Religious Correctness and the Qur'an
by Paul Kurtz
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
basic principles of free inquiry upon which this magazine was founded were first
published in “The Secular Humanist Declaration,” (FI, Winter 1980). This
Declaration was issued during a period when the so-called Moral Majority was
making a strong bid for political influence in the United States. The Religious
Right considered patriotism synonymous with the Christian (or the Judćo-Christian)
faith; it wrapped the flag around the Bible; and it sought to breach the
separation of church and state. We maintained that free inquiry should be
applied to all areas of human interest, including the Bible, which was used to
justify their ideological positions.
The same principles of free inquiry,
in our view, should be extended to the Qur’an. Unfortunately, given today’s
climate of religious correctness, people are reluctant to examine the
foundations of Islam or to ask what the Qur’an really says, let alone subject
it to critical scrutiny.
The events of September 11th have
tragically pointed out the urgent need for such an inquiry. President Bush said,
following the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, that we are at
“war with terrorism,” and in an off-the-cuff remark he termed it “a
crusade”! Some militant Muslims construed this to mean an attack on Islam
itself, reminiscent of the Christian Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth
centuries, and they warned that they would launch a jihad, or holy war,
against Christians and Jews. These were the words of Osama bin Laden, whom Bush
has blamed for the terrorist attacks in the United States; the same was said by
the ragged minions of the Taliban. President Bush also cautioned that we have no
quarrel with the Muslim religion per se, but only with terrorists. He
also said that Islam is a “religion of peace.”
Is this the case? Does Islam condone
or even encourage violence? We have long argued that there exists an abysmal
ignorance of the sacred texts and traditions of Islam and a paucity of critical
literature on the subject. Yet militant Muslims have appealed to the Qur’an
and Hadith (the traditions, or commentaries) in order to justify the slaughter
of innocent people. Clearly most Muslims are either unaware of their
scriptures’ implications, or do not accept them. Yet fundamentalists have
based their acts of vengeance on these sources.
The Council for Secular Humanism,
publisher of Free
Inquiry, has encouraged the development of the Institute for the
Secularization of Islamic Societies (ISIS) (www.secularislam.org).
Led by Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, ISIS presents
responsible criticism of Islamic beliefs. The importance of this inquiry is all
the clearer today given the conflict that has erupted—not only in Afghanistan,
but in various parts of the world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
In an editorial that I wrote in Free
Inquiry (Spring 1993) “Has a Third World War with Islam Begun?” I
pointed to the many flash points that had then erupted: Iraq, Iran, Somalia, the
Sudan, Kashmir, India, Bosnia, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Algeria, Pakistan,
Egypt, and Turkey. Since 1993 many other conflicts have broken out in other
parts of the world, from Nigeria to Kosovo, Chechenya, Indonesia, the
Philippines and elsewhere—led in no small part by Muslim fundamentalist
terrorists who have sought to establish Muslim theocracies based on sharia
Islamic fundamentalism has become an
expansionist force all over the globe; Muslim militants are on the march. This
is not to deny that some of the 48 Muslim countries are moderate, and indeed
would like, if it were possible, to develop secular regimes; but they are
apprehensive of the fundamentalists among their own people. Unfortunately, the
basic tenets of Islam can be interpreted to support terrorism. For example,
criticism of Islam is forbidden, and is punishable by death, as in the fatwas
issued against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Islam also condemns blasphemy.
Dr. Younus Shaikh (a humanist) has been sentenced to death earlier this year by
a Pakistani court for blasphemy (he said he doubted that the parents of Mohammed
were Muslims since they died when he was very young). And there are hundreds of
other cases of blasphemy. The most dreadful crime in Islam is unbelief, and
especially apostasy for former Muslims, again punishable by death. The jihad
(or holy war) can be launched whenever Islam is threatened. The young Muslim men
who slammed airplanes into the Trade Towers, killing thousands of innocent
civilians, did so in the name of Allah. Martyrdom is justified, they believed,
if it will defend the faith against infidels, and each of the murderers of
innocent thousands will be rewarded by an eternity in paradise with 72 virgins
(this apparently has its source in the Hadith).
Are these interpretations correct,
and can they be justified on textual grounds? I think that a case can be made
that they are; but if so, we need to engage in a full-scale inquiry and dialogue
with our Muslim colleagues and friends, particularly those who live in the
United States and in other the democratic societies of the West—Britain,
Canada, France, Germany, etc.
To live in these countries implies
that citizens and residents will respect the civic virtues of democracy. Basic
to these are freedom of conscience: the right to dissent from any religious,
political, philosophical, or moral viewpoint. This implies that the government
should be secular, and not favor one religion or sect among others. We surely
welcome the millions of Muslim citizens in our midst. But we expect that they
will learn to appreciate the principles underlying American democracy, including
the right to freedom of conscience and free inquiry.
