Iran-US confrontation; the Veil; Assimilation vs. Multiculturalism

To see this week’s TV International programme, for Tuesday 27 February 2007, click here.

In this week’s programme:

Interview with Hamid Taqvaee on Hossein Derakhshan’s Guardian article entitled Stop bullying Iran. Taqvaee challenges Derakhshan’s claim that ‘The Islamic Republic is worth defending. Even at its worst, it is way better than anything the US or anyone else can bring to Iran.’ He also challenges a viewer’s letter saying that one should support the US attack on Iran. He says why defend either.

Interview with Sohaila Sharifi on the veil. Sharifi talks about why March 8 this year is focused on opposing the veil, why the veil is not just another piece of clothing or a matter of choice.

The programme also highlights the case of the 22 year old Egyptian blogger Abdel Karim Nabil Soleiman who has been imprisoned for four years for insulting Islam and the president and the campaign to save Delara Darabi initiated by Mina Ahadi and Nazanin Afshin-Jam.

Interview with Bahram Soroush on Kenan Malik’s article in the Catalyst entitled Thinking outside the box. Soroush talks about the discord between assimilationists and multiculturalists.

New Channel will be switching to another satellite station next week so there will be no programme next week.

Save Delara Darabi from Execution!

Delara Darabi was sentenced to death at the age of 17 for a murder she did not commit. She is now in a state of shock and can no longer speak since being told that her execution is imminent. Mina Ahadi and Nazanin Afshin-Jam have begun a campaign to save her life.

Join the campaign to save her life.

Sign a petition in her defence by clicking here.

To find out more about her case, click here.

Here are some of her drawings during her time in prison:


For 24 February anti-war demonstrators: You can be against both

TV International interview with Hamid Taqvaee

Maryam Namazie: There is an escalating propaganda war between Iran and the USA reminiscent of the USA government’s propaganda campaign before the war on Iraq as a way of preparing public opinion for an attack.

Hamid Taqvaee: Yes, it seems as if the US government is following in the same footsteps. But there is a big difference when you compare today’s conditions with conditions before the attack on Iraq and that is of course the experience of Iraq itself. We know that the US government is facing a quagmire in Iraq and does not know how to end it. Moreover, public opinion in the US and across the world is against any type of military attack on Iran and even the reinforcement of US troops in Iraq. So there is a huge difference but on its own this does not mean that an attack is completely impossible. It is not. It is still possible as a last and desperate act of the Bush administration. The propaganda war is also a form of political pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran due to its influence in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine. As I have always said in the past, the main reason behind the ‘nuclear crisis’ is the Islamic regime’s interference in the region, which has been problematic for the USA. The US government wants the regime to abandon its influence and role in the region under this pressure.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say that this is a role Iran has played for a while now. And there’s always been some sort of confrontation between the US and Iran. They will ask, then, why is it coming to a head at this point?

Hamid Taqvaee: It is coming to a head because of what is taking place in Iraq. Before the US government’s attack on Iraq, the Islamic regime of Iran did not have the influence it sought; after Iraq, political Islam is on the rise. The very fact that a group like Hamas has managed to secure power in Palestine is a direct result of the situation in Iraq. As is the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the rise of many different Islamic groups in Iraq.

The current situation is very different from even a year ago. The US government is desperate in Iraq whilst the Islamic regime of Iran has secured influence it did not have several years ago. This is the reason why the Iraq Study Group has recommended dealing with Iran and Syria if the US government hopes to reach some form of solution in the Middle East. Without a new balance of power in the region in favour of the US government vis-à-vis governments like the Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria, the US won’t be able to find a solution acceptable to it for the Middle East. That is a real political fact. And the only way that the US can oppose Iran is by exerting pressure under the guise of a ‘nuclear crisis’. From their perspective, the ‘nuclear crisis’ is an advantageous way of promoting an aggressive policy towards the Islamic Republic. So under the guise of a ‘nuclear crisis’ they are actually addressing the other crisis they have in the region, which is the rising power of different Islamic groups everywhere. They have to do something. And they know that one of the main sources of the Islamic movements in the region is the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Maryam Namazie: So, in a sense, it sounds that given the situation in the US, it might actually be beneficial for the US government to attack Iran. And there are commentators that are saying it’s also beneficial for Ahmadinejad to have this confrontation given the fact that it would take away from the popular discontent against the Islamic regime of Iran.

Hamid Taqvaee: The problem with the analyses that says both sides want war is that it does not take into consideration the power of people – a third camp that is neither with the US nor with the Islamic Republic – and is in fact against both of them. That force – especially in Iran and western countries – is a powerful player in the political scene. It plays a very important role.

Also, even if it might seem to be beneficial from the point of view of both governments, it will have adverse effects on both of them in the short and long term. It would not be a sound decision on the part of the US government to attack Iran. It might do so as a last resort and out of desperation but it will not solve anything for them. This is one factor. The other factor is that the people of Iran and the political situation in Iran are very different from the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iran, we have a huge secular movement against the Islamic Republic of Iran. Their slogan is ‘Neither War nor Atomic Bomb’. They want neither. They are against both. That force is going to become more and more powerful.

