Month: October 2007

Beyond Belief, Big Issue in the North

With Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens launching an intellectual assault on religion, Mike Cotgreave looks at the options open to those who no longer believe.

Religion has been an increasingly hot topic of debate recently but rarely, it seems, has there been such a sustained attack on God and the various belief systems that venerate him. If best-seller lists are anything to go by, atheism is in the ascendancy and following close behind are the bull-horns of a new Enlightenment that all are being encouraged to grasp.

In the vanguard of this movement are four writers who have taken it upon themselves to confront head on what they see as the dangerous irrationality of organised faith and superstition. In Letter to a Christian Nation , Sam Harris takes the present-day disciples of Jesus to task, describing the Catholic church as an “institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child-molesters”. Daniel C Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , implores believers to be more critical of the cultural impact of their faiths.

Two books, however, are competing to be recognised as the bible of neo-atheism. The first is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As a biologist, Dawkins has positioned himself as the standard bearer of scientific reasoning and evolutionary theory. He even has his own foundation propagating the secular gospel according to Dr Dawkins. In a newspaper article after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he wrote that spreading religion throughout the world “is like littering the streets with loaded guns”. In his best-selling book he aims to change the “moral zeitgeist” and expose what he sees as the inherent dangers of the religious “mind virus”.

Challenging Dawkins to be crowned king of this atheist crusade is Christopher Hitchens, who describes the heathen quartet of which he is part as the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse. Hitchens has built a career on being controversial, having called Bill Clinton a rapist and Mother Theresa a deceitful, self-publicising theocrat, and turned with venom on his former comrades on the left, accusing them of being apologists for Saddam Hussein. It was only a matter of time before he turned on God, whose name he even contemptuously refuses to capitalise in the title of his book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything .

As a self-avowed antitheist, Hitchens has been doing the rounds on television networks in America (where he is now a citizen) opposing organised religion and its adherents with equal eloquence and viciousness. When the controversial evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell dropped dead this year, Hitchens shunned sensitivity by proclaiming him an “ugly little charlatan” who, if hell exists, deserved to be in it. He describes the idea of heaven as a “celestial North Korea”, but would no doubt agree with the North Koreans on Lenin’s description of religion as “unutterable vileness of the most dangerous kind”.

Although an influx of catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe has swelled mass attendances, Christianity has rarely seemed so irrelevant in the UK, compared with the United States where God appears to be all powerful. Obviously dominating the political agenda is how to counter the real and perceived threats posed to social cohesion and national security by militant Islam. The new Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain claims to represent a growing movement of those who have abandoned the Koran and embraced Enlightenment ideals. In its manifesto the organisation says it is “breaking the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam but also taking a stand for reason, universal rights and values, and secularism”. In Islamic countries such as Iran, becoming an ex-Muslim is a crime punishable by death. Spokesperson Maryam Namazie believes that many atheist ex-Muslims in the UK are reluctant to openly express their loss of faith, anxious of a hostile reaction from family members and other Muslims. “We want to show that it is not racist to criticise Islam, and create an atmosphere in which Muslims can renounce their religion without fear,” she says.

For ex-Christians there is a plethora of organisations to choose from. The National Secular Society invites the former faithful to undergo “de-baptism” and unshackle themselves from the “original mumbo-jumbo that liberated you from the original sin you never had”. Amongst other issues, the society campaigns for the disestablishment of the Church of England and for the abolition of blasphemy laws (although the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy was John Gott in 1922. For comparing Jesus to a circus clown he received nine months hard labour). Spokesman Alistair McBay says there is a need for such agitation to “fight the religious fundamentalism, encouraged by government, that threatens our freedoms”.

Blackpool humanist Kath Wayland believes in robust opposition to fundamentalism of all kinds and to the state funding of faith schools. The British Humanist Association, of which she is a member, campaigns against religious influence in public life and for “inclusive schools where children with parents of all faiths and none learn to understand and respect each other, instead of being segregated in the growing number of faith and sectarian schools”.

Wayland says: “Fundamentally we believe people should be free to say and do what they like without causing harm to others. Humanist values are often very similar to those of Christianity, without the need for a supernatural power to decide moral standards.”

