- This is a shortened version of my speech for a public meeting organised by the NE Humanists on 19 March 2015.
Dissent and criticism of religion has always been a crucial aspect of free expression. Such criticism has been key for human progress and is needed more than ever in the age of ISIS. For many of us, therefore, standing with Charlie, honours our own dissenters.
Those who condemn the massacre in Paris but blame Charlie for “offending Muslim sensibilities” have bought into the Islamist narrative that “Muslims” are Islamists who are more offended by cartoons than mass murder. This erroneous conflation between Muslims and Islamists is often promoted in the media by Guardian types and the pathetic excuse of a Left – and I say this coming from the Left myself – to justify its cosy alliances with and appeasement of “our” fascists against “their own”.
The far-Right also makes this conflation so as to promote its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda. And of course the Islamists use it to deflect any criticism as racism and an attack on a community or people. It is useful for the British government too in “managing” its “minorities” on the cheap by handing them over to parasitical imams and self-appointed “community leaders”.
This conflation is validated by multiculturalism (not as a wonderful lived experience but as a social policy) and multi-faithism, which segregates and divides people into homogenised religious and cultural “communities” and sees people as one and the same as the religious-Right.
“Muslims” in Britain are outsourced to Islamist groups to do as they wish with “their communities” – Sharia courts, forced marriages, child marriages, the burqa, Islamic schools, segregated university meetings … The “other” is different so doesn’t deserve the same rights and freedoms.
But clearly no “community” or society is homogeneous. There is dissent; there is class politics at play. There are social and political movements contesting and challenging the Islamists, Sharia law and Islam day in and day out.
Amongst those “Muslims”, which Islamists feign to represent, there are atheists, socialists, secularists, women’s rights campaigners like me … And also many believing Muslims – who call themselves Muslims – but who are opposed to Islamism, the veil, and Sharia and do not murder even when they are “offended” by cartoons.
Conflating Muslim with Islamist does a disservice to the many dissenters. It places collective blame. It implies that the “authentic” Muslim is a terrorist and fascist.
And it’s wrong to equate the two. It’s like conflating the BNP with the British, the English with the English Defence League and Sharia Watch, Americans with the Tea Party or the Christian-Right and Indians with the Hindu-Right.
You can see the distinction between Muslims and Islamists– if you want to. After the attack on Charlie, many “Muslims” or those labelled as such sided with Charlie.
What is packaged as “offence” is really Islamism’s imposition of blasphemy laws and theocracy under the pretext of respect for “Muslim sensibilities”. Only in Europe does this far-Right fascist movement use “offence” or Islamophobia to silence and censor. In countries where they have state power, there is no need for such niceties. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, the “offenders” are called what they are – apostates, blasphemers, enemies against god, the corrupt of the earth, heretics – and legally murdered in broad daylight in the same way Charlie Hebdo’s journalists were “executed”.
Terrorism and indiscriminate violence, including via Sharia laws, have been pillars of Islamist rule for decades, aiding in creating a climate of fear and as a warning to those who refuse to submit.
Raising the question of “offence” absurdly implies that civility and manners are all that are needed to stop abductions and the slaughter of generations from Nigeria, Iran to Algeria. But “offence” is a smokescreen. It serves to legitimise Islamist terror and blame the victims. It’s no different from blaming a woman who was raped for the rape – if only she had been better dressed. If only she had not had so much to drink. If only she had stayed home like good girls do instead of wandering the streets at night. If only…
These “explanations” are not meant to clarify the context but to condemn the woman who has been raped. The same is true of those who explain the terrorists’ mindset – they were angry at the depiction of Mohammad, they were not integrated, they faced racism … the aim of such justifications is to put the blame on Charlie, on the murdered, on the innocents slaughtered by Islamism.
Blaming Islamist terrorism in Paris on Charlie’s cartoons is like blaming Avijit’s book for his being hacked to death or Raif’s website for his lashes. What did Malala Yousefzai do to warrant being shot in the head on a school bus? She shouldn’t have “offended” the Taliban by going to school? What did the abducted girls in Nigeria or the 54 killed in one day in separate suicide attacks including on a busy marketplace in Nigeria do? Were the Islamists who killed dissenters like Avijit or Salwa – including via the state apparatus – “not integrated enough”, had they faced racism in their societies; were they abused by the security services? And what about the many who have been abused by the Islamists or US militarism, who have faced racism, who have been disenfranchised and marginalised and have instead joined protest movements, unions and progressive actions that defend human beings and their rights and lives and not beheadings?
Cage Prisoners, a “human rights organisation” (which Amnesty International was working with despite criticism from Gita Sahgal, their head of gender unit and supported by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party and John Rees) recently described Mohammad Emwazi or Jihadi John as a “beautiful young man” and blamed the beheadings he had carried out on his being beaten and threatened by the security services.
