I started Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and One Law for All more than a decade ago to publicly mobilise dissent against religious laws. An expression of “not in my name” and a challenge to the Quran, Islam and Islamism as the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of the emancipation of women, freethinkers and others (if I may “paraphrase” US Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton)*.
Having fled the Islamic regime in Iran – where there is a deep-seated anti-Islamic backlash and women’s liberation movement – I found it astonishing how Sharia courts, apostasy laws and women’s subservient status were legitimised as a defence of “minority rights” in Britain and the west.
How Machiavellian to promote a defence of fundamentalists as a defence of a presumed homogenous minority “community”! How patronising to assume that those of us from minority backgrounds are so “different” from everyone else that we can only be expected to live within the confines of predefined patriarchal structures.
In any religious or tribal court, the odds are stacked against women who are viewed as the property and honour of the men in charge and not as individual citizens with rights.
The fact of the matter is that Sharia law violates women’s rights, including here in Britain. As do Ecclesiastic courts, the Beth Din or Loya Jirgas. In any religious or tribal court, the odds are stacked against women who are viewed as the property and honour of the men in charge and not as individual citizens with rights.
Sharia courts legitimise and encourage violence against women whether by considering a women’s testimony as worth half that of a man’s, normalising polygamy and child “marriage” or considering marital rape as the prerogative of the husband, amongst others. Sharia court jurisprudence and practice violate every article of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), including by promoting the concept of “zina” which criminalises sex outside of marriage.
Sharia law also violates the rights of religious minorities, freethinkers, ex-Muslims, atheists, apostates, blasphemers and LGBT… In more than a dozen countries under Sharia, apostasy, blasphemy and homosexuality is punishable with the death penalty. In Britain, too, Sharia judges have made statements justifying the killing of apostates; the apostate label alone carries with it the grave risk of shunning and honour-related violence and death.
The establishment of CEMB and One Law for All were efforts to be heard and to be seen and to insist on our equal citizenship and individual rights and freedoms in the face of a cultural relativism that erases any dissent and only recognises “group” and “community” rights. Given that it is those in power that determine the “rights” of an in-group, a defence of an essentialised “Muslim community” ends up becoming an exercise in defending the fundamentalists and blaming the victims. Make no mistake. Defending Sharia courts or for that matter the veiling of children and sex segregation at schools or opposition to the “No Outsiders” programme is a defence of the Islamist project to control women, dissent and doubt and has nothing to do with promoting religious freedom or combatting bigotry.
A brief look at the founding organisations of the oldest Sharia court in Britain, the Islamic Sharia Council, for example, clearly shows the transnational Islamist links. The organisations include:
London Central Mosque and Islamic Cultural Center (whose Trustees include officials from the governments of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Brunei, Qatar, Egypt, Yemen, Jordan – many of which punish apostasy with the death penalty and have discriminatory family laws).
Muslim World League (which propagates Saudi Wahabbism, the Muslim Brotherhood played a role in its founding).
Markazi Jamiat Ahl-e-Hadith (involved in promoting sectarianism and jihad in the Indian sub-continent).
UK Islamic Mission (inspired by Jamaat e Islami and Syed Abul Ala Maududi and shares the same ideology as Hamas and Muslim Brotherhood).
Dawatul Islam, UK (UK branch of the Bangladeshi Jamaat e Islami. In 1971, some of the Jamaat e Islami were implicated in running death squads and organising lynchings against people demanding independence).
Jamia Mosque & Islamic Center, Birmingham (where protestors marched from the mosque after Friday prayers to the Bangladesh High Commission in Birmingham after the execution of a Bangladeshi Islamist convicted of atrocities committed during the 1971 war of independence with Pakistan following the country’s war crimes tribunal).
Muslim Welfare House, London (was founded by Kamal Helbawy of the Muslim Brotherhood who has praised Osama Bin Laden. They have fatwas defending polygamy and prohibiting Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men as well as campaigned to stop the selling of alcohol).
It’s where we each stand when rights are violated and fundamentalists appeased that counts.
Contrary to the far-Right arguments that aim to promote anti-Muslim bigotry and xenophobia, this is not about a clash of civilisations but a clash between theocrats and secularists everywhere, with believers and non-believers, including minorities and migrants, on either side. Identities are irrelevant and beside the point though; it’s their politics that matters. It’s where we each stand when rights are violated and fundamentalists appeased that counts. As the refrain from the old labour movement song says: “Which side are you on?” Are we all, as the song continues – “on the side of those who fight for freedom”?
A quarter of the world’s countries and territories (26%) have anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and more than one-in-ten (13%) countries have laws or policies penalizing apostasy.
