- Below is my speech “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Free Expression in the Age of ISIS,” which I gave at Warwick University on 28 October 2015. I had been initially barred by the Student Union but the talk went ahead after protests. I gave a similar speech a week earlier at Trinity College Dublin, after my talk had been cancelled by a student group earlier this year after I refused last-minute restrictions on my talk.
You can read my talk below and/or watch the video:
I am glad to be speaking at Warwick University after I was initially barred because the Student Union absurdly decided that I was “highly inflammatory” and could “incite hatred” on campus.
The Student Union has since apologised, thanks to pressure from Warwick Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and many of you.
And so here we are.
Conflating criticism of Islam (a religion) and Islamism (a religious-Rightwing political movement) with bigotry against Muslims (who are people like anyone else) is nothing new. This conflation has led to a disturbing trend towards censorship of much-needed criticism of Islam and Islamism on university campuses.
The days when unconditional free expression was championed by universities as a cornerstone of all rights is long gone.
It’s no longer unconditional free expression that is seen to be intrinsically good and progressive but a defence of censorship and self-censorship.
Of course, as writer Kenan Malik says, no one puts it that way. No one says they are pro-censorship (not even the most heinous regimes).
“‘I believe in free speech but…’ may well be a motto of our times,” says Malik.
“I believe in free speech, but” not if it undermines “security”, is “gratuitously offensive”, “provocative”, “inflammatory”, “Islamophobic”, and “discriminatory” or if it has the potential to “insult” and “hurt” religious sensibilities or “incite” hatred… All things, by the way, which I have been accused of.
In particular, criticism of Islam and Islamism is seen to be so harmful as to be equated with bigotry against Muslims though of course this is not the case just as criticism of Christianity or Britain First is not bigotry against Christians.
Postmodernists, such as the Guardian’s David Shariatmadari and the Labour Party’s Seamus Milne consider criticism of Islam “antisocial” and “even dangerous” – something, by the way, I have also often heard from their Ayatollah friends in Iran as well as the Saudi or Pakistani regimes.
In my opinion, criticism of Islam is deemed dangerous not because of some patronising “concern for minorities” but because in the age of ISIS, it subverts and challenges the sacred which has always been a tool for the control of society in the interests of the dominant class under the guise of defending “public sensibilities” and “morality.”
Criticism of Islam challenges religion in political power and opens the space for dissent where none is permissible or acceptable.
Ironically, the critics of religion have never been free to express themselves, yet we are the ones deemed harmful, and inciting hatred when in fact it’s the opposite. It’s the blasphemers and apostates who have faced persecution throughout the ages.
Clerics and the religious-Rightwing have always been free to promote religion – any religion. And religion has always had a privileged position in societies, and even more so where it has influence on the state or is in power – Britain included.
Clearly, freedom of expression without the right to criticise religion is meaningless. Such criticism has been key for social progress. Historically, it has been intrinsically linked with anti-clericalism.
It’s the same today.
Criticism of Islam and the state are analogous in many places like Saudi Arabia, Islamic State, or Iran where anything from demanding women’s equality or trade union rights to condemning sexual jihad and the ‘Islamic cultural revolution’ (led by people such as Ali Shariatmadari, which banned books and ‘purified’ higher education) can be met with arrest, imprisonment and even the death penalty.
Of course, there is a distinction between Islam as a belief versus Islamism, which is a far-Right political movement.
But Islam is not just a personal belief – if it were we would be not be having this discussion. It plays a political role in the form of laws and policies and as states and extreme-Right political movements.
When the religious-Right are in power , “religion is at the centre of the struggle for change,” according to Iranian Marxist Hamid Taqvaee. If you want to defend equality between women and men; or put an end to male guardianship rules: you will inevitably come face to face with religion. You want gay rights; the right to organise 1st May rallies and the right to strike: you will eventually confront religion.
Religion is not just a personal matter between a believer and his or her god but regulations imposed on society with real and brutal punishments and repercussions for those deemed transgressors.
The veil, for example, is far from a personal “choice” and “right.” Socially speaking, on a mass scale, it is enforced through compulsory veiling laws and acid-attacks, imprisonment, fines, as well as pressures which look upon unveiled women as whores, immoral and sources of fitnah in society. Calling an “improperly” veiled woman in Britain – “Hoejabi” – is part of that pressure.
Under such circumstances, criticism of religion is key for the defence of rights and equality. It’s also a critical necessity in order to dismantle and undermine the sacred and its political role.
And it’s not just about religion’s role “over there.” Islamism is a vast network with global reach.
The Islamic regime in Iran, for example, sentences artist Atena Faraghdani to over 12 years in prison for a cartoon and “illegitimate sexual relations short of adultery” for shaking hands with her lawyer and violating gender segregation rules whilst here in Britain, Universities UK endorses gender segregation (now withdrawn due to our protests) and a student organiser advises me not to shake hands prior to a debate on Sharia law out of “respect” for some Islamist (of course I made a point to shake hands as I have no respect for an idea that sees me as so haram that a man cannot shake my hands – call me what you will).
