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The Clash Within Islam

Encounter (Radio National) 

Sunday 28/09/2003

Next week, the new library of Alexandria in Egypt will host a meeting that could be critical to the future of Islam. Muslim religious authorities, government and community leaders from Islamic communities around the world and Muslim scholars of Islam will gather there to dialogue about social justice, democracy and civil society in Islamic thought and practice.

Details or Transcript:

This week Encounter brings you a preview of that crucial discussion, via three people who will be participants: Zainah Anwar from Malaysia, Hassan Hanafi from Egypt, and, via his translator, Abdolkarim Soroush of

Margaret Coffey: Next week a bunch of Muslim scholars of Islam, Muslim religious authorities and government and community leaders from Islamic communities around the world will gather in Alexandria, in Egypt. It will be an eminent gathering - around a table in the library built to recall the great library of the ancient world destroyed in the death throes of Roman rule. The focus of these scholars and leaders though will be firmly on the present and the future. Their aim is to construct a dialogue among Muslims about themes critically important to them today: social justice, democracy, and civil society in Islamic thought and practice.

Hello, I’m Margaret Coffey and this is Encounter - hearing the plural voices of Islam.

Zainah Anwar: I speak from the standpoint of an activist, of someone who works on the ground, challenging political Islam, traditional Islam in the way it is interpreted and codified...

Margaret Coffey: This week Encounter anticipates the Alexandria discussion by bringing you the perspectives of three of the contributors to this forthcoming conversation: they are distinctively different voices from Egypt, Iran and Malaysia.

Zainah Anwar: I speak also from the perspective of a feminist and a believer, and of someone who is determined not to be forced to live in exile because she cannot lead the life she chooses and the Islam she believes in in her own country.

Margaret Coffey: Zainah Anwar from multi-ethnic, modernising Malaysia will be at that library table in Alexandria as the executive director of a feminist research and advocacy group, Sisters in Islam.

Zainah Anwar: For me it is a question of faith. I have grown up with an Islam that is far more open, far more tolerant, far more progressive than the Islam that is emerging in my society today, so for me it’s the anger of the way the religion is changing. For me as a Muslim, as a believer, as a feminist the option of leaving Islam is not an option.

Margaret Coffey: So she and her Sisters in Islam work to build a Malaysian public constituency that upholds justice, equality and freedom within a democratic nation-state.

Zainah Anwar: September 11, the bombings in Bali, Riyadh, Casablanca, have in different ways been positive for those of us engaged in the debate on what Islam, whose Islam is the right Islam. One important impact in much of the Muslim world today, has been the opening of the public space for debate, for discussion, for a diversity of opinions on Islam and Islamic issues to be heard in the public sphere. There is greater engagement by ordinary citizens, civil society, and intellectuals in the shape and direction of Islam that is taking place in their own country. There is greater awareness that if Islam is to be used as a source of law and public policy to govern the public and private lives of citizens, then the question of who decides what is Islamic and what is not is of paramount importance.

Margaret Coffey: Zainah Anwar describing an emerging Muslim public space – but for someone like Hassan Hanafi from Egypt, the global gaze on that public space has become so strong it inhibits discussion and displaces the proper focus for debate. Indeed, the effect he says is to thrust a Muslim moving towards that public space into reaction rather than dialogue.

Hassan Hanafi: Till now, and as you see from Western mass media, I am always objectified, questioned, accused, which give me all the time the tone of self-defence, and I hate to be accused. I hate to be in the tribune all the time to defend myself against crimes which I did not do. All the time I am put in museums that people would look at me to see this peculiar monster which is called Arabism, Islam, whatever you have.

Margaret Coffey: Hassan Hanafi is professor of philosophy at Cairo University – and not only does Western mass media put him in a museum, he says, it also insists on providing him with a timetable.

Hassan Hanafi: My drama is that my soul is in past time and my body is in another time, not necessarily the modern time of the West but the modern time in me. My culture has been created in the first 400/500 years, but I am now living one thousand years later. How can I make myself homogeneous in time, how can I consider that culture is not one instant in time, the classical time, but it is a developing time that I have to invent, to create, to answer questions according to the challenges of my time.