But I have been badly beaten by NYPD (when protesting against the 1991 Gulf war parade) and have been threatened with beheading by Islamists. I have faced racism. I am also outraged at US intervention in Iran. I am particularly incensed at how the powers that be decided at the Guadaloupe Conference that they preferred an Islamic state to the left-leaning revolution in Iran during the Cold War and still I do not, would not, behead for anything.
Imagine all the people in Iran or Saudi Arabia languishing in prison or the many who have lost their loved ones to this killing machine? If they all resorted to beheadings – no one would be left.
An unequivocal condemnation of terrorism and a defence of the terrorised – no ifs and buts are the only principled and human response. But it’s not enough. It’s also important to stand firm against Islamism and its “political wing” that has permeated British society – what Southall Black Sisters’ Director Pragna Patel calls Shariafication-by-stealth, which includes the rise of Sharia courts, the burqa and gender segregation at universities (which is an attack on women) as well as Islamic schools, which deny children rights because they were born into Muslim families. This is where even more get it wrong, including the British Humanist Association. (This in no way implicates all humanists and secularists – after all some of our greatest supporters have been local humanist groups and well known humanists.)
In a debate with me a few years ago, the then Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips (now a BHA trustee) called Sharia courts “people’s right to religion”. Andrew Copson, its Chief Executive, has stated on Facebook on 8 December 2014 that he had visited a Beth Din and the Islamic Sharia Council with three of his fellow commissioners on the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life and was “left without a single secularist reason to say that they should not be allowed to operate as they do”.
In the Law Society debacle where the Society had endorsed discriminatory practices by issuing Sharia-compliant guidance on wills, the current BHA Head of Public Affairs, Pavan Dhaliwal, wrote:
The issue has been totally blown out of proportion … It’s just advice so that solicitors can provide a service to (Sunni) Muslim clients who want a will that fits with their beliefs. It does not claim to do any more than that.
Many women’s rights groups, including Southall Black Sisters, Centre for Secular Space, Nari Diganta, Iranian Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation and One Law for All disagreed and campaigned against the guidance, which was eventually withdrawn. The Law Society made a very public apology for endorsing discrimination.
Those who defend Sharia courts or Sharia-compliant wills as people’s “right to religion” don’t see or don’t want to see that Sharia law is one of the pillars of Islamist rule as is terrorism. It is in fact a form of terrorism against the population at large. This point of view will rightly condemn the hacking to death of Avijit Roy or Raif Badawi’s flogging but will tell those wearing Jesus and Mo cartoons or loudly proclaiming their apostasy that they are “out to offend”, implying that it is the way we criticise or mock Islam that brings on the threats. They also often conflate a criticism with Islam with an attack on Muslims, thereby implying that our the manner of our criticism feeds into racism and “Islamophobia”.
Alom Shaha, a trustee of the BHA, said in a debate on Islam at the 2014 World Humanist Congress:
You can express whatever views you like but as people have pointed out the expression of your views has consequences, and if one of the consequences of your views, the expression of your views, is that there is hatred and intolerance of other human beings, I’m just simply suggesting that you consider how you express your views. I think the term Islamophobia is indeed problematic; perhaps I should have used the term anti-Muslim bigotry…
Whilst groups like the BHA rightly condemn the Sharia court sentence of stoning to death for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in Iran, they cannot find “a single secularist reason to say that they should not be allowed to operate as they do” when it comes to Britain.
But the two are linked.
The Law Society practice note quoted extensively from an Islamist who defends death by stoning. You have Sharia court “judges” in Britain defending stoning. Suhaib Hassan, a judge with the Islamic Sharia Council, says:
If Sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief’s hand is cut off nobody is going to steal. Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all. We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don’t accept it they’ll need more and more prisons.
Haitham Haddad, another Sharia judge teaches that “fornication” and “adultery” should be punished by death and specifically by stoning.
Another judge of the Islamic Sharia Council, Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, is a war criminal wanted in Bangladesh. He has said “there cannot be any rape within the marriage.”
So it’s clear you can’t have it both ways.
You can’t condemn stoning to death if it happens in Iran and defend those who promote stoning and want Sharia courts here in Britain.
You can’t oppose blasphemy laws in Saudi Arabia but tell me and people like me not to “offend gratuitously”.
Don’t tell me I take it too far by renouncing Islam publicly or going nude. As long as people are killed for leaving Islam, I will renounce it publicly and organise others to do so. As long Islamists want to erase women’s bodies, I will use mine as an act of public protest in support of women’s rights.
I am not the one “taking it too far”; the Islamists are with their murder and mayhem.
Moreover, don’t tell me that our criticism leads to racism. Criticising an idea has nothing to do with racism against people. Perpetrating that helps the Islamists who use anti-racist and human rights language to deny rights.
