Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society

Linked with Ibn Warraq – another Muslim with a Fatwa, also with When Ibn Warraq met Edward Said, and with IBN WARRAQ on the World Trade Center Atrocity.

The Institute for the Secularisation of the Islamic Society, ISIS Publishes on its Homepage:

Our Mission: We believe that Islamic society has been held back by an unwillingness to subject its beliefs, laws and practices to critical examination, by a lack of respect for the rights of the individual, and by an unwillingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints or to engage in constructive dialogue.

The Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society (ISIS) has been formed to promote the ideas of rationalism, secularism, democracy and human rights within Islamic society.

ISIS promotes freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, freedom of intellectual and scientific inquiry, freedom of conscience and religion – including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief – and freedom from religion: the freedom not to believe in any deity.

Statement of Principles: We share the ideals of a democratic society, and a secular state that does not endorse any religion, religious institution, or any religious dogma. The basis for its authority is in man-made law, not in religious doctrine or in divine revelation. In a theocracy of the type that Islamic fundamentalists wish to establish, sovereignty belongs to god, but in a democracy sovereignty belongs to the people. We therefore favor the firm separation of religion and state: without such a separation there can be no freedom from tyranny, and such a separation is the sine qua non for a secular state.

We believe in the primacy of the rule of law: a common civil code under which all men and women have equal protection of their rights and freedoms. We endorse the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenants on Human Rights without qualification. We are particularly concerned to promote and protect the rights of women and those with minority beliefs: all should be equal before the law.

We are dedicated to combating fanaticism, intolerance, violent fundamentalism, and terrorism by showing the intellectual inadequacy of the fanatics’ programmes, the historical inaccuracy of their claims, the philosophical poverty of their arguments, and the totalitarian nature of their thought.

We defend the right of free inquiry, and the free expression of ideas. We therefore reserve the right to examine the historical foundations of Islam, and to explain the rise and fall of Islam by the normal mechanisms of human history.

Practical Goals: To create a network of secularists and freethinkers in Islamic countries.

  • To establish a women’s network to provide mutual support and to highlight the plight and the achievements of women in Islamic societies.
  • To report on recent research findings on the origins of Islam and the Koran.
  • To provide an alternative source of information and comment for the media on Islamic issues.
  • To publicise acts of terror and oppression.
  • To honor the memory and promote the work and thought of those martyred in the cause of freedom of expression.
  • To attract writers, academics, politicians and activists as members of the Institute and as contributors to the debate.
  • To establish a database of books, articles and news reports, an annotated bibliography of texts of interest, and a suggested reading list.
  • To seek funding for Institute activities, including the translation of important texts.
  • To publish a web-based newsletter: “Secular Islam.”

From the Executive Director, February 2005, By Irfan Khawaja:

This letter, I imagine, involves three surprises: first that ISIS has an Executive Board; second that the Board has an Executive Director; and third that I happen to be it. I’m hoping that these revelations come to most of you as welcome news, but unlike certain well-known deities, I don’t presume it.

