Muslim Activists Reject Secular Fundamentalism


Muslim Activists Reject Secular Fundamentalism



By Ayesha Ahmad, IOL Washington Correspondent



http://www.islam-online.net/english/News/2002-04/23/article17.shtml



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 

night.

Personal stories of tribulations suffered by the speakers in the name 

of

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

the

relationship between Islam and freedom.



The two speakers, Merve Kavacki - an elected Turkish parliamentarian 

who

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

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

professor

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

described

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, 

Maryland,

near Washington.



Both speakers have addressed audiences time and again about the causes

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

the

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, 

was

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

Kavacki,

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 

been

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," 

and

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

woman

in her place."



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

women from wearing the required headcovering if they are serving in 

public

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

has

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

democracy.



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 

on

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 

that

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 

be

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 

at

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

always

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

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

1990s,

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

idea

of "the clash of civilizations."



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

of

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 

producing

and started attacking us."



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

the

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

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

University

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

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

ever

found to incriminate him.



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

work

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 

were

Muslims.



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 

while

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

violation.



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

under

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

the

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 

he

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 

in

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 

trustees

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

not

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

came

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

me

and I disrupted the campus because of death threats."



Al-Arian has garnered support from the American Association of 

University

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

the

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 

before

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

no

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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