This is my speech at the 5th Imagine No Religion conference in Vancouver, Canada during 5-7 June 2015.
The global rise of Islamism in particular and the religious-Right in general has turned the demand for secularism into an urgent task and necessity.
There are those in academia who theorise about a ‘post-secular’ world and insist that secularism lacks relevance, particularly for ‘non-Westerners.’ In the age of ISIS, though, you don’t have to look far to see that secularism is not only still relevant but that it’s a matter of life and death for countless people across the globe. In fact, no-one understands the need for secularism better than ‘non-westerners’ living under the boot of the religious-Right.
The post-secularists tell us that the rise of Islamism and the religious Right is linked to a religious revival. But this is not true. Of course with its rise, there are political pressures to keep up religious appearances, homogenise religious identity, and define religion as the only characteristic of entire societies, communities and people but this is very often enforced by violence.
‘Any classification and labelling has a purpose behind it,’ says the late Iranian Marxist Mansoor Hekmat. ‘Islam has been around in Iran for one thousand four hundred years and has obviously left its mark on certain things. But this is only one element in portraying this society – the same way that oppression, monarchy, police state, industrial backwardness, ethnicity, language, script, political history, pre-Islamic way of life, people’s physical characteristics, international relations, geography and weather, diet, size of country, population concentration, economic relations, level of urbanisation, architecture, etc. are. All of these express real characteristics of the society. Now if out of the hundreds of factors that create differences between Iran and Pakistan, France and Japan, someone insists on pointing to the presence of Islam in some aspects of life in this society and brands all of us with this label – from anti-religious individuals like Dashty, Hedayat and you and I to the great majority who do not see themselves as believers and are not concerned about Islam and the clergy – then they must have a specific agenda. Iran is not an Islamic society; the government is Islamic. Islam is an imposed phenomenon in Iran, not only today but also during the monarchy, and has remained in power by oppression and murder.’
The labelling of entire people, societies and communities as Muslim or Islamic is part and parcel of the Islamist agenda to feign representation and gain power and control.
And let’s be clear, it is more about power and control than religion. This distinction between religion and the religious-Right (a political movement) is clearer if you look at other religious-Right movements like the Buddhist-Right in Burma or Sri Lanka and their progroms against Muslims, the Hindu-Right’s massacre of Muslims in Gujrat, the Christian-Right’s bombing of abortion clinics or the Jewish-Right’s assault on women or as settlers in the Palestinian territories. Like the Islamists, they use religion to justify violence (or discrimination – depending on their influence) but you cannot explain these movements by religion alone.
Islamists, for example, are not all doctrinaire, literalist or fundamentalist and include a wide range of groups from ISIS, to the pragmatic and conservative factions of the Islamic regime of Iran to ‘soft’ Islamists (they don’t want to kill you just yet via terrorism) and even ‘Islamic Protestants or reformers’ like Abdolkarim Soorosh. Islam is the banner for their extreme-rightwing restructuring of society. But their movement is firmly rooted in political equations to gain power – primarily through violence and terror.
As Algerian sociologist and founder of Secularism is a Women’s Issue Marieme Helie Lucas says, this movement ‘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…’
In fact, it’s this internal opposition that makes the Islamists so brutal. They would not need to use such unrelenting violence if it were people’s culture and religion… if everyone submitted. The hijab, for example, which is the first imposition by Islamists when they gain influence is not a personal choice for a vast majority of women today though it is touted as such. It is highly contested and challenged as in the women’s unveiling movement in Iran and is one of the main areas of fight-back as is ‘Sharia law.’ Of course countless liberals here in the west – groups like the British Humanist Association – defend the burqa as people’s right to dress and Sharia courts as people’s right to religion.
We are often made to believe that this is clash of civilisations or an antagonism between a ‘secular West’ and a ‘religious East’ but it’s not. It’s a global struggle between secularists, including many Muslims and believers on the one hand, and theocrats and the religious-Right on the other taking place within and across borders around the globe.
