Tag: Islamism

Celebrating Blasphemy and Dissent in the Ex-Muslim Movement | Maryam Namazie

The below was published in Shuddhashar magazine, Blasphemy issue, 1 May

In a quarter of the world’s countries and territories, people are legally killed, imprisoned or persecuted for blasphemy and apostasy. It is astonishing that in the 21 Century, thought, and opinion are still criminalised in this way.

The argument for blasphemy laws is that the “insulting” of sanctities is so dangerous for society that in order to protect public morality and social order, there is a need to discipline and punish. But this is a smokescreen as not everyone in any given society thinks alike. What is sacred to one can be insignificant, absurd, or even superstitious nonsense to another. The “public” doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the dominant narrative imposed by the state, “community leaders,” and self-appointed arbiters of morality – especially since belief is a lived experience and a personal matter. We are individuals, after all, and not extensions of the state and clergy. Freethought exists everywhere – though cultural relativists in the West seem to think that they are the only ones who are capable of dissent. In fact, anti-clericalism and anti-religion tendencies in theocracies are widespread, especially given the religious-Right’s interference in every aspect of public and personal life. The tsunami of atheism and ex-Muslims in countries under Islamic rule and the Diaspora is one such indication. We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of this phenomenon because of social media somewhat levelling the playing field and giving freethinkers access to information, ideas, and networks denied by authoritarian states.

Whilst everyone blasphemes at some point in their lives – at least against religions they deem heretical, inferior, or irrelevant – not all forms of blasphemy are the same. Why some forms of it are considered dawah and devotion whilst others end up with dead bodies boils down to the all-important question of political power. For those in power, religion is a very useful way of maintaining control and quashing dissent. Which is why the more religion and the state are intertwined, the more severe the punishment for blasphemy.

Where earthly and divine power are deemed as one and the same, criticism of religion or God is considered a direct attack on state authority or God’s representatives on earth. In Iran, for example, people can be charged with enmity against God for criticising the Supreme Spiritual Leader, Khamenei, or the Islamic regime in Iran. Criticise God and you criticise the state. Criticise the state and you criticise God… It’s this link to power that makes blasphemy so deadly in some contexts – not the heightened “sensitivities” of imagined homogenous “Islamic societies” or “Muslim communities.”

The well-meaning in Europe who frown upon blasphemy as a defence of “minority” sensibilities wittingly or unwittingly miss this key point. Rather than a defence of the powerless, defending censorship to avoid offence and “hurt” actually defends the powerful. This further explains why minorities are most at risk of blasphemy laws – whether they be religious minorities like Christians, Bahai’s or Ahmadiyya or freethinkers like atheists and ex-Muslims. Even in Europe where Muslims are a minority, de facto blasphemy laws via the backdoor with accusations of Islamophobia affect minorities within minorities and help maintain the status quo and the religious-Right’s grip on the “Muslim community.”

Accusing blasphemers of “inciting hatred” because of what they think and believe is no different than accusing gay people for inciting hatred against heterosexuals because of who they love. The bitter irony in all this is that nothing incites hatred and violence more than religions in political power.

The “marketplace of offence” aside, the fact of the matter is that religion or belief in Gods are ideas like any other and must be open to criticism, review, and dissent.

Rights and freedoms are for people, not for ideas. People have to be equal, though not all ideas are equal or equally valid. People have to be respected, but ideas can be questioned, disrespected, discarded, mocked. Ridiculous ideas can and should be ridiculed. It is not the same as ridiculing, mocking, or disrespecting people who hold those beliefs. Isn’t that how human society has progressed? By challenging and discarding bad ideas?

Yes, of course, it is not only Islam that has such a severe punishment for blasphemy. All Abrahamic religions call for the death penalty for blasphemers. That they don’t still hang blasphemers in Europe, though, is not because the Bible has been edited or Christianity is a nicer religion but because of the dwindling role of Christianity in the state and increasing secularisation.

The measure of a free society is the extent of freedom of conscience (including the right to disbelief) and freedom of expression (including the right to criticise and mock the sacred). And it is secular societies that most guarantee these basic freedoms. Secularism is not the end all – there is still racism, misogyny, xenophobia, capitalism… but secularism is a minimal framework that ensures the separation of religion from the state, which most protects minorities and minority opinions.

Let’s not forget that minority opinions can become majority opinions and create new status quos with criticism, questioning, and dissenting via progressive political and social movements and struggles, such as the anti-colonial struggles, the US civil rights movement, or women’s suffrage.

