An Ill-Fitting Suit? Islam vs Secular Government and Individualism

In part one we saw how Islam’s golden age of open inquiry and science personified by Almohad Spain’s Ibn Tufail and Averroes and the Egyptian historian, geographer polymath, Ibn Khaldun, gave way to an Islamic not invented here syndrome. The West’s teacher, by the 18th century, was shocked that it had become an innovation-resistant student. Islam’s 21st century Ibn Khalduns, Averroes and Ibrahim Muteferrikas, such as Medium’s H.S. Burney, who asked when Islam will join the modern world, encounter stubborn resistance when they trespass into advocating social and not just technological innovation,

As with the 18th century Sultan and his scribes, the Imams and Ayatollahs still resist having the peasants read the Koran for themselves. The Iranian professor Hashem Aghajari’s call for an Islamic reformation similar to Martin Luther’s got him got him condemned to death for apostasy in 2002.

“ In June 2002 Aghajari gave an address in Hamadan commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Dr. Ali Shariati, criticized some of the present Islamic practices in Iran as being in contradiction with the original practices and ideology of Islam, and calling for “Islamic Protestantism” and reform in Islam.” (

“A lecturer in history at Tarbiat Moddaress University in Tehran, Professor Aghajari enraged conservatives in an address in June in which he said that Muslims should not uncritically follow the line laid down by Islamic clerics “like monkeys”. He questioned why clerics alone had the right to interpret Islam.” (

Only an international outcry got his sentence commuted to five years in prison. Better to prevent the reformist academic from nailing his theses to the Mosque door and avoid reading them. The Iranian conservatives who condemned him compared Aghajari to Salman Rushdie:

“The address brought a strong response from conservatives and many clerics, who accused him of being Iran’s Salman Rushdie, after the author against whom the Iranian clergy issued a fatwa following his criticism of Islam in a novel. In August, the professor was detained in the western town of Hamedan on the order of a local judge and a provincial court later sentenced him to death for apostasy for his comments. Teaching ban: The sentence and support for it among conservatives has been seen by some observers as part of the struggle between reformers and conservatives. They disagree strongly over issues such as freedom of opinion, the judicial system and the position of the clerics.” (

Somali refugee Ayan Hirsi Ali’s Infidel and 2004 film “Submission” brought her exile from the Netherlands after the assassination of the film’s producer Theo van Gogh by a Dutch-Moroccan Islamist.

The Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud got in trouble when he wrote an article about the role that sexual deprivation plays in the Muslim world. Reprinting the article in the New York Times and Le Monde only inflamed the argument:

“The argument began when the Algerian novelist and journalist Kamel Daoud wrote an article for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica about a spate of sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve, 2015. The attacks were widely reported to have been carried out by groups of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, which Daoud explained by saying that many Muslims from the region suffer from extreme sexual deprivation, which, he wrote, generates an “unhealthy relationship with women, their body, and desire.” (

Daoud, at right, condemned to death by the Salafist imam at left.

Fear induced Daoud to announce he’d retire from journalistic work and stick to writing novels. Clearly, discussing any link between Islam and how its sexual prohibitionism severely limits young male Muslims’ intimacy with women was off limits. Just a repeat of the pattern in which the Istanbul scribes defeating the free-thinking disruptive innovator printer Muteferrika.

“AFTER Tahrir came Cologne. After the square came sex. The Arab revolutions of 2011 aroused enthusiasm at first, but passions have since waned. Those movements have come to look imperfect, even ugly: For one thing, they have failed to touch ideas, culture, religion or social norms, especially the norms relating to sex. Revolution doesn’t mean modernity. The attacks on Western women by Arab migrants in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve evoked the harassment of women in Tahrir Square itself during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution. The reminder has led people in the West to realize that one of the great miseries plaguing much of the so-called Arab world, and the Muslim world more generally, is its sick relationship with women. In some places, women are veiled, stoned and killed; at a minimum, they are blamed for sowing disorder in the ideal society. In response, some European countries have taken to producing guides of good conduct to refugees and migrants.” (

Clearly things have moved backwards since Islam’s 13th century:

“it’s a far cry from the delicious licentiousness of the writings of the Muslim golden age, like Sheikh Nafzawi’s “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight,” which tackled eroticism and the Kama Sutra without any hang-ups….Women are seen as a source of destabilization — short skirts trigger earthquakes, some say — and are respected only when defined by a property relationship, as the wife of X or the daughter of Y….Paradise and its virgins are a pet topic of preachers, who present these otherworldly delights as rewards to those who dwell in the lands of sexual misery. Dreaming about such prospects, suicide bombers surrender to a terrifying, surrealistic logic: The path to orgasm runs through death, not love.” (

Another way to get in trouble in the Muslim world is to try linguistic exegesis of the Koran and conclude that parts of it were written in the 7th century, parts in the 9th century and other parts later than that. You can do this at the University of Chicago, but don’t try it in Al Azhar University, Cairo.

Muslim Refugees Understand This Problem

On academic and business trips to Stuttgart and Prague I got to know two Syrian refugees and we had long conversations about these issues. One had worked for CNN and got a full ride scholarship to Davidson College in North Carolina. The other worked for a refugee resettlement agency in Greece. They had both had very unpleasant contact with the some members of the extended Assad family business with a flag. But they had no illusions about the Sunni Islamists on the other side of Syria’s civil war. Seeing no way out, they left while they could.