Of course, in the short-term, in the event of an attack, the people of Iran will suffer immensely but in time the protest movement will become all the more powerful similar to those in Iraq. After the US attack on Iraq, groups opposed to the US became powerful and active. But of course they are all reactionary. In Iran we have an opposition force which is with the people, which is secular, which is civilized, and which is radical. And that force will gain power and become an ever more powerful factor in the political situation in Iran. So what they have to take into consideration is the presence of that movement in Iran which is against both of them; workers, youth and women in Iran are with that movement.

Maryam Namazie: Some are saying that even though there was a mass movement against the attack on Iraq, it did not make any difference whatsoever. The attack went ahead despite the protests in the US and elsewhere. Will opposition to a war on Iran really make a difference?

Hamid Taqvaee: As I have said, the situation is very different. At that time we did not have such widespread opposition to the war. I know we had an anti-war movement but still American public opinion was not so firmly against it and somehow the US government was able to use that to its advantage. Today, this is not possible anymore. The other issue is that you cannot compare things in this mechanical manner and say that because we had no success before, a protest movement cannot be successful at any time. That is not the way to reflect on the experiences of history. For example, there was a huge movement against the Vietnam War and it was eventually successful in ending the Vietnam War. Also, even if a movement does not succeed, it does not make it worthless. It just means you have to do more, to organise more, mobilise more people with more radical demands on a greater scale against the war. So the very fact that we did not achieve our desired results three years ago does not at all mean that today will be more of the same. Of course the US government, Bush, the present administration do not care about what the people are saying. But the entire ruling class, both parties in the US, have to come in terms with what to do in Iraq. Also, Russia and China have to come to some sort of agreement. And it does not seem that Russia, China and the other members of the Security Council will easily sign up to whatever the US says. They have not done so up to now and it seems very unlikely that they will do so now. For any sort of attack, the US government will have to go it alone. This time, in the face of the opposition of even the Republicans, Congress, the Democrats, a part of the ruling class in the US itself. Three years ago when they attacked Iraq, most of those in Congress from both parties were in favour of the war. Today most of them are against the war. These are all political differences between the situation today and three years ago.

Maryam Namazie: Is there also the possibility of an Israel-Iran proxy war, as we saw in Lebanon, with the US itself not getting directly involved but via Israel.

Hamid Taqvaee: I do not think that they will do so because any form of Israeli direct action will mobilise all the Arab countries behind the Islamic Republic of Iran. That is obvious. Even the Arab countries that are traditionally US allies like Egypt, and Saudi Arabia will mobilise behind the regime if Israel attacks Iran. I think this is risky for them. It is political suicide for the Israeli government and US policies in the Middle East. I don’t see it as being very likely. I don’t think they are that desperate to do so.

Maryam Namazie: A commentator in the Observer has stated that if there is an attack on Iran, the clash of civilizations that the neo-conservatives had predicted would come a step closer to dominating the 21st century.

Hamid Taqvaee: The clash of civilizations theory is nonsense. There is no Islamic civilization. And if there was such a thing, how could the Islamic Republic of Iran be a representative of such a civilization, so to speak. It is not a clash of civilizations. This is an absurd post-modern theory. What is happening is that after the Cold War, the USA is striving to be the dominant power in the world and in the Middle East. And the US is confronted with Islamic forces that it created during the final years of the Cold War in Afghanistan, and in Iran itself by supporting Khomeini. Bush also does not represent any kind of civilization or Western so to speak civilization nor does the Islamic forces represent an Eastern civilization. That’s absurd and meaningless and it is unhelpful in real politics to discuss it in these terms.

Maryam Namazie: There are reports of differences in the regime itself on how to deal with the USA.

Hamid Taqvaee: Of course there are different factions within the Islamic regime and one of the main differences between the factions is their policy towards the US and the so to speak ‘nuclear crisis’. When Khatami was president, the approach was different but now the right-wing faction of the Islamic Republic is dominant and Ahmadinejad represents them. They are following the same line as the supreme leader Khamenei. They are, however, faced with strong opposition inside the regime. Rafsanjani is one of those who is opposing the current policy. Of course they all want to continue with the nuclear project but they differ in the way it should done and on the region’s foreign policy and policy towards the US. Ahmadinejad has been unable to achieve any of the goals he set forth at the start of his presidency and has become weaker and weaker. And as a result, the opposition is getting more powerful. That’s the other aspect of the ‘nuclear crisis’ in Iran.

Maryam Namazie: Rising prices, inflation, unemployment is worse than it ever was under Ahmadinejad. A Guardian reporter has said he may become known as the president who was brought down by the price of tomatoes.

Hamid Taqvaee: It is obvious that with the economic sanctions, even in the restricted sense, prices will double and increase. This is already happening. It adds to the horrendous economic situation for people. On the other hand, the Islamic Republic can blame the situation on US policies and sanctions in order to excuse and defend its policies. Nonetheless, the people of Iran know this regime very well. Regionally, the Islamic regime may be a sort of hero for Islamic forces in Lebanon or in Palestine or even in Iraq, but in Iran, this is not the case. In Iran most of the people, a huge majority of the people, are against this regime and despise it. And I do not think that any problem with the US will help the regime. So on the one hand you see heightened economic, political and social pressure on the people of Iran; on the other hand, it will, I believe, heighten, and radicalise opposition against the Islamic Republic.