We in the Muslim world nowadays we feel that there is an agenda which has been imposed on us, coming out of the set of concepts linked to clash of civilisations. They are telling us all the time that we have to democratise ourselves, we have to liberalise ourselves, even by Apache tanks and cannons, as the
USA did with Iraq. But democratisation and liberalisation is an internal struggle. We are fighting for this in the last 200 years. We have a long time still to go. We are fighting to close our middle ages, to open our modern times; we are still between 15th century and 16th century, between Martin Luther and Giordano Bruno. Please consider that you are not living in the same historical era. Time is not chronology, time is historical time.

Margaret Coffey: And that’s the perspective that Hassan Hanafi will bring to the discussion in
Alexandria. There to hear it will be a scholar whose theorising about democracy has become a gathering point for opposition voices in Iran. Abdolkarim Soroush was once the highest-ranking ideologue of the Islamic Republic of Iran – Ayatollah Khomeini appointed him to the steering committee of the Cultural Revolution. Now, he resists invocations of Islam to describe identity – because identities are belligerent and bellicose - and his distinctive critical voice emerges out of 25 years experience of Islamic revolution. Here on Encounter Soroush’s voice is echoed by his translator in to English.

Mahmoud Sadri: ...to me they are like little earthquakes that occur before a huge volcanic eruption and I had the same feeling...

Margaret Coffey: Mahmoud Sadri has just spent almost two months in Iran, meeting Soroush and other movers and shakers of the Iranian reform movement. Sadri is himself an Iranian, who left the country as a young student just before the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Mahmoud Sadri: The sense that I had was very much like the sense I had just before I left
Iran and that was just months before the revolution. There was a sense of portentous things about to happen, nothing immediate, nothing that you could listen to on the radio in the morning but there is a sense that there are almost plate tectonic events about to happen. And I have an idea of what it is. I can’t intellectually articulate it but emotionally I had the same feeling – that I am breathing the same air.

Margaret Coffey: And when you speak of masses there Mahmoud it is indeed a mass of people – I’m amazed when I think that the population of Iran has doubled since that time.

Mahmoud Sadri: Absolutely – we call them a revolution baby boom. These people who were not born when the revolution occurred now are in their teens and in their early twenties and they definitely have ushered in a new movement. Depending on which poll or which election results you look at, between 70 to 85 per cent of the population belong to this reform movement in one way or another, are critical of the clerical establishment and it is inevitable that this massive resentment and dissent will have an effect and will lead to change. The only question is whether the change will be catastrophic or peaceful. That is the only question.

Margaret Coffey: Mahmoud Sadri. In Iran the stakes are high because a government voted in twice on its reform credentials has proved disappointing: the conservative clerical establishment still holds sway against President Khatami and his reform minded parliamentary supporters. In Abdolkarim Soroush’s words, after the revolution religion became plump, even swollen – many claims have been made in the name of religion and many burdens put on its shoulders.

Mahmoud Sadri: After six years people look around and they do not see significant change so the reform movement is experiencing a sense of failure and they are really doing a lot of soul searching and questioning of where they went wrong and what could be done to salvage the reform. Now I met almost all the intellectual forces and the political leaders of reform and this sense of despair and the sense of urgency of the situation is paramount among them. They are questioning what went wrong and it was in that context that I met with them and talked with them.

Margaret Coffey: Iran certainly fits the terms of Zainah Anwar’s characterisation of many Muslim countries today where Islam is a double edged sword: it is used, she says, either as a political ideology to give legitimacy to political elites and maintain them in power, or, it is used by the opposition as a powerful ideology of protest and resistance against an authoritarian state. In
Iran, as we’ll hear later, the sword of Islam may yet be wielded again both ways.

Zainah Anwar: The impact on politics, governance, lawmaking, women’s rights and human rights have been great. In most Muslim societies gripped by Islamic revivalism and political Islam, women, their rights, status, role in private and public life, dress, behaviours have become the first battleground to prove the authenticity and piety of one’s return to Islam.

The impact on politics: where Government and Islamic opposition forces are engaged in a holier than thou battle to prove each other’s religious credentials by introducing or amending laws and policies in the name of Islam which more often than not discriminate against women and infringe fundamental liberties and human rights principles.

