Below is the English version of an interview with Marieke Hoogwout published in Dutch in Vrij Links on 29 March 2019. The interview was conducted before the Christchurch and Utrecht terrorist attacks this month. You can read the Dutch interview here.
In January, Iranian-British human rights activist Maryam Namazie gave the 24th Freedom Lecture at De Balie in Amsterdam. Hers was a fierce plea for solidarity from the left with all dissenters, ex-Muslims, feminists, secularists, in short: with anyone challenging repression of political Islam.
An interview on how politicians, media and all of us citizens can contribute to, in her own words, this ‘movement of secularism and shared humanity’.
First, to get this out of the way – secularism, at least in Dutch, is open to two interpretations: one is ‘non-believing’, or even ‘atheism’, the other is ‘creating a level playing field for all beliefs and convictions’. How would you define the concept of secularism in your movement?
‘I would say: secularism is the complete separation of religion from the state, including state institutions and policy. Religion or lack thereof is a private affair and not the remit of the state. We should all insist on this.’
You called on all of us, on the left, to support the dissenters, the secularists and anyone challenging political Islam. And you feel this support is lacking, still. What would you, for starters, want politicians to do, in order to bring change about?
‘I would tell politicians and policy makers that they should insist on universal values and secularism for all and to not see these values as ‘European values’ or ‘Dutch values’ or ‘British values’. They are universal. People have fought for, and continue to fight for them, sometimes at great risk to their lives, including in countries under Islamic rule.
‘If you think ‘their culture is different’ and so ‘they don’t want the same freedoms and rights as we do’, then you will not be able to show solidarity with those who are dissenting and fighting on the front lines for change. If you homogenise communities and societies and see those in power as representing the ‘authentic culture’, you will end up supporting the Islamists, those that are in power, those that are anti-universal values and anti-secularism rather than the dissenters.
‘I would also urgently call on politicians to insist on citizenship rights. When I came to De Balie, I fell in love with Amsterdam, this beautiful city and wonderful people. But what really affected me, too, was the day after, I spoke to two groups of students. One from a wealthier school in a wealthier area, and one from a school with a lot of students with Muslim parents. And to me, the difference was very stark – from the level of education, access to resources and information, to whether one was more open to different ideas or not.
‘Our societies are sleepwalking into disaster because of the segregation of our children, based on their families’ background and beliefs. It does lead to huge inequalities in the access that people get, and also in the way that people feel particularly on whether they belong in a society. If you are treated as an outsider, even if you were born in that society, you will begin to feel like that. That is a key issue – education has to be secular and level the playing field for all children despite any differences.
‘We have to start insisting on secular education, on treating children and people as citizens no matter what their backgrounds, on making people feel they really belong and that they are really equal – rather than say ‘well that’s their culture’, as if they are separate from the rest of society.’
‘In Britain, for example, a primary school that taught pupils about homosexuality as part of a programme to challenge homophobia has been forced to stop the lessons after Muslim parents complained and withdrew their children. In another primary school, a play on Darwin and evolution was cancelled after complaints by Christian parents. This is the influence of the Christian-Right and Islamism to the detriment of our societies as clearly not all Christian or Muslim parents think this way. Some will feel that their children have lost valuable lessons as a result of the cancellations but the religious-Right are always the loudest though they by no means represent a majority. The only response can be to insist that education be secular and that respect for human rights and citizenship be essential learning despite what parents think. Also access to the latest advances in science and human knowledge is key. The insistence on universal values and secularism is crucial in all aspects of society but particularly education and the law. It’s really a minimal framework for us all. Also with regards children, it is important to see them as human beings with rights separate from their parents. Children are not the property of their parents to do with them as they wish and they have a right to an education worthy of our century.’
What would you like to say to us, as citizens? What can all of us do today?
‘I would say – be brave. We have to stand up against the racists, against dehumanization and against ghettoization of people based on their background. For citizenship rights. And also to stand up for the dissenters within minority communities, for those who are speaking up, and who are at great risk of threats, violence, shunning and ostracization even in Europe. We have to stand up against all fundamentalists and in defense of our common humanity.
‘It is very important for people on the left who are concerned about throwing flames onto the fires of racism, to understand that the fundamentalists are our far right. They are, fundamentally, very similar to the white supremacists and the racists – similar in their reliance on religion, on violence, on scapegoating and on othering anyone who doesn’t look and speak like them; they are similar in their misogyny, their homophobia and their anti-Semitism. They are the same, just wearing different clothes. Look underneath and it’s the same thing.