Islamism as a political movement is a global killing machine that affects people everywhere. Islamists hack atheist bloggers to death in Bangladesh whilst placing UK-based Bangladeshi bloggers on death lists and ‘lovely’ British jihadis kill for ISIS whilst a UK-based organisation CAGE promotes ‘defensive jihad.’
Limiting free expression to that which is acceptable for the Islamists (as it is those in power that determine the limits of expression) restricts the right to speak for those who need it most. It is telling people like myself that we cannot oppose theocracies and religious laws we have fled from or that people living under the boot of the religious-Right or faced with segregation and “Sharia courts” right here in Britain must not refuse or resist. It’s “our” culture and religion after all. We have no choice but to submit.
Ironically, the post-modernist ‘Leftists’ pushing this line have one set of progressive politics for themselves (they rightly want gay marriage, women’s equality and the right to criticise Archbishops and the pope, as well as the Christian-Right including Britain First or EDL) and another for us. We are merely allowed to make demands within the confines of Islam and identity politics and only after taking note of the “power imbalance.” As an ex-Muslim migrant woman, I am supposedly a minority within a minority but this “power imbalance” never seems to be part of any calculation.
If we speak, we are labelled “native informants” by so-called progressives. And the far-Right accuses us of practicing taqiyaa if we oppose their scapegoating of Muslims and immigrants and their placing of collective blame on the “other.” I have also been accused of practicing taqiyya by the likes of Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller – that is whereby “we Muslims” (obviously we’re all the same and no one seems to be able to tell us apart) 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.
What those conflating Islam, Islamism and Muslims miss – both on the “Left” as well as the far-Right – is that many Muslims are also critics of Islamism and even Islam. In fact, Muslims or those presumed or labelled such – like myself – are often the first victims of Islamism and at the forefront of resistance. After all, not everyone in the “Islamic world” or “Muslim community” or those labelled “Muslim students on campus” are Muslims and even if they are, religion is not the only characteristic that defines them. Moreover, the rise of Islamism has brought with it a corresponding rise in the demand for atheism, secularism, and particularly women’s liberation. Also, ordinary Muslims – like all other believers – pick and choose and mould their beliefs to make them compatible with contemporary life, which is why they often don’t recognise their religion in the Islamists.
Conflating criticism of Islam and Islamism with bigotry against Muslims sees dissent through the eyes of Islamists and not the many who refuse and resist. For those who have bought into the Islamist narrative, there are no social and political movements, class politics, dissenters, women’s rights campaigners, socialists… – just homogenised ‘Muslims’ [read Islamists] who face ‘intimidation’ and ‘discrimination’ if an ex-Muslim woman speaks on an university campus.
This is the problem with multiculturalism and identity politics. The homogenised group identity is the only one that seems to exist. The “authentic Muslim” is always reactionary, fully veiled (throw in a burqa and niqab for good measure), pro Sharia courts and gender segregation, pro death penalty for apostates and gay people, anti-Semitic and of course always anti-free expression.
As Algerian sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas says:
What is most upsetting is the implication that oppressed people can only turn out as fascists, never revolutionaries. Is this really what the left in Europe now believes?
Can the left accept that citizens are assigned a ‘minority’ identity against their will, on the basis of their name, or their geographical origin, or that of their families? Can the left accept that this communal identity supersedes their civil rights? This was done to the Jews under Nazism. Will the left accept that it be done to Muslims, and those presumed to be Muslims, regardless of their personal religious beliefs? If the left is serious about supporting oppressed minorities, it should realise that those who speak in the name of the community do not necessarily have the legitimacy to do so. By supporting fundamentalists, they simply chose one camp in a political struggle, without acknowledging it.
“The result of all this,” says Kenan Malik, “is that solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture.” And since those in power determine the dominant culture, many Student Unions and those on the “Left” side with Islamism at our expense. They don’t see that at its core, this is a fight between theocrats and the religious-Right on the one hand and secularists and those fighting for social justice on the other. It’s a fight taking place within and across communities and borders, including and especially amongst those within what is labelled the Muslim community or world.
Take the example of 27 year old Farkhunda accused by a mullah of being an “infidel” who burnt verses of the Koran in Afghanistan. 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 these absurd liberal Left do-gooders who only seem to do good for religion and the religious-Rightwing but never 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: “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 Britain is Christian or UKIP/EDL/Britain First. 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.
Charlie Hebdo is another good example. 145 writers disgracefully 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.
Mustapha Ourrad, a native Algerian and a copy-editor for Charlie Hebdo, was killed in the attack. A 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, Lebanon, Qatar to 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.
In Bangladesh too 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 Islamist free villages.
Religion is not the only marker for our societies nor is it the most important.
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 by what has become known in many places such as Algeria as the “Green Fascists.”
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. Islamists would not need to kill so many if everyone agreed with them.
