Are There Muslim Reformers?

November 3, 2009


During the question and answer sessions at my talks to various Humanist groups ( most recently CFI Indianapolis, CFI Arizona, and CFI Los Angeles), I am often asked about the possibility of reform within Islam, and of the existence of moderate Muslims. These are not easy questions to answer. There are said to be 57 Islamic countries, and the situation obviously varies from country to country, from year to year. Even countries trumpeted as "moderate", "liberal" or "tolerant" have, in reality, a mixed record as far as Human Rights are concerned. Criticism of Islam is well-nigh impossible in all fifty-seven countries. Nonetheless, some courageous individuals living in the latter have found a way of indirectly casting doubt on Islam as the solution to every problem in the modern world, namely, by advocating Secularism. In the next four of five blogs, I intend to look at some brave, intrepid, articulate champions of Human Rights in the Islamic World- often putting their lives in danger for that most noble of causes, Freedom.

Kuwait is an Arab Emirate just north of Saudi Arabia and south of Iraq, with a population of just under three million. With its large oil reserves it is the considered the eleventh richest country in the world. Though Kuwait is a constitutional monarchy, with a parliamentary system of government, its Human Rights record is decidedly mixed, and this was made plain when in October 1999, Professor Dr. Ahmad al-Baghdadi-first of our three Kuwaiti secularists whom I shall be discussing here- was sentenced to one month in prison for allegedly defaming Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a 1996 article that he wrote for the Kuwait University student magazine Al-Shoula. However, the emir of Kuwait pardoned him a few weeks later, and he was released.

Ahmad Al-Baghdadi [not to be confused with Ayatollah Ahmad Al-Baghdadi], a political science lecturer at Kuwait University, was in trouble once again when he published several articles in November 2004 in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Siyassa, dismissing religious thought as no longer relevant or adequate, and extolling the virtues of secularism. A few excerpts from his articles- superbly translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute [MEMRI, Special Dispatch 823]- will suffice to show the courage of al Baghdadi's thorough critique of religion, and the need for a separation of state and mosque:

       "Muslims Have no Future as Long as They are Subjected to Religious Thought."
        In his article, ‘Secularism and Life,' Al-Baghdadi argued that only a society free of religion could make progress and develop; Islamic religious thought merely prevents progress and development:
       "... Secularism as a [world] view and as a way of life was not formed in a vacuum, but is the outcome of the painful life experience of human beings which has continued for close to a millennium and in the course of which the religious thought of the Church, devised by the religious clergy, was abolished... During this experience, Western man lived in intellectual darkness and [endured] devastating wars in a period called ‘the Dark Middle Ages.'

      "For the person educated in sciences, industry, finances, politics, and culture there was only one solution, which constitutes a refuge for the poor societies. That [solution] is: distancing the man of the cloth from life...From that moment on, the Western world became the only world to develop, progress, and flourish in all spheres of life.

 "In order [to avoid] being accused of subjectivity against the religious way of thought, let us present examples from the reality of life in the Muslim and Arab countries:

     "1. Religious thought is the only way of thought nowadays that refuses to accept the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights' on religious grounds, and this constitutes an obstacle to [the realization of] these rights in the Islamic countries, not only in the matter of inheritance, but also in matters such as equality, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech.

     "2. Islamic religious thought is the only way of thought nowadays to persist in [accusations] of ridda [apostasy]... Unfortunately, this persistence [leads to] the killing of human beings, even without trial.

    "3. Religious thought objects to freedom of thought and freedom of speech when religion is criticized. Moreover, religious thought reveres things that religion itself does not instruct [us] to revere. Thus, for example,regarding [the immunity from criticism of] the Prophet's companions, who are not considered part of the principles of religion or of the roots of belief. Religious thought does not distinguish between religion and its believers.

   "4. Religious thought is still anti-woman even if the religious clerics claim otherwise.

   "5. Religious thought is opposed to human health in matters of treatment and medicine. The prohibition of including alcohol in most medicines leads to their reduced effectiveness... [Moreover,] the Muslim doctor nowadays does not dare to instruct a patient not to fast [during the month of Ramadhan],and the hospitals therefore become full of patients who fasted.