‘We, the progressives, are fighting all manifestations of beliefs that violate people’s rights, and so we are also fighting the religious right. We are defending universal values, we are defending secularism and we are defending the dissenters who are challenging the status quo. As any left person should be doing and has historically done.’
And what would you ask of the media?
‘In the media, it is always the most regressive and reactionary voices that are brought to the table as the so-called ‘representatives of the community’. The dissenting voices, the feminist voices, the socialist voices within the so-called minorities are almost never heard. And by feminist voices, I mean those for whom women’s rights trumps religion and belief. I do not mean ‘Islamic feminists’, an oxymoron, who are more interested in defending Islam.
‘Unfortunately, when it comes to the dissidents, we don’t fit the media’s narrative to speak about issues that we have put our lives on the line for. Thankfully, the internet has opened up the space for us, even if the media ignores us and acts like we don’t exist. As I have said before, the Internet is doing to Islam what the printing press did to Christianity.
‘To support dissenters, you’ve got to see them first. If you cannot even believe that they exist, how can you support them? Only when you see there are lots of people who don’t agree with repression, and who are fighting for real equality, who are fighting against racism and against discrimination, including in religion, then you will side with the people who are dissenting rather than regressive community leaders and Islamists.’
Sometimes I think some people on the left do not want to see. It would mean having to acknowledge there are power structures within minority communities. I feel some people would rather see all Muslims, in a simple good guy/bad guy-scenario, as one homogeneous ‘community’, deserving of their protection against the far right. To see otherwise, to them would be – uncomfortable.
‘Of course it is uncomfortable! Do you think I feel comfortable every day? I do not. It is very, very uncomfortable saying things that are not acceptable. It is not something that is very easy, we all feel very uncomfortable. But you know – some things need to be said and done. How would the Dutch feel about being seen as one and the same as Geert Wilders? That’s how I feel being seen to be one and the same as an Islamist. There is no homogeneity, and much dissent including amongst minorities. Do you think brown and black people are unable to think freely or dissent against the status quo?
When I speak out for instance on women’s rights in Islam, I sometimes am told that I, as a non-Muslim white woman, have no right to do so. What helped me a lot were the words of Zineb el Rhazoui: ‘If you let yourself be silenced for fear of being called Islamophobic, or a racist – then you’re siding with our oppressors.’ But I think, too many people on the left still are hesitant to speak out about this.
‘One of the problems of identity politics is it seen to be progressive and left but it actually promotes far right politics. It feeds into the narrative of both the fundamentalists and the far right or the white supremacists. Identity politics sees Muslims as a monolith, as a homogeneous group. So the far-Right wants to deport and hate all Muslims as they see them as one and the same as the fundamentalists. This is the problem with identity politics. It doesn’t allow us to see people’s humanity. And some on the left think they must support the Islamists in order to support a ‘Muslim minority’.‘Identity politics only allows you to see those in power as they ‘represent’ the community and determine or impose ‘authentic’ culture. But they are really only self-appointed. People have many characteristics that define them – there is no homogeneity in any society or community or culture. I mean, does everyone in the Netherlands think exactly the same way?
We do not. We have 17 million ‘bondscoaches’ [coaches of our national football team], and 13 political parties in parliament, last I counted.
‘Does everyone in Britain think the same way? I mean – look at Brexit! There is dissent and lots of it. So why would someone think that does not exist in minority communities? Are we less then you? How patronizing first of all, to say or to think that we all agree with our ayatollahs. Do Dutch people all agree with the pope? Are they all Catholics, and hard core ones at that, who are anti-abortion and anti-gay rights and anti-women’s rights?‘Of course not! So why is it that they would think that we are like that? How patronizing. How racist. To see us all as one and the same as our oppressors.
‘Identity politics does not see the dissent. It doesn’t see those political and social movements fighting for change. How can you show solidarity with dissenters when you are too busy looking at the mullahs and the imams and the ayatollahs? You won’t be able to see the feminists and the socialists and the labour activists and the apostates who are risking their lives to challenge the status quo.’
Kenan Malik said: ‘What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities’. For instance, a political cartoon can be considered ‘offensive’, when basically it is challenging power. As it has always done. In your lecture at De Balie you showed a rather old Arabic cartoon mocking religious leaders. Do you agree with Malik’s point of view?
