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."