The Great Pretenders Of The "Secular Islam" Conference

The speakers at the "Secular Islam Conference" reduced the necessity of dialogue between Muslims and Westerners to a profiteering activity that cashes in on fear and intolerance.

By Rafia Zakaria, March 9, 2007

When Irshad Manji penned her volume "The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform Within Her Faith", she was promoted to instant stardom. Here, finally, was a Muslim who told the Western world what they wanted to hear. Joyous in their discovery, the Western media enveloped her in a loving embrace of publicity, adulation, and unquestioned faith. But that was three years ago. Since her initial entrance into the Islam reform marketplace, the field has become notably more competitive. Not least of Ms. Manji's problems is the increasingly recurrent critique that both her arguments and her rhetoric lack legitimacy among Muslims themselves. Not surprisingly, Manji now a skilled entrepreneur in packaging the rhetoric of Muslim reform to suit the Western public has restyled her arguments to suit the changing demands of the market. A version of this new and only arguably improved Manji was available for consumption at the recent Secular Islam Conference organized by the Intelligence Summit this past weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida.

At the Conference, whose dubious organizers and sponsors could nevertheless muster enough cash to invite not one but several "ex-Muslim reformers", Manji's keynote address presented an argument designed calculatedly to attack the very lack of legitimacy that is now possibly having an impact on Ms. Manji's checkbook. Delivered in a well-rehearsed, oft-tested "let me connect with you" manner and peppered heavily with buzzwords like "courage" and "justice" time tested to evoke positive reactions among audiences Manji's address represented a break from the less nuanced rhetoric of the preceding speaker, the now public ex-Muslim Ibn Warraq. Clearly aiming her speech at the wider Western media rather than the motley crew of ex-Muslims, random intelligence consultants and conservative press that constituted her immediate audience, Manji repeatedly announced her own credentials as a believing Muslim. Quoting a verse from the Koran, she emphasized the necessity of the reconciliation of faith and freedom. Deftly attempting to deconstruct criticisms of her own lack of theological knowledge or training, Manji insisted that it is the Koran itself that supports a separation of Church and State, since the Koran does not itself recommend a particular form of Islamic government. Even more convincingly, she denounced not only the zeal of religious fundamentalists but also of "missionary atheists" who promote disbelief with the same dogmatism as fundamentalists belonging to a particular faith. In an attempt to distance herself from the blatant generalizations of her co-panelist Ibn Warraq (who only minutes earlier had unequivocally stated "Islam is the problem") Manji's speech went far in claiming the trajectory of legitimacy borne out of quoting the Koran and waxing poetic about the liberating power of her spirituality. In a near Clintonian sound byte, she concluded that "religion is like technology - [it] can be used in myriad ways for good and bad."

Ms. Manji's project is certainly a worthy one, and few Muslims, especially (but not only) among those living in the United States, would argue against the need to reconcile faith and freedom or disagree with the precept that the spirit of critique needs to be revived. Even Ms. Manji seemed to recognize this, as she quoted ISNA's President Dr. Ingrid Mattson as a potential ally to her own project. What seemed curious, then, was Manji's repeated remonstrance touting her own persecution at the hands of the very Muslims she is hoping to unite under the umbrella of her brainchild "Project Ijtihad". It is in this dual rhetoric that Manji's potential for duplicity emerges to the forefront, and her prioritization of what Western audiences want to hear over what Muslims need to hear becomes blatantly obvious. If, indeed, she intends to be a community activist and provoke Muslims into her "radical traditionalism" that questions tradition and re-energizes the spirit of critique within Islam, then perhaps she needs to abandon her rhetoric of persecution by the same Muslims she is now courting.

Capitalist ambitions by themselves are hardly reprehensible. What is more problematic is the collusion of the mercenary-reformer that Ms. Manji represents. A brief look at her website on Project Ijtihad quickly reveals the extent to which she is interested in supporting reform over seeking profit. In the three years since the initial publication of her book, Ms. Manji claims to have furthered this project of critique by you guessed it having her book translated into various languages. The Urdu and Farsi translations are available for free on the website, quite possibly because the devalued rupee and rial would hardly render much in terms of profit in Canadian dollars. The website lists no mention of any other sources for furthering critical exchange among Muslims other than Manji's own book. As for what she does with the ample royalties from this "reformist" project she herself says, "Paying my mortgage, buying hazelnut coffee (several sugars)"

