Saturday, January 06, 2007

A Call to Defend Women and Minorities in the Middle East

By Lafif Lakhdar (*)

This is a solemn call to the international civil society and international media, whose influence nowadays on the ruling elites could never be overemphasized. It is also a call to the Islamic world in need of openness to the modern values of Human Rights and modernity, which are indivisible, indeed, particularly as regards to the protection of woman and of national, ethnic, confessional, linguistic, and religious minorities.

Unfortunately, the latter groups are still subject to the fourteen-century old theology of "Dhimmitude" (the status of "the People of the Book" under Islamic Law), despite the abolition of the "Jezya" (Poll Tax) in Egypt in 1855.

As regards to the violations of Human Rights, I would just give two examples. The first relates to the interdiction made to a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim or even a Muslim of another confession. Last year, a Saudi judge ordered a Sunni woman to divorce her husband who happened to be Ismaelite (a Shiaa minority), as reported in Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper (of 27/04/2006). Moreover, Sharia (Islamic Law) treats a non-Muslim wife to a Muslim man in an atrocious manner: She will have no rights of custody over her young children, in case of divorce; nor to inherit her husband.

Firstly, this is a call to respect religious freedom of minorities in the land of Islam to conduct cults, including their freedom to construct sites of worship, and to respect the rights of all citizens to change religion, or not to have one at all.

The European Commission recently has requested from the Islamist government in Turkey to respect such a basic Human Right. And it had previously requested from the same government to abolish the death sentence and the punishment for adultery. This is a clear proof, indeed, of the potential success of foreign pressure to defend universally recognised Human Rights.

Secondly, this is a call for equal treatment of all religious minorities, including the protection of non-Muslims' rights to preach in Islamic countries, the same way Muslims are free to preach in the West, and it is a call to abolish laws dating back to the Middle Ages that call for punishing Christians found "guilty" of preaching outside their churches with decapitation.

Recently, the Algerian government promulgated a law condemning Christians indicted for trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. This looks like replacing the above-mentioned decapitation sentence by a prison term. Indeed what a progress!

One should notice, however, that for civil, religious, national and cultural rights of all minorities in the Middle East to be respected, there is a need to end political exclusion and marginalization to which these minorities are currently subjected, and for their full integration in the political life of their countries. A failure to urgently address these issues would only undermine stability in the region and ignite further hatred and conflict.

(*) Tunisian writer living in France. This article is an adaptation of a speech in French presented at a conference on ‘Copts: A Combat for Human Rights’ held in Paris in May 2006.


