Maryam Namazie is an Iranian-born writer and activist. She is the Spokesperson for Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She hosts a weekly television programme in Persian and English called Bread and Roses. sister-hood interviewed her after the ‘Celebrating Dissent’ event she co-organised with the DeBalie venue in Amsterdam.
This is part one of a two-part interview.
What does the Council of Ex-Muslims do, and why is it necessary?
CEMB defends the rights of those who leave or criticise Islam. Becoming an atheist is part and parcel of freedom of conscience and criticism of Islam or blasphemy is an integral part of free expression. Islam, like any other belief system, has to be open to criticism. Criticism of religion and the sacred has been integral to changing the world for the better. On an individual level, people should be able to leave a religion or say what they think without fearing for their lives. Unfortunately, for many, there are serious threats for doing just that. Blasphemy and apostasy are punishable by death in over a dozen countries under Sharia. Even here in Europe, ex-Muslims can face shunning, abuse, honour-related violence and threats from family and others for thinking out loud. Accusations of ‘Islamophobia’ further silence those who are merely fighting to live and think as they choose without shame, apology or fear.
When one can be killed for it, dissent – and especially the celebration of dissent – becomes a necessity both for resistance and change but also for one’s survival. Ask any closeted LGBT person what it felt like to come out of the closet and be okay with who you are. It’s the same for ex-Muslims. Many risk everything to come out. For most the risks are worth it so they can live lives of their own choosing, however imperfect.
We’re seeing an increasing number of vocal ex-Muslims, and many more who have quietly lost their faith. Do you think this speaks to a larger movement of people becoming disenchanted with Islam?
The fact that the Saudi government or a Pakistani high court judge equate atheism/blasphemy with terrorism, that the Egyptian government is producing a national plan to ‘confront and eliminate’ atheism and that the Iranian regime’s media outlets warn against the ‘tsunami’ of atheism reveals just how concerned Islamic states are with free thought amongst young people in particular. Social media and the Internet have enabled dissenters and freethinkers to find each other, to realise they are not insane or alone, and also to organise and build new forms of ‘community’. Social media is doing to Islam what the printing press did to Christianity.
I think even we ex-Muslims will be surprised at our sheer numbers: the extent of which will only really become clear once Islamism has been pushed back and people are truly able to say what they think without fear of punishment. At CEMB, we are overwhelmed with requests for help. We support around 600 ex-Muslims a month – everything from facilitating support groups, providing letters for apostasy asylum claims to finding refuges and preventing forced marriages.
You’re always drawing distinctions between Islam and Islamism. What is the distinction and why is it important?
Of course, there are important distinctions between beliefs and religious-Right or fundamentalist political movements and states. Beliefs are individual. Religious-Right movements like Islamism, the Christian-Right, Hindu-Right, Buddhist-Right and the Jewish-Right are not about individual beliefs, but about power and control. I think our focus should be on combating the religious-Right because once they are pushed back, religion actually becomes a private matter, and not one that regulates every aspect of society’s life. The impact of Christianity on Europeans before the Enlightenment and after is very different, not because its tenets changed – but because it was pushed into a corner. A religion that has been pushed back is forced to organise soup kitchens and homeless shelters instead of pulling out the tongues of apostates and burning witches. What is often forgotten is that even most believers disagree with the rules imposed by theocrats. If this is what people really believed, there would be no need for the herds of Hezbollah thugs, morality police and militia to keep people in line in places like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
With regards to religion, though, whilst it is a private matter, there are a few things that must be said. Not every Muslim or Hindu or Christian thinks alike. For example, I was ‘born’ Muslim but I had never read the Quran or been in a mosque in Iran. I was from a secular family, as are many others. I think most people adapt their beliefs to 21st century lives and most people are better than the religions they have been born into due to a lottery of birth. Having said that though, I believe religion as an idea belongs to another time and place. Islam and all religions are filled with misogyny, homophobia, death, hatred of the other and the privileging and superiority of one’s tribalistic in-group. Religions are obsessed with women’s bodies and controlling them. Religions are an enemy of freethought, doubt and dissent. To be a good religious believer, you must do as you’re told without question or else! There is always the threat of punishment here on earth or in some afterlife. Wear the veil, look down, listen to your male guardian, accept that you are worth half of a man, stay in your place and if you don’t, there is flogging, imprisonment, stoning, honour killing and burning in hell to remind others to toe the line. Religion is the best form of social control.
And as I have said before, religion kills and should – like cigarettes – come with a health warning. So yes, everyone has a right to their beliefs, even if we disagree with them. But that doesn’t mean that beliefs should not be challenged or criticised or even mocked. Ridiculous beliefs deserve to be ridiculed. Having the right to a belief is one thing. Ensuring that belief is protected from ridicule or criticism is another. Also, when it comes to religion, it isn’t really a private matter, and that’s why criticism is so important. It is an industry, an organised crime syndicate with clerics and mullahs imposing their rules on everyone and making life a living hell for women, and sexual and other minorities in particular.
You’ve dealt with censorship and harassment from Muslims which might be expected, but also from people who consider themselves progressive, such as feminist groups. Why is this?
Unfortunately, we live in the age of identity politics, which sees only a homogenous ‘Muslim community’, led and represented by theocrats and Islamists. It ignores and even vilifies the social and political movements and dissent taking place ‘within’ – so some feminist groups end up siding with Islamic groups, which they believe are the ‘authentic’ voices of the ‘Muslim community’ rather than with us. Every feminist, however, is duty-bound to stand with the witches, heretics and blasphemers of the ‘Muslim community’ and not the sharia judges, ‘community leaders’ and parasitical imams. If you only care about ‘group rights’ when it comes to minorities, the rights of individuals – those labelled disobedient women, transgressive women, whores, troublemakers and the corrupt – are of no interest to you. This is a politics of betrayal.
