I have been following discussions about the Secular Islam Summit before it took place as well as afterward. The Summit was attended mostly by non-Muslims, ex-Muslims and only 2-3 avowed Muslims who appeared to have no connection with the mainstream Muslim community. There was a public declaration when the Summit ended. The mainstream Muslim community ignored the Summit for the most part, considering it an Islam-bashing propaganda sand-castled on Islamophobia. Some mainstream Muslim communities and organizations that condemned or dismissed this Summit as irrelevant or even malicious. I also read the exchange between Mr. Robert Spencer, one of the patrons of the Summit who needs little introduction, and Mr. Mike Ghouse, an American Muslim committed to engage the Muslim community in upholding and promoting the ideals of pluralism, justice and peace.
Regardless of the way mainstream Muslims may view this Summit and might even dismiss it some serious underlying issues and problems might be glossed over, which is the focus of this write-up. Relevant also is that it seeks a common-ground, to identify the points of tangency and convergence and collectively build consensus toward common good.
First, it is important to identify and acknowledge non-Muslims as stakeholders in a broader sense in issues pertaining to Islam. All stakeholders may not formulate or implement a decision or agenda, but an entity should consider their concerns because of both moral and self-interest factors. Muslims often contend Islam is purely an internal matter; they are willing to listen to only insiders or who are uncritical of Islam, let alone Islam-bashers, Islamophobes or abusers of Islam and the Prophet. It is a common tendency to think worst of those who are critical. However, while effective reforms are internally-driven, critics may offer pertinent input that many devotees may not. Indeed this reality is often ignored.
Stakeholding goes beyond traditional notion of shareholding. Why should non-Muslims be regarded as stakeholders in Islamic discourse? The general principle should be that if something affects me, I am a stakeholder and my opinion ought to be considered. Therefore, if there are issues and challenges that affect non-Muslims, they do have reason to be concerned. Indeed, some Islamic laws dealing with non-Muslims contradict essential principles and pristine values of Islam. [Qiyas (Analogical Reasoning) and Some Problematic Issues in Islamic law, see the segment on Treaties with Non-Muslims].
Second, the situation has become more complicated and compelling for at least two reasons. (a) Some Muslims, albeit on the fringes, believe their ideology justifies it to target both innocent and combatants. Let alone the events of 9/11, what is unfolding in Iraq - thanks to GW Bush and the neocons - is evidence that a sense of proportion is lost. To thwart foreign power (viewed as invader as well as former bedmate, patron and cohort of the late butcher of Baghdad), the Iraqi insurgency makes no distinction when taking lives, as long as they feel it contributes to undermining/thwarting invader's plan and ambitions. (b) There are individuals claiming to be apostates or ex-Muslims. Of course, most of these ex-Muslims exit Islam with deep antipathy toward Islam and some of them want to agitate others with their anti-Islamic stance. By evidence Muslims have a legal issue with apostasy. In reality there is no Islamic punishment for it. Yet the traditional or orthodox Islam can't move past this unislamic position. [Apostasy. Freedom and Dawah: Full Disclosure in a Business-like Manner]. In several well-publicized cases, fatwas have been issued with bounty on the head of some of these ex-Muslims. As unfortunate as it is, Muslims must take responsibility for unislamicity of the orthodox position about apostasy. Of course, these ex-Muslims and their new found anti-Islamic patrons are of no help, as many of them have joined hands to provoke/agitate the street-level sentiments of Muslims to kill many birds with one stone. Quite interestingly, many writers have attempted to provoke (and, if unsuccessful, concoct) fatwa to earn fast notoriety toward birthing a best-seller. [The Warped Economics of Fatwa: Demand Creates Its OWN Supply]
Regardless, any legal punishment for apostasy, sanctioned in orthodox Islamic law, is not just unislamic, but also counter-productive. As Kazi Nazrul Islam [d.1975], a unique voice and beacon of Global-belonging and popularly known as the Rebel Poet of Bengal enlightened us in a poem "Don't Be Afraid, O Human Soul":
"Don't be hard on those who, in ignorance, go astray!
They might return to the truth, if you show love, and pray."
They might return to the truth, if you show love, and pray."