November 14, 2006 This bulletin, edited and produced by Fred Whitehead, Kansas City, Kansas, U.S.A., for the International Committee to Protect Freethinkers (ICPF) is FREE. If you do not wish to receive this, see instructions at the end of this message. Items: #1: Kobra Rahmanpour, Iran #2: Salah Choudhury, Bangladesh #3: Freedom of speech and conscience, Romania #4: Muazzez Ilmiye Cig, Turkey #5: Abdel Karim Nabil Suleiman, Egypt #6: Lafif Lakhdar, Tunisia/France #7: Raja Ben Slama, Tunisia #8: The Enemy of My Enemy Is Not My Friend, by Marieme Helie-Lucas #9: News Briefs #10: Resources #1: KOBRA RAHMANPOUR, Iran Supporters of this young woman, sentenced to death for killing her mother-in-law in self defense, report that her execution has been delayed for another month, after Shahroodi, the chairman of the Judiciary of Iran, “declared he has heard the voice of protest from the people, and will do his best to prevent Kobra’s execution.” Her campaign is also appealing to the world for financial help. Current information is available at,com. #2: SALA CHOUDHURY, Bangladesh On November 13, Choudhury appeared in court in Dhaka, to answer to the charge that “he tried to damage the image and relations of Bangladesh with the outside world” because he attempted to travel to Israel (as reported by him in the Israeli Insider on Nov. 14). Pleading Not Guilty, he states “by advocating inter-faith dialogue, supporting relations between Bangladesh and Israel, I have not done anything wrong.” His trial has been set for January 22, 2007. As the government of Bangladesh is currently in flux, we will report on avenues for solidarity in the near future, as contact details are confirmed. For background and updates, see an excellent website by Dr. Richard Benkin: #3: FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE AND SPEECH, ROMANIA A new law has been proposed by a committee of the Chamber of Deputies, as follows: “Any form, means, act or action of religious defamation and enmity, as well as any public offense against religious symbols, shall be prohibited.” A campaign by the country’s humanists has been launched, stating that under this provision, “books, works of art, movies, plays, concerts and rock groups could easily be banned.” The open letter to the government is here: Messages of solidarity can be sent to: #4: MUAZZEZ ILMIYE CIG, TURKEY On November 1, a court acquitted Cig, a 92-year old archaeologist, on the charge of insulting religious feelings. A convinced secular academic, Cig is an expert on ancient Sumerian civilization, and had published in her recent political work My Reactions as a Citizen, a statement that in antiquity, veils were worn by priestesses who engaged in sex to separate themselves from other priestesses. Upon her acquittal, there was a spontaneous demonstration by her supporters (reported in the New York Times, Nov. 2). The Times subsequently reported on Nov. 5 that Prime Minister Erdogan indicated that he “was prepared to amend” the law, a welcome development indeed. Messages of appreciation may be sent to President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, a confirmed secularist, at the following e-mail address: #5: ABDEL KARIM NABIL SULEIMAN, EGYPT The Middle East Times reprinted a report from the AFP, Nov. 8, concerning the arrest of Suleiman, a former student at Al Azhar University. He had protested his expulsion from the University on his blog: “I went to study at Al Azhar at the request of my parents, despite my outright rejection of Al Azhar and its religious ideas, and despite all that I have written which harshly criticizes the rise of religion in daily life and its effect on people’s behavior.” He added: “I was expelled . . . for my writing on the Net, a free space not under their jurisdiction.” Reporters Without Borders has now added Egypt to their list of “enemies of the Internet.” Protests may be sent to the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, DC: #6: LAFIF LAKHDAR, TUNISIA/FRANCE We have previously reported on the situation of this noted intellectual. We now learn that his apartment building in France was hit by an arson attack, endangering not only him, but his library of some 4,000 books. His supporters are calling on the international community to assist him in moving to a more secure location. For the latest information on how to do this contact Fred Whitehead at: A long but most informative article about Lafkhar is available from the Haaretz website: #7: RAJA BEN SLAMA, TUNISIA Information on this case is from Abu Khawla: Raja Ben Slama, Literature Professor in the University of Tunisia, rose to pre-eminence thanks to her original writings on issues of religious intolerance, Muslim woman status, and broader political issues of social modernization and progress. This owes much to her original thinking and writing skills, and also to the advent of the Internet, which means freedom in the Arab world, as the so-called independent media remains completely founded and dominated by Islamist petrodollars. The fact that her focus was on defending women’s rights and freedom of conscience, and her role as a leading light in the "League of Arab Rationalists" made her, from the beginning, a target of radical Islamist groups, starting with Tunisian Nahdha, whose leader Rached Ghannouchi called for her "public hanging", along with Tunisia's prominent free thinker, Lafif Lakhdar. Following this murderous call, Ghannouchi went to action in a pornographic campaign, subjecting the writer to bestialities that would stop only after public calls were made to the British police for inquiry by prominent Arab intellectuals campaigning in support of Lafif Lakhdar, after he was falsely accused on Ghannouchi's Web site, on 6 May 2005, of writing a blasphemous book about Prophet Muhammad. Last August, Raja Ben Slama published a critical article of Hezbollah, whose miscalculated adventure brought destruction and bloodshed to Lebanon. The reaction came from remnants of Tunisia's leftist movement. This included articles published in the national labor association's newspaper "Al-Shaab". More serious however was an article published on the 13th of last August on Al-Wasat newspaper ( ), signed by "Abu Al-Walid, accusing Raja Ben Slama and the League of Arab Rationalists of apostasy, an offense punishable by death, in Islamic jurisprudence. Nahdha mobilized also four former students of Professor Ben Slama to "testify" against her in writings published in their electronic newspaper So far, the reaction of Arab free thinkers remains timid. Prominent writer Shaker Nabulsi wrote an article to publicize her case, which was widely disseminated in Arab liberal sites. My own article on her fate was posted on the leading liberal site (more than 300 thousand readers per day) and re-produced in many others. The orchestrated campaign against the prominent feminist free thinker is but the latest example of a huge propaganda machine that uses petrodollars, mosques and a web of charities and religious schools. However, this new campaign could easily backfire as was the case of many previous attempts, as long as like-minded people are ready to defend the truth, by exposing the ugly side of the Islamist agenda of hate mongering and deceit. While the primary responsibility, in this respect, falls on Arab/Muslim intellectuals, Western support is crucial to help organize what remains a disparate movement, lacking the basic means of communication. (This article is based on the original version published in Arabic on, on October 21, 2006.) #8: THE ENEMY OF MY ENEMY IS NOT MY FRIEND Fundamentalist Non State Actors, Democracy and Human Rights Marieme HELIE-LUCAS 6 septembre 2006 Contribution presented at the sixth Asia Europe People's Forum, Helsinki September 3-6, 2006, (plenary of cluster 3 : Democracy and Human Rights). The world has changed since the first international human rights organizations developed as we know them today : most conflicts do not any more occur between two armies of two nation states, hence most armed conflicts involve one or more non state actors and many human rights violations are committed by non state actors. Among these non state actors are political movements, ranging from very conservative to extreme right, aiming at political power but working under the cover of religion, that are known as 'fundamentalists'. These movements exist on all continents and use all religions to disguise their political agenda, and they have been steadily growing since the end of World War II. Just to give a few examples at random : - the Christian Right in the US, which assassinated, for instance, the pro abortion doctors and assaulted the clinics are the same people that also back and inspire Bush's program against social welfare, reproductive rights, gays, etc. . . , and promote war, teaching of 'creationism' in schools, etc... - The Hindu Right, which assassinated Gandhi in 1948, perpetrated mass massacres of Muslims ( the latest in Gujarat in 2002), as well as assassinations of Christians and burning of churches and convents, also inspires and manages the RSS that serves the electoral ambitions of BJP. - the Orthodox Church has led a successful offensive in Central Europe in the past few years, putting an end to secularism in Croatia three years ago and in Serbia this year, by gaining a specific political representation, while, for instance they forced the teaching of religion into schools in Russia, eliminated sex education from the curriculum in Lithuania and secured in Slovenia and in Poland, the right for medical professionals to refuse assistance for services deemed immoral. - Buddhists groups, rarely talked about, who were behind the assassination of the Prime Minister by a monk in 1959 to oppose an agreement with the Tamil dissidents that was leading to more autonomy, managed to obtain recognition for Buddhism as the first religion of Sri Lanka in the 1972 constitution and now push for communal war in Sri Lanka. - Better known are the Orthodox Jewish forces that support the aggressive military occupation policy of Israel in the Middle East - and Muslim fundamentalists, - pointed at the world over in all international media for their bloody bombings in Europe and North America- who, in Muslim countries, not only decimated left opponents, intellectuals, artists and the Muslim masses that they call 'unbelievers' (kofr) when they do not abide by their political program, as they did in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, Algeria, etc..., but also put an end to democracy and imposed (or attempted to impose) theocracies. It is important to note that, although i am deeply convinced that fundamentalism is now a shared disgrace all over the world which operates through various religions, most of the examples I use involve Muslim fundamentalists : the only reason for it is that, as an Algerian citizen now living in Europe, it is the one form of fundamentalism I know best, from many years of living experience as well as as a researcher and as an activist. In all cases, what we see at work is by no means religious movements, but political extreme right forces that manipulate religions to further their political agenda and to gain political power. Ambiguities and cowardice in the Left, Far Left and progressive forces at large - whether in the West or in the Third World -, in condemning fundamentalist forces, stem from this confusion they entertain between religion and politics. Human rights concepts and instruments designed for other times often prove inefficient when applied to present day rise of fundamentalism. If the responsibility of fundamentalists as perpetrators of human rights violations may be addressed, their identity as extreme right political forces is not unveiled, while the unholy alliances they knit across religions and across nations should be a first indicator of their political nature. We saw these unholy alliances at work, for instance, during the UN World Conference on Population in Cairo (1993), when the Vatican and Al Azhar publicly allied against reproductive rights ; and again during the UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1996. But even more telling is the verbal support that Le Pen, leader of the extreme right national Front Party in France, and Haider, leader of the extreme right Freedom Party in Austria, lent to the fundamentalist FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) of Algeria in 1995, i.e. at the peak of the massacres they perpetrated against the civilian population during that decade. This reminds us of the inspiration and support given by the German Nazi Party to the emerging Hindu Right. The failure to recognize the political nature of fundamentalisms, regardless of their political agenda, ultimately benefits fundamentalists : they often enjoy the protection of human rights organizations, in the name of religious rights, minority rights, cultural rights, etc... It is even more so in situations where fundamentalists claim to represent an oppressed minority, when they face repression by their own governments, or when they are under threat of imperialist powers. This is now in full bloom, due to the U.S. attacks on the Middle East and the war on terrorism : it has devastating consequences on democratic anti fundamentalist forces in Muslim countries and communities as well as on the citizens of migrant descent in Europe. Let us look at some of these consequences on human rights and on democracy. - The exclusive focus of human rights organizations on state responsibility and accountability, frees non state actors of any responsibility and accountability for the crimes and violations they commit. Fundamentalists end up being seen exclusively as victims - which they may be in some cases, while they are, also and primarily, violators. If and when they are persecuted by states, they definitely should enjoy protection of their basic human rights ( such as : no arbitrary detention, protection against torture, fair trial, etc...) ; but as perpetrators of many crimes and violations, they should not enjoy some of the provisions designed for victims only ( such as asylum), and they should not be given a political platform from which to propagate their views. Their double identity, as victims and as perpetrators, is overlooked by most human rights organizations, who fail to face the consequences of such a situation. - Moreover, seeing fundamentalists exclusively as victims induces a hierarchy among victims. As an example, Algerian fundamentalists benefited from political asylum in many European countries, on the ground that they would be persecuted by the state in their own country ; meanwhile, their victims were denied asylum and were slaughtered in Algeria by the Islamic Armed Groups ( GIA), on the ground that they were not persecuted by states but by non state actors. Moreover, as victims of state repression, fundamentalists were repeatedly invited by human rights organizations, and their views on violence in Algeria were the only ones represented at their gatherings. - The plight of democratic forces struggling for survival under both undemocratic states and neo fascist fundamentalist forces is ignored by the very progressive forces that should be their allies, and their struggles and resistance are made totally invisible. As if some victims ( for instance, of imperialism) were more legitimate victims than others (for instance, of extreme right fundamentalist forces). - Fundamentalists launch an attack on democracy, in the literal sense of the word : they want to impose on all citizens what they claim is The Law of God ( as interpreted by them), by definition a-historical and unchangeable, i.e. a theocracy ; and to eradicate the laws of the people, by definition changeable according to the will and vote of the people, i.e. the essence of democracy. - Further, they want to impose a religious identity on all citizens, by virtue of their birth place rather than by choice, thus denying freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of consciousness. This is an insult to both believers, whose personal faith is reduced to fate, and to unbelievers whose rights as free thinkers is totally denied. As an example, Muslim fundamentalists have successfully induced Europe to label " Muslims" all immigrants and even the second and third generations of migrant descent from Muslim countries, regardless of their individual religious beliefs. A faith is slowly being turned into a "race" - the only historical precedent being the Jews during World War II. - In Europe as well as in our countries of origin, we witness the erosion of secular space, under the huge pressure of fundamentalists to introduce religious laws for minorities. Muslim fundamentalists make similar demands in different countries in Europe : all of them revolve around gender apartheid ( separate schools with different curriculum for boys and girls, in particular no teaching of biology, art, music, sports, and teaching of creationism ; separate wards and women-only personnel in public hospitals for men and women (a real joke in France for instance, where public hospitals cannot afford enough medical personnel, let alone female ones) ; separate swimming pools for men and women ; the introduction of Muslim Personal Law ( or Family Code) for presumed "Muslims", i.e. laws that affect primarily women insofar as they regulate marriage, divorce, polygamy, repudiation, custody of children, inheritance, the benefit of men. After the hierarchy of victims, we are now confronted with a hierarchy of rights in which women's rights come last, after minority rights, after religious rights. - Governments are generally prepared to trade women's rights for social rest, - this is no surprise ; but human rights organizations and the Left at large also trade with fundamentalists, in the name of tolerance and cultural relativism. They do so despite the outcry by migrant women, many of whom have fled from such an oppressive situation in their own countries, or women of migrant descent who are accustomed to more freedom and equality. They do so despite the outcry of all secularists from migrant descent, believers and unbelievers alike. They do so for fear of being accused of 'Islamophobia', a concept coined by fundamentalists in order to silence dissent. As if fundamentalist neo fascists were the only legitimate true representatives of 'Islam', and of all citizens whose parents once migrated from Muslim countries. - This situation leads to the erosion of citizenship to the benefit of 'communities'. It raises a number of questions : who speaks for the so-called community ? who speaks in the name of religion ? who speaks in the name of culture ? Generally it is male conservative religious self appointed 'leaders'. This is a highly undemocratic process of representation. Why should religion represent a whole population ? I can see no other example in the present European context, where religious men are called to solve social problems, except when ' Muslims' are concerned. Do governments call on the Vatican when there is a miners' strike ? or do they negotiate with unions ? ! - With the erosion of the notion of citizenship comes a growing fragmentation of the people into smaller and smaller entities. While a few decades ago, migrants in Europe united and organized for their rights with vigor and success, it is now "Muslims", "Sikhs", "Hindus", etc... who seek separate rights, status and representation and make varied demands. How to ignore the fact that this fragmentation of the people weakens struggles and ultimately serves capital ?... That could well explain the tolerance that fundamentalists in Europe enjoy from governments. But what of the Left with its short sighted defence of fundamentalists ? These are frightening consequences of the lack of political analysis regarding fundamentalism. When the Left supports fundamentalist movements and parties on the ground that they are popular forces oppressed by undemocratic states or by imperialism, they are blind to their political program and to their societal project. Popular they are. And populist too. So were fascists, and Hitler indeed was elected by the people. To a situation of oppression, exclusion, marginalization, racism, etc... there are responses from the Left at large, from progressive or revolutionary forces ; and there are responses from the Right, there are fascist responses. Fundamentalism is a response from the Extreme Right, it is not a legitimate answer that can or should be supported. Progressive secular oppositions to undemocratic states, imperialism and capitalism exist in all Muslim countries and they exist among migrants and citizens of migrant descent in Europe as well. They exist despite fierce repression by states, despite physical elimination by fundamentalist non state actors and despite abandonment by those who should be their natural allies : democrats, progressive, secular, human rights people in Europe. Progressive forces in Muslim countries warned the world for the past few decades already, regarding the fascist nature of fundamentalism. Largely in vain, it seems. We feel as lonely as must have felt the anti nazi Germans in the early thirties, when those who should have listened to their warning were busy compromising in Munich, supposedly for keeping peace in the world, with a Frankenstein monster that was soon to impose its rule over many peoples and nations. Give us visibility. Give us a voice. We are the alternative. HELIE-LUCAS Marieme * Algerian sociologist, Marieme Helie Lucas is a founder of the 'Women Living Under Muslim Laws' international solidarity network. Former International Coordinator of WLUML. #9: NEWS BRIEFS The August issue of the American Atheist magazine reports extensive details of the successful defense of the Smalkowski family of the small town of Hardesty, Oklahoma. Last April the magazine reported the resistance of their daughter Nicole, to compulsory prayers before basketball games. Subsequently her father Chuck was charged with assault against the school principal. With the assistance of Ed Kagin of the American Atheists legal team, Chuck was acquitted at his trial on June 22. Information on obtaining this issue of the magazine may be had from American Atheist, PO Box 5733, Parsippany, NJ 07054 The website is The Freedom from Religion Foundation’s monthly newspaper Freethought Today reports regularly on their campaign to challenge the U.S. government’s Faith-Based Initiative program, which has given millions of dollars to religious organizations on the basis that they provide social services. A major lawsuit filed against the Veterans Administration was filed in April, and is proceeding through the courts. Their website is The Secular Humanism Online News, vol. 2, No. 11 reported on a congress in the Netherlands, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the foundation of the Dutch Freethought Association, with lengthy details supplied by a participant, Floris van den Berg. Norm Allen of African Americans for Humanism supplies a fascinating account of the current state of humanist organizations in Africa, from his recent visit to several countries, inn the AAH Examiner for Spring 2006. Contact him at his organization, PO Box 664, Amherst, NY 14226. #10: RESOURCES Brave Minds, journal of the ICPF, edited by Dr. Marvin F. Zayed, is available from PO Box 41153, Elmvale, 1910 St. Laurent Blvd., Ottawa, Ontario K1G 5K9, Canada. This is a large format print magazine for which a subscription is required, but it is now established as a major source of international documentation and analysis concerning the status of Freethinkers and Freethought in many countries, with a focus on the situation in the Islamic ones. In addition, Brave Minds and the IPCF now have a website!! Go to: Parts of the site are still under construction. We need your interest and support for this project. Harsh Kapoor runs a valuable website, the South Asia Citizens Web: This presents reports on current conditions and issues in the subcontinent. Currently, for example, there is a perceptive essay by physics professor Pervez Hoodbhoy, “Pakistan: Waiting for Enlightenment.” Similarly, Steve McGiffen runs a site that offers reports focusing on the European Left: It provides updates on cultural events and political demonstrations, etc. The National Secular Society of Britain issues a regular, extensive “Newsline” bulletin edited by Terry Sanderson. Naturally it concentrates on the U.K., but has reports from the rest of Europe and around the world, and includes a lively section of correspondence. The NSS website is: To subscribe to this, send a blank email with “Subscribe to Newsline” on the subject line to If you do not wish to continue receiving this Freethought Solidarity Bulletin, send a message to with FSB UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject box.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Arab Free Thinker Raja Ben Slama

By Abu Khawla (*)

Raja Ben Slama, Literature Professor in the University of Tunisia, rose to pre-eminence thanks to her original writings on issues of religious intolerance, Muslim woman status, and broader political issues of social modernization and progress. This owes much to her original thinking and writing skills, and also to the advent of the Internet, which means freedom in the Arab world, as the so-called independent media remains completely founded and dominated by Islamist petrodollars.