Are there particular issues around women leaving Islam?
All religions, in my opinion, are anti-women. When it comes to Islam, controlling women is the most visible aspect of the control and rule of theocrats, which is why the Islamists are so obsessed with women’s veil and segregation and their erasure from public space. I think this is also why women are at the frontlines of resistance. They are the first targets; even the slightest transgression visibly erodes theocratic control. This is why in Iran, women who defy compulsory veiling rules are sentenced to decades in prison. Women’s transgression is the biggest threat to theocracies and clerics. The fight against Islam and Islamism in particular is a female one. That is why women are so prominent and will continue to be so.
One of the campaigning points of CEMB is to challenge the use of sharia law in the UK through the One Law For All campaign. Why did you launch this project and what are its aims?
Religious laws, including sharia, are at best discriminatory against women; at worst, they are inhuman and brutal. The fact that minority women are railroaded into losing their rights in the family in sharia courts in Britain should be a human rights scandal but unfortunately, it isn’t. Like the fight for the rights of ex-Muslims, the fight for the rights of minority women from Muslim backgrounds is considered ‘Islamophobic’ by many, so black and minority ethnic women are very much on their own in the fight for equal rights. Women’s rights in the family have been fought for by the women’s liberation movement. They belong to all women, including minority women.
CEMB urged the publication to rectify the falsities. Suhonic clearly has a right to criticise our organisation and work but the use of false statements to ‘prove’ his points was unethical and libelous and aimed only to damage and defame.
ON 16th July, we received an email from the publication – see below – saying that one of the mistakes in his piece was rectified but the more important false claim on far-right support was not. We were told that since we were not a Dutch organisation, we could not publish our opinion piece but that they would consider a letter to the editor. We sent a shorter letter to the editor on 17th July (it was even translated for their ease) and though we emailed a number of times inquiring about its publication, we have yet to see our letter published and are therefore making it available to the public.
The English version of the opinion piece is below, as is the email received from the paper and our shortened letter to the editor, which was never published. UPDATE: After a number of contacts with the publication, our short letter to the editor was published on 31 July 2019. You can see the letter here.
SHORTENED LETTER TO THE EDITOR IN ENGLISH
Mr. Suhonic has made false claims regarding Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB). We are one of the largest and oldest progressive ex-Muslim groups worldwide. We defend LGBT rights of ex-Muslims and Muslims and the rights to apostasy and blasphemy. In struggling for these rights, we enact the rights that we demand. We blaspheme to win the right to blasphemy and reject religion to defend the right to apostasy. This public resistance when we can be shunned or killed for celebrating who we are is particularly apt to Gay Pride. Like women demanding the right to vote or blacks demanding an end to Jim Crow laws, we will blaspheme until we will no longer be killed for it. This may cause Mr Suhonic offence but defending the rights of those that offend religious morality has always been a cornerstone of progressive politics. After all, there are some Muslims who are offended by those who are Muslim and gay. Offence cannot be justification to deny minorities within minorities their rights. Mr Suhonic’s conflating blasphemy with far-Right support is like absurdly conflating his belief in Islam with support from Islamism! For us, Islamism is our far-Right and fundamentally no different from other religious-Right and racist movements. Bigotry affects us and our families too but we will not excuse fundamentalism because of racism nor racism because of fundamentalism.
Jimmy Bangash and Maryam Namazie
DUTCH LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Dino Suhonic heeft valse beweringen gedaan over deCouncil of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB). Wij zijn één van de grootste en oudste progressieve ex-moslimgroepen ter wereld. Wij verdedigen lhbt-rechten van ex-moslims én moslims en het recht op apostasie en blasfemie. In deze strijd oefenen we de rechten uit die we opeisen. Wij gebruiken blasfemie om het recht op blasfemie te verwerven en verwerpen religie om het recht op apostasie te verdedigen. Overwegende dat wij kunnen worden buitengesloten of vermoord voor het vieren wie wij zijn, is dit publieke verzet uitzonderlijk geschikt voor de Gay Pride. Zoals vrouwen die kiesrecht eisten of zwarten die afschaffing van de Jim Crow-wetten eisten, zullen wij blasfemie plegen totdat we er niet meer voor vermoord worden. Dat mag Suhonickwetstend vinden, maar verdediging van de rechten van degenen die de religieuze moraal kwetsen is altijd een hoeksteen van progressieve politiek geweest. Tenslotte worden sommige moslims gekwetst door degenen moslim en homo zijn. Gekwetstheid kan geen rechtvaardiging zijn om minderheden binnen de minderheden hun rechten te onthouden. Dat Suhonicblasfemie met extreemrechtse steun verwart is net zo absurd als zijn geloof in de islam verwarren met steun voor het islamisme! Voor ons is islamisme ons extreemrechts en verschilt fundamenteel niet van andere religieus-rechtse en racistische bewegingen. Discriminatie raakt ons en onze families allemaal, maar wij zullen fundamentalisme niet goedpraten vanwegeracisme, noch racisme vanwege fundamentalisme.
Jimmy Bangash en Maryam Namazie
EMAIL FROM THE PUBLICATION
On 16 Jul 2019, at 15:45, Het hoogste woord wrote:
Dear Mrs. Namazie,
Thank you, for your email and taking the effort to translate it to Dutch. After consulting with the author, I have made some changes to the article on our website. The sentence about the “Fuck islam-placard” has been removed. I added an editorial comment at the bottom of the article. Mr. Suhonic asked me to tell you he regrets his mistake.