The ex-Muslim movement should be seen within the same light – as a community in protest demanding the rights to apostasy and blasphemy. When one can be killed for blasphemy and apostasy, celebrating dissent is an important act of survival as well as of civil disobedience and resistance.

When the public space is so oppressively full of fear, subverting, flouting and disobeying absurd and inhuman rules not only challenges dogmas, the sacred, and taboos, but it reclaims and transforms the public space and society.

Celebrating blasphemy responds to violence with humour and non-violence. It diminishes fear and feelings of despair, and it increases democratic and participatory politics. It brings hope and courage. It insists on the human rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of expression, and it does so in practice and not as theoretical or abstract concepts and notions.

Celebrating blasphemy, which is fundamentally celebrating the right to thought and opinion, goes to the core of what it is to be fully human and enables us to reimagine society and the world without blasphemy laws.

This is especially crucial given the increasing numbers of people who are persecuted, imprisoned, or are languishing on death row for the “crime” of thought and opinion. Non-believers like Soheil Arabi in Iran and Ayaz Nizami in Pakistan or believers like Tijjaniya Sunnis in Nigeria or Qurani Muslims in Sudan.

Much of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain’s work over 12 years has been to normalise blasphemy and apostasy. From nude protests to challenge modesty culture, eat-ins at embassies that persecute people for fast-defying during Ramadan to atheist azaans (calls to prayer) and “Allah is Gay” placards at Gay Pride in London, blasphemy in the public space says to the parasitical imams and fundamentalists that they do not have power over us, they cannot silence us. and that we will not submit.

As Southall Black Sisters says: Our Tradition: Struggle not Submission.

#EndBlasphemyLaws  #BlasphemyIsNotACrime

Maryam Namazie is an Iranian-born writer and activist living in London. She is the Spokesperson of One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and hosts a television programme broadcast in Iran in Persian and English called Bread and Roses.

 Stand with the witches, heretics and blasphemers, Interview with Maryam Namazie, sister-hood, 10 September 2019

 Stand with the witches, heretics and blasphemers, Interview with Maryam Namazie, sister-hood, 10 September 2019

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.

PART 1 and PART 2

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.

Maryam Namazie in the documentary ‘Islam’s Non-Believers’

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.

How did growing up in Iran shape your political understandings? What do you think the future is for that country?

My politics were shaped by the Iranian revolution and by worker-communism. The Iranian revolution was not an Islamic one; it was expropriated by the Islamists who went on to slaughter an entire generation to secure their rule. To me, that revolution is unfinished and we see it clearly in social and political and working-class movements in Iran. Women are at the forefront of this struggle for change. The future revolution of Iran is clearly a female one. Iran has a chance to become another centre of feminism and secularism in the region. Like Rojava, a centre of secular space and feminist enlightenment in a war zone. I wonder though how it will be able to garner the international solidarity it deserves, when so many are stuck in identity politics and cannot fathom what real solidarity looks like.

Can you describe what you mean by secularism, and how you think secularism would benefit women?

Laïcité, the separation of religion from the state, is what I mean when I speak of secularism. Any religion in the state, law, educational system or in public policy is bad for citizens in general and particularly bad for women. If we agree that religion or belief is a private matter, then its presence in the state is not about belief, but about power and control. More importantly, a state cannot have a belief. What about citizens who have different beliefs or none? Even most believers will not agree with the rules imposed upon them by a theocracy. If it is an imposition and compulsion, then it is no longer about the right to believe in what one wants.

Since women are seen to be the embodiment of culture, religion, national ‘pride’, male ‘honour’… controlling women is the first task at hand for the religious-Right and for patriarchs in general. Subservient women are visible signs that all is as it should be according to God and his prophets. In Iran, for example, they came for women first through imposing compulsory veiling rules. In the US, now, you can see how the rise of the Christian-Right with Trump has resulted in women’s right to abortion and reproductive rights being attacked first…

You’ve been very critical of the concept of multiculturalism. Can you explain why?