The fact that her focus was on defending woman rights and freedom of conscience, and her role as a leading light in the "League of Arab Rationalists" made her, from the beginning, a target of radical Islamist groups, starting with Tunisian Nahdha, whose leader Rached Ghannouchi called for her "public hanging", along with Tunisia's prominent free thinker, Lafif Lakhdar.

Following this murderous call, Ghannouchi went to action in a pornographic campaign, subjecting the writer to bestialities that would stop only after public calls were made to the British police for inquiry by prominent Arab intellectuals campaigning in support of Lafif Lakhdar, after he was falsely accused on Ghannouchi's Web site, on 6 May 2005, of writing a blasphemous book about Prophet Muhammad.

Last August, Raja Ben Slam published a critical article of Hezbollah, whose miscalculated adventure brought destruction and bloodshed to Lebanon. The reaction came from remnants of Tunisia's leftist movement. This included articles published in the national labor association's newspaper "Al-Shaab". More serious however was an article published on the 13th of last August on Al-Wasat newspaper ( ), signed by "Abu Al-Walid", certainly a pen name for Nahdha leadership, accusing Raja Ben Slama and the League of Arab Rationalists of apostasy, an offense punishable by death, in Islamic jurisprudence.

Nahdha mobilized also four former students of Professor Ben Slama to "testify" against her in writings published in their electronic newspaper

So far, the reaction of Arab free thinkers remains timid. Prominent writer Shaker Nabulsi wrote an article to publicize her case, which was widely disseminated in Arab liberal sites. My own article on her fate was posted on the leading liberal site (more than 300 thousand readers per day) and re-produced in many others.

The orchestrated campaign against the prominent feminist free thinker is but the latest example of a huge propaganda machine that uses petrodollars, mosques and a web of charities and religious schools. However, this new campaign could easily backfire as was the case of many previous attempts, as long as like-minded people are ready to defend the truth, by exposing the ugly side of the Islamist agenda of hate mongering and deceit. While the primary responsibility, in this respect, falls on Arab/Muslim intellectuals, Western support is crucial to help organize what remains a disparate movement, lacking the basic means of communication.
(*) this article is based on the original version published in Arabic on, on October 21, 2006. Contact:

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Freethought Solidarity Bulletin #5

Freethought Solidarity Bulletin #5


Muslim moderate journalist Salah Choudhury faces death 11.10.2006 Here is a nightmare adventure as bad as anything cooked up in television dramas, and it is all true. Without our help, a very good man may die. Speaking out against radical Islamism and advocating dialogue and diplomatic relations with Israel are apparently "crimes" punishable by death in Bangladesh. Fearless journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is on trial for sedition, a capital offence, because of those stands. His trial begins October 12. That is hardly the worst part of his story. Salah was one of the first to warn about the rise of Islamist radicalism in Bangladesh, explaining how it was carefully incubated in Madrassahs and encouraged by corrupt authorities. The world was surprised when bombs began going off all over Dhakka some time later, but Salah was not surprised at all. When the US pressed Bangladesh to recognize Israel, Salah supported the move through his newspapers. He established contact with an Israeli dialogue group, IFLAC, and attempted to come to Israel to talk about encouraging dialogue through the media. He was arrested at the airport in November, 2003 as he was about to board a flight for Israel. He began living a Kafkaeseque nightmare that has continued for three years. Salah wrote several letters from jail describing the conditions and his failing health. He was charged with sedition, and with a passport offence for attempted travel to Israel. The Arab world press generated outrageous rumors insisting that Salah was an agent of the Israeli Mossad intelligence organization. Pressure from US officials and the House of Rrepresentatives ultimately obtained his release on bail after he had served much longer jail time than the passport offence penalty would have required. Salah was convinced that the sedition charges would be dropped, but that was not to be. The case has dragged on and on as the government sought to fabricate a case for sedition. The office of his newspaper was recently bombed and Salah was badly beaten by a mob. It seems that getting beaten up and having your office trashed is also against the law in Bangladesh. Salah now faces an addition "trial" for that "offence." This is how it happened, as Salah relates: I was assaulted by a mob led by BNP's Cultural Wing leader Helal Khan and Babul Ahmed on 5th of October. Weekly Blitz Managing Editor M. A. Ahsan was also seriously injured, which resulted in suspension of the publication of Weekly Blitz for this week. ...Mr. Ahsan and I immediately rushed to the Shahbagh Police Station and met the officer-in-charge, Rezaul Karim, to lodge a complaint against the attackers and ask that they send police forces to our office to guard our properties. However, the police officer, (who reportedly received TK. 200,000 as a bribe from the attackers) reluctantly asked us to go back to homes, take a shower and meet him after several hours... The attackers took unlawful possession of our office and looted a number of computers, printers and other valuables from the office. Earlier, when they attacked me, Babul Ahmed shouted, "He is an agent of Jews, kill him". They snatched my mobile phone, took TK. 42,000 cash from my pocket and forcibly took away the key of the vault of the office and looted TK 350,000 cash. It may be mentioned here that police protection was mysteriously withdrawn from our office four days before the attack. Meanwhile, more surprisingly, the government has also withdrawn police protection from my residence, which has definitely put my entire family in to a tremendous horror. Now, supposedly being given legal protection by the police, we lodged a formal case with the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate on Sunday, 8th of October. The Metropolitan magistrate Mizanur Rahman sent the case to criminal Investigation Department (CID) for investigation and necessary actions. But, the influential people (the attackers) belonging to the ruling party are now trying to press CID to send the matter to cold storage. Hearing that we lodged the complaint, the attackers, under the direct patronage of the officer-in-charge of Shahbagh Police Station, lodged a false complaint with the police station in the evening of 8th October, where Rezaul Karim (the OC) instructed his fellow officers to issue warrant of arrest against us. On the following day (9th of October) another false complaint was filed by the attackers with the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate, which the court sent to Shahbagh Police Station for investigation and action. The court also accepted the petition of the attackers and instructed the police to raid my office and residence. This incident forced me to go into hiding on the dark hours of 9th October, as I was told by some journalists that the officer in charge was ready to arrest me, assault me in custody and kill me. The officer in charge is continuously conspiring to do everything to 'give me a proper lesson'. The attackers also held a press conference in Dhaka on 10th of October, where attacker Babul Ahmed said, "Shoaib is an agent of Israel and Jews". I appeared before the Court of Metropolitan Magistrate Mr. Shafiq Anwar on the 11th of October 2006 through my lawyer Advocate Samarendra Nath Goswami for bail. The magistrate in the bail order wrote, "the counsel appearing for the state (that is a police officer) strongly opposed the bail petition. But, the allegation is confusing. So, the bail is granted"....They want to harrass us and want to see the complete death of Weekly Blitz, which is the most outspoken newspaper in Bangladesh. If we do not find a way to help him, Salah may be convicted of treason and executed, or killed by the mob. In the best case, his life and health would be ruined by a long jail sentence and a slanderous and violent campaign. Please write or phone elected representatives, Bangladesh government officials and human rights groups. Frankly, letters from Israel to Bangladesh authorities may harm his case. An article by Bret Stephens that describes Salah's ordeal is below. Letters to Bangladesh authorities should be polite and not abusive and should emphasize the harm that this case is doing to the good image of Bangladesh in your country and the need to pursue justice. Sample letter (with additional contact information in the addresses) Ms. Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister, Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, PM's Office, Old Sangshad Bhaban, Tejgaon, Dhaka, Bangladesh Fax: 880-2-8113244 Mr. Md. Lutfozzaman Babar, State Minister, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of the People's Republic of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Secretariat, Topkhana Road, Dhaka-1000, Bangladesh Fax: 880-2-7171611 Ambassador Shamsher M. Chowdhury Embassy of Bangladesh 3510 International Drive NW Washington, DC 20008 Telephone : (202) - 244 - 0183. Emergency number during evening hours: 202-244-4727 Fax: (202) - 244 - 7830/2771 Email: Your excellencies, I am gravely distressed to learn of the trial of award winning journalist Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury for sedition and other false charges. Mr. Choudhury has done nothing more than pursue his job as a journalist and his duty as a citizen. In addition to legal procedings, he has been beaten and robbed and denied police protection. I request your urgent intervention to stop this nightmare travesty of justice, which is ruining the image of Bangladesh around the world. Additional contact information for Bangladesh officials: Bangladesh Consulate, New York, Fax: 212-682-9211 Email: Sheikh Mohammed Belal, Counsellor-1 (Pol.), Embassy of Bangladesh, Washington DC. Tel: 202-244-4616 (W) 718-938-1271 (cell) Letters to elected officials in your country and human rights groups should explain the case and ask for action to protect Mr. Choudhury. Sample letter: Dear XXX, This is to request your urgent intervention to save the life of award-winning Bangladesh journalist Salahuddin Shoaib Chourhury. He has lived a three year nightmare of jailings, and beatings since he tried to travel to Israel in November 2003, and is now being tried for sedition and other false charges that are capital offences because of his outspoken stands against Islamist extremism. His case has been the subject of editorials in the New York Times and Wall Street journal. A previous appeal by the US Congress helped bring him a reprieve, but the Bangladesh government has continued to prosecute his case. Without your help, Salahuddin Shoaib Choudhury may die. US officials US Embassy in Dhakka, Bangladesh - US Senators: Go to Click on "find your senators" in the top right corner. US Congresspersons: Go to Enter your zip code near the top in "find your representative" Human rights groups Amnesty International Human Rights Watch: 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA Tel: 1-(212) 290-4700, Fax: 1-(212) 736-1300 OR 1630 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 500 Washington, DC 20009 USA Tel:1-(202) 612-4321, Fax:1-(202) 612-4333

Ami Isseroff

Darkness in Dhaka

October 10, 2006
Bret Stephens
Wall Street Journal
Meet Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury.