Regarding your comment about the support for CEMB, I clarified in the article that Mr Suhonic meant “support on social media”, not financial support.
I would like to offer you the chance to reply and clarify your activities and position, however a full opinion piece would be too much, since you are not a Dutch organization and the remarks about your activities in Mr. Suhonic article are not the focus of the article. You are welcome to write a short response (around 150 words), which I will consider for publication in the ‘Letters to the newspaper’ section.
Met vriendelijke groet, kind regards,
Coördinator Het Hoogste Woord
Jacob Bontiusplaats 9, 1018 LL Amsterdam
THE LONGER OPINION PIECE WE INITIALLY WROTE TO REFUTE SUHONIC’S FALSE CLAIMS ABOUT CEMB – DUTCH HAS BEEN PUBLISHED IN VRIJ LINKS
On 15 Jul 2019, at 09:58, CEMB <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
CEMB urges your publication to rectify the falsities. Suhonic clearly has a right to criticise our organisation and work but the use of false statements to ‘prove’ his points is unethical and libelous and aims only to damage and defame.
The false statements are as follows:
“This group has previously been accused of spreading Muslim hatred by using slogans such as ‘Fuck Islam’.” Firstly, CEMB never had a placard that said ‘Fuck Islam’ but ‘Fuck Islamic Homophobia’. Criticising religious homophobia is integral to the fight for the rights of minorities within minorities and dissenters. Blasphemy and apostasy are not hatred against believers but a challenge to religious ideas and dogma. The conflation of criticism of religious dogma or the religious-Right with hatred against believers is an attempt to impose blasphemy and apostasy laws where none exist.
Your paper can see information and footage of our participation at Pride over the three years. There is no ‘Fuck Islam’ placard. In any case, opposition to a religion or belief is not bigotry against people.
“They receive support mainly from right-wing groups, who show their solidarity by jointly fighting ‘against the Islamisation of Britain’.”
CEMB is a progressive organisation that works with other progressive organisations, many of them minority-run, anti-Racist and anti-cultural relativist. We are unequivocally against Islamism and all other far-Right movements. We see Islamism as far-Right too and believe the stop Islamisation groups are fundamentally no different from the Islamists. They are fundamentally misogynist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, xenophobic, and rely on religion, hate and violence to further their cause. CEMB is an anti-racist organisation that always defends the rights of Muslims and migrants despite any differences in belief. You can see some of our recent statements or interviews here that clearly show our position:
CEMB fights on many fronts, against religious dogma, for the rights of women, LGBT, freedom of conscience and expression (which includes freedom from religion and atheism) and against racism and xenophobia… We won’t remain silent about fundamentalism or religious dogma because of racism or vice versa. We think we must fight them all in order to fully defend universal rights.
CEMB calls on your publication to give us the right to reply in your paper. The piece by Jimmy Bangash is below.
A translation will follow shortly.
We look forward to your immediate response.
By Jimmy Bangash
Dino Suhonic’s article covering the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) at Pride in London in Het Parool displays a poor understanding of the issues of apostasy and homosexuality impacting individuals of Muslim heritage. The article is littered with false claims, conflates blasphemy and apostasy with bigotry against believers and fails to acknowledge that Pride is a space for criticism of religion and the religious-Right.
It is deeply disappointing to see this article published without any attempt to fact check the absurd claims made by an individual so removed from the realities of our members’ lives – members who are predominantly from diaspora communities or are themselves refugees, hailing from Muslim-majority countries such as Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Our organisation stands for universal human rights to be applied to all people across all countries. We have a longstanding history of working to support apostates internationally in Islamic states and supporting refugees and asylum seekers in the UK and internationally. We have unequivocally defended Muslims as can be seen from our work, including condemnation of China’s treatment of Muslims and Chechnya’s treatment of LGBT Muslims.
We actively oppose far-right and racist organisations, many of whom seek to attack us as foreigners. We also have Muslim families who are affected by bigotry and we face added pressures and threats from within because we are LGBT and/or ex-Muslims. We, therefore, understand better than most the vile effects of bigotry and the need to stand up to it unequivocally. We consistently stand for the human rights of all. Again, much of this commitment is visible with even a cursory glance at our work over 12 years.
CEMB at Pride
Life for LGBT people of Muslim heritage can be bleak. For many it involves living a closeted existence within Muslim ‘communities’ for fear of being ostracised or disowned. Religious institutions and theological teachings espoused by ‘community leaders’ range from preaching for our execution, through to advising us to live a life of celibacy. With 52% of polled British Muslims stating that homosexuality should be illegal and 47% stating that it is unacceptable for a gay person to become a teacher, it is clear that our ‘communities’ are the most homophobic within the UK.
The situation in Muslim-majority countries is even more dire. A 2013 PEW global study on Muslim Attitudes reported almost unilateral condemnation of homosexuality. Countries expressing the highest population acceptance of homosexuality were Uganda (12%), Mozambique (11%) and Bangladesh (10%) with the other 37 Muslim majority countries polled showing less than 10%. Appallingly, all 14 states that hold the death penalty for homosexuality are Muslim-majority countries. Importantly, many of these countries also have the death penalty for apostasy – for leaving the religion of Islam – as well as for blasphemy.
Pride provides a safe place to challenge this religious homophobia. Since its inception, Pride has been a place where LGBT people have been able to rally against political, cultural, and religious condemnation of homosexuality.