Multiculturalism as a lived experience is a wonderful thing. People from all over, living together and sharing in our common humanity. But multiculturalism as a social policy, similarly to identity politics, divides and segregates people into homogenous communities run by unelected ‘community leaders’ who determine the culture and religion of the group. Anyone who transgresses is an ‘Islamophobe’, a ‘coconut’, a ‘native informant’, a ‘house Arab’… This only applies to minorities of course. Its funny how people living in the UK or the Netherlands for example can demand gay marriage and the right to abortion – but we are only allowed to live within the constraints imposed by Islam and Islamism. Isn’t that racist in and of itself? It is as if we savages are incapable of demanding and hoping for freedom and equality. It’s as if we don’t belong to social and political movements, working class politics or progressive ideals… And when we do, we are accused of bigotry! Telling us that our fight to unveil or blaspheme or become apostates is akin to an attack on Muslims is as absurd as saying that being a suffragette is anti-male, being anti-apartheid is anti-white or being for gay rights is anti-straight… Multiculturalism and identity politics further blames victims – and allows perpetrators to play victim.

You took part in a documentary made by Deeyah Khan, sister-hood’s founder. How was that experience?

Deeyah is one of our modern-day heroes. As a Muslim woman, she took a risk in making a film about a vilified and hated section of our communities and societies. Islam’s Non-Believers was one of the first times that our struggle for equality and recognition reached a mainstream audience. The establishment of CEMB, the #ExMuslimBecause hashtag, and Deeyah’s film are some of the key points in our movement – a movement that is not about identity politics but for equality and rights like many of the other great movements such as women’s liberation, civil rights movements, anti-colonial movements and gay rights.

I know a lot of people asked Deeyah why she was doing this film and maybe thought they could pressure her into focusing elsewhere. But that is Deeyah for you. There is always courage in her work and doing what is right rather than what is expedient.

I do feel sad, though not surprised, that Islam’s Non-Believers hasn’t got the recognition it deserves. When the Guardian wrote about her films, it said she had made four and then went on to name all of them but this one. Also, all her other films have received awards. Assuming that her filmmaking capabilities didn’t suddenly diminish for this particular film, I think the fact that our film was ignored is at least partly due to the fact that minorities can only be victims (as in the case of honour killings) or if they do ‘resist’ they can only do so by becoming Islamists and jihadis – the only ‘authentic’ form of minority ‘dissent’.

But dissent that kills and maims and decapitates and denies universal human rights and destroys democratic politics isn’t dissent: it is fascism. For sure, the jihadis have grievances, as do the white nationalists. All of us do, but many of us channel our grievances into positive movements that defend universal rights and our common humanity rather than demanding superiority or privilege at the expense of the ‘other’. That somehow just isn’t newsworthy. It also goes against the dominant narrative that brown and black people who become feminists, trade unionists, ex-Muslims, freethinkers, secularists, universalists, progressives and so forth are somehow ‘Uncle Toms’ and/or ‘native informants’. They are not ‘authentic’ enough, where really what that means is conservative or regressive enough, to be to anyone’s liking. More than saying anything about us, it says a lot about the racist ‘clash of civilisations’ worldview that sees minorities as a regressive lot that deserve only victimisation, vilification or protection. Start defending your own rights, start speaking up and then all hell breaks loose and every effort is made to shut you down.

You’ve contributed a section to a new Civitas report critical of the concept of Islamophobia, and you’ve also written on this topic for sister-hood. Briefly, what is your main issue with the idea of Islamophobia?

Clearly, anti-Muslim bigotry exists. We live in a time where we are seeing the rise of fascism again. Apparently, it is business as usual to see ‘go home’ vans around our cities, deny citizenship to the Windrush generation or watch migrants die on our shores for the ‘crime’ of wanting a better life.

But criticism of Islam or Islamism is not bigotry. Conflating bigotry with blasphemy and apostasy aids fundamentalists and exacerbates racism by insisting that brown and black citizens are ‘different’ and in need of paternalistic protection and to be treated with hyper-sensitivity in case (god forbid) they start burning books… or worse. Call it racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, xenophobia but not Islamophobia. Islam is an idea, and a bad one at that. It must face unrelenting criticism like Christianity has faced. Islamism must face unrelenting criticism as must all far-Right movements. They are inhuman political movements. All the while we must unrelentingly also defend freedom of conscience, expression and our common humanity.

Women in the Muslim world are often depicted in stereotypical ways – as passive victims or religious extremists. What’s your perception?

They only like us when we fit in the mould created by multiculturalism and identity politics. If we dare to turn our backs on religion or the religious-Right, we face a chorus of ‘It’s your culture and religion goddamnit! Respect it!’ so that ‘well-meaning’ people can feel better about our vilification, silencing and censoring. Well, sorry, no can do. As the saying goes, obedient women never make history – but we intend to.

CEMB marches at Pride in London 2019 as topless Imams of Perpetual Indulgence

On 6 July 2019, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) marched in Pride London for the 3rd time as an organisation.