Book sales and newspaper column inches on both sides of the Atlantic suggest there is considerable appetite for the discussion of atheist ideas. Recently, in Liverpool city centre, I encountered a young man claiming to represent an organisation called the Atheist Empire‚ preaching godlessness with the evangelical zeal of his Christian counterparts. The challenge for the atheist movement is to maintain the momentum of the international discourse they have set in motion but, in a note of caution, Professor Robert Winston has criticised Dawkins for being “patronising” and accused him of “scientific arrogance”. Secular zealots, as Winston warns, will not defeat religious fundamentalism but embolden it.

This unholy war of words is – as the often-used phrase goes – a battle for hearts and minds. Whether or not neo-atheism has the shelf life to vanquish its great foe, God only knows.

With Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens launching an intellectual assault on religion, Mike Cotgreave looks at the options open to those who no longer believe.

Religion has been an increasingly hot topic of debate recently but rarely, it seems, has there been such a sustained attack on God and the various belief systems that venerate him. If best-seller lists are anything to go by, atheism is in the ascendancy and following close behind are the bull-horns of a new Enlightenment that all are being encouraged to grasp.

In the vanguard of this movement are four writers who have taken it upon themselves to confront head on what they see as the dangerous irrationality of organised faith and superstition. In Letter to a Christian Nation , Sam Harris takes the present-day disciples of Jesus to task, describing the Catholic church as an “institution that has produced and sheltered an elite army of child-molesters”. Daniel C Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , implores believers to be more critical of the cultural impact of their faiths.

Two books, however, are competing to be recognised as the bible of neo-atheism. The first is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As a biologist, Dawkins has positioned himself as the standard bearer of scientific reasoning and evolutionary theory. He even has his own foundation propagating the secular gospel according to Dr Dawkins. In a newspaper article after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he wrote that spreading religion throughout the world “is like littering the streets with loaded guns”. In his best-selling book he aims to change the “moral zeitgeist” and expose what he sees as the inherent dangers of the religious “mind virus”.

Challenging Dawkins to be crowned king of this atheist crusade is Christopher Hitchens, who describes the heathen quartet of which he is part as the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse. Hitchens has built a career on being controversial, having called Bill Clinton a rapist and Mother Theresa a deceitful, self-publicising theocrat, and turned with venom on his former comrades on the left, accusing them of being apologists for Saddam Hussein. It was only a matter of time before he turned on God, whose name he even contemptuously refuses to capitalise in the title of his book god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything .

As a self-avowed antitheist, Hitchens has been doing the rounds on television networks in America (where he is now a citizen) opposing organised religion and its adherents with equal eloquence and viciousness. When the controversial evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell dropped dead this year, Hitchens shunned sensitivity by proclaiming him an “ugly little charlatan” who, if hell exists, deserved to be in it. He describes the idea of heaven as a “celestial North Korea”, but would no doubt agree with the North Koreans on Lenin’s description of religion as “unutterable vileness of the most dangerous kind”.

Although an influx of catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe has swelled mass attendances, Christianity has rarely seemed so irrelevant in the UK, compared with the United States where God appears to be all powerful. Obviously dominating the political agenda is how to counter the real and perceived threats posed to social cohesion and national security by militant Islam. The new Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain claims to represent a growing movement of those who have abandoned the Koran and embraced Enlightenment ideals. In its manifesto the organisation says it is “breaking the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam but also taking a stand for reason, universal rights and values, and secularism”. In Islamic countries such as Iran, becoming an ex-Muslim is a crime punishable by death. Spokesperson Maryam Namazie believes that many atheist ex-Muslims in the UK are reluctant to openly express their loss of faith, anxious of a hostile reaction from family members and other Muslims. “We want to show that it is not racist to criticise Islam, and create an atmosphere in which Muslims can renounce their religion without fear,” she says.