Whether it is gay ex-Muslims (GEMs) protesting with placards stating “Fuck Islamic Homophobia” and condemning the Islamic states that have the death penalty for homosexuality, or gay Muslims attempting to redefine the position of gays within Islam with placards of “Allah Love us All”, Pride currently provides the only safe place to galvanise public awareness to the diverse protests and messages of LGBT of Muslim heritage. A safety which is not afforded to us, on any level, by the wider Muslim ‘communities’.
For us, our presence at Pride has been hugely important because we have members who are LGBT and/or refugees who have fled countries where homosexuality is punishable by death. Many of the same Islamic states that kill LGBT, also kill apostates and blasphemers. Our presence is, therefore, crucial because it aims not only to defend LGBT rights of ex-Muslims and Muslims but also to push open the shrinking spaces for religious doubt and dissent. Our placards embody the dissent against religious dogma that has always been an important part in the fight for human rights. Just as criticism of Christianity or the Christian-Right at Pride are not hatred towards Christians, so too our placards and presence have nothing to do with hate and everything to do with the demand for human rights for all. The right to be gay, be an apostate or to be a blasphemer without fear, ostracisation or threats to our lives.
Pride is one of the very few public spaces where we can come out, loud and proud – as LGBT and/or ex-Muslims – without fear. This is something we will continue to do despite vilifications and misinformation promoted by Dino Suhonic and others like him who cannot see how the rights and lives of LGBT and ex-Muslims are linked. To defend the rights of one we must defend the rights of all despite differences in beliefs and opinions.
She is energetic and outspoken. Her creativity on resistance against repressive regimes has attracted many communities around the globe. Maryam Namazie is an Iranian-born writer and activist based in London. She is the Spokesperson for Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She hosts a weekly television program in Persian and English called Bread and Roses. No doubt because of her activities for protecting and promoting human freedom, she is a top enemy of the country where she born.
Maryam was born in Tehran, but she left Iran with her family in 1980 after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. She then lived in India, the UK and then settled in the US where she began her university studies at the age of 17. After graduating, Maryam went to Sudan to work with Ethiopian refugees. Halfway through her stay, an Islamic government took power. She was threatened by the government for establishing a clandestine human rights organisation and had to be evacuated by her employer for her own safety.
Back in the United States, Maryam worked for various refugee and human rights organisations. She established the Committee for Humanitarian Assistance to Iranian Refugees in 1991. In 1994, she went to Turkey and produced a video documentary on the situation of Iranian refugees there.
The Islamic regime of Iran’s media outlets has called Maryam ‘immoral and corrupt’ and did an ‘exposé’ on her entitled ‘Meet this anti-religion woman’. In 2019, the Islamic regime’s intelligence service did a TV program where Maryam was featured as “anti-God”.
“No religion promotes an inclusive society. Religion is an exclusive club that sees its set of beliefs as superior to other sets of beliefs,” she said. “Inequality is a pillar of Sharia courts but this is not just the case for Sharia courts,” she added.
In this interview I have communicated with her on life in Iran, consequences of Sharia and religious courts, Easter Sunday’s bombings in Sri Lanka, and her readings on terrorism and radicalisation.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
By Nilantha Ilangamuwa
Q: Thank you for joining us Maryam! Tell us what is One Law for All initiative all about? And why is it important to have such an initiative?
One Law for All was established to oppose Sharia and religious courts because they are inhuman and abuse human rights. This is the case whether the courts are in Iran and Saudi Arabia or in Britain. One’s religion or belief is a basic right and a private matter.
Religious courts, however, have nothing to do with the right to religion and are part of the Islamist project to control and manage women, minorities and dissenters. We know Sharia’s criminal code includes the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy and stoning to death for gay sex or sex outside of marriage. It is unbelievably brutal.
In Britain, Sharia courts deal mainly with the family code, which some feel is trivial but the code is highly discriminatory against women and legitimises violence against women. For example, under Sharia’s family code, a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s, marital rape is not seen as a crime and child marriage and polygamy are deemed acceptable. One Law for All argues minority women from Muslim backgrounds should have the same rights in the family as other citizens.
Inequality is a pillar of Sharia courts but this is not just the case for Sharia courts. The Jewish Beth Din in the UK, for example, also puts women in limbo by refusing to grant them divorces without their husband’s permission. We know also historically about the role played by ecclesiastic courts. One Law for All argues that it is dangerous to put the rights of citizens in the hands of mullahs, priests and rabbis. Secular states, public policy and laws are the best way to ensure the rights of all citizens irrespective of background and belief.
Q: You were born in Iran and then moved to other places. Tell us about your childhood and the life in Iran till you left your motherland?
My parents are secular Muslims so I never had any religion imposed on me at home and never felt lesser for being a girl. In fact, I have always felt supported and loved even after I became an atheist.
I never really felt religion’s influence on my life until the Islamists took power in Iran.
Then things changed dramatically. There were Islamists sent to my school to separate the boys from the girls in the playground, executions on TV and the beginnings of compulsory veiling and the rest is as they say unfolding history. After living under an Islamic state, I realised very quickly though that religion in the state is heinous and why I campaign against it.
Prior to it, Iran was under the Shah’s dictatorship and for a time, the revolution gave everyone hope for real change but the Islamists took hold of it, slaughtered a generation and 40 years on, people have been living in a theocracy in the 21st century.
Q: What went wrong in Iran?
If you have fundamentalists in power, things will deteriorate very quickly, even for believers, as a believer is not the same as a fundamentalist. This isn’t a theoretical discussion. We can see the effects of a theocracy on the lives of freethinkers, women, LGBT, religious minorities and especially young people in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia but we can also see what happens when even secular societies are run by theocrats.