We’re also told this is about racism and discrimination against minority communities or societies in the South, but it’s not. It’s a defence of people and universal rights against the religious-Right.
After all no society or community is homogeneous. There is dissent and political and social movements and class politics at play.
Take the example of 27 year old Farkhunda accused by a mullah of being an ‘infidel’ who burnt verses of the Koran. She was attacked by a mob in Kabul, lynched, stoned, run over, burnt and her body thrown in a river whilst onlookers and police stood by.
What could she expect when she goes against ‘Muslim sensibilities’ tweeted one of this absurd liberal Left do-gooders who only seem to do good for religion and not women? But wasn’t Farkhunda Muslim too? Actually she was very devout and had gone to the local mullah to tell him to stop selling amulets to women.
What became very obvious after her murder was that not all Afghans or Muslims or Muslim men have the same ‘sensibilities.’ Women carried her body– going against Islamic customs – to her gravesite and with her family’s permission encircled by a chain of men to protect them. They surrounded her coffin right until the end, gave her the respect she deserved, and chanted: ‘we are all Farkhunda.’ And when a mullah who had justified Farkhunda’s killing, tried to join them, they refused, created a circle around her gravesite, and forced him to leave.
Azaryun, a youth activist says, ‘That is what Farkhunda teaches me: together we can change the narrative that others write about women. We stood up against the most respected mullah. We carried the coffin and buried her.’ Neayish, a medical student, said: ‘I was just crying.’ ‘It was a long trek… but all my energy was focused on giving Farkhunda a respectable burial. It was the first time I realized my real power and told myself that I’m breaking the boundaries of tradition.’
So ‘the people’ of Afghanistan do not all agree. ‘Muslims’ are not all the same. And I place Muslims in quotes since not everyone living in Afghanistan or Iran are Muslims or Islamists just like not everyone is Canada or Britain is Christian or fundamentalist.
Everywhere, from Iran to Afghanistan and Algeria, there are women and men who break taboos and change narratives and stand against religion’s encroachment in people’s lives and against Islamism. To accept the label of Islamic and the homogenisation of entire populations is to accept Islamism’s narrative and not that of the many who resist.
In Bangladesh, for example, there are Islamists killing and threatening beloved atheist bloggers like Avijit Roy but there is also a deeply secular movement against them, including 24 villages that have become known as Jamaat free villages – or terrorist free villages.
Religion is not the only marker for our societies nor is it the most important.
After all, not everyone in a society is religious. Also, people who are live religion in as many ways as there are people. It’s not just a belief but a lived experience. They pick and choose and more often than not mould their beliefs to make them compatible with contemporary life, which is why they often don’t recognise their religion in the Islamists or the religious-Right.
I, for example, only read the Koran after I became an ex-Muslim/atheist. I was born into it. Just as nearly everyone is depending on where they are born. It’s geography and your parents’ religion that mostly determine yours. In Iran, I didn’t have to veil, I went to a mixed school, I wasn’t treated differently because I was a girl. I hadn’t heard the terms taqiyyah or jihad. Religion only became relevant in my life when it came to power in Iran. Then the veil became an issue. Then hezbollah types were sent to my school to separate the boys from the girls, though we ran circles round them. Then my school and others were closed down to Islamicise them. Then came the executions and the slaughter of an entire generation.
What is often forgotten is that most people are born into their religion out of no choice of their own and that lack of choice and labelling follows them even in adulthood until the day they die – unless they make what is often a very difficult and painful choice to leave.
People’s religion is not necessarily – and more likely not – the religion of the Islamists. As I said before, Islamists would not need to kill so many if everyone agreed with them.
It’s common sense. Just because stoning is permitted in the Bible for adultery, cursing the king, disobeying one’s parents, blaspheming and so on, it doesn’t mean all Christians and the British are pro-stoning.
Just because Arizona Baptist Pastor Steven Anderson says that we can have an AIDS-free world if we follow the scripture and execute gay people doesn’t mean all Christians or Americans think so.