As these lines are being written, Mr. Choudhury, a gadfly Bangladeshi journalist, is running for his life. Assuming he survives till Thursday, he will face charges of blasphemy, sedition, treason and espionage in a Dhaka courtroom. His crime is to have tried to attend a writers' conference in Tel Aviv on how the media can foster world peace. If convicted, he could face the death penalty Welcome to Bangladesh, a country the State Department's Richard Boucher recently portrayed in congressional testimony as "a traditionally moderate and tolerant country" that shares America's "commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law." That's an interesting way to describe a country that is regularly ranked as the world's most corrupt by Transparency International and whose governing coalition, in addition to the ruling Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, includes two fundamentalist Islamic parties that advocate the imposition of Shariah law. There are an estimated 64,000 madrassas (religious schools) in Bangladesh. The Ministry of Industries is in the hands of Motiur Rahman Nizami, a radical Islamist with a reputation of a violent past. In March the Peace Corps was forced to leave the country for fear of terrorist attacks. Seven other journalists have also been brought up on sedition charges by Ms. Zia's government, most of them for attempting to document Bangladesh's repression of religious minorities. But few stories better illustrate the Islamist tinderbox that Bangladesh has become than Mr. Choudhury's. "When I began my newspaper [the Weekly Blitz] in 2003 I decided to make an end to the well-orchestrated propaganda campaign against Jews and Christians and especially against Israel," he says in the first of several telephone interviews in recent days. "In Bangladesh and especially during Friday prayers, the clerics propagate jihad and encourage the killing of Jews and Christians. When I was a child my father told me not to believe those words but to look at the world's realities." With that in mind, Mr. Choudhury, then 38, began publishing articles sympathetic to Israel in the Weekly Blitz while reaching out to Jewish and Israeli writers he encountered on the Web. That led to the invitation by the Hebrew Writers' Association, and to Mr. Choudhury's only crime: By attempting to travel to Israel in November 2003, he violated the Passport Act, which forbids citizens from visiting countries (such as Israel and Taiwan) with which Bangladesh does not maintain diplomatic relations. Violations of the Passport Act are usually punishable by a fine of $8. But that wasn't the sentence meted to Mr. Choudhury. Following his arrest he was taken into police custody and, as he tells it, blindfolded, beaten and interrogated almost incessantly for 10 days in an attempt to extract a confession that he was spying for Israel. He refused to offer one. He spent the next 16 months in solitary confinement in a Dhaka jail, where he was denied medical treatment for his glaucoma. By then, Mr. Choudhury's case had come to the attention of Congressman Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who intervened with Bangladesh's ambassador to the U.S. to secure Mr. Choudhury's release on bail, though the charges were never formally dropped. Help also came from Richard Benkin, a Chicago-area activist who has taken up Mr. Choudhury's cause, and the American Jewish Committee, which invited Mr. Choudhury to the U.S. in May to receive its Moral Courage Award. But Mr. Choudhury says he decided to forgo the trip after a government minister warned him, "If you go, it will not be good for you." In July, the offices of the Weekly Blitz were bombed by Islamic militants. In September, a judge with Islamist ties ordered the case continued, despite the government's reluctance to prosecute, on the grounds that Mr. Choudhury had hurt the sentiments of Muslims by praising Christians and Jews and spoiling the image of Bangladesh world-wide. Last week, the police detail that had been posted to the Blitz's offices since the July bombing mysteriously vanished. The next day the offices were ransacked and Mr. Choudhury was badly beaten by a mob of 40 or so people. Over the weekend he lodged a formal complaint with the police, who responded by issuing an arrest warrant for him. Now he's on the run, fearing torture or worse if he's taken into custody. Much of Mr. Choudhury's current predicament can be traced to Ms. Zia's reluctance to cross her Islamist coalition partners, who are keen on the case of the "Zionist spy" and would like nothing more than to see him hang. It doesn't help that a powerless caretaker government will take charge later this month in preparation for next January's elections. The U.S. Embassy in Dhaka has kept track of Mr. Choudhury and plans to send an observer to his trial. But mainly America's diplomats seem to have treated him as a nuisance. "Their thinking," says a source familiar with the case, "is that this is the story of one man, and why should the U.S. base its entire relationship with Bangladesh on this one man?" Here's an answer: Bangladesh does not mean much strategically to the U.S., except for the fact that it is home to some 120 million Muslims, many of them desperately poor and increasingly under the sway of violent religious notions imported from Saudi Arabia. The Bush administration, which every year spends some $64 million on Bangladesh, has made a priority of identifying moderate Muslims and giving them the space and cover they need to spread their ideas. Mr. Choudhury has identified himself, at huge personal risk, as one such Muslim. Now that he is on the run, somewhere in the darkness of Dhaka, will someone in the administration pick up the phone and explain to the Bangladeshis just what America expects of its "moderate and tolerant" friends? Wall Street Journal, October 10, 2006 Original content is copyright 2006 by the author. Posted at ZioNation-Zionism and Israel Web Log, . Please forward by e-mail with this notice, cite this article and link to it. Other uses by permission only.

#2: KOBRA RAHMANPOUR CASE, IRAN On behalf of this 25-year old woman in prison, sentenced to death for defending herself against her mother-in-law, her family is appealing to the world community for her life. Kobra was abused and assaulted by her elderly husband, and when her mother-in-law attacked her with a knife, she struck back. There are many such cases in Iran, Pakistan, etc. Full information is available at: A Petitition in her support has now been signed by over 2000 people world-wide. It may be found on the Web at: Note: between mod and perl there is a space: _. Thus: mod_perl.

#3: UPDATE ON OTHER CASES The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet last winter he faced charges of defamation of the nation in a Turkish court. Fortunately, he was acquitted, but the scene at his trial was tumultuous. Similarly, Elif Shafak was brought to trial on the same charge (Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code) on September 21 of this year. She was unable to attend as she had just given birth to a baby and was in the hospital. The actual charge was based on a character in Shafak’s novel The Bastard of Istanbul. At the trial, the charge was dismissed by the court on the grounds that fictional characters could not be actionable. In an op-ed essay printed in the Washington Post on September 24, Shafak reviewed the dramatic development and conclusion of her case: “I was receiving tremendous support from many…segments of Turkish society—women, Kurds, non-Muslim minorities, Sufis, liberals, conservatives, intellectuals, academics.” She sums up her response thus: “I felt that I was seeing the start of a transformation of Turkish society, and the hope for a transformation of the legal system and the political culture that surrounds it.” In a similar case from India, ICPF Coordinator Jaya Gopal reports that in the case of the confiscation of Taslima Nasrin’s autobiography by authorities, the ban has been lifted, and all the confiscated copies returned to the author.

#4: RESOURCES Issue #12-13 of Brave Minds, the Chronicle of the ICPF, for May-August 2006 has been published. In its extent of 80 pages, editor Marvin Zayed includes the first part of his report on his recent trip to Russia and other countries in Europe. In Russia he attended a Conference on Knowledge and Belief at the Academy of Philosophical Sciences, where he gave an important talk, the text of which is also included in this issue. Write PO Box 41153, Elmvale, 1910 St. Laurent Blvd., Ottawa, Ontario K1G 5K9, Canada. In addition, Brave Minds and the IPCF now have a website!! Go to: Parts of the site are still under construction. We need your interest and support for this project. The redoubtable scholar Warren Allen Smith has now developed a new phase of his work, which he calls the Philosopedia, somewhat on the model of the internet encyclopedia called Wikipedia. This is now available on the Web at:

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Moving From Salafi to Rationalist Education

Contribution to the conference on modernity and Arab modernity
held in Beirut from 30 April to 2 May 2004).

By: Lafif Lakhdar

In an article published in the Paris daily Le Monde (1) under the title ‘Geared up for the 21st century’, Gerome Binde, Director of the Analysis and Forecasting Office of UNESCO, wrote that humanity should rise to meet four challenges dictated by the new century. First, the principle of “lifetime education for everyone” should become a foundation of a new social contract which should substitute the now-decrepit 1945 welfare-state contract. Second, sustainable development should be promoted, since future generations are entitled to a clean environment and abundant resources. It goes without saying that education is a key factor in realising future development. Third, global democracy should be instituted. Again, this challenge can only be met through providing people with a good education, since democracy cannot flourish in illiterate societies, to say nothing of societies which regard democracy as a sign of apostasy, believing in shura (consultation) as an alternative. The fourth challenge is the realisation of peace, which is also a precondition for meeting the three other challenges. Because when education—religious education in particular—advocates jihad (holy war against the infidels) as the focal mission which contemporary Muslims should pursue unto the Day of Judgment, it becomes incapable of meeting the challenge of peace.

On its part, the World Bank Report of 2003 cited education as the central challenge in the development process. A focus on education implies a focus on comprehensive and sustainable development.

I have always believed—and written to this effect since 1993—in the modernisation and rationalisation of education in general, and religious education in particular, as a central mission of the Arab intellectual elite.

The question is why education is so important.

Piaget said that during his time, French schools degraded the genius into a talented person and the talented into a trivial one. Along the same line of thought we can say that, due to the role played by salafi religious education, the Arab-Islamic school—with the sole exception of the modern, rationalist Tunisian school—has followed suit and moved even further: it has degraded the peaceable person into an aggressive one, and the aggressive person into a terrorist.

The self-evident question is why the Arab-Islamic elite provides new generations with an education which falls short of enabling them to cope with the era they live in and to confront its challenges. The answer in brief is that because the Arab elite lacked democratic legitimacy, especially based upon political and socio-economic achievements, it sought to adopt Islamism—without resorting to Islamists—instead of a societal project guided by modernity and rationalism.

The school which embraces such a project should cover the workers of the future, the technicians, engineers, researchers, scientists and physicians. And its job should be to produce citizens who are equipped for the contemporary age, who think independently of their forefathers, and who are good at using logical reasoning instead of leaning on the authority of the text. They should accept, without any complication or feeling of guilt, the rational and human institutions, sciences and values of their age, even those which contradict with their forefathers’ heritage and tradition. Such a school is as yet non-existent in any part of the Arab World except Tunisia, which has managed, especially since 1990, to restructure religious education in a way that breaks away with the salafi school. The salafi school relies on the authority of the literal religious text in its superficial form, steering clear off any interpretation which takes into account the historical reading of the text. It is only through such a historical reading that Islamic religious discourse may be renovated, and Islam may be adapted to modernity, especially since it has become clear that adapting modernity to Islam—the so-called Islamisation of modernity—was a trick to evade modernity itself. Open religious rationalism—subjecting the religious text to rational investigation and research—ought to become the core of the aspired religious education in the Arab-Islamic region, since it is absurd to believe the text and deny reality.

The salafi school instils in the younger generations a religious fanaticism which entails a phobia of dissimilarity and a rejection of the other, to the upper end of approving his or her execution. This rationale has dominated Islamic—especially Sunni—consciousness since the emergence of the Qadry belief (referring to the caliph al-Qader Bi’amr Allah – in 422 of the Hejra).

The rational religious school equips religious education with modern sciences, including the study of comparative religions. This serves to open the Islamic consciousness to extinct religions such as the Babylonian and the Egyptian, and helps to understand the historical development of the three monotheist religions. Actually, without studying extinct religions, comprehending living religions would be mythical. The sociology of religion teaches the young generations the social functions of religion, and how it was exploited by social and political actors. Psychology teaches these generations that God is similar to the father, who is the origin of the idea of God to children and primitive people, and offers them paternal protection as well as comfort and solace during hardships. Religion also responds to a basic deep-rooted need in the human psyche: the need for a second life; Freud said that the subconscious is dominated by an aspiration for eternity. Linguistics teaches young generations that the religious text is a convergence of texts which interacted throughout history, and that each text is prone to interpretation due to its metaphoric character. Students can then think of the sacred text on their own, and interpret it according to people’s interests and needs, as well as the requirements of the times.

Philosophy promotes critical thinking—an ingredient sorely missing in our heritage. Students can thus practise creative questioning instead of relying on ready-made answers either imported from outside or deduced from the heritage of their forefathers. Worth mentioning is that philosophy curriculum now taught in Tunisia in the last two years of secondary education, in accordance with that taught in France. It is also taught at Zaitouna (religious) University, as well as in all other scientific studies, including technical specialisations. Human rights studies guarantee the modernisation and rationalisation of Islamic consciousness through advocating values of modernity and rationalism. Islamic consciousness has so far distanced itself from modernity, on the pretext that it was the domain of Jews and Christians, which according to Ibn Taymiya of the salafi school, should be disproved even if it is good for Muslims.