Look at Modi’s India where Muslims can be killed for eating beef. Look at the situation for abortion rights, for example, in the US with the rise of the Christian-Right. Or the situation of Muslims in Myanmar and so on. In Sri Lanka, too, you have extremist Sinhala Buddhist groups like Bodu Bala Sena which have had a detrimental effect on religious and other minorities and women.
Those killed in Sri Lanka could be any of us. We could be next. We must all take an unequivocal stand against all forms of fascism and hate. We must not allow the conflation of the religious-Right with ordinary believers, victim blaming, and the dehumanisation of the ‘other’ to legitimate a politics of terror and hate
This is the problem with identity politics everywhere. It reduces masses of people to just one religious or cultural identity though people are much more complex than that and have countless characteristics that define them. Identity politics reduces 21st-century citizens into warring tribes.
Which is why after the horrendous Easter Sunday terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, ordinary Muslims going about their lives are collectively blamed and we see Muslims being run out of their homes (including some ex-Muslims I know in Sri Lanka) or Muslim shops are burnt down. Also, refugees from Pakistan who have fled to Sri Lanka because of Islamist persecution become displaced again when they are run out of their homes. How can terrorising innocent people be a solution for terrorist attacks against other innocent people?
Q: Some of the reports indicated that you are ex-Muslim. Is that true?
I am an ex-Muslim and work with ex-Muslims in Sri Lanka and elsewhere too. Of course, our atheism is our private affair, it’s a matter of conscience and belief, but when people can be killed for apostasy and blasphemy, we feel the need to say we are ex-Muslims publicly to challenge the status quo and defend the right to expression and conscience without fear of persecution or discrimination.
Q: Why are you against Sharia Law?
As I mentioned, all religious laws are discriminatory. The problem with Sharia and other religious laws is that they are coercive.
If religion is a personal belief, then why do you need laws to enforce it? For example, some Muslims in my family fast during Ramadan and others have never fasted. This is the personal choice of adults.
However, in Iran or Saudi Arabia because of Sharia law, one will be flogged or imprisoned for eating during Ramadan. Examples abound such as in the case of compulsory veiling. If an adult doesn’t want to wear the veil, why do you need morality police to beat a woman, arrest her? Or if someone doesn’t believe in Islam, well that is their freedom of conscience.
Why must the state execute someone for atheism? Religious law is fundamentally unjust as it forces people to do not what they believe but that which the mullahs and clerics in power tell them. Coercion and violence go hand in hand with Sharia courts.
Q: Sri Lanka is the latest victim of self-proclaimed Islamic State. What is your reading on the attacks in Sri Lanka?
We at Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain along with other atheist groups (including the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka) expressed our outrage at the terrorist attacks and also mourned the many killed.
In our statement, we said:
“We are outraged at the Islamist attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Our hearts go out to the survivors and victims – hundreds killed, including at least 45 children, and more than 500 wounded. We mourn them with the people of Sri Lanka and the world.
“The terrorists claim to have killed innocent Christians and others in order to ‘avenge’ innocent Muslims killed in Christchurch; the Christchurch terrorist also feigned to kill innocent Muslim worshippers as an act of ‘vengeance’. What should by now be very clear to everyone is that these terrorist attacks have nothing to do with addressing grievances – real or imagined – and everything to do with using terror, hate, supremacy and violence as a tool to impose the ideology and dominance of the religious-Right.
“Whether Islamist or white nationalist, whether in Sri Lanka or Christchurch, these far-Right movements have no respect for human life and rights: Christian, Muslim, ex-Muslim, believer or non, white, black or brown, young or old; no amount of murder or mayhem is too heinous for their hateful cause. Always anti-those deemed ‘other’; always relying on hate, religion, violence, misogyny, homophobia, tribalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and terrorism to sow fear and division.
If you have fundamentalists in power, things will deteriorate very quickly, even for believers, as a believer is not the same as a fundamentalist. This isn’t a theoretical discussion. We can see the effects of a theocracy on the lives of freethinkers, women, LGBT, religious minorities and especially young people in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia but we can also see what happens when even secular societies are run by theocrats
“For too long and still far too many continue to excuse one side over the other depending on where they stand. Some will defend the Islamists, others will defend the Christian-Right, both sides saying there are ‘legitimate grievances’ even if they claim to abhor terrorism. Many will even go so far as to blame the victims, especially in the case of apostates and blasphemers like Charlie Hebdo or the Bangladeshi bloggers. What these apologists fail to see is that there is no legitimisation for murder.
“Those killed in Sri Lanka could be any of us. We could be next. We must all take an unequivocal stand against all forms of fascism and hate. We must not allow the conflation of the religious-Right with ordinary believers, victim blaming, and the dehumanisation of the ‘other’ to legitimate a politics of terror and hate.“Sooner than later, we must recognise that we are all in this together against the far-Right and in defence of our common humanity. Our lives and our rights are interlinked irrespective of our backgrounds and beliefs.
“It is a matter of urgency that governments stop appeasing theocracies and the religious-Right, including via faith schools and child indoctrination, religious courts and faith-based policies. This only strengthens divisions and the religious-Right.
“Defending secularism, citizenship and universal rights is the only way forward.”
IS has killed Yazidis, Kurds, Syrians, Christians, Muslims, ex-Muslims, Atheists, young and old, women and men… From IS, Taliban, the Islamic regime in Iran to Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, no one is safe. From London to Madrid to NY to Colombo and Kabul no one feels safe. The whole point of terrorism is to target innocent civilians indiscriminately to instil hate and despair and fear. That is why courage and hope and love are so important for all of us. They want to divide us; we must insist on our common humanity.