  • For those of you unfamiliar with me, I’m an adjunct professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey. I’ve also taught philosophy at Notre Dame, Rutgers-Camden, Montclair State, Felician College and Mercer County Community College, as well as politics at Princeton University. I’m sorry if that sounds like something you’d put on a nametag or a CV, but we apostates get so much abuse from Big Name Islamic Scholars about being “pseudonymous imposters” that we’re obliged to prove our existence and identity before giving voice to our thoughts. Actually, since Georgetown’s John Esposito has publicly accused me of being a girl, I suppose I’m obliged to prove my sex, too. But since ISIS is a “family values” website, I cannot, alas, be as specific in demonstrating that fact as I might be.
  • Changes at ISIS: My main purpose in this letter (apart from cracking bad jokes) is to announce a series of important changes here at ISIS, which are perhaps best understood in their historical context.
  • ISIS was founded in 1998 by a small group of Muslim dissenters and apostates, the best known and most active of whom is undoubtedly Ibn Warraq. Since 1998, and perhaps especially since 9/11, Ibn Warraq has essentially served as the “public face” of ISIS—the person with whom the organization has most readily been associated. Of course, ISIS has always been more than Ibn Warraq, and Ibn Warraq has always had interests extending beyond ISIS’s day-to-day workings. Recently he has decided to step down as the President of ISIS in order to spend more time directly engaged in scholarly research. Though he will not be as actively involved with ISIS as before, rest assured that he has no intentions of disappearing from the scene. More on his work in due course.
  • In stepping down, Ibn Warraq has passed the torch on to a newly-constituted Executive Board. The top position, that of President, is now held by H.A. Muhammad, a Pakistani-American human rights activist. The second position, that of Vice President, is held by Hasan Mahmud, a Canadian-Bangladeshi activist and expert on Islamic sharia. Our General Secretary is Dr. Assad Abbas, and Salma Bani serves as Treasurer.
  • My own position, that of Executive Director, comes third in the hierarchy after the President and Vice President. The Executive Board as a whole runs ISIS; I execute its wishes and direct the organization on a day-to-day basis. For present purposes, that means that I make the majority of the editorial decisions for the site (in consultation with the Board), and function as the organization’s spokesperson (also in consultation with the Board).
  • Let me emphasize, that I only function as “spokesperson” in letters like these or official ISIS statements, which from now on will explicitly be described as coming “from the Executive Director.” In my stand-alone articles (which will not bear my official title), I write exclusively for myself, and what I say there represents my own opinion, not an official ISIS viewpoint. That goes for anything that I write on an external site, as well. On external sites, my affiliation with ISIS may be listed for purposes of identification, but nothing I say should be interpreted as an official ISIS viewpoint.
  • Our Purpose and Projects: The terrible events of 9/11, as well as recent events in Iraq and elsewhere, have for obvious reasons brought a new urgency to our project. ISIS has been getting an extraordinary amount of web traffic, an extraordinary number of inquiries, as well as generous offers of volunteer work, and some significant media attention. I want to take a moment to acknowledge those of you who have written to ISIS over the years, and also to admit that we probably have not been as responsive to you as we would have liked to have been: ISIS simply has not been equipped to handle all of the inquiries and offers you’ve sent our way. To be blunt, we still aren’t quite equipped for it, but the hope is that the newly-constituted ISIS will be more responsive to you, more actively engaged, and more adept at coordinating our efforts with yours. In fact, by year’s end, we’d like to become the Internet resource for issues relevant to the secularization of Islamic societies, as well as the critique of political Islam and Islam as such.

What, you may fairly ask, does that mean? There is no shortage of websites out there on such issues, so what unique niche does ISIS intend to fill?

  • In one sense, you can answer those questions by reading the Mission Statement on our home page. To put the issue more specifically, however, we think of ISIS as involving three core interests. Some of our members are interested primarily in tearing down religious barriers to secularization in the Islamic world. Some are interested in the fight against Islamic terrorism. And some are interested in offering or encouraging what I’ve elsewhere called a “full frontal” challenge to Islamic doctrine and practice. Our goal is to coordinate these efforts from a unique perspective—that of Muslim apostates and dissenters. We view those core interests as distinct but complementary goals, and intend to do what we can to promote all of them in a coherent and simultaneous manner. We also see ourselves as an electronic sanctuary for those sharing our views, but have nowhere else to turn.
  • It should go without saying that you do not personally have to have been a Muslim, or from a Muslim country, to share our goals. Nor do you have to be especially well-versed in Islamic theology or history. You simply have to accept the legitimacy of our project, and support its success—the application of reason to the assessment of Islam, and the application of the principles of secularism and individual rights to Islamic societies.
  • It should also go without saying that we intend our critique of Islam and Islamism to be firm but civilized. We don’t hesitate to take on Islamism or the Islamic faith as such. But we make no concessions whatsoever to racism or bigotry at this site, whether directed at Muslims or anyone else, and we insist on respect for the rights of all human beings, including all Muslims—which includes the rights of Muslims to believe, practice and promulgate Islam in a rights-respecting fashion.
  • So what can you now expect from ISIS? Plenty. I will from now on be writing a monthly letter “From the Executive Director,” responding to our readers, responding to current trends or events, and commenting a bit on books or articles on ISIS-relevant topics. You’ll also be seeing some fairly dramatic changes to the look and structure of the website fairly soon, as well as a wider variety of authors and articles, book reviews, literature reviews, activist reports from “the front,” and much more. I will continue to write stand-alone articles on what I hope are subjects of mutual interest. To be more specific, as someone born in Jersey City (with family there), I’ve been watching events unfold in that city with rapt interest, and will shortly have something to say about the authorities’ bizarre and inept handling of the Armanious murder case. You can also look forward to articles on Susan Sontag on 9/11, Fritz Stern on Iraq, feminism, women’s rights, anti-Semitism, and much more.