For ex-Christians there is a plethora of organisations to choose from. The National Secular Society invites the former faithful to undergo “de-baptism” and unshackle themselves from the “original mumbo-jumbo that liberated you from the original sin you never had”. Amongst other issues, the society campaigns for the disestablishment of the Church of England and for the abolition of blasphemy laws (although the last person to be imprisoned for blasphemy was John Gott in 1922. For comparing Jesus to a circus clown he received nine months hard labour). Spokesman Alistair McBay says there is a need for such agitation to “fight the religious fundamentalism, encouraged by government, that threatens our freedoms”.

Blackpool humanist Kath Wayland believes in robust opposition to fundamentalism of all kinds and to the state funding of faith schools. The British Humanist Association, of which she is a member, campaigns against religious influence in public life and for “inclusive schools where children with parents of all faiths and none learn to understand and respect each other, instead of being segregated in the growing number of faith and sectarian schools”.

Wayland says: “Fundamentally we believe people should be free to say and do what they like without causing harm to others. Humanist values are often very similar to those of Christianity, without the need for a supernatural power to decide moral standards.”

Book sales and newspaper column inches on both sides of the Atlantic suggest there is considerable appetite for the discussion of atheist ideas. Recently, in Liverpool city centre, I encountered a young man claiming to represent an organisation called the Atheist Empire‚ preaching godlessness with the evangelical zeal of his Christian counterparts. The challenge for the atheist movement is to maintain the momentum of the international discourse they have set in motion but, in a note of caution, Professor Robert Winston has criticised Dawkins for being “patronising” and accused him of “scientific arrogance”. Secular zealots, as Winston warns, will not defeat religious fundamentalism but embolden it.

This unholy war of words is – as the often-used phrase goes – a battle for hearts and minds. Whether or not neo-atheism has the shelf life to vanquish its great foe, God only knows.

[external link]

Why do we ignore the plight of ex-Muslims? Johann Hari, The Independent

Imagine a woman – let’s call her Beth – who has been an unthinking atheist all her life, just because her family and her friends are, too. One day, she decides to convert to Islam. As soon as she dons the hijab, her neighbours start to swear and spit at her in the street. A brick is thrown through her window; while she is sleeping, her car is torched.

When she speaks out publicly, the death threats come. She is a “whore” who will be “raped to death”. All the other converts to Islam are receiving the same threats. Some have been beaten. Some are on the run. When they approach the police, they are wary-to-hostile. The officers ask suspiciously: what have you been doing to anger these Muslim-bashers?

If this was happening this way, it would – rightly – be a national scandal. There would be Panorama specials, front-page fury and government inquiries into Islamophobia. But it is happening – only in the reverse direction. All over Europe, there are Muslims who are exercising their right in a free society to change their religion, or to become atheists. And they are regularly being threatened, beaten and burned-out, while the police largely stand by, inert.

Ehsan Jami is an intelligent, softly-spoken 22-year-old council member for the Dutch Labour Party. He believes there should be no compromise, ever, on the rights of women and gay people and novelists and cartoonists. He became sick of hearing self-appointed Islamist organisations claiming to speak for him when they called for the banning of books and the “right” to abuse women. So he set up the Dutch Council of Ex-Muslims. Their manifesto called for secularism – and an end to the polite toleration of Islamist intolerance. As he put it: “We want people to be free to choose who they want to be and what they want to believe in.”

Ehsan was immediately threatened with death. He was kicked to the ground outside the supermarket. He was grabbed in a street with a knife put to his throat. He can’t afford to be glib about the risk: he remembers the near decapitation of Theo Van Gough on the streets of Amsterdam. Yet instead of rallying to Ehsan, his party condemned him. The Dutch deputy Prime Minister, Wouter Bos, said they disapproved of an organisation that “offends Muslims and their faith”.

In Britain, my friend Maryam Namazie recently set up the British Council of Ex-Muslims. She was immediately flooded with calls from frightened people who wanted to join but were too intimidated. Endless phone threats inform her that she will soon be beheaded – but she has learned that the police just aren’t interested. “They have never been very helpful,” she says. “They act as if it’s your fault for ‘provoking’ these people, when in fact the Islamist movement uses threats and intimidation as a tool to silence their critics.”