If we are to aspire to an open religious rationalism, top priority should be given to introducing three main reforms to Islam in order to transform it from a religion based upon Jihad and martyrdom into one based upon spirituality. For centuries, before the Roman Empire adopted it as its formal religion, Christianity had lived on as a spiritual religion—a shelter of comfort and solace to believers in the face of oppression. But when it became the state religion, its spirituality faded and gave way to interference in mundane issues—even though such interference contradicts the message of the gospels. The spirituality of Christianity was only saved through the churches which the state had not dominated, such as the Coptic Church.

As for the Roman Catholic Church, it abandoned Christian spirituality and allied itself with the state, plunging in all its Machiavellian and military practices, even resorting to hiring warriors to launch wars on its behalf, and the atrocious Inquisitions. The Church retrieved its spirituality only when modernity separated religion and state, and clerics were sent to quiet monasteries just as the apostles had lived.

Islam, for its part, will not become a spiritual religion unless it is separated from the state with its mundane practices. Separating the spiritual and temporal aspects of Islam however, can only be realised through two indispensable conditions: reconciling Islam to itself and to the other. The former entails recognising the humanity of women and their equal status in relation to men. Positive law should substitute fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence), which deems women deficient in terms of both religion and reason. When the Saudi Mufti Sheikh Abdelazis al-Sheikh announced a few weeks ago that women driving cars were equivalent to adulteresses and had, hence, to be punished by stoning, he showed the world the real and astounding image of non-spiritual Islam: the Islam which is hostile to women and validates physical punishments. Reconciling Islam with the other implies, on the other hand, substituting modern constitutions which recognise full rights for all citizens regardless of religion for fiqh provisions on dhimmis (free non-Muslim subjects living in Muslim countries), which as non-Muslims are considered semi-citizens or even non-citizens. In the same token, such reconciliation involves recognising international law to substitute fiqh regulations which divide the world into dar (zone of) Islam, dar of war and dar of kufr (infidelity).

How can this end be reached?

We should rid religious education and discourse, as well as our laws and institutions, of all the temporal aspects of Islam. A new reading of Islam has to be adopted in school curricula and religious discourse. It should recognise, as its starting point, that the spiritual message of Prophet Mohammed was confined to preaching: “But if they turn their backs, verily unto thee belongeth preaching only” (Surat 3). That the Prophet’s message was restricted to preaching was cited in 13 verses, all of which were in the Koranic chapters revealed at Medina. The concept was expressed in different ways in many verses such as: “Wherefore warn the people; for thou art a warner only” (Surat 88). Thus the spiritual message of the Prophet of Islam was limited to reminding. As for domination or governance, it is the mission of earthly rulers. Verses of spiritual Islam, based upon preaching and reminding, converge with the Biblical verse which was the foundation of separating the temporal and the spiritual in Christianity: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s”. But after migrating to Medina, Mohammed became a prophet, an army leader, and a chief of a core of a confederation he called Umma (nation), a Hebrew word meaning tribe. Consequently, Mohammed’s political and military practices as well as the Koranic verses which codify them are not trans-historical but temporal and limited to the era which produced them. Verses on jihad, war, physical punishment and earthly dealings were temporal, and are no longer consistent with Muslims’ and non-Muslims’ needs and interests or with present-day requirements and values.

That some Koranic verses are invalidated by the Koran itself, represents an overt admission that these were temporal verses whose provisions later became out-dated. In this sense, the Prophet’s Companions understood temporal verses. Abu-Bakr abrogated the verse on 'those whose hearts are reconciled': “Alms are to be distributed only unto the poor and the needy, and those who are employed in collecting and distributing the same, and unto those whose hearts are reconciled” (Surat 9). To explain invalidating the verse, Tabari said: “bribery existed during the Prophet’s time, but not after he passed away". Omar Ibn el-Khattab, Ali Ibn Abitaleb, and Moad Ibn Gabal invalidated verses on spoils: “And know that whenever ye gain any spoil, a fifth part thereof belongeth unto God, and to the apostle, and his kindred” (Surat 8). Similarly, faqihs (jurisprudents) abrogated the verses necessitating the existence of written debt-contracts: “When ye bind yourselves one to the other in a debt for a certain time, write it down” (Surat 2). Al-Wenshrisi invalidated verses exempting the Prophet’s relatives from receiving alms. The Companions and faqihs used logical reasons to justify invalidating some Koranic verses and Hadith (the Prophet’s sayings): Abu-Bakr, to justify invalidating the verse on those whose hearts are reconciled, said: “Islam is strong enough and there is no need for them”. Omar Ibn el-Khattab justified abrogating the verse on spoils by the “interests of future generations: “If you take Iraq, what will be left for your successors?” Faqihs justified invalidating the necessity of written debt-contracts by the “widespread illiteracy in different areas”. Al-Wenshrisi considered that “Giving alms to the Prophet’s relatives was more protective of their dignity than letting them beg in the streets”. He said: “Time has dictated the provision of alms to the Prophet’s relatives”. In the meantime, we can build upon al-Wenshrisi’s logic and further say: ‘The passage of time dictates the invalidation of all temporal verses because they are no longer consistent with the needs of the period we live in or the interests of our contemporaries’.

The necessity of separating the temporal verses from the spiritual is no longer an issue to be shelved, but is becoming increasingly dominant in modern Islamic consciousness. Dr Mohammed Abdel-Mutalib el-Houni says: “In brief, a large number of Islamic codes did not operate in a vacuum, but were interrelated with people who had their grievances, cultures, economies and lifestyles. All Koranic verses therefore which enact laws on human dealings are temporal, and should not be endowed with a nature of perpetuity, because they concerned Muslims who lived at that time or in subsequent periods, under similar conditions. At the same time, we must differentiate between crime in the civil sense, the punishment of which should be determined by the people according to the conditions of the time they live in, and in the moral sense, meaning crime of a trans-historical nature. In other words, we should differentiate between crime and sin: the former is dealt with by the people, while the latter is concerned with the conscience, and if it warrants punishment, it is related to the hereafter. Such a distinction has become necessary today so as to differentiate between life and the hereafter.” The passage is a quotation from a forthcoming book entitled: al-Ma’zaq al-Arabi: al-Arab fi Mowagahat al-Istratigiya al-Amrikeya (The Arab Crisis: Arabs in the Face of the American Strategy), in the chapter on ‘Misunderstanding Faith’.

Adopting this kind of historical reading of Islam in religious education, and teaching students that Jihad should be invalidated, are major pre-conditions to transform Islam into a spiritual religion, wherein believers do not die for the sake of God. The situation is inverted in Christianity where God dies to redeem His sons. To entrench this new reading in the minds of the younger generations and realise the enlightened education we call for, many verses may be used as a starting point. One example is the verse “Call upon me and I will hear you” (Surat 23). In this verse, God presents Himself to believers as a sympathiser who wastes no time to respond to their calls. Another verse “He is careful over you and compassionate and merciful towards the believers” (Surat 9) shows God as compassionate and merciful, not requiring believers to die for Him.

Liberating the state from religion has the merit of converting the state into a purely mundane institution which handles citizens from a rational and earthly reference point, away from theological constraints. This entails a modern constitution, law, and education, which all lead to equality between men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims. Moreover, liberating the state from religion would transform the latter into a spiritual and Sufi gift, admired even by those who do not follow any religion. Spiritual religion is close to art, which is enjoyed by all exquisite souls. I feel a special pleasure when reading Sufis of all religions, particularly Ibn Arabi, the founder of the ‘religion of love’, which was developed some centuries later by Seurbach in his book, “Essence of Christianity”.

The religious education prevalent in the Arab World, except for Tunisia, fights the modern reading necessary for Islam today. Consequently, I herewith present models of Islamic education based upon jihad, which antagonises the other in its broader meaning: the self, women, non-Muslims, life and reason. In contradistinction, I will present a sample of the curriculum taught at the Tunisian Zaitouna University, which I consider a solid base for teaching the religious rationalism we so badly need.

Teaching the worship of forefathers

“With the passage of time, far-reaching deviations took place with the message of Mohammed. Many traditions disappeared, giving way to heresy. The Companions and their adherents stood firmly against these heresies and suppressed them. The Companions revealed the truth and annulled matters of suspicion. Whenever a heresy emerges, God sends persons to face it, expose its defects and render victorious the Sunni tradition. And whenever one of those who advocate an aberration appears, God sends a great Sunni figures to confront and defame him through annulling his heresy. When the first heretical tendencies appeared at the time of Omar al-Farouk, God sent Omar who corrected the deviation, punished the whole nation, chastised the deviators through burning them with fire, and ordered to whip those who underestimated the two Sheikhs [Abu Bakr and Omar]. When some people rose to deny the predestination, late companions such as Ibn-Amr, stood against them and exposed their defects. When Gilan al-Demashqui declared his heresy, followers of prophetic tradition stood against him. When he persisted, Hisham Ibn-Abdel-Malik killed him. In the same way Prince Khalid Ibn-Abdullah al-Qasry sacrificed al-Gaad Ibn-Derham. Wherever heresies arose, Sunni multitudes rose to combat them. When advocates of heretical tendencies mobilised, God sent them Ahmed Ibn-Hanbal, the Sunni Imam and the suppressor of heresies. He defeated them, and thanks to God, they never rose again with the same strength. Ibn-Taymiya, the Sheikh of Islam, was a fighter who used his knowledge and rhetoric against those of scholastic theology, philosophy, Sufism and other heresiarchs. His legacy and writings still represent a reference to anybody adhering to Sunni principles and a mote in the eyes of each heresiarch.” Tawheed (monotheism) curriculum, first year of secondary education. (2)

This text is only one of many taught to Saudi young people to coach them in the worship of the forefathers. This worship has been strongly present in the collective Islamic sub-conscience, and it prevented the acceptance and comprehension of the sciences, and especially the humanities, as well as the values of modernity. Moreover, the text instructs pupils to reject the right of disagreement. Muslims other than salafis are treated as heresiarchs or deviators; thus enemies. A student therefore becomes ripe for the execution of all sorts of symbolic and bloody violence; he can burn others with fire as Omar allegedly did, and behead those who disagree with him as Khalid beheaded the faqih al-Gaad Ibn Derham (a ruler of Damascus under the Umayads, known for adopting ideas of Mu’tazela). This shows how could education lead to incitement for terror.

Another text which mirrors the salafi perspective, based upon accusations of infidelity and heresy, reads: “Celebrating the Prophet’s birth implies the imitation of Christians. Thus ignorant Muslims, clergies and mobs gather to celebrate in a way which is not devoid of polytheist and repulsive practices”. (3)

In the same context, Saudi curricula mobilise students to deem those Muslims who depart from the salafi principle infidels. These curricula teach that, “Arab nationalism is an idea related to atheism and jahiliya (pre-Islamic state of ignorance), and aims at fighting Islam and getting rid of its codes and teachings.” (Curriculum of hadith, second year of secondary education). “Nationalist thought overlooks religion and regards it as a stumbling block in the way of nationalism.” (Hadith, second year of secondary school). “Adhering to parties and to nationalism—which is an aspect of racism—is a sign of riddah (apostasy from Islam)”. (Curriculum of Tawheed, third year of secondary education).

“Beyond doubt, the idea of nationalism is a setback towards jahiliya.” “After being politically and culturally invaded by Europe, the Muslim World became subject to these fanaticisms based upon race and nationalism, but people should know that these loyalties represent a punishment inflicted by God on those who turn away from his Sharia (Islamic code) and disavow his religion”. (Tawheed curriculum, third year of secondary education.) (4).

