Skepticism creates a space in which free thinking — and often, human rights and freedoms — begin to thrive. Culture and media may be the catalyst for skepticism — and scientific thinking — to take off in more and more of the Islamic world. This may be one of the greatest challenges today, and one worth boldly exploring.
As a child, I had an early passion for science. Eventually, a passion for culture and language took hold as well. I started teaching myself the beautiful Arabic language and much of the Quran in my teens. My time with the Army Special Warfare community, experiences in Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, and a longtime passion for social science, cultural immersion, anthropology, and languages has led me down quite a strange road. During my second Iraq tour, the seeds of an enduring question were planted and I’ve been exploring it ever since: can we see an arc of freedom, science and moral progress across Islamic societies like Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia or Iraq? Many others and I have argued that it would need to be one that is Muslim-owned, rather than imposed by outsiders; one that is inclusive of minorities within Islam; and, which is able to adequately capture the relatively humane coexistence of religious faith and secular freedoms seen in a pluralistic society.
Since 2006, I have been advocating that people here in Western, secular societies can work productively with activists and liberals in Islamic societies. Specifically, to support movements, and amplify brave voices of reason, science, and skeptical thinking, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This includes voices in support of freedom, tolerance and pluralism, led by local actors — including women, and women’s movements. People who finally have an emerging, collective voice, can have their reach and resonance increasingly amplified by the powers of the internet, YouTube, television, radio, and social media. This would primarily be locally owned and bottom-up, not paternalistic or top-down. It would revolve around a love of knowledge, free inquiry, intellectual curiosity and a basic recognition of the value, dignity and worth of the individual human person.
Many Muslim thinkers, activists, and reformers (such as Irshad Manji, Usama Hasan, Mubin Shaikh, Mona Eltahawy, Malala Yousafzai, Asra Nomani, Maajid Nawaz, Sayyid Al-Qemany, Abdolkarim Saroush, and many others) advocate for a kind of Islam that is compatible with basic rights and freedoms [1,2]. Alongside this, atheism, agnosticism and skepticism is rapidly growing in places like the Middle East and North Africa . Women’s movements are seeking more space to thrive, or even exist for the first time [4,5]. Additionally, many in secular societies — through a solidarity with these voices on the ground — are increasingly supporting this growing “idea space.” This means helping these thinkers and activists with the resources to support their endeavors, their global conversations, and their security, cyber and media networks.
A convergence among the wider science and reason community, on the topic of supporting dissidents, liberals, reformers and women’s movements across Islamic societies, may be the best way to amplify the reach of these voices. This could include a sharing of the best ideas and tools for wider, multifaceted support, tailored to work effectively through the medium of language, culture and complex social realities.
We have seen examples of this model in action. Movements was created [6,7] as an online “horizontal platform” — a crowdsourcing model — to directly link activists and thinkers in closed societies with the resources available in free societies. Imagine a similar crowdsourcing platform for supporting local science and reason movements and voices across the Muslim world. A shared effort in creating, nurturing and supporting intellectual environments in which the seeds of curiosity and skepticism can grow, and in which the best ideas of human freedom, pluralism and tolerance for Muslims to live and practice their faith can thrive.
We (or those of us in secular societies) should rightly be skeptical of imposing ideas from the top down, as outsiders. While far from being Utopian, there exists a deep and wide reservoir of science and reason within periods of Islamic history, such as the Abbasid Period and the House of Wisdom in Baghdad . There is also an encouraging plethora of ideas, writings and voices that colors the human and intellectual landscape of the Islamic world today. From the university to the street corner and city cafe, and across the vast expanse of the internet and blogosphere, a massive media and science campaign of moral progress is arguably possible, even alongside the complex linguistic and cultural terrain of different parts of the world.
Liberal Muslims such as Maajid Nawaz point to arguments and movements  for secular freedoms in the Muslim world, supported by existing spiritual and intellectual traditions within Islam itself. Theocracies are corrupt and hypocritical [10,11], while secular freedom allows a safe “exchange space” for Islam’s plurality of interpretations and voices to peacefully thrive. Countless people in the Muslim world — especially in the more closed societies — are hungry for knowledge, for learning, for teaching, for dialogue, and for a revival of science and philosophy. Many feel that a secular model is possible for much of the Middle East, adapted to local culture.