We had extended discussions about Islam’s conception of the state — the Umma — or community of believers, and how it differs from the Christian West’s “render unto Caesar” view of the state. They agreed that Islam’s conception of the purpose of the state makes it resistant to separating Koran-inspired religious authority and subordinating it to constitutionally and electorally legitimized secular authority.

A Social Contract for Muslims in Secular States

The authoritarian theocrats who pass blasphemy laws need a social contract to learn that political and social restraint will enhance, not undermine, authentic religious faith; that persuasion works better than the kind of inquisitorial enforcement Daoud wrote about:

“In some of Allah’s lands, the war on women and on couples has the air of an inquisition. During the summer in Algeria, brigades of Salafists and local youths worked up by the speeches of radical imams and Islamist TV preachers go out to monitor female bodies, especially those of women bathers at the beach. The police hound couples, even married ones, in public spaces. Gardens are off-limits to strolling lovers. Benches are sawed in half to prevent people from sitting close together.” (

On a trip to Istanbul in December 2012, ages ago in the Islamist regime of Erdogan, we talked to a Turkish English literature professor from Ankara on our hotel terrace. He complained of the dirty looks and criticism he was now getting when he hugged or kissed his wife in public — in what was one of the most secular states of the Muslim world.

The Contract

The Arabs and Muslims I’ve known know they don’t need what George H.W. Bush called westerners’ “soft bigotry of low expectations” with regard to Islam’s fraught relationship with secularist freedom of inquiry, female empowerment and the dismantling and deregulation of their authoritarian patriarchal family life. The secular Syrian refugees I met when teaching in Stuttgart and Berlin and travelling in Prague agreed with me. They also agreed with the ideas embedded in this contract for assimilation into secular societies for refugees.

Here are the clauses in the contract that all theocrats, of whatever religion, will find difficult to swallow. Only a contract can solve the 2015 Collision in Cologne that Daoud wrote about: “People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.”:

1. Groups don’t have rights, only individuals.

2. Secular constitutions supersede all religious law (Sharia, Koranic, Catholic canon law, Mosaic law). All satire of religious belief is protected speech. Religion as an ideology and belief system enjoys no special exemption from satire, ridicule, insult and open debate. Blasphemy is not a valid legal concept.

3. Absolute freedom of conscience in religion. All individuals, including all your family members, have the right to convert to another religion or no religion.

4. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is illegal and criminal.

5. Women have equal rights under the law. Your female children over the state’s age of consent have the right to marry, partner and have sexual relations with whom they choose, of a different religion or of no religion. Your female children have the right not to marry. Coercive arranged marriage is illegal. Child marriage is illegal.

6. Family honor is not a valid legal concept. Muslims in the West must explicitly renounce family honor as a legal concept and acknowledge the illegality of honor killing.

7. Wife-beating is illegal. Wives, and daughters over 18, have absolute freedom of choice in dress. Male relatives have no legal right to limit female family members’ freedom of choice in dress. (Only this taboo-breaker can solve the problem Daoud wrote about: “ Clothing is also given to extremes: At one end is the burqa, the orthodox full-body covering; at the other is the hijab moutabaraj (“the veil that reveals”), which combines a head scarf with slim-fit jeans or tight pants. On the beach, the burqini confronts the bikini.”)

8. Homosexuality and homosexual relations are legal and homosexuals have equal legal rights. If you own a business you have no legal right to refuse employment to a qualified homosexual applicant or service to a homosexual customer because of his or her sexual orientation.

9. Holocaust denial is illegal hate speech.

10. Antisemitic speech is a hate crime punishable by imprisonment.

This last clause would land the manuscript director of the UNESCO-financed Alexandria Library in jail since he included the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the library’s exhibits:

“the manuscript museum director, Dr. Yusuf Zeidan, in the November 17, 2003, edition of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Usbu’, he “decided immediately to place it next to the Torah. Although it is not a monotheistic holy book, it has become one of the sacred [tenets] of the Jews, next to their first constitution, their religious law, [and] their way of life. In other words, it is not merely an ideological or theoretical book.” For Zionist Jews, he explained, the Protocols is more important than the Torah, as it informs their every action.” (

But this contract can’t work unless it’s voluntary and the initiative for it comes from the Muslim citizens of secular western states and recently arrived Muslim refugees. The Syrian and Egyptian refugees I’ve known have all agreed that Islam’s tight prohibitionist governance of patriarchal family hierarchy and girls’ and women’s choices needs more of this therapy than other religions. Assuming all Muslims are snowflakes who can’t take a cartoon’s joke about their BELIEFS is a form of what Bush senior called the “soft bigotry of low expectations”.

Next we’ll see what the secularized west will import without the contract. Might a modified version of this contract be applicable to the (heretofore) mostly cold civil war between more secular urban and coastal America the metastasizing white Christian nationalist and anti-feminism in the small town and rural heartland and south? That’s a question about what politics becomes when groups with conflicting social norms must live together in the same polity.

From Latvia I write to share learning from life in 7 languages in 5 countries & seeing fascism die in Portugal & Spain in 1974 and 1976.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store