Q: What are your suggestions and recommendations to prevent the IS’ influences?
It is important that we treat everyone equally as citizens and not members of some religious or cultural ‘group’. That will help focus on terrorists and criminals rather than placing collective blame on everyone who is Muslim, for example. Islamism is a political far-Right movement like the white supremacists in the US. You cannot weed out white supremacist terrorists in the US by collectively blaming all Christians or all white people. It is a political movement; you need to target it politically and also ideologically.
Also, an insistence on secularism is key. Separation of religion from the state – any religion – is crucial to bringing about lasting change. We shouldn’t have religious schools, religious indoctrination in schools, religion in the law or public policy or in the state’s dealings with citizens.
Also, I think we need to look at rights from a universalist perspective – we all have inalienable rights no matter what our background. And most importantly, we all share a common humanity. We are in this together – Muslim, ex-Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, atheist… – against the fundamentalists and fascists of all stripes who kill with impunity and have no regard for human rights or lives.
Q: Would you say Islam does not promote an inclusive society?
No religion promotes an inclusive society. Religion is an exclusive club that sees its set of beliefs as superior to other sets of beliefs. In any religion, the apostates, heretics, witches and blasphemers within the religion are imprisoned and killed. Those who are not part of the religion are seen to be lesser.
To include citizens in a society, you must exclude religion to some extent from the public space. People, of course, have a right to religion and belief but it cannot be part of the state or law or public policy or the educational system if we want to ensure that religion has its rightful place in our societies and world – as a personal matter.
Q: What is your message to those who undermined and side-lined your basic rights when you were under repressive governments, as we as to those who joined and planning to join the terrorist outfit like Islamic State?
My message to those who join IS or other terrorist groups and repressive governments are the same: we will never bow down. There are many more of us than there are of you. Also, hate can never kill love and hope and that is our strongest weapon against the fundamentalists of all stripes.
“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness” – All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims definition of Islamophobia
The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on British Muslims’ definition of Islamophobia has mainly been framed as a free speech issue. The definition adopted by some parties and councils will certainly limit criticism of Islam and Islamism even further than it already is currently. To say it will not is dishonest at best. This has already been the case for a long time now. For those of us who have fled Iran, it has been so since the expropriation of the Iranian revolution by the Islamists; in Britain, at least since the Rushdie affair.
Examples abound. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, of which I am a Spokesperson, was placed under investigation for eight months by Pride in London because of the accusation of Islamophobia levelled against us by the East London Mosque and Mend. I myself have been barred from Warwick University, harassed by Islamic Society students at Goldsmiths, and had my talk cancelled at Trinity College over the same accusations. I haven’t had issues for a while now – but that is only because I am hardly invited to speak at universities any more. It is just too much trouble. The accusations stick; uncomfortably so.
Whilst this is a free speech issue (blasphemy is clearly not racism), what I find even more disturbing about this definition is the Parliamentary Group’s open promulgation of the idea that there is something that can be called ‘expressions of Muslimness.’ It is absurd to assume that this is the case, any more than one can speak of expressions of Christianness or Jewishness or Hinduness. This is no different from saying there are ‘expressions of Britishness’; something that the far-Right – and increasingly, mainstream politicians – imply in order to exclude migrants and minorities.
Certainly, we can discuss what it means to be British – or Muslim for that matter. This will inevitably mean different things to different people. But with the Brexit Party, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Tommy Robinson, the Windrush scandal, May’s ‘Go Home’ vans, and her ‘hostile environment’, along with the far-Right fascist parties gaining seats across Europe, the promotion of expressions of ‘Britishness’ isn’t as innocent as it is made out to be. In this context, Britishness becomes whiteness. Likewise, promoting ‘Muslimness’ in a world in which the religious-Right is in power and causing havoc is far more ominous than it might initially seem.
Like ‘Britishness’, the concept of ‘Muslimness’ is fundamentally about exclusion. Britishness tends to exclude brown and black people. Muslimness tends to exclude doubters and dissenters – anyone not ‘authentically’ regressive enough, not veiled enough, not segregated enough, not submissive enough, not pro-Sharia enough, not modest enough, not angry enough and not offended enough. Everyone else is an ‘Islamophobe’, an ‘Uncle Tom’, a ‘native informant’, a ‘coconut’ or a ‘westernised, neo-colonialist.’
The not-so-funny thing about identity politics is that whilst it claims that each particular ‘group’ has a singular identity (as if that were even possible), the identity is so restrictive that it keeps out many more people than it allows in. In fact, that’s the whole point. If you want in, you have to make sure you look the part and follow the rules. If you terrorise a primary school in Birmingham to prevent lessons saying that being gay is OK, if you defend Sharia courts despite their promotion of violence against women, or legitimise apostates being shunned and killed, then you will automatically pass the Muslimness authenticity test! Not so much if you are a gay Muslim, or an ex-Muslim, or a feminist who doesn’t want to wear the hijab or fast during Ramadan, or a secularist who is opposed to Sharia law.
Another major problem with identity politics is that those with power determine Britishness or Muslimness or Jewishness or Hinduness… and the limits of permissibility within these ‘groups’. Therefore, ‘Muslimness’ becomes what Cage, Mend, the Muslim Council of Britain or the Iranian and Saudi regimes say it is. In Trump’s US, Christianness becomes regressive anti-abortion laws and moves to end Roe V Wade. In Modi’s India, Hinduness means that one can be murdered for eating beef.