People raised on the honeyed multicultural platitudes that religions such as Christianity and Islam are all about love and hugging puppies will wonder why these people would take such risks to leave their faith. This week I interviewed Mina Ahadi, the founder of the German branch of the Council of Ex-Muslims, after she was named Secularist of the Year.

Mina is a warm fifty-something woman with a big laugh, and when we meet – in a house in London I can’t disclose for safety reasons – she is wearing a big jumper and small, wire-rimmed glasses that make her look like any other German Hausfrau. But she has a very different story, taking me back to her childhood in rural Iran. She tells me: “As a Muslim girl, I was not allowed to do so many things. From the age of 12 onwards I was basically not allowed to leave the house. I couldn’t play on the street, I couldn’t mix with boys, I couldn’t even do the shopping. I hated it. There was terrible violence towards the women in my community, everywhere. One of my cousins, Nahid, went into a man’s house unaccompanied, and the men in my family tied her to a tree and whipped her. When I read the Koran for myself I was shocked, because many of these things are actually recommended by the Prophet Mohammed.”

She soon realised she was an atheist, a view reinforced by her reading of Charles Darwin. When she went to university, the Islamists began to force a theocracy on the Iranian people. She refused to accept the mass sackings of women and the enforced veiling. She was beaten for speaking out, and had to go into hiding. One day, her husband and four of their friends were taken away. Nine months later, in another hiding place, she read that they had been executed.

She decided to seek refuge in Austria, because she read in a book that women’s life expectancy there was higher than men’s, “and I thought – that’s my kind of country!” But she was amazed to find that even in Europe, Islamist groups were being treated as the respected spokesmen for all Muslims by politicians and journalists. Even here, the extreme wing threatened her with death for forming the International Committee Against Stoning to save women, and the police did little. On her visit to Britain, they offered her no protection at all.

If Christian fundamentalists were doing this – as they used to, and would like to again – none of us would hesitate in erupting in rage. But because Islamic fundamentalists are doing it, we feel awkward, and fall silent. The difference is the colour of their skin. There’s a word for this: racism.

Women such as Mina expose a hole in the stale logic of multiculturalism. She shows that secularism is not a “Western” value: she thought of it all by herself, in a rural village in Iran. Yet the attitudes that lead to the persecution of apostates are widespread even within British Islam, because we patronisingly assume it is “their culture” and do not challenge it. Some 36 per cent of British Muslims between the ages of 18 and 24 think apostates should be murdered. The younger British Muslims are, the more they believe it – a bad sign for the future, unless we start arguing back. This isn’t just kids sounding off. Some act on it: a Despatches documentary this year, Unholy War, found dozens of cases of apostates having their cars blown up, their kids threatened and even being beaten and left for dead, on British streets.

One way to keep up the pressure for this reform within Islam is to have a thriving movement of ex-Muslims. They demonstrate to ordinary Muslims that if they are appalled by the unreformed bigotry of their faith as it currently stands, there is a rich and rewarding alternative – secular humanism.

If we in Europe do not defend people like Ehsan and Maryam and Mina, who are fighting fundamentalist thugs for the basic human right to believe and say what they want, do we deserve these rights for ourselves?

[external links]

On Trade Unions and Islamic organisations

This Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain statement is regarding the April 2007 joint seminar by the Trade Union Congress and the Muslim Council of Britain entitled Trade Unions and the Muslim Community:

Few of the ordinary people who are identified in Britain as ‘Muslim’ are represented by the Muslim Council of Britain; they are in fact secular and want religion and the state to be kept separate.

For British Trade Unions – that have an outstanding record of fighting for justice and fairness, defending free speech, fighting for workers’ right and defeating the Far Right – to engage with and give credibility to a right wing organisation such as the Muslim Council of Britain is unfortunate and mistaken. The MCB draws inspiration from the neo-fascist Jammaat-e-Islami. British Trade Unions have pioneered the struggle for equality, diversity and the rights of women and LGBT members. The Muslim Council of Britain has, for example, openly declared that gay and lesbians are unacceptable and harmful and maintained the discrimination against millions of women by the imposition of sexual apartheid and the veil.