This problem in many Muslim societies today is compounded by the fact that most Muslims have traditionally been educated to believe that only the ulama, the religious scholars, have a right to talk about Islam. What are the implications for democratic governance, to multi-racial Malaysia, if only a small group of people, the ulama, as traditionally believed, have the right to interpret the Qur’an, codify the text in a manner that very often isolates the text from the socio-historical context of its revelation, isolates classical juristic opinion especially on women’s issues, from the socio-historical context of the lives of the founding jurists of Islam, and isolates our textual heritage from the context of contemporary society, the world that we live in today.

Increasingly in many Muslim countries today, women’s groups, human rights groups, NGOs, political parties, the media, and concerned individuals are beginning to speak up to engage publicly in a debate on these issues. What is the role of religion in politics? Is Islam compatible with democracy? Who has the right to interpret Islam and codify Islamic teachings into laws and public policies? Within a constitutional democratic framework, can the ulama class, the religious scholars, have the sole right to decide what is Islamic, what is not? How do we deal with the conflict between constitutional provisions of fundamental liberties and equality with religious laws and policies that violate these provisions?

Should the state legislate on morality? Is it the duty of the state, in order to bring about a moral society, [to] turn all sins into crimes against the state? Can there be one truth and one final interpretation of Islam that must govern the lives of every Muslim citizen of the country? Can the massive coercive powers of a modern nation-state be used to impose that one truth on all citizens? How do we deal with the new universal morality of democracy, of human rights, of women’s rights, and where is the place of Islam in this dominant ethical paradigm of the modern world?

The search for answers to all these important questions on the role of Islam in today’s modern nation state cannot remain the exclusive preserve of the religious authorities, be they the ulama in government or in opposition parties or Islamist activists pushing for an Islamic state and Islamic law. Muslims and all citizens have to take responsibility for the kind of Islam that develops in their societies. The fact that Islam is increasingly shaping and redefining our lives means all of us have to engage with the religion if we do not want it to be hijacked by those who preach hatred, intolerance, bigotry and misogyny.

Margaret Coffey: Zainah Anwar from Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam – and she was speaking there at the
University of Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Asia Centre. In Malaysia, Sisters in Islam keep chiselling away to enlarge the sphere of public debate about Islam. There are good practical reasons for this.

Zainah Anwar: The reality and the implications of Islamic governance in a multi-ethnic modernising country like Malaysia are just beginning to sink in. As the contestation for power between UMNO, the dominant party in the ruling National Front government and PAS, the Islamic party that is in control of two of the 13 states in Malaysia, as that contest of power escalates into a holier than thou battle for the support of the Malay-Muslim votebank, issues such as the Islamic state, the hudud law, discrimination against women, freedom of religion, enter the public sphere like never before for public debate.

Margaret Coffey: In May last year for example, the government of the Malaysian state, Terengganu, under the control of the Islamic party, PAS, introduced the hudud or Shariah law. Sisters in Islam got Malaysians talking – about the hudud law’s discrimination against women, its provisions for punishment and for freedom of religion.

Zainah Anwar: Under the hudud law a person who leaves Islam will be sentenced to death. What is the implication to multi-racial Malaysia where non-Muslims have to convert to Islam in order to marry a Malay-Muslim? Marriages break down. The divorce rate among Muslims is far higher than the divorce rate among non-Muslims. What will happen to a Chinese woman who wants to go back to her original religion, to her family and community support system upon the breakdown of her marriage to a Muslim man? Is she going to be sentenced to death? How does this punishment serve the best interest of her children, her family, her community and society at large? How does it serve the cause of Islam? This woman’s right to life cannot be swept aside in the name of the sanctity of religion, defined in this very oppressive manner.

The fourth problem area is the tendency to codify the most conservative opinion in Islam into law, you know especially so in the area of women’s rights. For example, under the hudud law, the provision that women cannot be witnesses is only a juristic opinion with no explicit support in the Qur’an or even the traditions of the Prophet.