But this is the argument made all the time about Muslims, including by some atheists. Stoning is in the Hadith, therefore, all Muslims must approve of stoning. ISIS’ banner is Islam, therefore all those who believe in Islam must be ISIS supporters and want a Caliphate and the burqa and Sharia law.
And even those who disapprove or speak out are merely practicing taqiyya whereby they are allowed to lie to advance the cause of Islam – gaining the trust of naive non-believers in order to draw out their vulnerability and defeat them.
Even I have been accused of being an ‘undercover jihadi’ and using taqiyya by xenophobic and racist groups like those led by Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller because I oppose their scapegoating of groups of people. To them, there is no such thing as a ‘moderate Muslim’ – we’re all the same. All of us enemies, collectively blamed… Which is why their ‘solutions’ target groups of people and not the religious-Right to which they actually also belong (it’s just another religion they prefer having power). For them, it’s deport us all. Stop ‘Muslim’ immigration…
As they very clearly show, not every ‘Christian’/European/Westerner represents enlightenment values – they certainly don’t – just as not every ‘Muslim’ represents a culture of misogyny and brutality. As writer Kenan Malik says ‘secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA. They are, like all values, absorbed, accepted, rejected.’
Culture is not static and homogeneous. Those in power determine the dominant culture, but as Musa Budeiri, a professor at Birzeit University, the oldest Palestinian University, who was threatened for posting a cartoon on his office door says: Islamists ‘resort to abuse, and threats of physical violence, attempting to appropriate to themselves the sole authority of what Muslims can and cannot think, can and cannot do. There are and will remain as many different Muslims as there are unfettered minds.’
Islamism’s culture is not the culture of the many who refuse and resist. It’s not ours. This is the problem with multiculturalism and identity politics. The homogenised group identity is the only one that seems to matter.
The far-Right claims to despise multiculturalism yet benefits from its idea of difference to scapegoat the ‘other’ and promote its own form of white identity politics. The post-modernist Left uses multiculturalism to defend cultural and moral relativism and side with the oppressor. Both sides put people into restrictive boxes and deny diversity and dissent.
One of our most important tasks, therefore, is to see this diversity and dissent, to always put a spotlight on it and to push for solidarity and universal rights such as secularism across borders and by braking though restrictive boxes.
This is one real and important way of challenging the religious-Right, but also the racists and xenophobes as well as those on the Left – and I say this as someone on the Left – who see only homogenised primarily religious identities and not the human being. This distinguishes us, humanises us and allows us to go beyond identities to find real human beings and allies in unexpected places.
After all people are more than the religions stamped on their foreheads from birth.
Take Charlie Hebdo as another example. 145 ‘esteemed’ writers opposed PEN’s award to Charlie because they said it was ‘valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.’
But as Salman Rushdie said: ‘The Charlie Hebdo artists were executed in cold blood for drawing satirical cartoons, which is an entirely legitimate activity. It is quite right that PEN should honour their sacrifice and condemn their murder.’ ‘This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organized, well-funded and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.’
And a lot of people, including ‘Muslims’ agree with Salman Rushdie. Mustapha Ourrad, a native Algerian and a copy-editor for Charlie Hebdo, was killed in the attack. There was the French Muslim cafe owner was threatened for putting up a ‘Je Suis Charlie’ sign in his East London cafe. In Turkey, two columnists from a daily are facing an investigation for ‘religious defamation’ after featuring the Charlie cover. Cartoonists across the Arab world from Egypt to Lebanon to Qatar and Jordan took a stand with Charlie and against the Islamists. Even in Iran – a theocracy where blasphemy, heresy, apostasy, enmity against god, and another 130 offences are punishable by death – Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer showed her solidarity whilst journalists trying to rally in support of Charlie were attacked and prevented from protesting by security agents wielding clubs and chains. An Iranian newspaper was shut down for publishing a photo showing solidarity with Charlie. ..
Clearly not all ‘Muslims’ were offended, and even those who were did not go on to kill for it.
The ‘culture 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 the ‘culture of offence’ is a smokescreen. It serves to legitimise Islamist terror and blame the victims.