This year, we marked the 40th anniversary of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a rebellion against the church’s religious morality, by marching as the Imams of Perpetual Indulgence.

Instead of being the Council for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice that terrorise people by enforcing Islamic morality codes with brute force in the countries some of us have fled from, we were the Council for the Promotion of Vice and the Prevention of Virtue.

Our imams were not the usual imams promoting death for thinking and loving freely but instead included dissenting topless women who subverted Islamic morality language by being Imams of Vice, Lust, Kofr, Zina…

Instead of our fingers pointing upwards towards Allah, our fingers pointed downwards negating his existence…

Our imams also wore pink triangles on our bodies to signify the continuation of the persecution of LGBT, particularly in countries under Islamic rules.

And like every year before, CEMB stood in solidarity with ex-Muslim, Muslim and other LGBT murdered in Islamic states and defended LGBT from minority communities here in Britain and elsewhere whilst highlighting Islamic homophobia – whether at the East London Mosque, against equality in schools in Birmingham or in Brunei, Chechnya, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey…

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 very 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 doubt and dissent. 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.

Unsurprisingly, as in previous years, social media has erupted with threats and intimidation because as always apostasy and blasphemy are considered worse than the murder of LGBT, apostates and blasphemers. Some “Sheikh” has even called for a joint statement of imams against CEMB because apparently, he fears “the punishment of Allah will descend.” And as usual, we have been accused of “Islamophobia.”

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we must reiterate that apostasy and blasphemy are not bigotry against people. Criticism of religion AND the religious-Right have always been an important part of the struggle for basic human rights and equality. Pride is still the scene of criticism against not just the Christian-Right but also Christianity. So why not Islamism AND Islam? Why should God or Jesus be Queer or Gay but not Allah? Why shouldn’t we be able to poke fun at Islam without fear?

CEMB will write further about these issues but there are somethings that must be said to “progressive” Muslim LGBT groups right away:

You use the language of the oppressor and reiterate accusations of “Islamophobia” because you say we “tar the whole faith.” But Islam is your faith not ours. And until the day we can blaspheme and leave Islam without fear, we will continue to celebrate and normalise blasphemy and apostasy, which is also a basic human right like the right to expression, opinion, religion or belief.

Also, inclusion, equality, rights, love and respect are for people not beliefs. To respect people and their rights, beliefs (even those that are sacred to some) must be open to ridicule, condemnation, criticism and even disrespect.

It would do some LGBT Muslim groups well to learn from CEMB and defend people’s rights even whilst disagreeing with their beliefs or views. CEMB has always unequivocally defended the rights of Muslim LGBT or migrants without accepting Islam. That is the whole point of the fight for equality and rights and stems from our common humanity. Unfortunately, because of narrow-minded identity politics, some LGBT Muslim groups cannot seem to comprehend that our rights and lives are intrinsically linked. LGBT Muslims cannot just defend their own rights whilst throwing ex-Muslim LGBT under a bus. Also, believers cannot just defend the right to religion without also defending the right to leave or criticise religion. To defend your rights, you must also defend ours. To liberate one, you must liberate all.

***

On 4 July, CEMB organised an evening on LGBT Rights, Apostasy and Blasphemy as part of Pride in London Festival with a film screening of ‘Ferdous’ by Shakila Taranum Maan followed by a panel discussion with Jimmy Bangash (CEMB Spokesperson), Khakan Qureshi (Birmingham South Asians LGBT Founder), Nadia El Fani (Tunisian Filmmaker), Sadia Hameed (CEMB Spokesperson), Shakila Taranum Maan (British Director) and Syed Isteak Hossain Shawon (Bangladeshi LGBT activist and Editor of Boys Love World). Facilitated by Maryam Namazie (CEMB and One Law for All Spokesperson). (Drew Dalton, Hidayah Chair, was unable to attend due to an emergency). Video footage of the evening will be made available soon but until then, watch the premier of a heart-wrenching poem by Kenyan Somali Poet Halima Salat, which ended the evening. Her poem is called A Boy, A Village, A Death. Nadia Mahmoud MCed the evening. Video footage is by @Reason4Freedom.

See some photos from Pride 2019:

          

Maryam Namazie Picture

Must take an unequivocal stand against all forms of hate

My interview with Nilantha Ilangamuwa in Sri Lanka’s FT

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.

Outrage at Islamist terrorist attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka

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.
 
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.
 
#OneRace_HumanRace
#ChristchurchMosqueAttack #SriLankaAttack
 
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