‘One hundred percent. First of all, what does ‘offensive’ even mean – is being against Brexit an offense to the British community? Or is not caring about Brexit an offense to the English or the Christian community? Universal values, the concept of citizenship, are not about ‘group rights’; they’re about individual rights. There are very different types of people and beliefs within the so called ‘Muslim community’ – as is the case in any society.
‘Many ex-Muslims are told we are not allowed to talk about Islam, because we aren’t ‘real Muslims’. You know how many times I have been told: ‘you come from a Shia tradition and Shia’s are not even Muslims, so you were never a Muslim to begin with’? Which I find interesting because when they count the statistics of Muslims, they count everybody in. That is the problem with identity politics – you are never Muslim enough, you’re never black enough, you’re never woman enough, you’re never minority, enough to speak about these issues.
‘But I will speak about any issue that affects human beings – because before anything, I am a human being. I see our common humanity and I see the universality of our struggles and fights. Identity politics does not see those commonalities. It just wants to defend identity at any cost. It will defend culture and religion at any cost. But I think we should be defending human rights and human lives, as best we can. And hold human beings sacred, rather than beliefs, culture, religion and very specific often imagined identities.’
‘On the issue of offence, we are all offended by somethings but somehow most of us never see the need to kill for it. The fundamentalists, however, are offended by everything that has to do with 21st century lives and will threaten or kill anyone who doesn’t agree. Also, interestingly, they are never offended by stonings and decapitations and book burnings but always by unveiled women or gay sex or singing and dancing. The whole offence industry here in the west is really not about religious sensibilities but Islamists demands to impose blasphemy and apostasy laws where they don’t exist.’
I find it very difficult to explain this concept of the ‘regressive left’ to people who I feel, are being – just that. They say ‘That’s a right-wing framework! No one on the left supports forced hijab!” And that in itself, is indeed absolutely true. But in the Netherlands, I feel, it is like a fault by omission, a fault of not speaking out. We always speak out about anything except – when it comes to dissent or emancipation in Muslim communities. And then, people on the left say: ‘Welllll … it has to come from within the communities, we cannot impose our values, these things take time, and look at where we were in the Netherlands 50 years ago.’
‘The point is not that some on the left – and I say this as someone firmly on the left – is not against forced hijab. Of course, they are against that. The point is: they never criticize hijab as a tool to manage, control, and police women’s bodies. When you say: ‘Look at where we were 50 years ago, we have to be tolerant’ – that’s tolerance of the intolerable. We are in the 21st century after all. Doesn’t everyone deserve the same rights and freedoms?
‘When you say ‘That is their culture, that is their religion’ – you are seeing them as something that is different from the rest of ‘white’ Dutch society. If ‘white’ girls in Holland were made to wear religious symbols because their parents were religious or segregated from boys because their parents thought they would bring chaos in society if there was mixing of the sexes – would they say ‘well, you know, it’s the parents’ culture’? Of course not! Why say it when it comes to girls from Muslim backgrounds?’
People also say: ‘Of course we are against oppression, but that is in other countries. In the Netherlands, all women are free to choose, so wearing the veil must be their free choice and if we speak against it, we would be no different from the authoritarian regimes.’ What is your point of view on this?
‘Framing it in the language of choice is actually part of the narrative of the fundamentalists. And if you do that, then you don’t see all the pressures, all the subtle and sometimes not so subtle threats, and all the coercion that takes place behind the scenes, in order to impose this on women and girls or on gay people, or on apostates, or on any other minorities within minorities, to show conformity within that community. And particularly when it comes to children, using the language of choice is an excuse to ignore child abuse.
‘Of course there are women who ‘choose’ to wear the veil, like there are women who refuse to leave a violence relationship, but seeing it as a free choice misses the point. The veil is an instrument to control and police women – like foot-binding, like suttee, like FGM. By focusing on a woman ‘choosing’ to throw herself on the burning pyre of her deceased husband, one ignores and even legitimizes women’s oppression and misogyny.
‘People who say ‘it’s their culture, it’s a choice, it’s not our place’ think that if they don’t rock the boat, it will keep some sort of social peace. But actually, it will not. There is a battle going on. Isn’t it better that all of us, as progressives, have a stake in that fight? So that the society that comes out of it, is one where progressive people have been involved, and not just the fascists – be they either the white supremacists, or the Islamists, or the Christian right.
‘Things can change fundamentally if more people will be involved who are anti-racist and pro-human rights, irrespective of background and belief. That would make that fight so much more human. And the results would be so much more human.’