For British Trade Unions to link to such right-wing Islamic groups is to betray the memory of Trade Unionists across the world who have died in the struggle against political Islam and the struggle for political and trade union freedoms British workers have fought for over centuries.

British Trade Unions should approach British ‘Muslims’ as fellow workers and encourage them to fully participate and integrate with other workers in Britain . It is a mistake to give credence to self-styled and self-appointed leaders of reactionary religious organisations.

We appeal to UNISON, Unite, SERTUC and other Trade Unions in the UK to maintain their heritage of secular and progressive thinking and not link to stereotypes of medievalism.

One law for all

The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain notes with concern the Islamist campaign to give legal weight to Sharia law within British law. The campaign seeks to influence family and legal practitioners into dealing with particularly children of Muslim parents in accordance with Sharia law.

Universal principles and laws must apply to all, and practitioners must understand that no section of the population should come under the jurisdiction of religious laws under the guise of multiculturalism and legal pluralism. It is discriminatory and unfair to have different and separate standards and norms for ‘different’ people. Children in particular must be given full protection, rights, and equality.

Priority must be given to the welfare of children not religion.

Mina Ahadi, founder of the Ex-Muslim Council movement wins the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year Award

Iranian Dissident Wins Secularist of The Year Prize

A woman who has spent her life opposing the mistreatment of women by the Iranian clerical regime has been awarded the £5,000 prize for Secularist of the Year by the National Secular Society.

Mina Ahadi, an Iranian exile now living in Germany, was presented with the prize in London on Saturday (20 October). In his statement honouring Mina Ahadi, Professor Richard Dawkins said:

“I have long felt that the key to solving the worldwide menace of Islamic terrorism and oppression would eventually be the awakening of women, and Mina Ahadi is a charismatic leader working to that end. The brutal suppression of the rights of women in many countries throughout the Islamic world is an obvious outrage. Slightly less obvious, but just as outrageous, is the supine willingness of western liberals to go along with it. It is worse than supine, it is patronising and condescending: “Wife-beating is part of ‘their’ culture. Who are we to condemn their traditions?” A religion so insecure as to mandate the death penalty for apostasy is not to be trifled with, and ex-Muslims who stand up and fight deserve our huge admiration and gratitude for their courage. Right out in front of this honourable band is Mina Ahadi. I salute her and congratulate her on this well-deserved award as Secularist of the Year.”

Mina Ahadi started her serious political activities when she was 16 and living in Iran. She was at university in 1979 in Tabriz at the time of the Iranian revolution and she began immediately to organise demonstrations and meetings to oppose the compulsory veiling of women. This courageous dissent got her noticed by the Islamic regime’s authorities and soon she had to go underground to avoid retribution.

The end of 1980 her house was raided by the police and her husband and four of their comrades arrested. Mina escaped only because she wasn’t at home at the time. Her husband and the four arrested were all executed by firing squad soon after. She lived underground for some time and then fled to Iranian Kurdistan in 1981, where she continued to struggle against the Islamic regime for the next ten years. In 1990 she went to Vienna. She moved to Germany in 1996 and has lived in Europe since then.

In all that time, Mina Ahadi has struggled mightily for the rights of women. She founded the International Committee against Stoning – which now has over 200 branches throughout the world. She also heads the International Committee against Executions and is the spokesperson for the newly formed women’s rights organisation, Equal Rights. She formed the Central Council of ex-Muslims in Germany early this year to help people renounce Islam and religion should they so wish.

This brilliant idea has now been replicated in several other European countries, including in Britain by our own Maryam Namazie. Undeterred by the inevitable death threats, Mina has pressed on, determined as ever to protect women from the ravages of Islam.

Apostasy, of course, is forbidden in Islam and in some Islamist states it carries the death penalty – including in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Mauritania.

She calls such states “Islam-stricken” and her own experience of living and suffering under such regimes has made her ever more determined to rescue others from their clutches.

[external links]

  • 1
  • 2

Subscribe to our Newsletter

CEMB Logo© 2017 - All rights reserved.
UK Atheist Top 5 Blogs
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain is a limited by guarantee Company registered in England & Wales.
Registration number 8059509.
Designed with in London

X