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Religious Correctness and the Qur'an

by Paul Kurtz

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 22, Number 1.

The basic principles of free inquiry upon which this magazine was founded were first published in “The Secular Humanist Declaration,” (FI, Winter 1980). This Declaration was issued during a period when the so-called Moral Majority was making a strong bid for political influence in the United States. The Religious Right considered patriotism synonymous with the Christian (or the Judćo-Christian) faith; it wrapped the flag around the Bible; and it sought to breach the separation of church and state. We maintained that free inquiry should be applied to all areas of human interest, including the Bible, which was used to justify their ideological positions.

The same principles of free inquiry, in our view, should be extended to the Qur’an. Unfortunately, given today’s climate of religious correctness, people are reluctant to examine the foundations of Islam or to ask what the Qur’an really says, let alone subject it to critical scrutiny.

The events of September 11th have tragically pointed out the urgent need for such an inquiry. President Bush said, following the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, that we are at “war with terrorism,” and in an off-the-cuff remark he termed it “a crusade”! Some militant Muslims construed this to mean an attack on Islam itself, reminiscent of the Christian Crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and they warned that they would launch a jihad, or holy war, against Christians and Jews. These were the words of Osama bin Laden, whom Bush has blamed for the terrorist attacks in the United States; the same was said by the ragged minions of the Taliban. President Bush also cautioned that we have no quarrel with the Muslim religion per se, but only with terrorists. He also said that Islam is a “religion of peace.”

Is this the case? Does Islam condone or even encourage violence? We have long argued that there exists an abysmal ignorance of the sacred texts and traditions of Islam and a paucity of critical literature on the subject. Yet militant Muslims have appealed to the Qur’an and Hadith (the traditions, or commentaries) in order to justify the slaughter of innocent people. Clearly most Muslims are either unaware of their scriptures’ implications, or do not accept them. Yet fundamentalists have based their acts of vengeance on these sources.

The Council for Secular Humanism, publisher of Free Inquiry, has encouraged the development of the Institute for the Secularization of Islamic Societies (ISIS) (www.secularislam.org). Led by Ibn Warraq, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, ISIS presents responsible criticism of Islamic beliefs. The importance of this inquiry is all the clearer today given the conflict that has erupted—not only in Afghanistan, but in various parts of the world, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

In an editorial that I wrote in Free Inquiry (Spring 1993) “Has a Third World War with Islam Begun?” I pointed to the many flash points that had then erupted: Iraq, Iran, Somalia, the Sudan, Kashmir, India, Bosnia, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, and Turkey. Since 1993 many other conflicts have broken out in other parts of the world, from Nigeria to Kosovo, Chechenya, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere—led in no small part by Muslim fundamentalist terrorists who have sought to establish Muslim theocracies based on sharia law.

Islamic fundamentalism has become an expansionist force all over the globe; Muslim militants are on the march. This is not to deny that some of the 48 Muslim countries are moderate, and indeed would like, if it were possible, to develop secular regimes; but they are apprehensive of the fundamentalists among their own people. Unfortunately, the basic tenets of Islam can be interpreted to support terrorism. For example, criticism of Islam is forbidden, and is punishable by death, as in the fatwas issued against Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasrin. Islam also condemns blasphemy. Dr. Younus Shaikh (a humanist) has been sentenced to death earlier this year by a Pakistani court for blasphemy (he said he doubted that the parents of Mohammed were Muslims since they died when he was very young). And there are hundreds of other cases of blasphemy. The most dreadful crime in Islam is unbelief, and especially apostasy for former Muslims, again punishable by death. The jihad (or holy war) can be launched whenever Islam is threatened. The young Muslim men who slammed airplanes into the Trade Towers, killing thousands of innocent civilians, did so in the name of Allah. Martyrdom is justified, they believed, if it will defend the faith against infidels, and each of the murderers of innocent thousands will be rewarded by an eternity in paradise with 72 virgins (this apparently has its source in the Hadith).

Are these interpretations correct, and can they be justified on textual grounds? I think that a case can be made that they are; but if so, we need to engage in a full-scale inquiry and dialogue with our Muslim colleagues and friends, particularly those who live in the United States and in other the democratic societies of the West—Britain, Canada, France, Germany, etc.

To live in these countries implies that citizens and residents will respect the civic virtues of democracy. Basic to these are freedom of conscience: the right to dissent from any religious, political, philosophical, or moral viewpoint. This implies that the government should be secular, and not favor one religion or sect among others. We surely welcome the millions of Muslim citizens in our midst. But we expect that they will learn to appreciate the principles underlying American democracy, including the right to freedom of conscience and free inquiry.