It misses the point.
Islamism is an international far-right movement that has imprisoned and murdered innumerable Charlie Hebdos who have dared to speak, to live, to dream over many decades across the Middle East, North Africa, Asia. Anyone living 21 century lives offends their sensibilities. Being a woman, a freethinker, being gay, being unveiled, improperly veiled, an atheist, going to school, driving a car, having sex, falling in love, laughing out loud, dancing… ‘offends’ them.
Calling for civility, censorship, silence or ‘respect’ for the ‘offended’ is merely heeding the Islamist demand for submission at the expense of dissenters. But as Rosa Luxemburg said: ‘Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters.’ What is packaged as the ‘culture of offence’ is really Islamism’s imposition of blasphemy laws and theocracy under the pretext of respect for ‘Muslim sensibilities.’
Calling it racism fails to understand that ‘the other’ also has its dissenters who want to live free from religion’s stranglehold. Plus isn’t it racist to imply that all ‘Muslims’ cannot tolerate criticism and freethought other than via violence or that Muslims are one and the same as Islamists.
Islamophobia is a political term coined by Islamists and their apologists to scaremonger people into silence.
And anyway what’s wrong with being ‘anti-Islamic’ or anti any religion for that matter? The fight against religion and that which is taboo has always been an important aspect of human progress. It’s not the same as placing collective blame or bigotry against people.
Whilst the main battle today is a political one against Islamism as I have tried to stress, it doesn’t mean Islam is benign or off-limits.
The fight against Islamism must be accompanied by a deep ideological criticism. This is even more important when faced with a political movement that threatens and kills heretics, blasphemers and apostates under the banner of Islam.
Under these circumstances, we must not only make it a habit to blaspheme but we must honour our dissenters, blasphemers and apostates – even if their acts were not intentional and even if their actions are deemed scandalous.
People like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, sentenced to 10 years and 1000 lashes for his website calling for change; Sohail Arabi in Iran 30, given a death sentence for insulting the prophet; women’s rights campaigner Souad al-Shammary imprisoned in Saudi Arabia on accusations she has ‘insulted Islam’ and the prophet for demanding an end to male guardianship rules for women; poet Fatma Naoot, on trial for ‘insulting Islam’ in Egypt due to her criticism of Islamic animal slaughter; 47 year old British-Iranian Roya Nobakht initially sentenced to 20 years in prison in Iran for ‘insulting Islam’ when she said on Facebook that the Iranian regime was ‘too Islamic'; or Atena Farghadani, 28, recently sentenced to 12 years in prison for her cartoon protesting legislation to restrict birth-control and make divorce more difficult in Iran. The court found her guilty of ‘insulting members of parliament through paintings’ and ‘insulting the Iranian supreme leader.’ The court also charged her with ‘gathering and colluding with anti-revolutionary individuals and deviant sects’ because she mingled with relatives of political prisoners and members of Baha’i faith during an exhibit of her paintings of protesters killed by the Iranian government.’
Saying Charlie had it coming is like saying Atena deserves 12 years in prison and Raif deserves his lashes.
Speaking the truth without self-censorship is crucial here. We need to break taboos and challenge the status quo. Bread and Roses TV does just that – broadcast via satellite into Iran and labelled immoral and corrupt by the Iranian regime – which means we must be doing something right.
The same is true for apostasy. We are not allowed to leave Islam? We can be executed for leaving Islam? Then it becomes all the more urgent to renounce Islam publicly via groups like the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. When it is possible to shout it from every rooftop, then the very need to do so will not have the same urgency.
It’s also relevant with regards nude protest. The idealised woman in Islam is obedient, properly veiled, submissive, and accepting of her assigned ‘place’ in society. The rest of us are whores, often compared to unwrapped sweets – covered in flies and free for the taking. We are the source of fitnah in society and blamed for every calamity and natural disaster, as well as the disintegration of the family and society, and deserving of punishment in order to maintain national and Islamic values, pride and honour.