The Parliamentary Group’s promotion of identity politics and ‘Muslimness,’ has, therefore, everything to do with appeasing the religious-Right by pushing the false narrative of an ‘authentic’ Muslim: a homogenised caricature imposed upon a diverse people by fundamentalists-playing-victims.
This feeds into stereotypes, and collaborates in the erasure of class politics, dissent and political and social struggles; it diminishes solidarity both within and without the so-called group. Also, ironically, it actually exacerbates racism by insisting that brown and black citizens are ‘different’ and in need of paternalistic protection and treated with hyper-sensitivity in case (god forbid) they start burning books…or worse.
The politics of difference (and superiority) have always been a pillar of fascist and racist politics whether that difference is based on race or – as we now increasingly see – ‘culture.’ (Whose culture this is does not get discussed. Is it the culture of the Islamists who want to stone people to death or the women and men who refuse and resist?) For me, it is clear as daylight: the adoption of any definition of ‘Islamophobia’ is a triumph for fundamentalists. It has nothing to do with combatting racism.
A few other key points:
Religion and belief are personal matters; lived experiences as varied as the people who hold them. Homogenising countless diverse people based on essentialised characteristics is part of a fundamentalist project designed to manage dissent. It has everything to do with power and control, and nothing to do with the right to freedom of belief and religion, or the fight against racism.
Equalities legislation already considers discrimination against someone on the basis of protected characteristics such as religion or belief against the law. The insistence on normalising the term ‘Islamophobia’ appeases fundamentalists by conflating criticism of Islam and Islamism with bigotry against Muslims in order to restrict free expression, particularly blasphemy and heresy.
Free speech matters most to minorities and migrants, the poor, disenfranchised, witches, apostates and heretics. Popes and imams, capitalists and kings don’t need it; they already have access to all the forms of expression available, as well as the brute violence to back it up. Any limit on free speech limits the rights of the oppressed and aids the oppressor – even if the oppressor belongs to a ‘minority’ religion.
Free speech is an individual right. It is not a group right. It is I who decides how to exercise my free speech, not the APPG nor any ‘useful tests’ proposed by some professor such as Tariq Modood proposes to ascertain if my speech is to be considered ‘reasonable criticism’ or ‘Islamophobic.’ With limits, speech is no longer free.
Finally, as needs to be clarified in any discussion of Islamophobia: rejecting the term ‘Islamophobia’ itself, or rejecting any attempts at defining it, does not mean that anti-Muslim bigotry doesn’t exist. The rise in hate crimes and xenophobia, the dehumanisation of those deemed ‘other’, the criminalisation of migration and those helping desperate migrants all make the continued fight against racism as urgent as ever. Racism is a matter of life and death at worst and humiliation and discrimination at best for many people from Muslim, minority and refugee backgrounds. But fighting racism by imposing blasphemy laws gives the impression that something is being done against racism. Racism, however, is only being exacerbated by promoting difference and superiority, rather than secularism, citizenship, equality and our common humanity irrespective of background and belief.
Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) was formed to break the taboo that comes with leaving Islam, highlight the plight of and support ex-Muslims, and challenge Sharia, apostasy and blasphemy laws. CEMB stands against all forms of bigotry, xenophobia, racism and extremism and unequivocally defends reason, freedom of conscience and expression, equality, universal rights and secularism.
January 21, Refugee Too
CEMB organised a #RefugeeToo protest outside the Home Office in order to highlight the fact that ex-Muslims are also refugees. This campaign linked into the plight of the Saudi woman and ex-Muslim Rahaf who was able to get asylum in Canada after locking herself in her hotel room in Thailand when authorities tried to deport her back to Saudi Arabia. The campaign highlighted a number of activist cases to show the absurd reasons given for rejecting apostates and how at risk they are.
February 1, No Hijab Day
For Hijab Day, we organised in a 3-hour live podcast, with over half a dozen women worldwide, discussing the harms of modesty culture and the veil.
February 6, No to FGM Day
For zero tolerance to Female genital mutilation (FGM) day, we handed out roses that had been stapled shut, along with flyers explaining FGM, the harms of it and how to support someone that is at risk, or has experienced FGM. We received much public support and had some good discussions on the issue with the public.
March 8, International Women’s Day
Our international ex-Muslim coalition organised Women Against Allah for International Women’s Day. Hashtags included: #WomenAgainstAllah
CEMB focused on #PeriodsAreNatural in order to break the taboo that comes with women’s periods. This caused a huge uproar and started a much-needed discussion.
For 8 March, Shelley Segal also produced a video for her song “Our Resistance” which she sang for One Law for All, CEMB’s sister organisation. You can see the video here.
23 March was the first ever international Atheist Day. This day was first discussed at our 2017 conference, which was the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history. The international coalition of ex-Muslims that was formed as a result met regularly on Skype to make the day a reality two years later. We decided to call it an atheist day, rather than an ex-Muslim day so as to include more people but also prevent targeting of ex-Muslims. The day was celebrated in various cities and in different ways across the globe.
At CEMB, we organised a successful day which focused on ex-Muslim women given that women are less visible than men ex-Muslims and women have more barriers to coming out and speaking out. Photographs of women sitting on the ground in a public park with legs akimbo were in solidarity with women across the world who are being sexually assaulted for fighting for their rights and told to ‘sit properly’, ‘be decent’ and threatened with rape for claiming the right to their bodies. It was in particular a show of solidarity with women involved in the aurat march in Pakistan. See video of the action here. We wrote atheist and ex-Muslim in various languages.
CEMB holds fast defying protests outside embassies of countries that prosecute people for eating during Ramadan, an action that led to being filmed and threatened outside the Pakistani embassy and armed police approaching our protestors outside the Saudi embassy.