In the context of teaching young generations to reject the achievements of modernity as signs of infidelity, Saudi curricula say: “Muslims should not listen to the press, radio, or television, since these are immoral institutions detached from faith.” (5)

“If a journalist writes that development plans terminate poverty and that progress of medicine puts an end to malady, he is a mushrik (polytheist)”.

“Taking part in activities such as ‘tree week’ or ‘traffic week’ is an mimicking of infidels; students who follow this practice are sinful and disobedient.” (7)

“A Muslim who travels to the countries of infidels to learn, trade or cure, should live with them while harbouring feelings of hatred towards them.” (8)

Al-Azhar curricula make no less effort to inject into the Islamic consciousness legends of the Middle Ages that malign women, non-Muslims, reason and life.

Dr Khalid Montasser says: “If we look into the curriculum of al-Azhar secondary education, we will find a level of intellectual backwardness that the graduate later carries even as he attempts to respond to the latest developments in our time. The books of fiqh that al-Azhar students have to study were written centuries ago. Both al-Raod al-Morabaa fi Sharh Zad al-Mostanqaa which explains the doctrine of Ahmed Ibn-Hanbal, and al-Iqnaa fi Hal Alfadh Abi Shogaa on the doctrine of Shafei, were written four centuries ago, and al-Ekhtebar li-Taaleel al-Mokhtar was written more that five centuries ago to explain the doctrine of Abu-Hanifa. The most recent book is the one on the doctrine of Malek al-Moqarar Mena al-Sharh al-Saghir was written two centuries ago.

The jargon in these titles is surprising. It is natural that these books, written so long ago, should bear some weird and archaic terms and ideas. Enlightened Muslims have called for modernising religious education. Among the most important studies to this effect is one by Alaa-Qaoud in his book on reforming religious sciences, as well as studies by Ahmed Sobhi Mansour, Selim al-Awa, Tareq al-Beshri, and the Sheikh of al-Azhar.

Spotlighting a few points of the al-Azhar curricula may help us realise how dangerous a role they can play in breeding disguised terrorism or at least sponsoring stagnation and bigotry.” (9)

“In the 21st century, students of al-Azhar read what would happen if a man tells his wife ‘I will divorce you if it is found that this flying bird is a crow’. Pupils keep trying to solve this difficult puzzle. They have to study what is the fate of two bisexuals or two lesbians who make love in Ramadan before sunset. Is it necessary to wash if a man inserts his penis in a vulva of a beast? What if a monkey or any animal inserts his organ in a human being? If a woman has two vulvas, what would be the fate of menstruation? We, poor human beings, are ordered to bow down while resting on seven bones: head, two hands, two knees, and two legs; what will happen if one was born with two heads and four legs and four hands?”

“What benefit will our young people and children gain if they have to read strange, archaic terms which appear meaningless to present-day Arabic speakers? The same can be said of the terms these books use to identify measures, shares and weights; they resemble mysteries in hieroglyphic or Chinese. Prayers should be shortened if the distance between one’s home and the place he travels to accounts to 10 farsakh. The weight for giving alms is wesq, which is 60 saa (we know neither the former nor the latter). We should take into account that the Islamic derham is equal to six donaq”!

“The above is a sample of the archaic terms and weird puzzles our poor children and brothers studying at al-Azhar are subjected to. Again, the attitudes and habits of the period when these books were written are elucidated in boring detail. Deplorably, these norms are offered in the form of orders that should be obeyed. In a chapter on wedding banquets and refinement in eating, it says: “One should eat with three fingers and should clean the spaces between the teeth; he should wipe the plate and suck the remaining food and drink. A book on ‘selling’ instructs that it is prohibited to price things and to sell dogs. A section on funeral prayers teaches: “It is better for the patient not to be cured.” Does this imply that we should get rid of health insurance in al-Azhar schools to save effort and money? As for the regulations on testimony, it is written that the testimony of singers and those who eat outside their home, should not be approved. In brief, the testimony of Umm Kolthoum—the greatest singer of the second half of the last century—would not be accepted, neither would that of contemporary pop singer Hisham Abbas or any other singer.

As for you, dear reader, you can be sure that your testimony would never be accepted in a court of law because I am sure you have eaten a sandwich of falafel or Kentucky Fried Chicken one of those days! You should then be cursed and counted among those disreputable people whose testimony cannot be accepted, according to the laws of the honourable al-Azhar.” (10)

“At the beginning of the third millennium, al-Azhar students learn medical myths of old days. They read about cures using camel urine, and are taught that men should never talk while making love because this would result in dumbness or stammering! In the section on ears, these old books instruct muezzins to place the forefinger in the ear while announcing the hour of prayer because this makes the voice louder. The prayer is void if a black dog passes by, because black dogs are devils. Along the same line of thought, the menstrual flow is described in odd terms: ‘the blood departs from the bottom of the womb for feeding and raising children’. The book on funerals indicates that the signs of death are: ‘temples go down, nose leans, hands separate from the body and legs loosen up’! Conservative faqihs have used this quotation to preclude a law on organ transplant and to reject the determination of clinical death through modern medicine. The book on the Shafei doctrine contains so much unscientific information. For instance, it teaches that dead lice and fleas are not impure because they have no blood; water at night is a shelter for jinn; after doing the ablution before prayers, one should not dry himself with the lower part of the robe, since this would bring poverty. Clothes should be folded at night so as not to be worn by jinn. As for the refinements of going to the toilet, it is undesirable to fill the urinary passage with cotton, and one should not spend much time in toilets because it creates pains in liver. When the books refer to nature, thunder is reported as an angel whose wings are the lightning which helps direct the clouds! Relaxation of brain nerves is caused by vapours that rise out of the stomach. The book defines death as: ‘the disappearance of the heart’s consciousness though the organs continue active and strong’. Malek defines twins as: ‘the two sons should be considered twins in their mother’s womb if the time separating their age is less than six months”! (11)

A firmly established concept of Middle Ages fiqh—to this day taught in al-Azhar and other religious institutes in the Arab World except for Tunisia—is antipathy towards women. Women are symbolised by the rapacious mother. The book of al-Raod al-Moraba teaches that a man is not required to pay for his wife’s coffin, since he is only required to pay for her clothes as long as they are married and he can take pleasure in his woman. Again, the same book, in the section on expenses instructs: ‘a husband may not pay for his wife’s medication or doctor fees, because treatment is not one of her habitual necessary needs’. He also has ‘the right to prevent her from attending the funeral of her father and mother and from breast-feeding her baby from another man. He has the right to beat her in a non-severe way if she fidgets while talking to him. Such non-severe beating approved by the book is ten whips—less than a dozen strokes! Definitely, a woman’s deyya (the money paid as compensation for killing someone) is half that of a man’s. Even the aqiqa (the sheep slaughtered to celebrate the baby’s birth) is minor when the baby is a girl: two sheep are slaughtered when the baby is a boy and one sheep when it is a girl. The chapter on making love yields the oddest information one can think of. The husband is obliged to no more than one sexual intercourse every four months and his wife has no right to object. The book sanctions the marriage of a man to a girl who is less than nine years old. Other books which students have to study are full of ridiculous talk on female slaves, regulations for marrying them, their deyya, and on the private parts of the body. Regulations directing the relationship with female slaves are different from those of free women. Strangely, it is better to marry a woman whose mother is dead than one whose father is dead, because mothers spoil their daughters. There are many more terrible things these books cite on women.

The second concept persistent in old Islamic fiqh is resentment towards non-Muslims. Today, leaders of political Islam still call for such concepts to be put into practice. When Mustafa Mash’hour called for expelling Christians from the army and transforming them to dhimmis, he was applying what he had learned in the honourable al-Azhar. A chapter on Aqd al-dhimma (the contract governing the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims in Islamic countries) instructs: this contract implies that Muslims approve the infidelity of some non-Muslims under the condition that the latter pay jizya (tribute paid by non-Muslims). They should be humiliated while paying the jizya; they should be forced to stand for a long time with their hands dragging, in accordance with Allah’s saying: “pay tribute by right of subjection”. Further discrimination takes on a horrible dimension; if implemented, society would be ruined. It is recommended that: ‘they (non-Muslims) should not be buried in our tombs; should enter bathrooms with jingles or leaden marks on their necks; they should ride donkeys without saddles, they should not be allowed to ride horses; they should not be allowed to lead meetings; should not be treated respectably when they arrive; they should not be saluted, congratulated, consoled, or wished merry feast; they should be prevented from ringing their (church) bells; they should resort to the narrowest alleys when walking”.

Had al-Azhar resorted to rational thought, it should have taught its pupils and students the book by the Egyptian historian Abbad Abdelrahman Kohaila, “Ahd Omar” Treaty of Omar—the treaty said to have been signed upon the surrender of Jerusalem to the Muslims (Dar al-Dirasat wal-Bohooth al-Insaniyya wal-Igtimaiya, Cairo, 1996). The book manages, through using historical methodology, to show that attributing the Omar Treaty to Omar Ibn-al-Khattab is a myth. Islamic consciousness may thus open to the principles of modern citizenship which reject religious-based discrimination, or that based upon any other difference.

Except for Tunisia, the solid base of religious education in Arab religious institutions is the worship of forefathers, briefly justified by near-mathematical axioms such as: Ijtihad (individual innovative judgment) is not allowed in things regulated by Koran and Hadith. To justify this idea, Rashid al-Ghannoushi (leadr of a Tunisian extremist group) said, “because our nation does not accept anything but what Allah and his Prophet said.” (12)

What does it mean?

It means rejecting everything new on the ground that it is a heresy. Hadith says: “Each heresy is a deviation, and each deviation is doomed to hell”. This implies rejecting modernity together with all its institutions, sciences, values, and lifestyles, since modernity is supposedly an imitation of the infidel Jews and Christians. Ibn Taymiya said in his book Iqtidaa al-Sirat al-Mostaqim Mokhalaffat Ahl-al-Gahim (walking in the right path requires being different from the people of hell): “Our forefathers used to say: if one of our Ulama deviates, it means he is imitating Jews, and if one of our ordinary people deviates, he is imitating Christians.” (13). He added: “Stress your differences from them in some or most things” (14). Because being different from them [Jews and Christians] brings us benefits and good in everything we do. Even the good things they do in their lives could be harmful to us in our lives or in the hereafter, so remaining different from them will bring us goodness”. (15)

Such psychological enslavement is core to the worship of the forefathers, which involves a commitment to their literal orders and prohibitions, and a verbatim implementation of their texts without any independent judgment; otherwise the forefathers would inflict their wrath upon us. “Indigenous people of the Pacific venerate ships, since they believe that the food brought by ships to white colonisers was a gift sent by their ancestors, whereas their own ancestors sent them no similar ships, as a retribution for their disobedience. Not only that, but their ancestors let them be less technologically advanced than the whites. These people then try to satisfy their ancestors so as to send them ships loaded with food instead of those sent to their white enemies.” (16)

Marcia Iliad said: “When anthropologist and evangelist Strehello asked people of the “Arentha” Australian tribe of the reasons behind some of their rituals, they said: ‘because our ancestors ordered us to do so’. In New Guinea, members of the Cay tribe justify their refusal to change their lifestyles by: ‘our ancestors used to do this and we follow them: we must slaughter as they used to do, and we should do today what they did in ancient times’. We hear the same words among Hindus: ‘we should do what our gods did in the early days’. In Hindu tribes, women should sit in a squatting position and men should sit with their legs crossed, because the first woman [Eve] and the killer of the monster [Adam] used to sit so when the universe was first created. People of the Karadgy Australian tribe say that the tribe’s habits and manners such as the manner of cooking crops, hunting animals and the position one should take while urinating, were established by supra-natural beings at the time of dreaming.” (17)

Ancestor-worship impeded the development of primitive people’s consciousness, since it discouraged them from independent interpretation of the words and deeds of their forefathers. The Salafi School followed exactly that same path when it converted the text into an absolute reality—a ceiling to the freedom of thought. The text became a constraint which chained mentalities, at least since the 12th century when traditional exegesis defeated rational exegesis and when traditional jurisconsult defeated rational jurisconsult. In this context, faqihs used to mock the ‘jurisprudence of opinion’ advocated by the Hanafi tradition.

