ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A group of reformists from Muslim societies who have become accustomed to death threats upped the ante yesterday with a declaration they hope will spark a popular movement across the Islamic world to “fight back” against fundamentalist interpreters of the faith.

Secularists such as Ibn Warraq, Nonie Darwish and Irshad Manji helped formulate the “St. Petersburg Declaration,” which seeks to do no less than eliminate traditional understandings and practices of Islam that conflict with universally accepted human rights.

Nonie Darwish

Darwish, who read the statement in Arabic – others presented it in English, Bengali and Farsi – believes the statement will resonate with untold millions.

“You cannot believe the hunger of Muslims to hear what we’re saying right now,” said Darwish, a native of Egypt and a founder

of “At least 50 percent will tell us, you are right, but don’t reveal my name. They are so scared to speak out. To live in the Middle East and say what we’re saying is a death sentence.”

Darwish was among the speakers at the two-day Secular Islam Summit in St. Petersburg, which culminated with the declaration. The conference was held in conjunction with the Intelligence Summit, a non-profit education forum.

Warraq, who uses a pseudonym because of death threats that followed his book “Why I am not a Muslim,” abandoned Islam and considers himself an agnostic. Manji, author of the bestseller “The Trouble with Islam,” sees herself as both a committed Muslim and a free thinker.

In the statement, the signatories identify as “believers, doubters, and unbelievers, brought together by a great struggle, not between the West and Islam, but between the free and the unfree.”

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

Already, they have been criticized by the head of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ahmed Bedier, who dismissed the framers of the declaration as atheists and agnostics, not true Muslims.

“They don’t speak for us,” Darwish said in response during a question and answer session at the conference. “CAIR represents the best interests of radical Islam.”

CAIR casts itself as a mainstream defender of the civil rights of Muslims, but critics point out the group was formed as a spinoff of the Islamic Association for Palestine, identified by two former FBI counter-terrorism chiefs as a front for Hamas in the U.S.

Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch and author of “The Truth About Muhammad,” told WND he “wholeheartedly” applauds the declaration and wishes success for it and its sponsors.

“I do believe, unfortunately, that the prospects for its widespread acceptance among Muslims today are dim,” he said.

Nevertheless, Spencer said the statement “gives Muslims who reject the ideology of Islamic supremacism something around which they can rally, and that may allow for larger movements for genuine Islamic reform than we have seen up to now.”

Darwish believes the declaration will have a long life, growing “like wildfire” as “signature after signature” is added to it, but she acknowledged if there will be any change, it won’t come soon.

“This is the infancy stage of a revolution in the Muslim world. To achieve our goal is going to take generations,” said Darwish, whose father, the head of Egyptian military intelligence in Gaza, was assassinated in 1956 when she was 8 years old.

The declaration calls on the governments of the world to:

  • reject Sharia law, fatwa courts, clerical rule, and state-sanctioned religion in all their forms; oppose all penalties for blasphemy and apostasy, in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights;

  • eliminate practices, such as female circumcision, honor killing, forced veiling, and forced marriage, that further the oppression of women; protect sexual and gender minorities from persecution and violence;

  • reform sectarian education that teaches intolerance and bigotry towards non-Muslims;

  • and foster an open public sphere in which all matters may be discussed without coercion or intimidation.

The declaration calls on “academics and thinkers everywhere to embark on a fearless examination of the origins and sources of Islam, and to promulgate the ideals of free scientific and spiritual inquiry through cross-cultural translation, publishing, and the mass media.”

“We say to Muslim believers: there is a noble future for Islam as a personal faith, not a political doctrine; to Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, and all members of non-Muslim faith communities: we stand with you as free and equal citizens; and to nonbelievers: we defend your unqualified liberty to question and dissent.”

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