Many Muslims have denied that Islam
is a religion of violence or compulsion. If so, then they should renounce the
traditions referenced above and the fatwas against dissenters, critics,
blasphemers, and unbelievers. After all, Christians and Jews reject or ignore
many Biblical passages which ordain death for witches, homosexuals, bastards,
adulterers, etc. Why not the same Reformation for modern-day Islam? Why not
bring Islam into the modern world?
the advocates of “religious correctness” like it or not, a debate about the
true meaning of Islam has opened up. Islam, in my view, needs its own
Reformation; it needs to respect the right to engage in Koranic criticism and to
question its foundations, without fear of death or destruction, rights now
accepted throughout the democratic world.
A New American Junta?
Civil Liberties and Military Tribunals
In its haste to protect the American people against terrorists, real or
imagined, present or future, many in the George W. Bush administration have
demanded that our traditional civil liberties be abridged. Security, we are
admonished, must take precedence over liberty.
We do not deny the fact that open democratic societies need to protect
themselves against terrorists. Everyone grants that tight security at airports
is vital. Similarly, intelligence agencies need to monitor those who are likely
to pose a threat. Thus a case can be made that some wire taps of cell phones and
e-mail are reasonable methods of protection.
I think we need to dissent, however, from many of the provisions which
were rushed through the United
States Congress in the Act labeled
"USA Patriot." Attorney General John Ashcroft and the White House
stampeded Congress and the American people into adopting this anti-terrorism
bill. From many accounts, most legislators did not even have a chance even to
read the final version of the bill, much less deliberate before adopting it with
very little dissent. The anthrax scare (whose culprits have not yet been found)
closed down Congress just as the bill was being considered. There was no debate
and no amendments were permitted.
The bill, in my judgment, seriously compromises the Fourth Amendment of the
Constitution which limits search and seizure. I don't see why federal judges cannot
examine the requests and issue warrants with dispatch prior to searches or
wiretaps, and thus not violate the Fourth Amendment. The legislation also
compromises the Sixth Amendment, which concerns procedures for trying accused
persons (please see attached box). Reports indicate that anywhere from 1,000 to
5,000 people of Middle Eastern origin have been detained. We still don't know
the names of most of them, nor the charges against them. Moreover, the bill
enables the government to monitor conversations between selected inmates and
their lawyers, thus compromising the client-lawyer relationship. The
Constitution clearly states that accused shall have the assistance of counsel
Even more ominous than the anti-terrorism bill is the "military order"
signed by President Bush as Commander in Chief and issued on November 13, 2001,
on "the detention, treatment, and trial of noncitizens." At the time
this editorial went to press, the order was not discussed by members of the
Congress, nor was there any effort to seek Congressional approval. Nor has the
Congress declared war. The order authorizes noncitizens to be tried before
military tribunals composed of officers of the armed forces. Accused persons can
be tried in secret, and if convicted by a two-thirds majority of those
presiding, they can be executed. No grand-jury indictment is required, as
specified in the first part of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, nor is
there the right of appeal.
Some members of the administration have said that noncitizens "do not
deserve" equal protection of the laws. According to Vice President Richard
Cheney, "where military justice is called for, military justice will be
dispensed." This claim is astonishing. In my view the Constitution applies
to all people within the United States, not simply to citizens. I have not seen
any passages excluding the millions of aliens, immigrants, residents, or
tourists from constitutional protection. The military tribunal thus clearly
violates the Sixth Amendment and part of the Fifth.
The real question concerns the phrase "individuals subject to this
order" (please see section II, in the attached box). These provisions may
be so broadly construed that innocent persons might be accused, tried, and
executed in secret by kangaroo courts without any constitutional protections.
These tribunals are to be selected by the Secretary of Defense. The individuals
who come under the order are selected by the president (and members of his
entourage) who will determine who is to be tried. The fear is that this power
may be abused, or so widely applied so that anyone merely said to aid, abet,
conspire, or harbor terrorists can be brought before a military tribunal in
secret with no indictment by a grand jury, found guilty, and summarily executed.
Where do you draw the line and who is to say who is guilty or innocent before a
Chillingly, some have said that these tribunals will not only operate overseas,
but in the United States itself. We call upon the Congress to hold extensive
hearings on the limits of presidential power. How can the American people
protect itself from tyranny by a military junta? We need to petition the
government for a redress of grievances.
Amendment VI (1791) In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall
enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State
and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall
have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and
cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to
have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the
Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
Section II. Individuals Subject to This Order, from Executive Order of
November 13, 2001. (a) The term "individual subject to this order"
shall mean any individual who is not a United States citizen with respect to
whom I determine from time to time in writing that: (1)there is reason to
believe that such individual, at the relevant times, (i)is or was a member of
the organization known as al Qaeda; (ii)has engaged in, aided or abetted, or
conspired to commit, acts of international terrorism, or acts in preparation
therefor, that may have caused, threaten to cause, or have as their aim to
cause, injury to or adverse effects on the United States, its citizens, national
security, foreign policy, or economy; or (iii)has knowingly harbored one or more
individuals . . . (2)it is in the interest of the United States that such
individual be subject to this order.
Amendment IV (1791) The right of the people to be secure in their
persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and
seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable
cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place
to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V (1791) No
person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime,
unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising
in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time
of War or public danger. . . .
Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free
Inquiry and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New
York at Buffalo.