The ancestor-worship which dominates religious education and Koranic sciences, including language, literature, and grammar, has succeeded in sidelining the humanities which specialised in studying religion, such as the comparative history of religion, the sociology of religion, and suchlike. It resulted in a relentless war against the studies of humanities and called for their Islamisation, stripping them thus of their critical momentum. As for the natural sciences, they were either maligned or stripped of their original role—as concepts explaining phenomena—and exploited to serve religious delusions.

Examples abound. In 2000, al-Azhar banned writings on the theory of evolution, and barred all books which contained any sign of critical thinking. It is no coincidence that Cairo hosts an annual gathering on the miracle of science in the Koran—the pretension that the Koran contains all human scientific knowledge. This despite the fact that both Imam al-Shatbi and al-Taher ben Ashour denied the existence of any such miracle of science, on the ground that Allah addressed the Arabs of the age of the Prophet in a manner which then suited their mentality. There have also been repeated fatwas (formal legal opinions voiced by Muslim clergies) throughout more than a century, deeming the theory of evolution a sign of apostasy. The most famous of these fatwas was issued by Sayed Qutb in his book Maalem ala al-tareeq (Milestones on the Path), in which he regarded the theory of evolution, philosophy, and humanities as antagonistic to religion in general and to Islam in particular. In the same context, some faqihs forced the Saudi government to close the institute of genetic engineering, under the pretext that “genetic and bio-engineering represent an interference by creatures in the affairs of the Creator” (18). Saudi and Muslim researchers had to migrate to Canada and the US. In his book “Naqd al-aqliya al-arabiya” (A Critique of Arab Mind), Tunisian researcher al-Hashemy Shaqroun wrote: “Books are still to be written on summing the number of angels, using calculators, and estimating them at 120 million, that could be recruited in the war launched by Arabs and Muslims against Israel”. (19)

The ancestor-worship which dominates education from school to university reigns supreme in all aspects of social life, even those covered with the gloss of modernity. Mid-20th-century Iraqi writer al-Zahawi was right when he said: “We have sciences, a Constitution and a parliament, but the meaning and role of each is distorted”. Ancestor-worship is also manifested in the modernity-phobia which dominates the Arab mentality, modernism being regarded as heresy or imitation of Jews and Christians. This mentality resorts to two subconscious tricks to evade modernity. The first is religious self-sufficient narcissism which considers itself in no need of any kind of self-renovation, on the pretext that “The first left nothing to the last”. This concept dominated the Sunni Salafi jurisprudence of the Middle Ages, which is based upon the superficial literal text, and excludes any interpretation thereof. Those who rely on interpretations are said to “inherit nothing but aberrations”.

The second trick was adopted by most—if not all—Islamic reformers of the 19th century and is still to the present day advocated. It argues that we should renovate our thought so as to evade French modernity. These reformists succeeded in eluding modernity, but did not renovate fiqh due to a very obvious reason: the core of renovating fiqh lies in the adoption of modern legislation, values, sciences, and institutions whose logic and ends are different from those of the fiqh of the Middle Ages. The above-mentioned samples of this school of fiqh are but a mere drop in a sea of outdated values and regulations.

Egyptian Islamic writer Mohammed Emara says: “After Refaa al-Tahtawi (an early 19th century thinker) realised the threat posed by Western non-religious positivism while in Paris, he called for renovating the fiqh of Islamic dealings to prevent Napoleon’s positivist secular law which was already infiltrating the Islamic World’s commercial circles, governance institutions, judiciary and legislation. His student Mohammed Qadry Pasha codified the fiqh of the Hanafi doctrine to meet the same end: filling the void in the then-existing law through renovating and legislating Islamic jurisprudence. The huge effort exerted by the Ottoman state to codify the fiqh of the Hanafi doctrine—published in 1869 in the magazine of judiciary regulations—followed the same path of renovating fiqh, thought and discourse to fill the vacuum in the Islamic World with an Islamic civilisational alternative instead of westernisation.” (20)

In brief, all conscious and subconscious tricks were used to abandon the imitation of Jews and Christians and reject their civilisation. This was achieved either through ancestor-worship in its blunt form, or through the less overt illusion of inventing a type of modernity exclusive to us. The third trick was the schizoid mating of modernity and authenticity, which merely neutralised one by the other.

If my diagnosis is accurate, the exit from the stormy crisis of modernity faced by the Arab World is through a conscious break with “the commitment to be different from Jews and Christians”, especially in the media, education and religious discourse. This implies reconciliation with their modernism—which has become international—without complexes or guilt feelings. Reconciliation with the other—in this case Jews and Christians—is an indispensable pre-condition for reconciliation with their civilisation.

In the case of Tunisia, the media, educational system, and religious discourse began some fifty years ago the break with the Islamic consciousness of the Middle Ages, dominated by a phobia of Christians and Jews. The three concepts central to religious studies in Zaitouna University are the promotion of ijtihad in understanding religious texts without any restriction on rational thinking, the reliance upon rationalist thought and the humanities which specialise in the study of religion during the study of religious texts, and third, the realisation that Islamic consciousness must reinstate the other, particularly the Jew and the Christian.

A law issued on 8 February 1995 delineates the tasks of Zaitouna University and the objectives of the education it provides as follows:

“In view of the general objectives of higher education and scientific research and the mission of universities, and in view of the Tunisian national identity, the commitment to Arab and Islamic civilisation, and the duty to enrich human civilisation, the system of study in Zaitouna aims at meeting the following ends:

1. Securing a cognitive structure which qualifies the learner to discover aspects of Islamic faith, thought and civilisation which lead to the elevation of the human self to a free and responsible personality, able to adhere to the noble ends of religion and at the same time respond to the exigencies of life.
2. Entrenching the awareness that Islamic thought, with its different aspects, is a fruit of the efforts of generations of creative and thoughtful ulama. Commitment to Arab and Islamic civilisation requires inspiration by its brilliant facets, and the focus on ijtihad to advance knowledge so as to add to previous creative achievements.
3. Firmly establishing Zaitouna University as a model of a school for religious thought based upon enduring tolerance, a renovated viewpoint on religion and history, an aspiration to a rich spiritual life and persevering work for the good of humanity.
4. Empowering the learner to interact profoundly with cultures and civilisations, enrich human thought, and combine the brilliance of modernity with that of heritage. This would urge the student to understand well all the various aspects of modern knowledge, and would afford an opportunity to experience directly products of global thought”.

In view of this outlook, I herewith detail the most important parts of “the student’s guide”—the programme of the Higher Institute of Religious Fundamentals of Zaitouna University. I place the model before decision-makers in the educational domain in the Arab World and the whole world, if they wish to prove their sincerity in their pursuit to reform education in general and religious education in particular through versatile rationalism and the reinstatement of Jews and Christians. This should be the gateway to open the consciousness of Muslim young people to modernity.

**Unit of Sira (biography of Mohammed) and Sunna (the Prophet’ words and deeds)
• Writing the Sira: “Objective: The course is concerned with the early writers of sira, particularly Ibn Ishaq, and the nature of writing this art. The aim is to grasp:
a- The historical and mythical aspects of narrating sira;
b- The objectives of Sira associated with glorification of the Prophet and those associated with devotion;
c- The manner in which narrators perceived the Prophet’s character”.
• Sunna, its problematic recording and legislation: “Objective: Justifying the need to record sunna and the conditions which surrounded the process of recording it. How sunna was transformed from a subsidiary of sira into a source of legislation. The aim is that the student understands the historical and scientific difficulties surrounding legislation that is dependent on sunna”.

** Unit of History of Fiqh: “Objective: The course aims at utilising the perceptions adopted by faqihs concerning human society and societal values, based upon Islamic faith. It is concerned with revealing the role of fiqh, studying the early emergence of provisions and how fiqh opinions proceeded to reach the status of doctrines; each doctrine has its own perception, closely related to the society of the faqih with respect to time and place”.

** Unit of History of Religions
• Introduction to history of ancient religions: “The course focuses on ancient religions among Egyptians, the people of Carthage and Indians. It reveals the general conception of these beliefs, and explains their emergence and development; it aims to objectively deduce the features of religious thought.”

I would like to draw readers’ attention to the fact that the ancient Egyptian religion, which influenced Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is taught solely at Zaitouna University; no other religious university in the Arab World—including al-Azhar—teaches it. To comprehend the impact of ancient Egyptian religion on monotheist religions, the reader may refer to the book written on this topic in French by Tharwat al-Assuity.

• Introduction to Scriptural Religions: “Objectives: The course scrutinises Judaism and Christianity, explaining their emergence and highlighting the similarities between them two, in a manner which respects the words of their founders.”

I would like to draw the readers attention to the relevance of “in a manner which respects the words of their founders” since it represents the first step towards reconciliation between the fanatic salafi consciousness and religions of the other, particularly the Jew and the Christian. The Tunisian religion curricula—from primary to higher education—prepares the consciousness of young generations to respect both the Jewish and Christian discourses, and to consciously break away with the hatred of Jews and Christians.

**Unit of Old and Modern Doctrines of Commentary:
• Commentary and its doctrines up to the 7th century: “Objectives: The course seeks to reveal the historical character of commentary and the fundamentals of commentators as shown by their works. To achieve this aim, the emergence of the need for commentary and the transformation of commentary into a science is studied, as are the directions of commentary and interpretation, through relating them to the commentators’ concerns and to the period they lived in.
• Commentary currents in modern times: “Objectives: the course seeks to explain how the interests of the Ulama influenced their interpretation of the Koran. It elaborates on the commentators’ concerns, explains their views and investigates aspects of modernity in their discourse as well as the way they grasped preceding methods of commentary.

**Unit of Fiqh and its Fundamentals
• The emergence of the science of fiqh fundamentals and its status among sciences of Sharia: “Objectives: The course focuses on the fundamentals of fiqh as a science which regulates the relationship between faith and the development of society. It explains fiqh fundamentals through Islamic code, divisions of discourses and aspects of reasoning, and it construes the character of fiqh thought and determines the status of fiqh fundamentals among the sciences of Koran and Hadith.”