(Some of) What We’ve Accomplished So Far:

In the meantime, I think it’s appropriate to review what we have recently accomplished in the past few years, and what ISIS-associated people have been or are currently working on. This list is far from exhaustive, and I’ll have a lot more to say about other ISIS-associated people in subsequent letters.

Ibn Warraq:

  • Since 9/11, Ibn Warraq has produced at least seven major English-language essays on ISIS-related topics (as well as several in French that I have yet to track down). The first is the “official” ISIS statement on 9/11 on the ISIS site. The second is his call, written for London’s Guardian, for intellectual honesty in discussions of Islam (“Islam and Intellectual Terrorism,” Nov. 10, 2001). The third, also written for the Guardian, is his now-famous “virgins” piece, a somewhat startling application of Christoph Luxenberg’s philological theories about the Qur’an to the issue of suicide bombings (“Virgins? What Virgins?,” Jan. 12, 2002)
  • The next two articles are critiques of the intellectual legacy of Edward Said—the first published here at ISIS, the second published on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal (Sept. 29, 2003). The Journal piece, in turn, led to an extended debate in the Journal’s letters column, with Ibn Warraq getting the last word in mid-October 2003.
  • After that came two pieces on the reform of Islam. The first began as a talk at a conference sponsored by the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) in Washington D.C. in April 2003, almost perfectly coincident with the liberation of Iraq. The talk, which saw coverage in The Washington Times, was eventually published in the April/May 2004 issue of Free Inquiry in a symposium on Islam in the 21st century. The second essay on reform was published under the title “A True Islamic Reformation,” in Frontpage Magazine (May 19, 2003). I should also mention a 2003 debate at Frontpage Magazine featuring Ibn Warraq and Robert Spencer on one side, and As’ad Abu-Khalil and Hussam Ayloush on the other. Read it, and judge for yourself who won.
  • Moving from articles to books, the year 2002 saw the publication of Ibn Warraq’s book What the Koran Really Says, while 2003 saw the release of Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out. In subsequent letters, I’ll discuss the scholarly and journalistic response to these books, both friendly and hostile, and comment more generally on some of the press attention devoted to Ibn Warraq and ISIS since 9/11.
  • Having given up the task of running ISIS on a daily basis, Ibn Warraq has finally had the time to return to his consuming scholarly interest, Qur’anic studies, and to devote the time to it that he feels it deserves. He is currently at work on two books on the subject, one to be published this year and one the next; he is a bit reticent about their contents, but I understand that they are technical collections and semi-technical expositions of cutting-edge research on the origins and meaning of the Qur’an (including that of Christoph Luxenberg and Gerd Puin). He has also recently joined the Board of Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch organization.

H.A. Muhammad:

  • Meanwhile, “President Muhammad,” as we affectionately call him, has spent the last several months jet-setting around the world, making contact with secularist activists and scholars throughout the Muslim world, as well as hobnobbing at conferences and smaller-scale gatherings in Europe and North America. For reasons I don’t quite understand, such jet-setting activities seem to be the exclusive province of Presidents, as distinct from Executive Directors. Anyway, President M. reports a resurgent interest in secularism wherever he has traveled, and also reports some significant familiarity with ISIS abroad. “If you can speak to people confidentially, there is a greater willingness to question Islam in the Muslim world than there is in the American press,” he says. Such people are making contact with ISIS, and we hope to encourage their willingness to question Islam, and to fight for the right to do so more openly.

Hasan Mahmud:

