Sunday, April 15, 2007

Could "This" Have a Chance?

Secular Islam Summit is an organization dedicated to bringing Islam back to its intended roots of moderation, tolerance and acceptance. On its website it describes its strategy in its mission as follows: "The purpose of the Secular Islam Summit is to bring together these thinkers and activists in an ongoing cross-cultural forum and clearinghouse to generate and share new practical strategies and disseminate these to the public and opinion-makers worldwide." Last March, the organization released a statement during its convention and named it "The St. Petersburg Declaration."

The questions here are: Could this be an indicator of things to come? If so, what would be the impact of such a small and nascent movement on the millions of Muslims worldwide? If this effort gains popularity and widespread acceptance in the Islamic world, could it contribute--finally--to the cessation of hostilities, hatred, strife, conflict and terrorism supposedly carried out in the name of Islam?

I'll now leave you with the statement and its accompanying video recording of the declaration which was articulated by the summit's representative. The declaration speaks for itself...[also notice that the statement declares " Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and all members of non-Muslim faith communities: we stand with you as free and equal citizens...."]

The St. Petersburg Declaration

Released by the delegates to the Secular Islam Summit,
St. Petersburg, Florida on March 5, 2007

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, honor 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 nonbelievers: 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.

Endorsed by:
[names of authors]


  1. it looks like a begining...

    we'll keep our "fingers crossed"


  2. Just wondering! This should be how all Muslims act, not only "secular" Muslims. Otherwise the whole point can be missed. One should not begin using specific labels--as a special identity--that would justify certain behavior or inclinations. Rather this inclination and mode of thinking, for it to work, needs to be adopted by all Muslims. It is after all what Islam is intended to promote in its mission to humanity.

  3. This whole issue of the relationship between faith and reason, religion and state is complex, but I'm not sure that secularism is the answer. If anything so called secular societies for all their virtues have much to account for as far as the very real human misery that exist in every one of those societies. Making religion a purely personal affair has not produced utopias of peace, justice and abundant resources shared by all. The idea that secularism is the answer to the problems of the way religion is practiced, both individually and socially is a simplistic one born of a lack of imagination and lack of understanding of what true religion is about, Islam or otherwise. I wish these folk the best of luck but simply trying to do what formerly "Christian" societies have already tried and not really succeeded at so far is a questionable path for Muslims or people of any other faith. This is just my current thinking though, I could be pursuaded with good arguments and the passage of time.

  4. Phillipe,
    I tend to agree that "secularism"--in itself--may not be the answer, but they are to be congratulated though on their attempts to rid the Muslim society from its current extremist direction.

  5. Back in 1928, Shoghi Effendi, looking at events in Iran, wrote:

    The severely repressive and humiliating measures undertaken on the initiative of progressive provincial Governors,... aiming at the scattering and ultimate extinction of a rapidly waning clergy, ... are paving the way for the entire removal of the shackles imposed by an ignorant and fanatical priesthood upon the administration of State affairs. ... in the marked distinction which unofficially and in various phases of public life is being made by an enlightened and pressing minority between the tottering forms of a discredited Ecclesiasticism and the civil rights and duties of civilized society; ... in the slow and hidden process of secularization ... in all of these a discerning eye can easily discover the symptoms that augur well for a future that is sure to witness the formal and complete separation of Church and State.
    (Shoghi Effendi, Baha'i Administration, p. 148-9)

    From which it appears:
    1) the state has to be freed from the influence of the ulama, before the civil rights and duties of a civilized society can be won;
    2) an enlightened and actively pressing minority of progressives have to do the work.

    This sounds very like the initiative behind the St Petersburg Declaration.

    Perhaps we can have more confidence in the Sunni world too having "a future that is sure to witness the formal and complete separation of Church and State."

  6. Sen,
    Thank you for this most appropriate quotation. Even though it was written in 1928 regarding the events in Iran, it holds very true to the current conflict afflicting the entire world.

  7. It is highly commendable and courageous that this group of Muslims defines their purpose in the form of a declaration. It is a formal initiative that may develop larger and more effective bodies organized into a defined and dedicated membership. Furthermore, the declaration has the potential to expand and consolidate responsibilities that would include executive and consultative legal branches. A stand-alone declaration is otherwise, just that.

    It is clear that at the present stage, this group of “secular Muslims” presents a minute fraction of the entire Muslim population, and as such, has limited exposure and impact. A number of the signatories, such as Mrs.Wafa Sultan, are condemned and outcast by the Muslim clergy, and in an interview with Al Gizeera, when asked about her religious entity, stated that she is a secular human being, meaning that she has no definite religious affiliation. This in mind, it is evident that this group may not hold any credibility with the general Islamic population, particularly with the clergy or the Azhar, a point which cannot be weighed upon at this time. This position of firm defiance against fundamental theology, however, may be the very channel for real change from within the Islamic community.