Many Muslims have denied that Islam is a religion of violence or compulsion. If so, then they should renounce the traditions referenced above and the fatwas against dissenters, critics, blasphemers, and unbelievers. After all, Christians and Jews reject or ignore many Biblical passages which ordain death for witches, homosexuals, bastards, adulterers, etc. Why not the same Reformation for modern-day Islam? Why not bring Islam into the modern world?

Whether the advocates of “religious correctness” like it or not, a debate about the true meaning of Islam has opened up. Islam, in my view, needs its own Reformation; it needs to respect the right to engage in Koranic criticism and to question its foundations, without fear of death or destruction, rights now accepted throughout the democratic world.

A New American Junta?
Civil Liberties and Military Tribunals

In its haste to protect the American people against terrorists, real or imagined, present or future, many in the George W. Bush administration have demanded that our traditional civil liberties be abridged. Security, we are admonished, must take precedence over liberty.

We do not deny the fact that open democratic societies need to protect themselves against terrorists. Everyone grants that tight security at airports is vital. Similarly, intelligence agencies need to monitor those who are likely to pose a threat. Thus a case can be made that some wire taps of cell phones and e-mail are reasonable methods of protection.

I think we need to dissent, however, from many of the provisions which were rushed through the United States Congress in the Act labeled "USA Patriot." Attorney General John Ashcroft and the White House stampeded Congress and the American people into adopting this anti-terrorism bill. From many accounts, most legislators did not even have a chance even to read the final version of the bill, much less deliberate before adopting it with very little dissent. The anthrax scare (whose culprits have not yet been found) closed down Congress just as the bill was being considered. There was no debate and no amendments were permitted.

The bill, in my judgment, seriously compromises the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution which limits search and seizure. I don't see why federal judges cannot examine the requests and issue warrants with dispatch prior to searches or wiretaps, and thus not violate the Fourth Amendment. The legislation also compromises the Sixth Amendment, which concerns procedures for trying accused persons (please see attached box). Reports indicate that anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 people of Middle Eastern origin have been detained. We still don't know the names of most of them, nor the charges against them. Moreover, the bill enables the government to monitor conversations between selected inmates and their lawyers, thus compromising the client-lawyer relationship. The Constitution clearly states that accused shall have the assistance of counsel for defense.

Even more ominous than the anti-terrorism bill is the "military order" signed by President Bush as Commander in Chief and issued on November 13, 2001, on "the detention, treatment, and trial of noncitizens." At the time this editorial went to press, the order was not discussed by members of the Congress, nor was there any effort to seek Congressional approval. Nor has the Congress declared war. The order authorizes noncitizens to be tried before military tribunals composed of officers of the armed forces. Accused persons can be tried in secret, and if convicted by a two-thirds majority of those presiding, they can be executed. No grand-jury indictment is required, as specified in the first part of the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, nor is there the right of appeal.

Some members of the administration have said that noncitizens "do not deserve" equal protection of the laws. According to Vice President Richard Cheney, "where military justice is called for, military justice will be dispensed." This claim is astonishing. In my view the Constitution applies to all people within the United States, not simply to citizens. I have not seen any passages excluding the millions of aliens, immigrants, residents, or tourists from constitutional protection. The military tribunal thus clearly violates the Sixth Amendment and part of the Fifth.

The real question concerns the phrase "individuals subject to this order" (please see section II, in the attached box). These provisions may be so broadly construed that innocent persons might be accused, tried, and executed in secret by kangaroo courts without any constitutional protections. These tribunals are to be selected by the Secretary of Defense. The individuals who come under the order are selected by the president (and members of his entourage) who will determine who is to be tried. The fear is that this power may be abused, or so widely applied so that anyone merely said to aid, abet, conspire, or harbor terrorists can be brought before a military tribunal in secret with no indictment by a grand jury, found guilty, and summarily executed. Where do you draw the line and who is to say who is guilty or innocent before a trial?

Chillingly, some have said that these tribunals will not only operate overseas, but in the United States itself. We call upon the Congress to hold extensive hearings on the limits of presidential power. How can the American people protect itself from tyranny by a military junta? We need to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment VI (1791) In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Section II. Individuals Subject to This Order, from Executive Order of November 13, 2001. (a) The term "individual subject to this order" shall mean any individual who is not a United States citizen with respect to whom I determine from time to time in writing that: (1)there is reason to believe that such individual, at the relevant times, (i)is or was a member of the organization known as al Qaeda; (ii)has engaged in, aided or abetted, or conspired to commit, acts of international terrorism, or acts in preparation therefor, that may have caused, threaten to cause, or have as their aim to cause, injury to or adverse effects on the United States, its citizens, national security, foreign policy, or economy; or (iii)has knowingly harbored one or more individuals . . . (2)it is in the interest of the United States that such individual be subject to this order.

Amendment IV (1791) The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V (1791) No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger. . . .

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

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