  "6. Religious thought supports political tyranny, because it opposes democracy and the constitution. [For example,] in Kuwait [some] strive to destroy the constitution and the constitutional state, and in Saudi Arabia there is complete opposition to democracy.

  "7. If we were to imagine that an [Arab] regime adopted a certain religious school of thought, what could happen to the other schools of thought?

  "8. Religious thought opposes the Other, accuses him of heresy, and objects to living by his side. Proof of this are the supplications and appeals [to Allah] that we hear in the mosques to destroy all non-Muslims and harm them,rather than requesting guidance for them on the straight path, [as would have occurred] had there been an ounce of human tolerance.

  "9. Religious thought is the main reason for the production of terror,because of the negative interpretations of the [Quranic] verses regarding Jihad.

  "10. Religious thought opposes any kind of creativity and art...

   "The West did not make progress until it became free of this way of thinking. This is the only solution facing the Muslims. They have no future as long as they are subjected to religious thought."



#1 SimonSays on Tuesday November 03, 2009 at 9:16pm

Any such discussion on Muslim societies that are reforming should probably include Turkey.

I grew up in Greece and have visited Turkey many times and even though their dominant religions are different -Eastern Orthodox and Muslim respectively- I see a very similar society in Turkey to what Greece was 10-15 years ago in terms of social and political progress and liberalization.

A lot of this has to do with increasing democratization in both countries as they become less and less subservient to US interests, but the resemblances are important nonetheless.

Turkey is also interesting to examine because in the US we tend to associate liberal with secular and religious with conservative, however Turkey is kind of the opposite in that there is a long history of a secular (ie more authoritarian/military) right which has dominated since the founding of the republic in 1925.

No particular point I’m making, but certainly food for thought on a possible follow-up article.

#2 Simon (Guest) on Thursday November 05, 2009 at 3:54am

Turkey is a secular state not an Islamic one.

Some seem to think it is slipping back from the ideals of Ataturk.

See Kemalist ideology at Wikipedia.

#3 SimonSays on Thursday November 05, 2009 at 6:57am

Simon: I am very much aware of this. However, my observation is more sociopolitical, rather than strictly constitutional.

Just curious, who are the people who think it is “slipping back”?

#4 Simon (Guest) on Thursday November 05, 2009 at 1:35pm

The former chief of the TGS was pretty worried about the Islamist threat.

RAND Corp did a report available for free on their website, which is a good summary of the history, and changes, even if one doesn’t agree with the rest of their analysis.

The rise of political Islam in Turkey
ISBN 978-0-8330-4457-0

But yes, Turkey’s secularism was probably overly strict, although I’m not sure the AKP is bringing a liberal agenda to Turkey.

#5 SimonSays on Thursday November 05, 2009 at 1:47pm

What’s the TGS?

re: RAND, yes I might check it out. The summary does point out that the balance “between the Kemalist elites and new emerging social groups” is changing with the emergence of the AKP and this is (for me at least ) a Good Thing.

Judging from foreign policy, there are two things that the AKP has done which the more secular (and admittedly more pro-US) previous governments did not do:

1) Not allow US ground troops to go through Turkey during the Iraq invasion
2) Establish diplomatic relations with Armenia

Keep in mind that Turkey was founded as a secular republic with its capital in Ankara as a way of wrestling control away from the sultan in Istanbul (who was also considered nominal head of all muslims) and giving it to a secular military force.

#6 Simon (Guest) on Thursday November 05, 2009 at 2:43pm

Turkish General Staff.

Was Yasar Buyukanit.

I think diplomatic relations with Armenia was probably just timing. Eventually memories of terrible events die out (literally the generation that remember it first hand are now dead). I don’t think that was particularly controversial anywhere outside Turkey and Armenia.

Things like inviting Khaled Mashaal were more controversial.

#7 SimonSays on Thursday November 05, 2009 at 3:07pm

I see. Well its no surprise that the former leader of the military (ie the dominant establishment institution) would express this sentiment. After all, it is their authority that is being challenged the most by the current government.

Re: Armenian relations, the whole Hrant Dink incident played a large part as well.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.