CAIR vs. Islamic Reform?

The St. Petersburg Declaration, issued at the Secular Islam Summit in St. Petersburg, Florida, last week, is the most comprehensive and forthright statement of Islamic reform anyone has yet managed to come up with. Confronting directly the elements of Islamic Sharia law that are at variance with otherwise generally accepted principles of human rights, it affirms “the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience,” in contrast to the Muslim prophet Muhammad’s dictum, “If somebody (a Muslim) discards his religion, kill him” (Bukhari 4.52.260), and calls upon governments to “oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostasy.”

Challenging jihadist aspirations to establish a unified Islamic state under the rule of Sharia, the Declaration states: “We insist upon the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights.”

Anticipating criticism, the Declaration adds: “We see no colonialism, racism, or so-called ‘Islamaphobia’ in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights.”

But some do — notably the Council on American Islamic Relations. CAIR’s Ahmed Bedier huffed, “In order to have legitimate reform, you need to have the right messengers.” In an editorial, Investor’s Business Daily gave the perfect response to this: “And who might that be? The four CAIR executives who have been successfully prosecuted on terrorism-related charges? The CAIR co-founder who said the Quran should replace the U.S. Constitution as ‘the highest authority in America’?”

Bedier complained that the Summit was funded by “neoconservatives,” and objected to the Secular Islam Summit because it featured many ex-Muslims. But CAIR’s opposition to the Summit may offer one hint as to why they felt they had to leave the fold. As Tawfik Hamid, author of The Roots of Jihad, told Bedier on the Glenn Beck show, “The truth should be independent of whoever says it.”

That fact seems to have eluded CAIR, as it eludes many these days. Its denunciations of the Secular Islam Summit have focused on speakers there, not on the message. And unfortunately, no journalist has had the presence of mind or the courage to ask any CAIR official point-blank what he or she actually thinks of the content of the St. Petersburg Declaration.

The Council on American Islamic Relations bills itself as “America’s largest Islamic civil liberties group” and claims that “its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” The mainstream media and even many government and law enforcement officials accept it as a moderate group. CAIR officials have worked with the FBI and other organizations at the highest levels.

Yet suspicions persist about the group, due not only to the terror convictions of several of its former officials and the questionable statements of some of its spokesmen, but because it always seems to be on the opposing side of anti-terror efforts, as well as of any honest attempt to examine and reform the elements of Islam that jihadists are using to justify violence today.

In light of all that, the St. Petersburg Declaration offers CAIR a golden opportunity to demonstrate the genuineness of its claim to moderation. Shouldn’t a sincere group of Islamic moderates jump at the chance to oppose “female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage”?

Shouldn’t CAIR endorse a statement calling for protection of “sexual and gender minorities from persecution and violence”? Isn’t CAIR dedicated to protecting “civil liberties”? And as for the developing of “an open public sphere in which all matters may be discussed without coercion or intimidation,” wouldn’t such a public atmosphere help CAIR “encourage dialogue” and “build coalitions”?

Such an endorsement would go a long way toward reassuring people that CAIR is indeed what it presents itself to be, and not a group whose goals are, in fact, quite different from those of the St. Petersburg Declaration.

Reporters should be asking CAIR’s Nihad Awad and Ibrahim Hooper this week: do you endorse the St. Petersburg Declaration? And if not, why not? Tell us what you think of the principles expressed and statements made in it. Let the dialogue begin.