Monday, November 12, 2007

The Secular Society and Its Enemies - The Closing

As with the day before, I was a bit late in getting up and ended up catching the 9:16 train to Penn Station this morning. Consequently, I caught just the tail end of the morning's first panel, titled Secularism: The Next Generation. Among the panelists was the aforementioned Matthew LaClair, along with Anthony Smith, Sarah Stone, Justin Trottier, and Nica Lalli, author of Nothing: Something to Believe In. The panel moderator was CFI's Derek Araujo, who I thought bore a passing resemblance to Lieutenant Gaeta on Battlestar Galactica.

Next up was probably one of the most famous lawyers in America today, Alan Dershowitz. The topic of his address came from two of his recent books, one on Thomas Jefferson, and another which I later bought titled Blasphemy: How the Religious Right is Hijacking Our Declaration of Independence. Dershowitz told the audience at the outset that he did not want to get involved over the argument as to whether or not god exists. He described his own Jewish upbringing and how sees himself as being in the tradition of secular Judaism. Dershowitz said that he did not want to live in a society where religion was condemned and marginalized, but instead wanted a separation of church and state.

Dershowitz talked about how the Founding Fathers, contrary to the myths put out by conservatives, did not establish the United States as an explicitly Christian nation, and that the Declaration was not America's "baptismal certificate". The Declaration of Independence, though it makes reference to Nature's God and Divine Providence, never once mentioned the god of the Bible or Jesus Christ. And as for the Constitution, it is an explicitly godless constitution, and the only place where religion is mentioned at all is in the section where it mentions that there shall be no religious test for holding public office.

After Dershowitz concluded his remarks and fielded several questions from the audience, he agreed to stay for a while for a book signing in the lobby. I rushed out to buy Blasphemy and got in line, and just as the day before, found myself next to young Matt LeClair and his family. The camera was again on him as it was the day before when LaClair was speaking with Neil deGrasse Tyson. I stayed back a bit when it was finally Matt's turn to get his book signed, so I don't really know what they said to each other. Matt was the final questioner in the conference room moments earlier and Dershowitz had praised his courage for exposing what his teacher had done.

After getting Dershowitz to sign my copy of his book, I roamed around the lobby area and found Adam and Shalini. Shalini suggested that we three bloggers get our picture together, and a helpful young man standing near us graciously agreed to take three pictures of us, one for each of our cameras. The man in the center below with the red eyes is yours truly.

And just moments after this picture was taken, the sound of a man's shouting caught our attention. One of the conference attendees was loudly proclaiming to all within earshot about Dershowitz's advocacy of torture. I made my way around to the other side and snapped a shot of Dershowitz responding to the accusations of the man, who appears to the far left, by saying that his argument for torture warrants was a way to bring accountability to the process of torture, which he believes is justifiable in certain limited cases.

After the verbal fireworks subsided, it was on to the last panel of the day, Secularism and Islam: The Next Islamic Enlightenment, moderated by CFI's Austin Dacey. The panelists were Paul Berman and Tawfik Hamid, who was involved for a while with militant jihadism in his younger days in Egypt. Ibn Warraq, an author and intellectual who left the Islamic faith, was also supposed to be among the panelists, but Dacey informed us that he had taken ill and could not attend.

Dacey opened the discussion by talking about Ibn Warraq's claim that there were three Islams. Islam One was the Quran, the Hadith, and the biographies of Muhammed, Islam Two was the interpretation of these texts, and Islam Three was how Muslims practiced Islam. According to Ibn Warraq, the problem was Islam Three, how the religion was practiced. Hamid disagreed with that, arguing that in fact the problem was with Islam Two, how the texts were interpreted. He related a personal anecdote. When he was younger, he read a Quranic verse that mentioned that infidels should be killed. He had a Christian girl as a neighbor, and he thought that as a good Muslim, it should be his religious duty to kill her. Seeking affirmation, he went to his local mosque, and the imam, a Sufi, told him that the verse needed to be seen in its context of its time, and that it should be read as the infidel at that time in history should be killed, and not that it was not intended to be a license to kill non-Muslims.

The panel discussion was most notable for its disagreement between Berman and Hamid. Berman argued that the rise of today's Islamic militancy can be traced back to the Post World War One period when a number of movements hostile to liberalism arose such as Bolshevism, Fascism, and Nazism, and that movements like the Muslim Brotherhood were inspired by and very much in the tradition of these movements. Hamid disagreed, contending that that is something that has always been within Islam.

Dacey asked Hamid if the militant or Salafist Muslims could be engaged in dialogue and Hamid argued that no, they could not be spoken with because they are so committed to their cause. If they believe that they are carrying out god's work as written in the Quran, then what grounds could there be for compromise or understanding? Berman shot back that Hamid himself is living proof that jihadists can change their minds. Hamid retorted that his own father was an atheist and his mother was a French teacher, so his background played a part in causing him to question the path he was on.

Hamid also responded to Dacey's question as to whether it was true that Arabs were oppressed, such as the Palestinians. Hamid got quite animated and he said that when you look at the freedom that Muslims in America have to worship and how well they are doing economically, whereas on the other hand in countries like Saudi Arabia non-Muslim faiths are forbidden. I don't recall his exact words on this matter. Hamid, in regard to Iraq, seems to partake in the Iraq as Terrorist Flypaper theory as a reason why there have been no terrorist attacks in America. Personally, I am unconconvinced, as our military presences in Iraq does not act as a barrier to preventing jihadists from coming here.

The panel then opened up to audience questions. Adam got to ask the first question directed to Hamid. Adam asked Hamid how to militarily defeat the jihadist ideology when it was not a centralized movement. I don't recall the specifics of Hamid's answer. I was in line behind Adam, though I first had to wait for questioners at the other two microphones to get their turn. When my turn came, I mentioned how Islamic fundamentalists seem to thrive in societies where there is a breakdown in civil society through government corruption and a failure to provied basic social services. I mentioned that Ayaan Hirsi Ali had also made this observation in her book Infidel. I concluded by asking to what degree, if any, American foreign policy could address this problem. Hamid acknowledged the point and said that what needs to be pointed out is that the Islamic militants, while purporting to address poverty actually make it worse. As an example, Hamid mentioned the murder of tourists in Egypt some years ago and how it harmed Egypt's economy because fewer foreigners visited and spent money in Egypt.

Mine was the last question and the conference was concluded. All in all I thought it was a worthwhile event with many engaging and interesting speakers, and I look forward to attending future CFI conferences in New York City.


Ebonmuse said...

Nice post. You took better notes than me!

As I recall, Tawfik Hamid's answer to my question was that the jihadists do have authority figures - people like Osama bin Laden, who are leaders of the movement in spirit if not in direct control. He said that if we can defeat or capture them, it may be possible for the lower-level terrorists to be cowed.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Nice reports, Tommy. I feel like I was actually there. Between you and Adam, you've saved me a bunch of money, on train tickets, conference fees, hotels and meals. So, Thanks!

Tommy said...

Hey SI, Adam and I are glad we saved you the money.

Hi Adam, yes, that jibes with my recollections. I had several questions I wanted to ask Hamid and until the end of the panel I wasn't sure which one to ask. I was a little annoyed that Berman didn't address my remarks and instead went off on the Netherlands pulling Ayaan Hirsi Ali's security.

Rhology said...

Dang that would've been fun.
That's one of the problems with living in Flyover Country.