According to Pew research, laws restricting apostasy and blasphemy are most common in the Middle East and North Africa, where 18 of the region’s 20 countries (90%) criminalize blasphemy and 14 (70%) criminalize apostasy. While apostasy laws exist in two other regions of the world – Asia-Pacific and sub-Saharan Africa – blasphemy laws can be found in all regions, including Europe (in 16% of countries) and the Americas (29%).
The 14 countries that have the death penalty for blasphemy are all countries with Islamic law: Afghanistan, Brunei, Iran, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
66 countries have blasphemy laws: Afghanistan, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Austria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei, Comoros, Cyprus, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Finland, Germany, Grenada, Guyana, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Liechtenstein, Malaysia, Mauritius, Montenegro, Morocco, Nigeria, Oman, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, San Marino, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Somalia, South Sudan, Spain, Sri Lanka, St Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenadines, Sudan, Suriname, Switzerland, Syria, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Vanuatu, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe. (It used to be 71 but Canada, Denmark, Greece, Malta and New Zealand have dropped blasphemy codes from their books recently.)
On 30 September, International Blasphemy Day, let’s stand with blasphemers across the globe.
Blasphemy is not a crime; it is an integral part of freedom of expression and conscience. #EndBlasphemyLaws #BlasphemyNotACrime #BlasphemyDay
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.
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.
In the light of recent court decisions on marriage and divorce, today we have written to the Ministry of Justice, calling for an urgent review into Sharia and civil marriage and divorce laws and to guarantee access to justice for all.
We welcome the recent High Court decision in Akhter v Khan  EWFC 54 in the UK, to declare that a Muslim marriage contract (nikkah) was ‘void’, rather than a ‘non-marriage’. Shabaz Khan had refused to divorce Nasreen Akhter on the grounds that they did not have a valid marriage registered under English law. This had the effect of keeping Nasreen Akhter in marital captivity and denying her legal rights under English family law.
The outcome means that Nasreen Akthar is entitled to seek a decree of nullity, and hopefully, to obtain financial relief against Shabaz Khan. Even though the decision turned on the specific facts of the case, it is nevertheless significant for women trapped in unregistered marriages and should be examined for its relevance to marital captivity, forced and child marriage.
The judgment does not recognise ‘Sharia’ laws as some in the media have misleadingly stated. It deals with the knotty problem of women who believe that they are married but find that they have an unrecognised religious marriage only. This case shows that they can turn to the formal legal system. In fact, the judgement deals a blow to those who justify the sharia ‘courts’ as the only recourse for women who have not registered their marriages.
Our research shows that the power and control of religious fundamentalist networks over Muslims has grown enormously over the last thirty years. This has led to a widespread belief that a civil marriage is not necessary, that women must have a divorce certificate issued by a Sharia ‘court’ in an apparent judicial procedure; and that they must get this ‘certificate’ even if they already have a civil divorce.
While the judgement is a step in the right direction, the government urgently needs to examine its own complicity in keeping religious fundamentalists in business. Sharia ‘courts’, have been actively tolerated in Britain by being given charitable status and treated as partners by the police and local councils. While the government rejected the recommendation of the sharia review headed by Mona Siddiqui for regulation of the sharia councils; it has quietly ensured the continuing power of religious courts.
The application form for a divorce (Form D8) actively encourages women to turn to religious bodies. It states ‘If you entered into a religious marriage as well as a civil marriage, these divorce proceedings may not dissolve the religious part of your marriage. It is important that you contact the relevant religious authority and seek further guidance if you are unsure.’
If the government is serious about gender equality and ending violence against women, why is it undermining the validity of a civil divorce under English law? Why is it pushing women towards religious courts? For decades, the civil divorce has been the valid certificate demanded by courts abroad, regardless of whether there is also a religious marriage such as a Sikh, Hindu or Muslim ceremony. This guidance undermines women’s rights and the recognition of divorces awarded by British courts.
We call on the government to immediately withdraw this guidance from the divorce application form; to address the lack of access to justice brought about by cuts to legal aid; to overhaul outdated marriage and divorce laws and to take active measures to end religious courts and their control over women’s lives.
Gita Sahgal, Director, Centre for Secular Space
Pragna Patel, Director, Southall Black Sisters
Yasmin Rehman, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Afsana Lachaux, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Ahlam Akram, Founder, Basira
Amina Lone, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Diana Nammi, Executive Director, Iranian & Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation
Gina Khan, Spokesperson, One Law for All
Peter Tatchell, Director, Peter Tatchell Foundation
Rahila Gupta, Writer
Rumana Hashem, Spokesperson, Community Women Against Abuse
Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson, Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and Critical Sisters Director
Stephen Evans, Chief Executive Officer, National Secular Society