** Unit of language
• English, French, German, Spanish or Turkish. “Objectives: The courses focus on broadening the first year curriculum, and stress its application to religious texts.”
• Latin, Greek, Persian or Hebrew. “Objectives: The courses focus on broadening the first year curriculum, and stress its application to ancient religious texts”.

** Unit of Islamic Sects: “Objectives: The course is concerned with:
a- The central effect of socio-political factors on infidelity and belief;
b- Differences among sects in interpreting religious texts in accordance with society’s needs;
c- The consistence between sectarian views and transformations of Islamic societies;
d- Foundations of Islamic thought, based upon the different sects”.

Source: al-Nobakhty, Feraq al-shia (The Different Sects); Al-Ashaary Maqalaat al-Islamiyeen (sayings of Islamists).

** Unit of Sufism: “Objectives: The course focuses on studying Islamic Sufism through investigating the history of its emergence, the factors behind Sufism and the roots of Sufi quotations. The course looks into the development of Sufism and the relevance of the answers it gives—through private interpretation and personal worship—to the questions posed by Islamic societies. It deduces the standing of Sufism in the course of Islamic thought.

Source; Ibn Arabi, al-Fotouhat al-Makkiya (Mecca Invasions). Al-Ganeed, Ibn al-Fared, al-Hallag.

I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the fact that most religious curricula, particularly in the Gulf countries, consider Sufism a regression towards paganism, but the Tunisian educational system studies it objectively. We should not forget that Sufism rid Islam—especially Sunni Islam—of part of its coarseness, and provided it with a spiritual breeze that had been always missing.

** Unit of Modern Islamic Thought
• Reformist thought in the 13th century of the Hijra (19th AD) and early 14th century of the Hijra (20th AD). “Objectives: The course is concerned with the emergence of reformist thought in the Arab and Islamic countries throughout the mentioned period. It focuses on the writings of reformists such as Qabado, Tahtawi, Khaireddin, al-Afghani, al-Kawakbi, Mohammed Abdou, Rashid Reda, al-Thaalbi, al-Haddad, al-Taher bin Ashour, as well as the movements they expressed. Their writings are analysed to show the influence of modern values on their opinions.

Sources: Selections of writings by reformists of the epoch.

** Unit of Sciences and Arts of the Arab-Islamic Civilisation.
• History of sciences in the Arab-Islamic epoch: “Objectives: The course is concerned with the classification of the sciences by the Greek philosophers, the development of the meaning of science among Arab-Muslim thinkers, and the way the latter classified the sciences. It is reveals the philosophical prefaces justifying such classifications.

** Unit of Introduction to Linguistics
• Linguistic theories in studying the text: “Objectives: The course stresses the relevance of linguistic concerns in the science of lexical meaning especially in relation to understanding and interpreting texts. To this end, it explains some of the relevant theories of linguistics and reveals their bases in philosophy and knowledge. The aim is that the student would realise the relevance of linguistics in understanding religious texts.”

Source: Ferdinand de Saussure, Lessons on General Linguistics.

I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the central goal of studying linguistics in religious education: ‘linguistics are relevant in comprehending religious texts’.

** Unit of Introduction to the Study of Law
• Introduction to the study of law. “Objectives: The course is concerned with the emergence of the need for law institutions; it investigates aspects of legislation, the relationship between law and society, and the services offered by law to the human value of freedom. It studies the sources and development of contemporary Tunisian law.
Source: Mohammed el-Shorafi, Madkhal ila Derassat al-Qanoon (Introduction to the Study of Law); Institutions and ruling systems in Islamic thought.

** Unit of Fiqh and its Fundamentals
• Tunisian doctrines of fiqh: “Objectives: The course focuses on the history of Tunisian doctrines of fiqh and analyses the reasons behind the emergence of certain doctrines and the absence of others. Specific models of the fiqh on dealings are studied to grasp features of Tunisian thought of fiqh and to analyse them.”

Source: Sahnon, al-Modawana al-Kobra (The Greater Record). Ibn Aby Yazeed, al-Ressala (The Message). Al-Zelaei, Tabeen al-Haqaeq (Revealing Realities).

• Fundamentalist positions on consensus, analogy, and tradition as means of concluding provisions. “Objectives: The course stresses the relevance of these fundamentals among other basics of provisions; it explains questions of consensus, analogy, and tradition, and matters of agreement and disagreement; it manifests foundations of different opinions, investigates the starting point of each current, and deduces some features of old fundamentalist thinking.

Source: selections of books on fundamentals, consensus, analogy, and tradition such as Ibn Hazm and al-Amadi: al-Ahkam fi Ossool al-Ahkam (Fundamentals of Provisions).

** Unit of Scholastic Theology Research and Philosophical Questions
• People’s deeds among the Motazalites, Hanabalites, Asharians: “Objectives: The course is concerned with quotations from the three sects on people’s deeds; the quotations are examined in the light of the societal concerns of their time. The aim is that the student would grasp the development of conviction among Muslims, the perceptions adopted by these sects on man’s status in being, living and the hereafter, and the way they understood the reasoning behind human action. The explanation and interpretation of Koranic texts is the base of studying these questions.

Source: Abedlghabar al-Moghny: Asl-aladl (Origin of Justice); Ibn Batta al-Hanbaly: al-Ibana (The Exposition); Ibn Fork: Mogarad Maqalat al-Sheikh abi al-Hassan al-Ashari (Mere Writings of Sheikh Abi al-Hassan al-Ashari).

• The Question of Freedom in Modern and Contemporary Philosophical Thought: “objectives: The course seeks an understanding of modern philosophical European thought on the question of man’s freedom, will and actions, through investigating the thought of Espinoza and Sartre. It highlights the:
a- Differences between Islamic and modern European thought on the question of fatalism and voluntarism;
b- New values manifested by modern thought;
c- The influence of new modes of understanding on modern Islamic thought.

Sources: Selected writings by Espinoza and Sartre.

• Sacred Religious Books: “Objectives: The course is concerned with the faith of prophecy in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam; matters of disagreement are analysed.

Sources: The Bible and Koran.

I would like to draw the readers’ attention to the relevance of studying the Bible and the Koran side by side, to re-educate Islamic consciousness as to the equal status of the books of the three monotheist religions. Books of Judaism and Christianity are considered by religious curricula in Arab countries as distorted books devoid of sacredness and whose instructions should not be respected except for those approved by the Koran.

• Human rights in Islam, religious heritage and international and regional conventions: “Objectives: The course seeks to construe the perception of the believer in Islamic revelation on the one hand, and in scriptural religious heritage on the other. The aim is that the student would grasp the interest of all religions in preserving the rights of human beings, and in liberating them from any constraints which hinder their ability to bear personal and civil responsibilities. It is also concerned with presenting international and regional conventions on human rights and analysing the modern values advocated by these conventions. The aim is that the student would be aware that the question of human rights is a totality that leans on global values and represents a consequential for progress. For the question of human rights to be established, daily efforts and a sustainable culture are required.

Sources: Koran, Sahifa, the Bible. Human Rights International and Regional Documents, prepared by Mahmoud Sharif Basuini, Mohammed Said al-Daqaq, and Abdelazeem wazeer.

** Unit of Comparative Fiqh
• Earthly provisions among Sunni and Shiite Imams: “Objectives: The course elucidates earthly provisions as thought of by both Sunni doctrines and Shiite jurisprudence of imams; these provisions are analysed in the light of conditions in Islamic societies. The aim is to grasp how Shiite and Sunni doctrines considered social reform on the basis of faith and interpretation of Islamic texts”.

Source: Malek: al-Maota. Abu Youssef Ketab al-Kharag. Al-Toussi, al-Mabsout”.

**Unit of Comparative Religions
• Monotheism in scriptural religions: “Objectives: The course is concerned with monotheism faith in Judaism, Christianity and Islam; it traces and analyses common and different perceptions.

** Unit of Comparative Religious Research
• Prophecy in scriptural religions

** Unit of Contemporary Commentary on Islam and Islamic thought:
• Modernity in contemporary Arab-Islamic thought: “Objectives: The course deals with the problematic of modernity in contemporary Arab-Islamic thought through explaining:
a- The philosophy of modernity as formulated by some contemporary Arab thinkers;
b- the currents of thought they present to modernise their societies;
c- Foundations of each current in relation to the understanding of heritage and the present challenges of knowledge”.

** Unit of History of the Philosophy of the Middle Ages
• Introduction to political philosophy in Islam: “Objectives: The course tackles the dimensions of politico-philosophical thought in relation to the problems facing Arab-Islamic societies in the Middle Ages. It also focuses on evidence of Greek philosophy in Islamic politico-philosophical thought.

Sources: Al-Farabi, Araa Ahl al-Medina al-Fadela. (Opinions of Utopians).

** Unit of Sociology of Religion
• Currents, methods and problematic of sociology in relation to studying the phenomenon of religion: “Objectives: The course deals with sociologists’ explanations to the religious phenomenon, the questions they deal with when analysing the affect of religious beliefs on social attitude, and the impact of social affairs and societal requirements on religious writings on divinity, prophecy, revelation, Day of Judgement and completion of creation.

Sources: Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

**Unit of Methodology
• Research methodology: “objectives: The course tackles four major questions:
a- The character and tools of sociological research;
b- The use of necessary references including dictionaries, encyclopaedia, and original texts such as al-Tabaqat, al-Regal, al-Boldan (Classes, Men, Countries);
c-Summarising articles and books and determining how to benefit from them;
d- An acquaintance with the art of verifying manuscripts”.

** Unit of the History of Ancient Philosophy
• World and divinity in Greek philosophy: “Objectives: the course is concerned with the theory of divinity and the relationship between God and the world in Greek philosophy; it evidences the influence of Greek philosophy on Islamic philosophical thought”.

Sources: Aristotle’s book on Metaphysics; Platos book on Dialogues with Timeos.

Following the above sample of the courses offered by Zaitouna University, is an examination model which summarises the central dimensions of the philosophy of religious education in Tunisia. We hope that they would also become the central dimensions of the philosophy of religious education in the Arab World.

Ministry of Higher Education
University of Zaitouna
Higher Institution for Fundamentals of Religion
Exam for the academic year 1997/8
Year: first
Course: Koran
Semester: May
Class: four credit hours; maximum: 40

• You remember that a number of instances were behind God’s saying: “Let there be no violence in religion” (The Cow). Among these incidents was one in which a man of the Ansar [people of Medina] had a son whom he wanted to force to convert to Islam. When the father raised the issue to the Prophet, the verse was revealed. Another incident was when a man of the Ansar had two sons who were evangelised by Syrian merchants and departed to Syria; he wanted to run after them to bring them back to Islam. A third was when Ansar women made a vow that if they bore a boy, they would make him a Jew or a Christian so as to live longer. Their fathers wanted to bring the sons to Islam. When they raised the issue to the Prophet, the verse revealed and he said: “God asked your friends to choose, if they choose them, they will be theirs and if they choose you, they will be yours”.
• Investigate these stories and use them to elaborate on the Koran’s stance on the freedom of belief, and the question of accepting the other who is different in religion. Try to employ them in accordance with modern requirements to found the civil society, which prerequisites tolerance and coexistence in order to guarantee progress and security, and in accordance with the aspirations by global community to build interactions on a base of the exchange of interests, regardless of colour, sex or religion.

Signature: Mohammed al-Toumi [then head of Zaitouna University, and the present Minister of Religious Affairs].