The challenge and the reality we are facing today is the seeming unwillingness or inability of the ulama that dominate the religious authority and many Islamist activists of today to see Islamic laws from a historical perspective as rules that were socially constructed to deal with the socio-economic, cultural and political context of the times. Given a different world, a different time, a different context, these laws have to change to ensure that Islam’s eternal commitment to justice is served.

More than ever, there is a need for Muslims to differentiate between what is divine and what is human – the source of the law, the text, is divine, but the human effort in understanding God’s message, the human effort in codifying God’s message into positive law is not infallible and divine. These laws can be changed, they can be challenged, they can be criticised, and they can be refined and re-defined.

Margaret Coffey: That’s why, says Zainah Anwar, the public space to debate on Islam and Islamic issues has to open up. The relationship between Islam and modernity can’t be left to the religious scholars.

Zainah Anwar: Unfortunately, in the traditional Islamic education most of our scholars have gone through, the belief in taqlid, in blind imitation, is very strong. The belief that the doors of ijtihad are closed, the doors of reinterpretation, is very strong. This rationale is based on the belief that the great scholars of the classical period of Islam who lived closer to the time of the Prophet were unsurpassed in their knowledge and interpretive skills. But to adopt such an attitude is totally untenable in today’s world when we face new and different challenges. How do we find solutions from within our faith if we do not exert ijtihad and produce new knowledge and new understandings of Islam in the face of new problems and new realities?

For this to happen, the public space to debate on Islam and Islamic issues has to open up. Unfortunately, in many Muslim societies today, this public space does not exist, or is very limited and controlled, not just to talk about Islam but to talk on other issues that are deemed sensitive by those who hold power. Our traditional upbringing, our culture, and our political system do not encourage us to engage freely in debate on issues. Of course then, when political Islam emerges as an alternative to challenge these autocratic states, it is an Islam led by those who mindset and cultural framework are just as closed and limited.

Margaret Coffey: Zainah Anwar, from Malaysia’s Sisters in Islam. In a week or so she will be in the library in Alexandria, in Egypt, among Muslim activists and scholars, talking about how to construct a debate on the meaning of Islam for the contemporary world. I’m Margaret Coffey – and on Radio National’s Encounter we’re anticipating the discussion – just a little. Joining Zainah Anwar will be well known Muslim philosopher Hassan Hanafi. In Egypt, Hassan Hanafi has found himself caught dangerously between ideologies:

Hassan Hanafi: The dominant version has the power, the position, has the mass media. The marginalised version would like to come to the core of the events. They are seen as real competitors – things go beyond dialogue to violence, like between the reformed and the conservatives in Iran and Algeria. Then I also waging [sic] a big case for liberalism …then the core trend in the country which is conservative [is] seeing me as a real competitor – they would like to get rid of me. But intellectually I am accused by the fundamentalists as a disguised secular, by the secular as a disguised fundamentalist, and by the Government as a Communist Muslim Brother.

Margaret Coffey: So, these are dangerous times for Hassan Hanafi at home - but he’s popular in
Indonesia’s lively Muslim intellectual scene. I asked him why.

Hassan Hanafi: I’m trying to initiate a third discourse between two contradictory discourses and both are irrelevant to the masses as well as to the elite. The first one is a discourse that does not know how to speak without knowing what to speak about. This is the fundamentalist discourse, using the language of Islam, of faith, of God and so on. But the content is futile – asking me to pray five times a day! I know this very well from my childhood. It is not an appealing one. And a second discourse who does know what to speak about – decolonisation, social justice, progress, human rights, gender - but does not know how to speak, is using the secular language of the West – Karl Marx, Robert Owen and John Stuart Mill – and the masses are cold about this.

I am trying to initiate in the last half century a third discourse who does know how to speak, using the language of the tradition, and what to speak about - the major questions and challenges of the time. In Indonesia they are suffering from seculars and from fundamentalism. They need a new approach to modernist Islam, social Islam, liberal Islam, enlightened Islam, and they saw in my writings what they are looking for – that is why I am considered a charismatic leader, as a sheikh in
Indonesia. Wherever I go thousands and thousands follow me.

Margaret Coffey: Egyptian philosopher Hassan Hanafi - who is followed because he provides these young Indonesian Muslims with a vocabulary for modernity drawn from their own tradition – and not from the West.

