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Mina and Maryam are women of the year, National Secular Society Newsline

Mina Ahadi and Maryam Namazie – leading lights in the ex-Muslim movement – have been voted among the top 45 women of year by Elle magazine in Quebec. Both Mina and Maryam have been winners of the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year award and Maryam is an honorary associate of the Society.

NSS President Terry Sanderson, said: “As far as we’re concerned, Mina and Maryam are our women of the year this year and every year. Congratulations to them both.”

Meanwhile, another courageous honorary associate, Taslima Nasrin, is still under cruel pressure in India from Muslims and now the Indian authorities. She is in hiding after threats to her life and has revealed that she feels isolated and lonely. Read the latest and more here.

11 January 2008

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Muslim apostates threatened over Christianity, Sunday Telegraph

When Sofia Allam left the Muslim faith for Christianity, the response from her family was one of persecution and threats. Alasdair Palmer explores the dangers facing Islam’s apostates

Sofia Allam simply could not believe it. Her kind, loving father was sitting in front of her threatening to kill her. He said she had brought shame and humiliation on him, that she was now “worse than the muck on their shoes” and she deserved to die.
Religious persecution of the kind Sofia suffers is increasingly common in Britain today
And what had brought on his transformation? He had discovered that she had left the Muslim faith in which he had raised her and become a Christian.

“He said he couldn’t have me in the house now that I was a Kaffir [an insulting term for a non-Muslim],” Sofia – not her real name – remembers.

“He said I was damned for ever. He insulted me horribly. I couldn’t recognise that man as the father who had been so kind to me as I was growing up.

“My mother’s transformation was even worse. She constantly beat me about the head. She screamed at me all the time. I remember saying to them, as they were shouting death threats, ‘Mum, Dad – you’re saying you should kill me… but I’m your daughter! Don’t you realise that?’?”

They did not: they insisted they wanted her out of their house.

After three weeks of bullying, and just before her parents physically threw her out, Sofia left. “They put their loyalty to Islam above any love for me,” she says, her voice faltering slightly.

“It was such a shock. I remember thinking when they brought all my uncles round to try to intimidate me – all these men were lined up telling me how terrible a person I was, how the devil had taken me – I remember thinking, how can this be happening? Because this isn’t Lahore in Pakistan. This is Dagenham in London! This is Britain!”

Religious persecution of the kind Sofia suffers, however, is increasingly common in Britain today. It is hard to get an accurate notion of the scale of the problem, not least because very few of the people who leave Islam are willing to complain to the police about the way they are treated.

“Intimidation is very widespread and pretty effective,” says Maryam Namazie, a spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She believes that many of the deaths classified as “honour killings” are actually murders of people who have renounced Islam.

“I get threatened all the time: emails, letters, phone calls,” she says. “When I returned home this afternoon, for example, there was a death threat waiting for me on my answering machine…” She laughs nervously.

“A lot of them aren’t serious, but occasionally they are. I went to the police about one set of threats. They took a statement from me but that was it – they never contacted me again.”

That treatment is in sharp contrast to the seriousness with which the Dutch and German police responded when members of the Council of Ex-Muslims in those countries made complaints to the police about death threats.

“The heads of the Dutch and German organisations are today both living under police protection,” Ms Namazie explains.

Last week, it was reported that the daughter of a British imam was living under police protection, after receiving death threats from her family for having left Islam.

But it is not only extreme Muslim families that believe it is their religious duty to threaten, and even kill, members who renounce the religion.
“My father could not be described as an extremist,” insists Sofia, who is now 31. “We read the Koran and prayed regularly together, but he never insisted on my wearing Islamic dress and he was quite happy that I went to the local comprehensive, which was all girls, but not by any means dominated by Muslims.”

There were conflicts when Sofia’s parents tried to arrange a marriage for her at the age of 18, but they seemed to accept her decision to continue her education.

“They even let me go away to university,” she explains. “I appreciated how difficult it was for them to grant me that freedom, and I was very grateful for it. In the event, though, I only lasted three months – I just got so homesick that I had to come back to Mum and Dad.”

Sofia got a job in a hotel and quickly became a manager. Her interest in Christianity was entirely self-generated. She acquired a Bible, which she hid in her bedroom. But four years ago, her mother found it.

“She confronted me one morning with, ‘Are you still a Muslim?’ I had to tell the truth: I didn’t think I was. From that moment on, she basically disowned me. My father was shocked and saddened. But the reality was that my parents behaved to me as if they thought it would be much better if I was dead.”

Most leading Muslims in Britain are unequivocal in their denunciation of British Muslim parents who threaten to kill their children for leaving Islam.

Ibrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), says that it is “absolutely disgraceful behaviour… In Britain, no Muslim has the right to harm one hair of someone who decides to leave Islam.”

Inayat Bunglawala, also a spokesman for the MCB, insists that such behaviour in Britain is “awful and quite wrong. The police should crack down on it.”

And yet a significant portion of British Muslims think that such behaviour is not merely right, but a religious obligation: a survey by the think-tank Policy Exchange, for instance, revealed that 36 per cent of young Muslims believe that those who leave Islam should be killed.

There is considerable support, from the Koran and other sacred Islamic texts, for that position – which may explain why, out of the 57 Islamic states in the world today, seven have a legal code that punishes Muslims who leave the religion with death.

That number may soon increase: Pakistan is currently considering a Bill that would make apostasy a capital crime for men and one carrying a sentence of imprisonment for women.

As it is, ordinary Pakistanis take the law into their own hands and kill Muslim apostates. The same thing happens in Turkey where, earlier this year, two people were killed for “having turned away from Islam”.

Patrick Sookhdeo was born a Muslim, but later converted to Christianity. He is now international director of the Barnabas Fund, an organisation that aims to research and to ameliorate the conditions of Christians living in countries hostile to their religion.

He notes that “all four schools of Sunni law, as well as the Shia variety, call for the death penalty for apostates. Most Muslim scholars say that Muslim religious law – sharia – requires the death penalty for apostasy.

“In 2004, Prince Charles called a meeting of leading Muslims to discuss the issue,” adds Dr Sookhdeo. “I was there. All the Muslim leaders at that meeting agreed that the penalty in sharia is death. The hope was that they would issue a public declaration repudiating that doctrine, but not one of them did.”
The reluctance to condemn sharia law is widespread. I asked Mr Bunglawala, for instance, to condemn the Islamic states that imposed the death penalty for apostasy. He did not do so, merely commenting that “it was a matter for those states”.

Given the acceptance by some that Muslim religious law does indeed require that apostates be killed, it is hardly surprising that many ordinary Muslims think that it is their religious duty to carry out that punishment – or at least to threaten it.

“There can’t be freedom of religion in Britain while so many British Muslims take that attitude,” Sofia says. “It frightens me, because attitudes have hardened over the past decade.”

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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?

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