I know of course that no one is being stoned to death in Britain – but that is because Hudud laws are only implemented under an Islamic state. Here in Britain, it is Sharia’s civil code that is being implemented. And as Gita Sahgal says, “there is active support for Sharia laws precisely because it is limited to denying women rights in the family. No hands are being cut off, so there can’t be a problem …”
Under Sharia’s civil code, a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s. A man can divorce his wife by repudiation, whereas a woman must give justifications, some of which are difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age; women who remarry lose custody of their children even before then; and sons inherit twice the share of daughters. Domestic violence is seen to be the prerogative of the husband. And there is no such thing as marital rape. In Islington alone in 2010, there were at least three 11-year-old girls and two nine-year-olds who had been forced into marriage with older men. The oldest girls involved were 16.
The fight against Sharia’s civil code is one of the main areas of fight-back in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. A song by the campaign “20 years is enough” shows Algerian women and men signing:
“I am telling you a story
Of what the powerful have done
Of rules, a code of despair
A code obsessed with women…
This law must be undone…!”
But here in Britain – it is “people’s right to religion” – promoted by apologists like Maleiha Malik and Aina Khan with Andrew Copson not finding a “single secularist reason to say they should not be allowed to operate”!
There is a racism behind this point of view. This culturally relativist perspective implies that secularism, rights, freedoms are only for those who are ”white” and ”western” (and that too in the limited UKIP sense); the rest of us are only allowed “freedom” within the cultural and religious confines of Islam. Thanks but no thanks.
The same holds true with regards the veil and burqa. “Feminists” robustly defend the burqa as women’s “right” to dress. Their position is like saying women have a “right” and “choice” to FGM or suttee or foot binding. How very nice that women have the “right” to “dress” in body bags and straightjackets imposed by religion and the religious-Right. Not to be seen or heard and to know their “place”.
Defending the burqa is defending Islamism’s right to oppress women. It is their flag. It is the first thing they do when they gain access and influence. Likewise, defending Sharia courts is defending Islamism’s right to restrict and control.
There is no right to oppress, to restrict, to discriminate against.
Rights are for people not for fascist political movements to do as they like.
As Women Living Under Muslim Laws says:
Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism. It is not a legitimate response that can be supported by the progressive forces of the world. Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to their theocratic project and to their project of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion, including education, the legal system, youth services, etc. When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people, they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters – like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the ‘untermensch’ – the subhumans -, among them ‘inferior races’, gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women ‘in their place’, which as we know from experience ends up being a straight jacket …
On a final point, Muslims are often erroneously conflated with Islam. Muslims are people like all others. If anything is to be deemed sacred, it should be the human being – not religions and beliefs. Islam is a belief and like all others must be open to criticism and mockery. Equating the criticism of Islam with bigotry against people is another Islamist tool to silence dissent. Of course bigotry exists and we must stand up to it but racism is not combated by limiting free expression or by excusing Islamism and its Sharia courts. In my opinion, Islamophobia is a political term used to scaremonger people into silence. Charges of Islamophobia have been coined not because anti-Muslim bigotry is the main concern of these apologists but in order to protect Islam and Islamism. If they were so concerned about Muslims or those labelled as such, though, they would oppose not support Sharia and Islamism and stop justifying Islamic terrorism which kills more “Muslims” than anyone else.
US suffragette and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said “The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of woman’s emancipation”. This is true in particular with regards Islam and Islamism today.
Of course when speaking of Islam or any religion, I am not referring to religion as a personal belief. Everyone has a right to religion and atheism but Islam today is not a personal matter; it’s the banner of a political movement, an industry, a mafia, a killing machine. Marx called religion the opium of the masses; today we must call it their genocidaire.
When it comes to religion in the state and law and educational system, it becomes a matter of political power and control not people’s right to religion. Islam in the state or with political power is the end of freethought and the end of free expression. It is the end of democratic politics. It is the end of women’s rights and gay rights and the rights of minorities. It is the end of the “right to religion and belief” and everything worthy of a 21 century life. It is a return to the dark ages.
The humanist response must be to stand up unequivocally against Islamism, Sharia law and the burqa not just over there (and only when it’s suitable) but right here.
This is not about “people’s right to religion”. It is about stopping Islamism’s right to kill and slaughter and discriminate against.
A humanist response must stand for unequivocal free expression, including the right to offend, and equality (of people – not religions and beliefs), universal rights, and for secularism and the complete separation of religion from the state.
This is not about a clash of civilisations. It’s a clash between the theocrats and fascists versus the rest of us – Muslim, atheist, ex-Muslim, non-Muslim…
As the late Marxist Mansoor Hekmat said:
In Islam … the individual has no rights or dignity. In Islam, the woman is a slave. In Islam, the child is on par with animals. In Islam, freethinking is a sin deserving of punishment. Music is corrupt. Sex without permission and religious certification, is the greatest of sins. This is the religion of death. In reality, all religions are such but most religions have been restrained by freethinking and freedom-loving humanity over hundreds of years. This one was never restrained or controlled.
Restraining it – controlling it – in this day and age – that is our task.