Hassan Hanafi: It is a very cruel judgment. I cannot breathe, I cannot speak good things except to be borrowed from the West. Why should I give the West more than I should and give myself less than I should. Freedom, democracy, progress, social justice, human rights, are not the monopoly of the West.

I’m a Mu'tazilite, a philosopher and a follower of Averroes! In every culture there is such a trend – to be a man defending social justice and equality. I am also from these schools of thinking which existed in our tradition but they have been marginalised. Everyone is judging Islam according to the main dominant crucial trend which is conservatism, but conservatism is not the only one. I think this is a little bit cruel if you are emptying me from my own creativity as if the West is the only creative culture.

Margaret Coffey: Can you tell me then an example that you tell these young people, a vocabulary, a piece of language that you draw upon for their use?

Hassan Hanafi: For instance, in Islam the right to differ: diversity is the law of nature, mountains, skies, waters, birds, animals, vegetation, human beings are different, different languages, different cultures, different colours and so on. Ideas also are different. No one has the right to monopolise the idea – to say I am right, you are wrong. No one can pretend and identify his opinion as the right opinion and the others are wrong. Pluralism and multi-culturalism is the essence of Islam.

Margaret Coffey: And so also, says Hassan Hanafi, is democracy: it’s part of the essence of Islam, but in Islam’s own terms. The phrase “Islamic democracy” doesn’t really reach he says to the Muslim meaning.

Hassan Hanafi: Well concerning Islamic democracy – sometimes we feel a little bit syncretic – we are making a concept to satisfy the Muslims and to satisfy the secularists. For the Muslims they will be pleased because the word Islam is there and for the secularists they are pleased because the word democracy is there. But if you understand the spirit of Islam, the authority in Islam is elected by the masses – we call this shura – that means mutual consultation against the monopoly of opinion and the monopoly of decision. Then if we really knew our tradition, if we used our terminology then the fundamentalists will be satisfied because his basic needs of modernity will have been fulfilled and the secularists will have discovered his own tradition without going to the West to fetch easy solutions and so on.

Margaret Coffey: You spoke of knowing the people of JI – you know these people, you understand their cry. Tell me a little bit about what you know of them.

Hassan Hanafi: I know many dissident voices in the Muslim world from Morocco to China. They are reading my writing, entering a dialogue with them. I am not a ruler to condemn them; I am not America to invade them, but I am trying like a good physician to make a diagnostic about the palpitation of blood in their veins and in their hearts. I am not justifying terrorism but I am trying to understand: these people are very pious and committed people for Islam and for the society and for the community. They are illegalised, not recognised, they are living underground, they have the psychology of the prison, nobody would like to enter a dialogue with them, sometimes they are supported by Western powers if there is common interest like America supporting Taliban and Osama bin Laden during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Once the conflict of interest is there then they are back seeing them as antagonistic. They are caught between the incapacity of political regimes and the weakness of opposition and the indifference of the masses. Sharon and the Israelis are doing all what you have seen in the mass media, in the channels and so on. Then
America invaded Iraq, invaded Afghanistan. All the political regimes are dependent on USA. What to do then? Somebody has to cry.

Margaret Coffey: But JI don’t want to enter into a dialogue except on their terms do they, in
Indonesia. Their notion of what is right for Indonesia is not one with which people can dialogue.

Hassan Hanafi: Because they are the victim of one thousand years of conservatism! Inside the Muslim world there is a big drama, which is the dialogue between the reformers and the conservatives as you see in Iran. Understand them: that they are coming out of the tombs, out of history, out of one thousand years of conservatism. I go to Qom, I make dialogue with them; I go to JI and make dialogue with them, and gradually I create a spectrum, that means a diversified version of Islam, I create in them wings, that means centre, left and right and gradually I win the left, then I win the centre and who knows in which generation we can win the right.

Margaret Coffey: Hassan Hanafi. In Malaysia, Zainah Anwar and her Sisters in Islam also go about creating wings as Professor Hanafi calls them and discover a complex disorderly field of friends and foes. Their critics trail them at public lectures.