    It is crucial that it be undoubtedly understood that the program of fundamentalism – by reference to its movements throughout history, its current activities infiltrating all sectors of society, and by observation of the innumerable degenerative consequences of societies being held under its grip, and in its most severe form, that of terrorism - is to attain complete authority whereby government and religion are inseparable, and by their definitions, a divine right to be administered under the autonomous control of the clergy.

  8. Thanks Sen for the quote, it seems that secularism as a process and not a goal could be viewed as a positive thing in the long term. Bilo, I didn't mean to be knocking the initiative, but I have developed a healthy dose of doubt whenever I hear about public intellectuals suggesting that we can simply reason our way out of the abyss that humanity is sinking into during this time of transition and change. One could actually say that at least part of what is fueling fundamentalism around the world is that people are looking at societies where religion has been marginalized or personalized and see things like the tragedy that just happened at Virginia Tech and say "See, the West is no better than we are". Like I said this is all very complex and there is no simple solution, but it is good that this group is trying to take it on. I will pray that they are more successful than those who have tried similar things in the past.

  9. r.a.,
    Would you please explain your last paragraph to me? Thank you for your comment.

    I understand your reservations. As you well know, change can be very slow, particularly when it is for the better.

  10. Bilo,

    Points of clarification to the last paragraph:

    In order to enable effective forces of advancement, one must be completely familiar with the persons and conditions that are in opposition to such change, especially when residing in a country where there is no allowance or expectation of justice. The fundamentalist Islamic community envisages the complete employment of Shariah law, with the clergy as its interpreters and judiciaries. This is not limited to spiritual, moral, or personal affairs, but all matters of state. This is already in practice, whether legitimately, or by routes of influence, and its achievements are increasing. There is a swell in the fundamentalist movement in Egypt, so much so that the government is on full alert in anticipation of a complete takeover.

    The concept that religious matters are separate from civil government is out of context with Islamic history. Islam originated from the assemblage of nomadic tribes, brought together through the uniting forces of religious dispensation. Its advancement, likewise, was carried to the far ends of Europe by the conquest of the Islamic nation. Before Islam, this region of the world had never been acquainted with systems of government, or monarchy, but rather, the most primitive and sporadic forms of family and tribal allegiances. Religion brought them together as a nation, and many of the teachings and practices are communal in nature, such as congregational prayer, five times a day. To introduce the idea that this age-old establishment is to be put aside and take second place to modern forms of governance is alien and a real challenge to their sensibilities and ambitions. This is not proof that their ambitions are motivated by sincerity and goodwill. It is an instrument whereby religious fervor is heightened, its influence is spread throughout the masses, and a body of adherents stands ready to fully sanction the religious leadership. It has happened before and the consequences are obvious. Egypt, less than half a century ago, did not see the application of the veil, whereas now, it is the exception, rather than the rule, that a woman remains unveiled. There has been no improvement, but rather a thorough deterioration of moral values, the only difference being that it is all done in concealment, and even that is failing.

  11. r.a. said "The concept that religious matters are separate from civil government is out of context with Islamic history."

    But this is just what the fundamentalists and the orientalists want us to believe! Historically it is not true at all: with a few short-lived exceptions such as the Mahdi's kingdom in the Sudan, Islamic societies have always had two quite distinct organs: the rulers (at first, tribal elders, later monarchs) and the religious specialists, the ulama.

    In the colonial period, the orientalists wanted to make Islam and Muslims something essentially different to European 'civilization' -- which it was the white man's burden to spread through the world by conquest. They said that Islam did not allow Muslims to recognise the legitimacy of human law (so, of course, Europeans would have to govern Muslims for their own good).

    In any society, the government and the laws have to function on
    the basis of a generally accepted legitimacy, with the possibility of
    coercion held in reserve in exceptional cases. The idea that Islamic
    societies somehow managed to function in many cultural settings, over many centuries, while the mass of the people in them held the view that the laws made by their rulers were illegitimate, is patently absurd.

    Wehave the manuals of Islamic theology ('usuul), we have the classical
    "creeds" of Islamic belief, we have books of political philosophy and
    political theology from Islamic societies over the centuries, by the hundreds: can anyone point to a single one of these texts that contains this supposed Islamic teaching?

    The islamists have then adopted this European ideology about Islam, thinking it represents the true Islam. If they studied the classical texts written by Muslims about Islamic political philosophy, they would know better.

    I've written more on this in a book _Church and State: a postmodern political philosophy_ which is for sale at Amazon (and there should be copies in the major libraries and American University in Egypt). About a third of the book is about religion and politics in Islamic history and in the Quran. There are dozens of verses in the Quran that show that the separate legitimacy of worldly rulers is accepted, alongside the different authority of the Prophet and of religion

  12. Very interesting post.
    Thanks Bilo! :-)

    I'll translate the Declaration and publish it on my blog.

  13. Marco,
    You are most welcome...and thank you for translating it into Portuguese and posting it on your blog.


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