In the final portion of her speech at the Secular Islam Conference, Ms. Manji introduced a "novel" idea in the realm of promoting critical exchange among Muslims - a "website" which she hopes to launch as part of her "grassroots" project. Perhaps unaware of the many existing ones already devoted to this task (and who do so without simultaneously pursuing profit), Manji went on to describe who would be featured on this promised website. It's star would be "Kamran" (too dangerous of course to use his real name) none other than an "ex-terrorist" who was inspired to leave the terrorist lifestyle by you guessed it reading an interview by Irshad Manji! Such self-glorification is hardly rare among public intellectuals; if anything it is perhaps a necessity of their chosen trade. Where Ms. Manji departs from the mold is in her desire to pretend to be a grassroots reformer while constantly cashing in on the very problems she consistently deplores. Certainly, the Muslim world is bereft with problems: the manipulation of Islamic doctrine to justify the subjugation of women, the appropriation of Sharia law as a tool to legitimize illegitimate rulers, the disregard for human rights, the punishment of dissenters, and others. All are problems plaguing the Muslim world which undoubtedly deserve the attention of every Muslim. The issue posed by Ms. Manji's initiative, however, is whether someone who profits from the very existence of these problems can also claim the title of reforming them while doing nothing concrete other than promoting her own book.

The remaining presenters at the Secular Islam Conference made no pretense of their distaste for Islam. Ibn Warraq's presentation vacillated between his regular brand of fear mongering detailing the incipient "threat" Muslims pose (an argument the intelligence consultants in his audience must certainly like, since it insures their livelihoods) to blatantly racist and illiberal statements such as "not all religious traditions are worthy of respect". More entertaining was the presentation of Tawfiq Hamid, who filled the role of the ubiquitous "ex-terrorist". Like the American and French Worlds Fairs of the 1800s made spectacles of "oriental" specimens often held in captivity for Western gawking and consumption, intelligence consultants now seem to hunger for the "ex-terrorist" as a venue for satiate their lascivious curiosity. In keeping with the persona he was hired to project (or perhaps disappointing those who expected him to be a kinder gentler Osama look-alike), Mr. Ahmed entertained his audience with antics deigned to please. Among these was a particularly ludicrous theory regarding suicide bombings based entirely on the individual terrorist's desire for sex. Shiites terrorists, Mr. Ahmed explained, are far less likely to engage in suicide bombings because they have the institution of mu'taa marriages which allows them to have sexual relations without long term commitments. Sunnis, on the other hand, do not have this institution. Hence the ease with which Sunni Muslim youths can be duped into chasing paradise (and hence sex) through committing suicidal acts of terror.

A recurrent theme that dotted nearly every single presentation was the litany of abuse that the speakers insisted they routinely face from the Muslim community. Inflated thus with this rather deluded sense of self-importance, each one spent considerable time detailing their undaunted courage in the face of such terrible adversity. One could not help but wonder the number of hours each one of them spent scanning fatwa factories of dubious origin and even more questionable authority in the hope of finding one that even remotely mentions them. After all, a fatwa is the ticket to fame in their industry.

Another painfully recurrent theme in the presentations, one that was echoed in the "St. Petersberg Declaration" issued at the end of the meeting, was the treatment of Islamophobia as a "myth" constructed to outlaw critique of Islam. The speakers' consequent ignorance of the frequency of hate crimes against Muslims in Europe became thus yet another glaring act of partisanship fracturing their already minimal credibility. A report by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia provides empirical evidence in this regard and proves the inaccuracy of their position. It includes reports of vandalism on Muslim businesses and desecration of Muslim graveyards in Denmark, racist graffiti on Muslim mosques in Germany and Greece, repeated attacks on Muslims by Neo-Nazi groups in Spain, and desecration of mosques and vandalism of homes of Muslim politicians in France. In one of many incidents in the UK, a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf was harassed with the slogan "Barbarian with no culture, go back home" and "you certainly bought your visa, you terrorist". Added to this are recent studies which state that British Muslim youths have twice the rate of unemployment as their white counterparts and that the chances of getting a job in France are reduced by half if you have a Muslim name.

I document this data not to promote the image of a victimized Muslim minority justified in its reticence to address the problems of growing extremism, intolerance of critique, or inattention to women's rights. Instead, the aim is to demonstrate that the problem lies not in demonizing one or the other but instead in recognizing the complex dimensions of the issue and the need to recognize the counterproductive nature of the mercenary rhetoric found at the Secular Islam Summit. In this sense, the criticism leveled at the speakers at the Secular Islam Conference should be directed not at the fact that the speakers chose to critique Islam. Indeed, they are free to voice their opinions, however misguided, hateful, and factually incorrect they may be. Instead, the criticism focused toward them should expose how they have reduced the necessity of dialogue between Muslims and Westerners to a profiteering activity that dupes their audience with perversions and generalizations, and cashes in on fear and intolerance.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney and member of the Asian American Network Against Abuse of Women. She teaches courses on constitutional law and political philosophy.


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