Zainah Anwar: They just trail us at these public meetings – many of them come from activists in the Islamic party, from some Islamic groups, and many of them are from the middle class as well. Many of the activists in Islamic groups and in Islamic parties are highly educated men and women who have got their degrees from universities in the United States, in Britain, in Australia – you know so very upwardly mobile people who are involved in the Islamic movements. And then of course the religious authorities! So even though we might have support for our position from certain key members of the cabinet –another arm of the government, the religious authorities, don’t like the work that we are doing.

Margaret Coffey: And these religious authorities, where are they educated?

Zainah Anwar: Many of them in Middle Eastern universities but some of them also in the West – so they may have the first degree from Al Azhar University in Cairo, they might get their PhD from St Andrews or Temple University or Magill University.

Margaret Coffey: So essentially it’s an argument that is taking place in the urban, highly educated, middle class, western influenced middle classes.

Zainah Anwar: Yes.

Margaret Coffey: Where then do you find allies in the country? We don’t have an impression of the Malaysian Islamic scene as diverse or as lively as the Indonesian Islamic scene. Is that fair, where do you find allies?

Zainah Anwar: Other women’s groups, human rights groups, and with some of the government departments, like the ministry of women ….but of course it is a tough battle, an uphill battle because you are challenging entrenched positions – you know 1400 years of tradition. And of course on the issue of women it is even more difficult because many men who are reformist and who believe in ijtihad, in re-interpretation, in reforming Islam, that same reformist progressive thinking stop at the door of women’s rights. So they are perfectly fine in approving advances in technology – heart transplants, whatever - absolutely fine but when it comes to women well suddenly everything has been decided in the twelfth century and you cannot change it.

Margaret Coffey: Does this discussion occur just within the Islamic sphere or does it in fact engage or interest the other communities in Malaysia?

Zainah Anwar: For us, the citizens of other faith have a right to engage with Islam because Malaysia is their country as well and they have a right to decide what kind of country they want to live in and what kind of constitutional framework they want to live in so it is important that their voice be heard in this debate.

Margaret Coffey: Many of Iran’s would-be reformers, who are critical of the current powerful clerical establishment, have come out of clerical or religious backgrounds and almost without exception each of them was involved in the 1979 Islamic revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini. Over recent weeks in Iran, Mahmoud Sadri met many of these reform activists and intellectuals, including Abdolkarim Soroush.

Mahmoud Sadri: I met Kadivar, I met Abdullah Nouri, I met Hajjarian – the most touching of these people to meet is Hajjarian. Hajjarian is arguably the main architect of reform movement in Iran. There was an assassination attempt on his life almost three years ago and he was shot right through the neck. His speech is slurred and he can hardly write and he is heavily medicated. It is heartbreaking to see him and I knew him before this. He was an extremely energetic and extremely brilliant thinker and strategist. I went to his office to meet him - the person who shot him is out of jail – he hardly spent two years in jail – and he was pardoned and the place he frequents is right across the street from Hajjarian’s office.

Margaret Coffey: Now Hajjarian had just come out of jail himself when he was shot and his would-be assassin belonged to some sort of right-wing religious group?

Mahmoud Sadri: Exactly. These are right wing thugs armed with a very intolerant religious ideology.

Margaret Coffey: And Hajjarian himself comes out of a religious background?

Mahmoud Sadri: That’s true and this is the crux of the matter. Reform in Iran of course does have a laic and a religious wing but by and large it is led by people who come from religious backgrounds. [Saeed] Hajjarian, [Mohsen] Kadivar, [Abdolkarim] Soroush, [Abbdollah] Nouri, or [Mohammad] Shabastari, these are either themselves high ranking clergy or religious laity, religious intellectuals and most of these people came from a background of enthusiastic support for the revolution and in some cases radical support for the revolution. The experience of the last 25 years has helped them revise their views and values both religiously as well as politically.

Margaret Coffey: Does Soroush ever reflect on his role as a member of the council for Cultural Revolution, because he was right in there at its most radical point, wasn’t he?

Mahmoud Sadri: Yes, all of them with very few exceptions supported the revolution. Remember 98.2 per cent of the Iranian populace in a referendum in the wake of the revolution voted for this revolution.

