Muslim Activists Reject Secular Fundamentalism

Muslim Activists Reject Secular Fundamentalism

By Ayesha Ahmad, IOL Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON, April 22 (IslamOnline) - Secular fundamentalism is just as

much a threat to liberty as religious fundamentalism, according to

speakers at the Minaret of Freedom Institute's annual dinner Sunday 


Personal stories of tribulations suffered by the speakers in the name 


secular democracy shed light on the need for a better understanding of 


relationship between Islam and freedom.

The two speakers, Merve Kavacki - an elected Turkish parliamentarian 


was removed from office because of the hijab (Islamic headcovering) she

wears, and Sami Al-Arian, a tenured University of South Florida 


who is under threat of dismissal because of his activism, were 


by the evening's moderator as victims of intolerance.

"These are both people who have suffered from secular extremism," said

Imad ad-Dean Ahmad, a professor at the University of Maryland who heads

the Minaret of Freedom Institute, a Washington-based Islamic think tank

that devotes itself to studying the relationship between Islam and

freedom, appealing to both Muslims and non-Muslims for better

understanding. Its fifth annual dinner took place in Bethesda, 


near Washington.

Both speakers have addressed audiences time and again about the causes

they represent - freedom of statement, freedom of religion, decrying 


use of secret evidence, and supporting the Palestinian cause - but on

Sunday night, they shared with the audience personal sagas that have

fueled their activism.

"The basic human right of a Muslim woman, denied by a Muslim country, 


respected by a secular, predominantly non-Muslim country," said 


explaining the difference between democracy in Turkey and in the United

States, and expressing her gratefulness for that, despite her concerns

about civil liberties for American Muslims presently.

Kavacki explained how she had been nominated, had campaigned, and had 


elected to parliament by a landslide with her hijab - yet when the day

came to take her oath in the Turkish Parliament, "Hell broke loose," 


Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told his deputies to "put this 


in her place."

Turkey, a staunchly secular but mostly Muslim country, forbids Muslim

women from wearing the required headcovering if they are serving in 


office or attending universities; Kavacki, ever since her 1999 fiasco, 


been fighting against this rule in a country claiming to be a 


Kavacki worried that instead of Turkey taking its lessons in democracy

from the U.S., the U.S. was taking lessons from Turkey in cracking down 


Muslims - exemplified by the federal raids of Muslim institutions and

homes in northern Virginia on March 20 that profoundly shook the

surrounding Muslim community.

She said that Muslims seem always on the defensive about their religion 


even while being victims, they "are still sitting in the defendant's

chair," she said.

"Even today, when Muslims are being burned alive in India and even when

their houses are bulldozed by tanks in Israel, we find ourselves as

Muslims in an apologetic mode."

Addressing the key issue of the evening - secularization - she said 


it is always the "enemies of Islam" who are behind every effort to

secularize or modernize Muslim countries.

"Isn't the secularization of Islam an oxymoron? For the religion cannot 


separated from itself," she said.

While Kavacki's story touched on the definitions of secularism and

democracy as illustrated by her experiences in Turkey, Minaret board

member Aly Abuzaakouk introduced Al-Arians story as the saga of an

American family.

Al-Arian's American "saga" began in 1975 when he arrived in the country 


the age of 17. A Palestinian born in Kuwait, he said his family was 


involved in Islamic activism, and when the first Intifada broke out in

1987, he worked hard to promote the Palestinian cause. In the early 


he was part of an effort to create an organization to challenge the 


of "the clash of civilizations."

"We thought we didn't need a clash of civilizations, we need a dialogue 


civilizations," he said.

The World and Islam Studies Enterprise (WISE), based in Florida, was

intended to bring Muslim and non-Muslim intellectuals together for

dialogue, to hold roundtable discussions and produce volumes of their

studies, he said. But "a lot of people didn't like what we were 


and started attacking us."

When a former WISE leader left the country, only to turn up later as 


head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Al-Arian said, "all hell broke

loose," - echoing Kavacki. Al-Arian, a tenured professor at the 


of South Florida, was put on paid leave for two years; his home was

raided, and WISE was investigated and finally collapsed; nothing was 


found to incriminate him.

At that point, Al-Arian's brother-in-law, Mazen al-Najjar, who had a 


permit for the U.S. but could not find anything, was offered political

asylum in return for becoming an informant; when he refused, Al-Arian

said, "they introduced secret evidence."

It is Al-Arian's activism against the use of secret evidence - which he

describes as the defendant being asked to defend himself without being

told what he is being accused of - that he is best known for in the

American Muslim community. Of the 29 individuals held under secret

evidence after the 1996 anti-immigration legislation was passed, 28 



Al-Najjar, who has three U.S.-born children and was never convicted of

anything related to terrorism, spent more than three years in prison 


being dubbed a "national security threat" by his detractors. After a

federal judge ruled that there was no evidence against him, he was

released, only to be picked up again after September 11 on a visa


Now, with nothing more than that being held against him, he is held 


23-hour lockdown, is strip-searched naked every time he wants to leave 


cell, is allowed only 15 minutes a week to call his family, and is

escorted around chained hand and foot, Al-Arian said.

He has now been in these circumstances for five and a half months,

Al-Arian said, "not for anything he has done, but simply because of who 


is and what he represented."

Post-September 11, things turned ugly for Al-Arian again, after he

appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" on Fox News channel on September 26 


which he said he was smeared by "a classic guilt by association type of

thing," and received a death threat that very night.

Two weeks of intense media coverage led to what he described as a

"Kafka-esque" university board of trustees meeting, in which the 


decided to recommend Al-Arian's termination, primarily because "I did 


make it clear that I was not speaking on behalf of the university I 


to campus once after they told me not to come, which they didn't tell 


and I disrupted the campus because of death threats."

Al-Arian has garnered support from the American Association of 


Professors, as well as Muslims and civil liberties activists all over 


country, but the university's president is still considering his

termination, and he remains "in limbo," he said.

He told the audience that the battle for civil rights had to be won 


Muslims became politically empowered in the United States, but "I have 


doubt that we're going to win. It's just a matter of time."

Both Al-Arian and Kavacki urged listeners to get involved in lobbying

representatives. "We have to take this opportunity to push the American

public to put everything in perspective," Kavacki told IslamOnline,

calling on Muslims to raise the consciousness of federal and local

government. "Lobbying really works."

Al-Arian added that in addition to political action, "We need your duaa

[prayers]; we need your very sincere duaa."


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