwish emphasized that a person cannot be a good Muslim and an American at the same time. 

Amidst the great spectacle at the summit, another firebrand female rebel, Ayan Hirsi Ali, was conspicuously missing who could attend as she was on a nation-wide tour to promote her latest book, ‚€˜Infidel‚€™. Her endorsement of the summit declaration, however, made up somewhat for her absence. 

As I left the summit, I was left to wonder the great mark these rebel women of Islam have been making in the world-wide movement against the Islamic orthodoxy and radicalism. Anwar Shaikh, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin and Ibn Warraq have been the familiar names for some time. There is no doubt that Salman Rushdie‚€™s much controversial fiction, The Satanic Verses, opened the flood-gate of a movement for critical investigation of the theological core of Islam. Taslima Nasrin and Ibn Warraq have, subsequently, walked into the footsteps of Rushdie although in their own style. The fateful day of 9/11 created another spur among the hesitant rebels of Islam to jump into the noble cause of confronting the fast-rising intolerant orthodoxy of Islam, which has ravaged the Islamic world and was now poised to engulf the West, too. 

Seventeen years after the Rushdie affair of 1989, we witness an array of critics of Islam from the Muslim background making their mark. The Secular Islam Summit was a bold statement of this solidifying movement, which can only move forward from here on. This summit was also a demonstration of how a few women of extraordinary courage taking the lead role in this movement. Alongside the majority of toned-down male speakers at the summit, it is the women like Wafa Sultan, Nonie Darwish and Banafsheh Zand-Bonazzi spoke in forceful voices and defiant body-language. It is the Muslim women who have suffered and continue to suffer most from the cruelty of Islam, which was even affirmed by the favorite wife (Aisha) of prophet Muhammad: ‚€œ‚€¶Aisha said, "I have not seen any woman suffering as much as the believing women‚€¶‚€ (Bukhari 7:72:715). Aisha had realized this conspicuous truth right at the birth of Islam but accepted it as a privilege. It appears that a band of women are waking up to this realization again today, who are not willing to tolerate the degradation, injustice, cruelty and barbarism of Islam on them and on their fellow women folks. Their brave, loud and forceful voice and defiant body-language spoke volume about how impatiently they to wait to see the end of  the tyranny of Islam. 

Ibn Warraq, who thinks reformation of Islam is irrelevant, wrote: ‚€œWhat we need now is an age of enlightenment in the Islamic world. Without critical examination of Islam, it will remain dogmatic, fanatical and intolerant and will continue to stifle thought, human rights, individuality, originality and truth.‚€ Ibn Warraq is correct in that a divine truth which stands true for eternity does not require reformation, which is a term in contradiction. What is needed is the realization among the Muslims that there are also truths outside the bounds of Islam. Evidences for such a realization or enlightenment are way too many in our world of today, which is nourished so overwhelmingly by science, reason and rationalism rooted outside the bounds of the theology of Islam. But Muslims, despite their increasing level of education and prosperity in recent decades, defy these overwhelming evidences and continue to slide towards radical orthodoxy for establishing the sole truth, which they consider lie in Islam, on the world stage. 

Movement for an Islamic enlightenment is nothing new. It started very early in Islam during the Umayyad rule (661-750 CE), which was carried forward by the pseudo-Islamic Mutazilites and the subsequent freethinking philosophers during the Abbasid caliphate (751-1250 CE). Given these failed examples, which were often patronized by the unquestioned rulers of the time, there is a need for a much bolder, probably a fierce, movement to effect a successful and lasting enlightenment, if at all it happens. The way Muslims continue to defy the compelling reasons for an enlightenment, a passive diffusion of it is unlikely to occur ‚€“ not in decades, probably not even in centuries. All indications suggest that orthodoxy and fanaticism among Muslims are only likely to deepen in the coming decades. 

With the Islamic world, already lost to the darkness of fanatic orthodoxy of Islam, there is an urgent need to effect an immediate enlightenment to save the West, where a significant and fast-growing community of increasingly fanatic Muslims have found their home. There is a need to effect a revolutionary change in the attitudes of the Muslims in two to three decades to save the West. When I pressed Ibn Warraq at the summit about his views on the future impact of Islam in the Western world, he reluctantly termed it ‚€œdepressing‚€, especially in Europe. 

If such a change in the attitudes of the Muslims in such a short time is at all to happen, probably those loud, scathing and defiant voices at the summit coming mainly from the female speakers, would play a pioneering role. Those who hope that a passive diffusion of enlightenment would trickle into the Muslim populace, have little idea about the history of Islam; neither do they take note of the fast-rising radicalism among the Muslims, including in the West. What is needed is proactive forcing of an enlightenment down the throats of the Muslims in double-quick time. Our hope lies in those brave and defiant rebel women of Islam more, if not mostly. So far, the rebel men of Islam are only playing the second fiddle.   [Hit Counter]