From the standpoint of social psychology and cultural sensitivity, such efforts must be pursued realistically, in a way that is not primarily seen as an outsider threat to Muslim identity . This applies especially to (what we often call) Enlightenment or Jeffersonian ideals of secularism, as a protection of religious diversity and the freedom for a plurality of ideas and interpretations (such as those embodied within Islam) to exist. This core idea is far more likely to take root within Muslim-led movements, and across societies, if it is inculcated in a way that is locally owned, and felt to be harmonious with Islamic identity and “being Muslim.”
This brings us to the question of how skepticism in other cultures and societies can take off. And it is this task that faces many of today’s liberal Muslims and dissident thinkers. Creating and supporting intellectual spaces where the core values and ideas of scientific thinking, pluralism, and human rights can be safely pursued, in a locally owned and culturally resonant way, is critical. Respect for psychology and human nuance is critical. Research (including that behind Peter Boghossian’s “street epistemology,” such as ) in cognitive and moral psychology shows  that people are more likely to expand their views or change their mind from a “position of safety,” when ideas are not perceived to be an attack on their person, their tribe, their identity or way of life. Hence, many dissidents and liberal Muslims are looking to examine and support versions of Islam in which more and more people across Islamic societies can nest these core ideals and scientific values. Even many staunch anti-theists are admitting that this is an ideal starting point. Regardless of how one feels on this, we should all look at how supporting science movements can be a step in the right direction.
Faisal Saeed al-Mutar, an Iraqi former refugee and recipient of Obama’s Volunteer Service Award, points to locally homegrown movements and projects within these countries, for the grassroots watering of science, skepticism and scientific thinking. Iraq, for example, has such movements  (Iraqi youth promoting evolutionary theory and rational thought, in hopes of helping save their country), and they can only keep growing. Many secular thinkers and Muslim scholars also point to the Abbasid Golden Age and the Mu’tazila ( المعتزلة ) school of Islamic theology , where we see a much greater flexibility and “idea space” for reason, scientific thinking, rational argument and moral progress. Muslim feminist, reformer and author Irshad Manji, advocates  a non-military campaign to (as she stated) “re-discover our traditional critical thinking”:
“We urgently need an ‘Operation Ijtihad’. Islam was not always so close-minded. During the ‘Golden age’ — between the 9th and 11th century — there existed a tradition of critical thinking in the Muslim world. For example in Cordoba in Spain there existed 70 libraries. Cordoba took its place as one of the most cultural centers of the medieval world. The height of Muslim learning in Europe was reached during the time of philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) in the 12th century. Ijtihad is the Islamic tradition of critical thinking and independent reasoning. Now we have to re-discover it precisely to update Islam for the 21st century.”
Looking inwardly helps ask the right questions: does our own history give us insight about this arc of progress? An example can be found in the Civil Rights struggle, something Michael Shermer has researched extensively in his book The Moral Arc: How Science Makes Us Better People. In the mid twentieth century, segregation was privately disliked (even detested) by many, but relatively few were actually aware of this. When more people’s private inclinations came to light (breaking out of what social psychology refers to as pluralistic ignorance), more and more people to come out to join the voices of like-minded people.
A similar effect can occur across Islamic societies and communities. We already see the undoing of pluralistic ignorance within some of these societies. It is arguably unraveling in early stages, through the viral spreading of the #ExMuslimBecause hashtag. For the first time, ex-Muslims were able to come out, anonymously, and speak honestly about the suffocating wall of silence built around them by the brick and mortar of religious and social taboos associated with leaving Islam. It not only allowed ex-Muslims to speak out and see how prevalent they were all over the world, but it also created a space for liberal Muslims to support them, by speaking out in favor of better treatment for them. It was an early stage recognition of their fundamental rights as dignified human beings.