Unfortunately, Muslims routinely yield to provocateurs; they have to take responsibility for getting provoked. Even on the Day of Judgment we won't be able to get away with any misdeeds by claiming that the Satan caused us to deviate. [14:22] Insults from the provocateurs, as exemplified in the Danish-cartoons, are painful and agonizing. Yet, Muslims don't seem to understand the rules of the game and are suckered in, quite predictably. The provocateurs might not realize that fanning the flame or touching raw nerves of believers is counter-productive but, if Muslims don't substantively and decisively deal with issues such as apostasy, non-Muslims, and particularly ex-Muslims, have reasons to be concerned and call for reform.
Third, there are some genuine issues related to the Muslim world in general with which the non-Muslim world is intertwined. Since the period of colonialism the devastating and uncivilized role that colonial powers played ravaging and dismembering the Muslim world, and later placing subservient autocrats in many Muslim-majority countries, have inextricably linked the West to contemporary maladies, tensions and conflicts. Call for reform, both from within and outside, has merit. However, the way some Western powers and their interests are entangled in the Muslim world also must be disentangled.
Yet, the real challenges to which Muslims must rise up are primarily internal. Was there Islam-bashing at the Secular Islam Summit? Well, there are avowed "professional Islam bashers" like Ibn Warraq, and people like him were visibly present at the Summit. Do these people really care about reforms in the Muslim world? Maybe or maybe not. However, these questions are not really pertinent. Muslim societies are in a dysfunctional state due to both internal AND external factors. However, if we can't take charge of the internal aspects while paving the way for changes consistent with the Qur'anic vision and the Prophetic legacy, then we have very little chance to affect the external factors. Some anti-Islamic personalities at the Summit concluded that no reform is possible because the problem is not with Muslims, but with Islam. People are entitled to their opinions. Just like any agenda of reform should not be merely in reaction to what others "demand" [as in the Public Declaration of the Summit], Muslims don't need to be disheartened by such position that Islam is unreformable. Indeed, Islam does not need reform. However, Muslims need to come to grips with the reality that their understanding and practices do need reform. It is an Islamic imperative.
Therefore, to be effective and principled, my call is primarily to my fellow Muslims. First, regardless of what others do or say, let us be self-critical in an Islamic spirit. For instance, let us clear up any confusion that apostasy from the Islamic viewpoint is not subject to any worldly punishment. [See link above about my essay on Apostasy] Let us go further. (a) Let us galvanize the base among Muslims to establish this position on a clear and firm Islamic footing. (b) Let us take a public and concerted position against any such fatwa of apostasy. (c) Even when we are offended, insulted and agonized by the Islam-bashing of the ex-Muslims, let us stand for the pristine Islamic principle of freedom of faith and expression and defend the right of those who engage in such vile ways. This would not be defending them, but defending the principle and freedom, even if the beneficiary of such defense would be people whose conduct we dislike, or even despise.
Second, let us not summarily dismiss and discredit the Summit. This is what they think they can do best. Imbued with Islamic spirit and principles, let us proactively identify and address those issues to which even non-Muslims are also taken into consideration as stakeholders, and let us do so in a common-ground-seeking manner. This is important because Islam fundamentally has a humanity-orientation. [Freedom and Choice: The First-Order Condition of Islam]
It bothers me a great deal to notice the flash of insensitivities by some ex-Muslims and anti-Islam personalities. Yet, the principle of freedom of faith and expression is a fundamental human AND Islamic right, and therefore to me as a Muslim, hurling of fatwas to persecute apostates is indeed painful and unacceptable. The issue of apostasy and a few other issues should not be approached with a sentiment affected by the Secular Islam Summit. Rather, the approach should be self-critical and proactive. We can begin with the issue of apostasy and gradually address other issues. Muslims need to understand that they are supposed to be engaged in a constant process of ISLAH [effort to bring about positive change, 11:88]. Regardless of who makes the call for reform or their motivation/background/agenda, ISLAH is an internally driven and inspired effort that is a must from the Islamic viewpoint. I do believe that if we begin focusing on those common principles that are precious to all regarding the life, honor and property of ALL people, we can move past the baggage of mutual bashing and grievances and forge a strong foundation for a better future.
Self-critical approach entails that we allocate a bigger portion of our criticism onto ourselves. It is in that spirit that others have to find their own points of convergence from a common-ground-seeking, principled, self-critical perspective. In an Islamic self-critical perspective may I remind my fellow Muslims that they must uphold that Islamic humanity-orientation, rising up to which should mean safety for the People/Mankind, not just the believers?