Islamism’s obsession with women’s bodies and its insistence that women be veiled and hidden from view means that nudity becomes an important form of public resistance. Islamists want us bound in body bags, not seen and not heard. We refuse to comply. Just as we refuse to stop blaspheming, apostasizing or demanding secularism and universal rights.
Blasphemy must be celebrated as FEMEN’s Inna Shevchenko says as should apostasy and is an essential aspect of being fully human in the age of ISIS.
Those who consider secularism, apostasy or blasphemy or the fight against the veil as ‘culturally inappropriate,’ ‘western,’ or ‘colonialist’ are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist.
Only when we begin to see that dissent, acknowledge that it is intrinsically linked to our own, and defend universal values and freedoms, secularism and a renewed enlightenment against the Islamic inquisition, will we be able to truly honour our dissenters, stand with them, and push back the religious-Right.
Our age is the age of ISIS, yes, but in another sense it is also an age of incredible human resistance and an anti-Islamic backlash and enlightenment.
If you look at Christianity, for example, it’s not that its tenets have changed since the days of the inquisition; what’s changed is its social position and political power in many places. To a large degree, Christianity in power has been pushed back by an enlightenment so that it doesn’t have the same influence over people’s lives, which is why it seems more benign than Islam as the Christian-Right love to tell us. They say the problem is Islam itself and that Islam is worse than any other religion. This is a view taken even by some atheists and secularists like the Lawyers Secular Society.
But put any religion’s back to the wall and it will seem cuddlier in order to survive though even when pushed back it still discriminates and can still kill to the extent it has access and power.
I’ve always said all religions are equal and equally bad. Like cigarettes, religion must come with a health warning – it kills. Religion is no longer the opium of the masses but its genocidaire.
To combat it, Islam needs an enlightenment rather than a reformation as is often argued.
Ed Simon of International Society for Heresy Studies argues that ISIS is Islam’s reformation. Calvin he says taught a literal interpretation of the Decalogue’s prohibition on graven images, for example, and mobs targeted all art which they saw as blasphemous just as ISIS does.
And this isn’t just an issue of cultural vandalism’, he says. ‘Indeed, the religious wars of early modern Europe were marked by barbarity as fervent as that occurring now in the Iraqi and Syrian deserts. We associate the Islamic State with decapitation and defenestration, but this sort of violence marked the sixteenth and seventeenth century every bit as much. Historian Marc Lilla has argued in his book The Stillborn God that contemporary secularism emerged not out of the reformation but rather in response to the … horrific violence that modern religion had unleashed on Europe.
We are witness to that backlash against Islam and Islamism today in many parts of the world – an enlightenment bubbling from below – often not seen or ignored because the ‘Islamic world’ is meant to be homogenous.
And also because in repressive societies what you see at first glance is not necessarily always what you get. Scratch beneath the surface and there are many explosions ready to burst out, including what I believe is a tsunami of atheism, freethought and secularism.
Secularism may not be the end all but it certainly is a minimum precondition for basic rights and freedoms. It’s not western but universal. The Islamic regime of Iran doesn’t stop itself from gaining nuclear technology or ISIS from using social media because it is ‘western’ but when it comes to rights and secularism, they’re ‘western’ and ‘foreign’?
Secularism – the complete separation of religion from the state – not the wishy washy British version – is good for all of us – religious and not. As British philosopher AC Grayling says: ‘secularism is a fundamental human right.’ It must be actively defended, promoted, and articulated.
I want to end by making a plea on behalf of migrants everywhere. If you oppose religion’s role in the public space and theocracy and the religious-Right you must also defend its victims and survivors. The world has built a fortress against migrants trying to escape US-led militarism, the religious-Right and Islamism.
We must step up to defend them. We must ensure that people can flee more safely, reach safety with their lives intact, and are treated humanely when they arrive.
These masses fleeing are voting with their very feet against all that is wrong with this world. They are the best kind of dreamers – daring to believe that they will survive the journey and that another life is possible.
As John Lennon has said very aptly for the ‘No Religion’ Conference:
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday [others] will join us
And the world will be as one.