Margaret Coffey: These people were implicated though at a very high level and conceivably in very bad things.

Mahmoud Sadri: That’s true, of course, not all of them to the same extent. Hajjarian for example used to be a deputy interior minister and indeed in charge of intelligence so you can imagine the circles he frequented were not necessarily academic circles.

Margaret Coffey: The public learning you are speaking of then is very real public learning? They know what’s wrong with the regime.

Mahmoud Sadri: Absolutely. Almost everybody was on the side of the revolution and as you mentioned some of these people because they were the elites of the revolution they were in positions of power. The only question is at what point each group, each stratum, each tendency stepped off this boat and decided that this boat is not going toward the green island of democracy –it’s hurtling towards perdition of autocracy and clerical tyranny. So I think all these people if you dig in their past you will find different levels of involvement as elites of the first generation of the Islamic revolution.

Margaret Coffey: Mahmoud Sadri, whose translation of Abdolkarim Soroush’s work into English has been published under the title Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam. Soroush will be one of the scholars taking part in next week’s discussion in the library in Alexandria in Egypt – and there he will be among scholars, Muslim religious authorities and government and community leaders from Islamic communities around the world gathered together with one purpose: their aim is to construct a dialogue among Muslims about themes critically important to them today: themes such as social justice, democracy, and civil society in Islamic thought and practice. According to Mahmoud Sadri, Soroush will be unlikely to take Hassan Hanafi’s tack of developing a distinctive Islamic vocabulary in order to engage with modernity.

Mahmoud Sadri: I believe there is a certain amount of romanticism that I emotionally understand but intellectually cannot agree with when it comes to discussion of what is ideal for Islam and how would a purely Islamic version of reformation and modernity look like. In an ideal world that may have been possible but we live in a world in which the West has already discovered these ideas, has already become the most powerful civilisation on the face of the earth, has already changed the face of the earth through imperialism and colonialism, through science and technology.

So the idea of having some kind of pure Islamic path to modernity may be appealing to a philosopher or a theologian but to a sociologist like myself that is wishful thinking. I think Soroush, even though he is a theologian, is much more sociological in this respect. He recognises the realities of the world in which we live and the urgency of reconciling Islamic culture with these basic Western, not necessarily Western, but these values of modernity that were first encountered and articulated in the West. And not to worry that much about the origin or identity of this view or that view: if say something like civic privacy or individualism or human rights are just, if they are reasonable, we should adopt them. And the fact that the Westerners discovered them earlier and practised these values in their social life, all the better for us, because they will provide us with a model of where this system works and what pitfalls to avoid.

So Soroush, [Mohsen] Kadivar, Shab … these people, [Saeed] Hajjarian, [Abdollah] Nouri, these Iranian reformers do not have that romantic love affair with an idea of a pure Islamic path to modernity. I think this has something to do with having been involved in an actual experience of public learning that revolution provided. For 25 years we are left alone to make our values or practise our values and realise the consequences of our actions and this level of maturity that comes out of Iran I think is a result of that and that maybe one of the reasons that Iranian thinkers sound a lot less starry eyed when it comes to reform.

Margaret Coffey: You spoke a moment ago of Soroush’s sense of the urgency with which Iranians must deal with their situation. Much of his sense of urgency derives from his fears for religion doesn’t it?

Mahmoud Sadri: That’s true. He is afraid that the continuation of this farce of combination of religion and state will end up destroying religion, contaminating it so that for generations Iranians or Muslim people will come to look at Islam as the very embodiment of tyranny and autocracy and suppression so he and his colleagues are attempting to give a new interpretation of Islam, separating it, distinguishing it from the levels of political power and economic power, the way it has been identified in Iran and in that sense in a way save Islamic spirituality and Islamic religion, religious values from this devastating association and he does have a sense of urgency about it.

Margaret Coffey: For Egypt’s Hassan Hanafi, on the other hand, the religious tradition itself is encouragement to confidence and his gaze is turned toward the West.

Hassan Hanafi: Islam is nothing else except a free choice between being a good Jew and a good Christian: following the law of Moses or following love of our neighbour like Jesus and a Muslim is this one who has that freedom of choice.