As more ideas spread across barriers and as social taboos lift and more speak out, we see this “conversation space” widen. The increasingly creative, skilled and nuanced use of old and new media and cyber tools can greatly accelerate this catalytic spark. It can do so by breaking geographic barriers, fostering safer conversation platforms, and multiplying the reach and resonance of ideas and voices.
I leave readers — and the wider science and skepticism community — with a question to ponder, and reflect on. Can this be a starting point of shared solidarity across secular and Muslim communities, around which we can start to build a launch pad, and an unprecedented “incubator” for reason? How such a campaign of moral and scientific progress within Islamic societies can occur, working alongside the social terrain features and cultural contingencies across our human geography, is a project that should perhaps become as humbly sought after as our mission to Mars. Perhaps a peaceful arms race of skepticism and freethinking across many Islamic societies, locally driven and intelligently supported, can create an environment in which human rights and freedoms can thrive. How can we support this? What are the best tools? This is a question worth exploring, together. In humble solidarity with skeptics and dissidents around the world.
- Packer, George (11 September 2006).“The Moderate Martyr – A radically peaceful vision of Islam.”. New Yorker.
- Gjelten, Tom. 28 January 2016.“Muslim Leaders Vow To Protect Rights Of Religious Minorities”. National Public Radio.
- Whitaker, B. 29 June 2015. The Rise of Arab Atheism. Link: https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/4898/the-rise-of-arab-atheism
- Langendorf, M. May 29, 2013. The Middle East: Fighting for Women’s Rights. Fair Observer. Link: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.fairobserver.com/region/middle_east_north_africa/middle-east-fighting-for-womens-rights/amp/
- Alami, Aida. March 16, 2014. Gender Inequality in Morocco Continues, Despite Amendments to Family Law. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/17/world/africa/gender-inequality-in-morocco-continues-despite-amendments-to-family-law.html?_r=0
- Shane, Scott (June 11, 2012). “Groups to Help Online Activists in Authoritarian Countries”. The New York Times.
- March 17, 2015. David Keyes and Sam Harris. Crowdsourcing Human Freedoms. Samharris.org. Link: https://www.samharris.org/blog/item/crowdsourcing-freedom
- Meri, Joseph; Bacharach, Jere. 2006. Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, ISBN 0415966906
- Nawaz, Maajid. November 18, 2015. Je Suis Muslim: How Universal Secular Rights Protect Muslim Communities the Most. BigThink.com. Link: https://www.google.com/amp/bigthink.com/videos/maajid-nawaz-on-islamic-reform.amp
- Egyptians protest award to controversial writer alarabiya.net, 13 July 2009. Accessed 23-September 2009
- Warraq, Ibn. July 2008. Democracy vs Theocracy. New English Review. Link: http://www.newenglishreview.org/Ibn_Warraq/Democracy_Versus_Theocracy/
- Kanazawa, S. January 10, 2010. What’s Wrong with Muslims? Being Muslim is unlike being anything else in today’s world. Psychology Today. Link: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201001/what-s-wrong-muslims
- Boghossian, Peter. March 2006. Socratic Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and Inmate Education. Journal of Correctional Education (1974-), Vol. 57, No. 1 (March 2006), pp. 42-63
- Jabbar, Marwan. Last updated: October 2, 2015. The young Iraqis promoting evolutionary theory and rational thought to save Iraq. Your Middle East. Link: http://www.yourmiddleeast.com/culture/the-young-iraqis-promoting-evolutionary-theory-and-rational-thought-to-save-iraq_35450 Description: One of the more unusual, grassroots groups in Iraq today is Real Sciences. They are young Iraqis who translate scientific articles into Arabic, believing that a little more of this could combat violence.
- Robinson, Neal. 1998. Ash’ariyya and Mu’tazila. Muslimphilosophy.com.
- Irshad Manji, interviewed by Dirk Verhofstadt. Muslims Need Critical Thinking. Center for Inquiry. Link: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/secularislam/articles_and_books/muslims_need_critical_thinking_irshad_manji/.