Islamism’s culture is not the culture of the many who refuse and resist. It’s not ours.
Nonetheless, this conflation of Islam, Islamism and Muslims has been the position of successive British governments whereby multiculturalism and multi-faithism has been promoted as social policies to defend religion’s role in the public space, impose religious identity as the only marker to define citizens, and hand large sections of citizens to be managed and controlled by regressive Islamist organisations and parasitical imams. This has been part of the neo-con project for the extreme-Rightwing restructuring of society. There are no more citizens but segregated communities with their own faith schools, faith-based services and even faith-based courts: Separate and Unequal.
The far-Right, too, which claims to ‘despise’ multiculturalism benefits from the idea of difference to scapegoat the ‘other’ and promote its own form of vile white identity politics.
Ironically, “Left” groups, which are traditionally anti-state, reiterate the government’s multiculturalism, multi-faithism and identity politics as well as the far-Right narrative and side with our oppressors by placing individuals into homogenised restrictive boxes, denying diversity and dissent and equating Muslims with Islamists, albeit in a different way.
Rather than siding with the vast secular and progressive forces in so called Muslim communities and the so-called Islamic world, this section of the Left – what Richard Dawkins refers to as the regressive Left – sides with and pushes the Islamist narrative that denies universalism, sees rights, equality and secularism as ‘western,’ justifies the suppression of women, apostates and blasphemers under the guise of respect for other ‘cultures’ – imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the religious-Right.
In the world of these apologists, the oppressor is victim, the oppressed ‘incite hatred’, and any criticism is bigotry.
Of course, where Islamists are in power, there are no such niceties about “concern for minorities” and “safe spaces.” Dissenters are prosecuted for blasphemy, apostasy, enmity against god… Full stop. People like Raif Badawi sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia for raising the question of religion and politics; Shahrokh Zamani found dead in prison recently after being sentenced to 11 years in prison for labour organising in Iran where to strike is deemed haram or religiously forbidden; poet Fatma Naoot, on trial for “insulting Islam” in Egypt due to her criticism of Islamic animal slaughter; and 47 year old British-Iranian Roya Nobakht sentenced initially to 20 years in prison in Iran for “insulting Islam” when she said on Facebook that the Iranian regime was “too Islamic.”
Saying Charlie Hebdo cartoonists had it coming is like saying Shahrokh Zamani deserved to die in prison and Raif deserves his lashes for being inflammatory and “offending” Islam or the Islamists in power.
Here in Britain and Europe, of course, rather than accusations of blasphemy or apostasy, critics face charges of Islamophobia and offence. What is packaged as the “culture of offence” is really Islamism’s imposition of blasphemy laws under the pretext of respect for “Muslim sensibilities.” As I have said before, this is very much the Government and the political establishment’s line too.
In September, police removed artwork by Mimsy from London’s Mall Galleries which showed “Mi-SIS” lurking in the background featuring children’s toys Sylvanian Families after the police raised “serious concerns” on the “potentially inflammatory content.”
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. 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”.
Charges of offence and Islamophobia aim not to prevent bigotry – you can’t stop bigotry via censorship – but to stop criticism and deflect legitimate outrage against Islamism. It really aims to prevent blasphemy. 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 censor dissent.
The solution lies in returning to basics: Citizenship rights, equality of people irrespective of beliefs, respect for people not for religions and the religious-Right, an end to faith-based initiatives that divide and segregate, universal rights, one law for all with equal access to justice, an uncompromising defence of secularism and the separation of religion from the state and of course unconditional free expression.
As Philosopher Roger Scruton said: “If you invoke the law at all, it should be to protect the one who gives the offence, and not the one who takes it. Now it seems it is the other way around.”
To combat the normalisation and legitimisation of censorship, freethinkers must celebrate blasphemy according to FEMEN’s Inna Shevchenko as must we celebrate 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.
Blasphemy and apostasy are not a denial of religious freedom – there is no freedom of religion without freedom from religion. Criticism of religion is an essential aspect of being fully human in the age of ISIS.
Freedom to express liberation from religion is also very much 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 and apostasizing or demanding secularism and free expression.
Those who consider apostasy or blasphemy 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, secularism, free expression 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.
Clearly, free expression is key; it is not a luxury or privilege but a right. It’s not up for sale. For many of us, it is the only way we can fight to breath, to challenge those in power who stifle us, and to demand change. “Limiting free expression is not just censorship,” as Salman Rushdie says, “but an assault on human nature.”
“Human beings,” he says, “shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.”
In the age of ISIS, this is a historical task and necessity.
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-Rightwing you must also defend the victims and survivors. The world has built a fortress against migrants trying to escape situations created by US led militarism, dictatorships, brutality, poverty and Islamism. Freedom of movement is a fundamental right as is the right to live in peace and free from fear and war. We must step up to defend them and demand open borders. These masses fleeing are voting with their very feet against Islamism and are the best kind of dreamers – daring to believe that they will survive the journey and that another life is possible. #refugeeswelcome