Thursday, March 15, 2007

It is wonderful to be able to report on an event involving Arabs and Islam that may ignite a tiny spark of hope and reason in the midst of the gloom that often accompanies stories on these subjects.

When she appeared live on Al Jazeera television last year, Dr. Wafa Sultan was challenged and insulted by a traditional Islamic imam.This slight, Syrian-educated psychiatrist came roaring back in fluent classical Arabic.She nailed him, live, before millions of Arabic viewers, with forceful statements like these on the nature of the massive clash now going on in the world: “It is a clash between… barbarity and rationality… It is a clash between human rights, on the one hand, and the violation of those rights, on the other hand.It is a clash between those who treat women like beasts, and those who treat them like human beings.”

Dr. Sultan received many e-mailed replies in Arabic from around the world thanking her for her wisdom and courage.One old Arab man was particularly affected by one part of the interchange. Near the end of the interview, the imam kept interrupting the doctor.She shouted at him in Arabic, “Shut up! Shut up! I am talking!” The old man e-mailed her that he was confined to a wheel chair and could barely walk, but he stood up and walked to his television set and kissed it a hundred times because of those “shut ups.”

I learned of the shut-up kisses while attending the Secular Islam Summit, which took place recently in St. Petersburg, Florida.The core idea of the summit was to seek to break the harsh link between Islam and state power in all of the Muslim countries where it exists.If the seemingly impossible dream of secularism could be accomplished, Islam would be preserved as a private religion for hordes of people who would be accepting the religion voluntarily without being forced by government, or by the threat and the reality of death if they decided to leave. Death also is often the penalty for those who openly raise questions about basic tenets of the religion.

There was a wide range of religious beliefs among the speakers, including those, like Dr. Sultan, who have become confirmed atheists. Ibn Warraq, author of “Why I Am Not a Muslim,” might best be described as an ex-Muslim.He has called for an Age of Enlightenment in the Islamic world. Tawfik Hamid is an ex-terrorist and a practicing Muslim.

Irshad Manji is a devout practicing Muslim who argues that there are often-ignored parts of the Koran that can be mobilized to support a very positive approach to Islam. Manji declares that the spirit of ijtihad, as expressed in the Koran, provides ample basis for both women and men to engage in open discussion about the meaning of sacred texts and also about how to live their lives as good Muslims.

Nonie Darwish was originally an observant Muslim. She was the daughter of the head of Egyptian army intelligence, who launched deadly fedayeen attacks from Gaza into Israel; he was eventually killed by the Israelis.Thus, young Nonie was honored as the daughter of a shahid, a martyr.As she grew up in Egypt,however, she began asking questions about the cruel practices of her religion, including female genital mutilation, and about the unreasoning hatred of Jews and Israel that was constantly taught to all children.

Her growing despair eventually led her to move to the United States, where she was shocked to find, during the 1980s, that radical Islam was infecting many Arab Muslims living in California. She went through much soul searching but she eventually turned her life around. She divorced her then-husband, whom she knew from Egypt, married a Christian American, and converted to Christianity.

When September 11 hit, Miss Darwish was utterly dismayed and called her Muslim friends and relatives here and in Egypt; “I was immediately shut up and told that 9/11 was orchestrated by Israel! Without exception, they were all angry at me for stating the simple facts: that the attack was committed by Arabs.”

She started to speak out and tell the truth about the hatred infecting the Middle East and the American Arab community.She has become a major force for love of America and also for love of Israel and Jews.This daughter of a shahid may be reached today at her Web site “arabsforisrael.”

While Muslims in America and throughout the West are campaigning to bring in Shariah law for Islamic communities here, Miss Darwish declared at the summit, “Shariah law is a tyrant’s dream handed to him on a silver platter by God!”

A document of historic significance was issued by the delegates at this event — “The St. Petersburg Declaration.” It was a call for openness, dialogue, democracy, gender equality and peaceful reason to be applied in the Islamic world. Among other things, it declared, “We demand the release of Islam from its captivity to the totalitarian ambitions of power-hungry men and the rigid strictures of orthodoxy…We say to Muslim believers: there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine.”

For the most part, federal government officials treated the conference and its noble delegates with disdain.However, American officials at every level must treat these Arabic dissenters and refuseniks as national treasures to be encouraged and protected.They must start with security and immediately go after the American jihadists who make frequent threats of murder and rape to the dissenters.

We all must support the vital task of protecting the lives and dignity of these brave pioneers on the ramparts of peaceful Islamic reform who are keeping the spark of hope alive.

Arnold Trebach, professor emeritus of American University’s Department of Justice, Law and Society, is the author of several books on drugs and terrorism.

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