Muslims call meeting to discuss intolerance
ATLANTA — About 75 activists, educators, students and others gathered this weekend to discuss what they see as a “crisis over the intolerance of difference” in the Muslim faith.
During the three-day Celebration of Heresy Conference, panelists debated such issues as sharia, critical thinking and democracy and Islam — issues organizers of the conference say are central to Islamic reform, but which Muslims are not free to discuss within many contemporary Islamic societies.
Abdullahi An-Na’im, a professor at Emory University’s School of Law and co-organizer of the conference, which he said was a grassroots, spontaneous initiative grown from a concern that the Islamic tradition of open debate has narrowed.
“Heresy is creative,” An-Na’im said. “It reaffirms the need to create space for disagreement. If our religious values are strong, heresy will not hurt us. If they are weak, heresy will remind us what we need to be doing.”
The topic of democracy and Islam was debated for more than an hour on Saturday. An-Na’im pointed to factors like poverty, a lack of education and under- development as reasons why democracy has not taken root in more Muslim-based societies around the world.
“Islam is not the problem,” he said. “If Islam is consistent with Democracy, why are most Muslim societies not Democratic? The religion is not opposed to it.”
Fereydoun Taslimi, a Muslim activist in Atlanta, said that not many Middle Eastern countries can claim that they are operating under a representative form of government, with theocracy or less inclusive elections being the order of the day. Ensuring certain rights — like equality between the sexes and freedom of speech — can be attained through democracy.
An-Na’im said that Muslims must figure out how to legitimize and reinforce Democratic values from an Islamic perspective.
Taslimi said the goal of the conference is to connect more like-minded Muslims so that discussions like those happening this weekend can happen more often. He said that emotional reactions by Muslims to minor issues have been a distraction and that more criticism and self-reflection is needed in the faith.
“It is a cry ... that there is something wrong and we need to do something,” Taslimi said. “We want to create a network of people who are willing to discuss different issues to the end that they can address subjects that may have been taboo.”
The Heresy Conference continues through Sunday.