Maybe nowadays – and I know very well the spirit in the West – there is a certain kind of failure of nerve nowadays. Can Islam now come to help to give the Western civilisations at the end of modern times a new impetus, a new courage, a new universalism?

Margaret Coffey: Hassan Hanafi will be hearing from Zainah Anwar - who will also be at that library table in Alexandria –about the future of Islam being worked out at home, in Malaysia, on the ground of feminist critique and Malaysian political debate.

Zainah Anwar: In the end for me, those who demand the establishment of an Islamic state and the imposition of Islamic law as conceptualised traditionally, must ask themselves: why should Malaysians want an Islamic state which asserts different rights for Muslim men, different rights for Muslim women and non-Muslims and minorities, rather than equal rights for all? Why would those whose equal status and rights are recognised by a democratic system support the creation of such a discriminatory Islamic state? If an Islamic state means an authoritarian theocratic political system that enforces gender-based doctrinal and legal rulings, and silences or even eliminates those who challenge its authority and its interpretation of Islam, then why would those whose fundamental liberties are protected by a democratic state support such an Islamic state?

Muslims need the intellectual vigour, the moral courage, and political will to open the doors of ijtihad and publicly engage in defining and redefining our understanding and our knowledge of Islam in our search for answers to deal with the challenges of ever changing times and circumstances. This is not heretical, but an imperative if religion is to remain relevant to our lives today.

Margaret Coffey: And on the table, before everyone gathered in Alexandria next week, will be the Iranian experiment – now moving it seems towards some fateful moment.

Mahmoud Sadri: The catastrophic eventuality would be for the clerical establishment that as I told you has about ten to fifteen per cent of the population but has all the levels of power – it has the military, armed forces, it has the monopoly of radio and television, it has the judiciary and it has the supervisory council that oversee the laws that are passed by the parliament. If these people do not budge, do not see the writing on the wall, that one way or another, true reform will have to come to Iran and that would mean for them to give up a lot of their real political and economic powers. If they do not relent on this issue, I am afraid there is only one way for this change to take place and that would be the violent way. Everybody I know in Iran, the entire reform movement is dedicated to avoiding it. But with more and more clarity and I had numerous discussions with my friends about this, people are resigned to that cataclysmic or catastrophic change if the peaceful change is blocked.

Zainah Anwar: I must be hopeful! I’m going to Alexandria and attending a meeting in the library …….

Margaret Coffey: Zainah Anwar was speaking at the University of Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Asia Centre – in the Soul of Islam free public lecture series organised by the Asialink Centre and the Melbourne Institute of Asian Languages and Societies.

Hassan Hanafi: I am in contact with the youth everywhere, in all the Muslim world, and I feel the sense of frustration which exists in them.

Margaret Coffey: Hassan Hanafi addressed a conference on “Islam and the West: the impact of September 11” sponsored by Monash University and the University of Western Australia.

Mahmoud Sadri: We are after the same values, and the reason is that we are going through the same transformations of the society.

Margaret Coffey: Mahmoud Sadri has edited and translated articles by Abdolkarim Soroush, published by Oxford University Press as Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam. The conference – Contemporary Islamic Synthesis – will take place on the 4 October at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt.

Technical production by Melissa May. I’m Margaret Coffey.

Next week Encounter focuses on ethics and a conundrum that faces those of us involved in political activism on behalf of others: we support their cause, but to what extent do we need to understand or even identify with their world view for that support to be meaningful? That’s a programme in Encounter’s Ethos series next week.

Further information:

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt



The Sidney Myer Asia Centre - University of Melbourne



The Indigenous and the Imported: Khatami’s Iran
Article by Patrick Smith,The Washington Quarterly 23.2 pp35-53.



Iran: An Islamic Experiment



The Landscape of Factional Politics in Iran
Article by Hossein Seifzadeh, Middle East Institute.




Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam
Author: (ed) Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New York


Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam: A Reader
Author: (ed) Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2002


Musical Items:

Dance of Wind
CD Title: Over the Wind
Artist: Ardavan Kamkar
Label/CD No: Traditional Crossroads 80702-4300-2


Margaret Coffey




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