  • Hasan Mahmud, our Vice President, has recently appeared in a series of five debates on the topic of sharia on Toronto television, and has also just completed a book manuscript on the same topic. As a Bangladeshi who has seen the horrors of a sharia-based politics first-hand, Hasan makes a forceful and persuasive case against sharia (not only as problematic in itself but as regards its Islamic credentials), and argues that Muslims need to re-think the relationship between Islam as involving a personal relationship with God and Islam’s requiring a sharia-based political order. This argument should be of interest not only to Muslims but to non-Muslims, and not only as a theoretical or academic matter, but as a question of practical reform in the direction of secularization.
  • For a glimpse of what Hasan is up against, readers should consult Eliza Griswold’s recent article on Bangladesh in the New York Times Magazine, “The Next Islamist Revolution?” (Jan. 23, 2005). (Note: access to the Times requires registration, and the article itself must be purchased.) Besides offering a highly informative account of Bangladeshi fundamentalism, the article raises several challenges to mainstream orthodoxy on the subject of the “production” of terrorism. The occupation of Iraq, we are frequently told, is the principal motor of “Muslim grievances,” fundamentalism, and terrorism. If so, what explains the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in a completely unrelated place? What Iraqi-related grievances explain the murder, torture, and dismemberment of secular Bangladeshis by fundamentalist ones? For that matter, what “grievances” could Bangladeshi Sunnis have against the powerless Ahmadi minority? (Ahmadis are a small heterodox sect of Islam, based primarily in the Indian subcontinent but also active in the US.) Human Rights Watch is set to publish a report on the oppression of Ahmadis in Bangladesh in a few weeks; I urge interested readers to get hold of it, and do what they can to publicize its findings.

Irfan Khawaja:

  • My own recent work has taken a slightly different focus from that of my colleagues. In April 2003, I gave a talk at the CSH conference mentioned earlier, entitled “From Jihad to Counter-Jihad,” in which I urged secular humanists to engage in a wholesale critique of Islam’s theological and moral claims to truth. The talk eventually found its way to the April/May 2004 issue of Free Inquiry magazine (under a new title that was decidedly not my idea), where it was published alongside Ibn Warraq’s essay. I responded to one critic, Daniel Consolatore, in the magazine’s subsequent issue (June/July). Audio-cassettes of the original panel are available through the CSH.
  • In early 2004, I published a critical review of the second paperback edition of William Bennett’s book, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism in the academic journal Teaching Philosophy (March 2004). Despite my support for the war on terrorism, I described Bennett’s book as “dreadful,” taking strong issue with the double-standards expressed in its treatment of Judaism, Christianity and Zionism on the one hand, and Islam and Islamism on the other.
  • In March, I presented a paper on a related theme at a meeting of the Society for Philosophy in the Contemporary World in Pasadena, California (“Muslim Anti-Semitism and Zionist Orientalism: The Workings of a Vicious Cycle”). An early version of the paper found its way onto the website of Tikkun magazine, where it provoked some lively controversy (it’s since been removed).
  • In June, I presented a paper entitled “Islam and Capitalism: A non-Rodinsonian Approach,” at the International Ecumenical Conference on Business Ethics at Loyola University, in New Orleans. The paper, a critique of Maxime Rodinson’s well-known book Islam and Capitalism, will appear this spring as a chapter in a book entitled Business and Ethics: A Clash of Civilizations (ed. Nicholas Capaldi), alongside chapters on related topics by Dean Ahmad and Ellen Klein.
  • In July, I presented a paper at the meeting of the North American Society for Social Philosophy at Creighton University (Omaha, Nebraska) criticizing arguments for “full divestment” from Israel. These arguments dovetail with arguments about divestment I’ve made here at ISIS.
  • In the fall of 2004, I published essay-reviews of Christopher Hitchens’s A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq, and Khaled Abou El Fadl’s The Place of Tolerance in Islam, both in Reason Papers, an interdisciplinary journal edited by Professor Aeon Skoble of the Department of Philosophy at Bridgewater State College, (Bridgewater, Massachusetts). (The links above take you to short versions of those reviews available at the ISIS website.) I also published several articles on ISIS-relevant subjects throughout the year at the website of the History News Network, most recently a debate with Daniel Pipes on the subject of Muslim civil liberties in the US. Readers interested in this material can go to the HNN website via the hyperlink above, click on “Archives” and put my name into the “Author” slot.

My work has animated by four concerns:

(1) the need for a stringent critique of Islam and Islamism;
(2) the need to apply the same critical standards to Islam and Islamism as apply to other religions and ideologies, including Judaism, Christianity, Zionism, and Hindu nationalism;
(3) the need to challenge Islamist governments and organizations; and
(4) the need to safeguard the rights of Muslims, both here and abroad.

I’m convinced that these are mutually-reinforcing concerns, all central to the ISIS project. In subsequent letters, I’ll discuss why prominent Muslim intellectuals and apologists have consistently violated analogues of these norms in their discussions of the work of Muslim apostates and dissenters—making specific reference to Fred Donner of the University of Chicago and Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA.

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