In April and October, we held “Coming Out” parties where people received their apostasy certificates. The parties are one way of seeing people’s coming out as a cause for celebration rather than vilification and a source of shame.
In October, Sadia and Maryam conduct a training for 11 Malaysian government officials who are involved in the Islamic religious affairs department, including those implementing Sharia in the law, education and government. We show the film, Islam’s Non Believers, and have an extended discussion on apostasy and the right to atheism.
CEMB calls on all to stand with Mohamed Salih, a young Sudanese who filed an official request for all mention of Islam to be removed from his documents, including his national ID. As a result, he was charged with apostasy, arrested and released after being declared mentally unfit. Salih was forced to flee the country.
CEMB hosts the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history in London in July 2017 at the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression with over 70 notable speakers from 30 countries or the Diaspora gathered in what is dubbed “The Glastonbury of Freethinkers” and “a Conference of Heroes” to honour dissenters and defend apostasy, blasphemy, and secularism. The sold-out conference highlights the voices of those on the frontlines of resistance – many of them persecuted and exiled. The conference made a space for crucial discussions and debates on Islamophobia and its use by Islamists to impose de facto blasphemy laws, the relation between Islam and Islamism as well as communalism’s threat to universal rights, art as resistance and Laicite as a human right. The conference hashtag, #IWant2BFree, trends on Twitter. The conference includes a public art protest of 99 balloons to represent those killed or imprisoned for blasphemy and apostasy around the world. Resolutions against the no platforming of Richard Dawkins and in support of Egyptian atheist Ismail Mohamed and CEMB at Pride are adopted. A Declaration of Freethinkers is adopted at the conference.
Following the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression, the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims is launched. The Coalition begins working on joint projects and actions and meets regularly to plan campaigns.
CEMB and One Law for All organise a Conference on Sharia Law, Apostasy and Secularism to discuss freedom of expression, apostasy and blasphemy laws, Islamism and the religious-Right, as well as Sharia in the law, educational system and public policy. They will also highlight the successful campaigns against the Law Society and Universities UK and pay tribute to Charlie Hebdo and the many Muslims, ex-Muslims and others who have been killed or persecuted for their dissent.
First legal atheist organisation formed in Turkey! The first legally recognised Atheist Organisation of the Balkans, Middle East and among all Muslim-majority countries, has been founded in Istanbul, Turkey. The organisation, titled Ateizm Dernegi, was founded in Istanbul on April 16, 2014.
CEMB and One Law for All sponsor a two-day international conference on the Religious Right, Secularism and Civil Rights. Notable free-thinkers, atheists and secularists from around the world came together for a weekend of discussions and debates on the religious-Right, its attacks on civil rights and freedoms, and the role of secularism for 21st century humanity. The exciting two-day conference discusses the Arab Spring, Sharia and religious laws, the limits of religion’s role in society, free expression, honour killings, apostasy and blasphemy laws, faith schools, women’s rights, secular values and much more. The 250 delegates made an unequivocal stand with the brave women and men of Kobane saying: “Their struggle is ours. Their fight is a fight for us all. We are all, today, Kobane.”
Muslimish Launched in May 2012 in New York City where ex-Muslims and Muslims who have questions about religion or want take a more objective look at its teachings can come and participate in a free and open discussion without fear of punishment or judgement.
CEMB holds successful International Day to Defend Apostates and Blasphemers. More than three hundred individuals and organisations call for an international day of action on 14 March to defend those accused of apostasy and blasphemy. Thousands more defended apostates and blasphemers via acts of solidarity and social media, Tweeted, sent letters of protest, or issued statements and messages of support.
CEMB stands with Bangladeshi bloggers and activists. In January, 29 year old blogger Asif Mohiuddin was stabbed. In February, 35 year old atheist blogger Ahmed Rajib, was brutally killed. Islamists continue to threaten prominent bloggers and have called for the “execution of 84 atheist bloggers for insulting religion”. We call for 25 April to be an international day to defend Bangladesh’s bloggers and activists.
CEMB defends Alexander Aan and condemns his being sentenced to two and a half years in prison and fined for having written “God does not exist” on Facebook and calls for his immediate release. He was found guilty of “deliberately spreading information inciting religious hatred and animosity” and “caused anxiety to the community and tarnished Islam” in Indonesia.
CEMB organises an International Day of Action to Defend Blasphemers and Apostates and calls on groups and individuals to take action on this day by organising a protest or vigil, setting up a table in a city centre, writing a letter, signing a petition, drawing a picture, taking a photo, making a video to highlight blasphemy and apostasy laws and rules, defend free expression and the women and men whose lives are at stake.
CEMB organises a Day of Agreement to highlight the difficulties faced by non-believers in Islamic theocracies, where they are forced to live in silence and furthermore, are unable to have even the smallest disagreements, as it could very much result in incarceration or execution.
Northern Ex-Muslim Meet up Group Launched. CEMB affiliated Manchester Ex-Muslim Meet-Up group which was established in November 2012 by Sandbad has been renamed Northern Ex-Muslim Meet-up Group. Ex-Muslims from Leeds, Bradford and surrounding areas are now part of the group. They welcome ex-Muslims in the North to join them, including from Liverpool.
CEMB and One Law for All hold seminar on Sharia Law in Britain to mark International Women’s Day. The seminar brought together Muslims, ex-Muslims, women’s rights campaigners, lawyers and politicians to outline the problems with Muslim Arbitration Tribunals and Sharia Councils and to propose recommendations for prohibiting religious tribunals and bringing about equal rights for all.