Maryam Namazie: The Stop the War Coalition has encouraged the political Islamic movement, to the extent that the Islamic regime of Iran’s flag is raised at anti-war demonstrations. When activists oppose the regime’s flag, they are accused of supporting US policies! This is an argument we have heard often from the pathetic grouping that considers itself left. What would you say to those who say that by opposing the Islamic regime you are promoting, helping and creating an environment which will make it easier for the US and Israel to attack Iran.

Hamid Taqvaee: Actually I think one of the problems of the Iranian people and people everywhere is this so-called left. This type of political force thinks that when you are against the US, you must support any movement which is also against the US. We know that in today’s political situation, Islamic forces are against the US. So according to their childish logic, you must support the Islamic Republic or other Islamic forces just because you are against the US. This logic that any group that is opposed to the US is progressive and must be supported means more than anything else that the so-called leftist groups have nothing to offer themselves. It means that they are irrelevant. They have to support somebody, anybody as they cannot call upon the public to support them. That is the problem. It firstly, reveals the weakness and irrelevance of these sort of leftist groups in real politics.

For us, for worker-communism of Iran, for our party, this is not the situation. We are calling for everybody to support us against both reactionary forces – the US’ militarism and the Islamic Republic. We don’t believe that if you are against one of them, you have to support the other. You can be against both of them. Because what matters is workers, women, people, secularism, civilization, what people really want, what is the right of people to have… That is all that matters. And if you are representing humanity, if you are representing equality, if you are representing secularism, if you are representing freedom, then you have to be against both of them. We call on everybody to a third camp against both of these reactionary forces; we call on everybody to support the Left. The Left, if it is the real Left, if it is the real radical Left, does not have to support any other group or movement. Anybody who is for freedom, who is for equality, who is for welfare of the people, has to follow the Left and support the Left.

The above was a TV International English interview that was transcribed by Ozgur Yalcin.

Faith and State: Getting the Balance Right

Getting the balance right between faith and state implies that religion may actually have a positive role to play in society and that discussions need merely focus on the extent and nature of its role. That somehow there is a point at which we can find stability and equilibrium and even a more integrated society.

In fact, it is the complete opposite.

The more of a role that religion plays and the degree to which it has access to governing, state institutions, education, the law and so on, the more detrimental and divisive it is for society.

Let me clarify. In their recent opposition to sexual orientation regulations and gay adoption, the Catholic Church supported by Islamic organisations and other religious groups have asserted that they must not be forced to act against their conscience; that they should be allowed to discriminate; that it is their right to discriminate. In Iran, where religion is in power, it is no longer a matter of the right to discrimination; gays are openly hung in city squares for ‘perversion’.

Another example is attempts by Islamic groups to portray sexual apartheid as a matter of choice and belief – whether it be in defence of the veil or of a Muslim police officer refusing to shake hands with the Commissioner last month because it was against her religion to touch a man.

Where religion is in power, however, one can quickly see how rights and choice are empty rhetoric to gain favour in the west. In Saudi Arabia, for example, girls’ schools are locked as usual practice to ensure the segregation of the sexes. In 2002 when a fire broke out at a school in Mecca, the guards would not unlock the gates and religious police prevented girls from escaping – to the point of even beating them back into the school- because they were not properly veiled; moreover they stopped men who tried to help, warning the men that it was sinful to touch the girls. 15 girls died as a result and more than fifty were wounded.

As I said, the degree to which religious groups and institutions have access – that is the degree to which rights and lives are at risk.

And I would like to stress this point.

There may be and are people with beliefs that belong in the Middle Ages and it is their right to believe in whatever they choose so long as they don’t cause harm but organised religion is a very different matter.

Clearly, there is a big difference between Muslims and political Islam – as a contemporary right wing political movement like many others, as well as between Muslims and Islam, which is the ideological aspect of this contemporary movement and a belief like many others.

Blurring the distinctions between the two and the use of rights and anti-racist language here in the west to do so are devious ways of silencing criticism and opposition – criticism which is particularly crucial given the havoc that political Islam has inflicted in the Middle East and North Africa and more recently here in the west.

As I have said before, the language calling for restraint rapidly becomes one of threats and intimidation when Islamists has some form of political power. In Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, they kill and maim indiscriminately, tolerate nothing and no one, hang the ‘unchaste’, ‘kafirs’ and ‘apostates’ from cranes in city centres, and say it is their divine right to do so.

Interestingly, freedoms and rights used by religious groups to further their stranglehold on European society were originally gained to protect people from discrimination, persecution and oppression not the other way around.

When it comes to the Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Human Rights Commission (an oxymoron), the Finsbury Park and other mosques, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi government and so on, then it is no longer a question of freedom of conscience or belief though they often portray it as the right to discriminate against gays; the right to veil women and children; the right to segregate; the right to threaten to death or kill anyone and everyone who transgresses their religious mores…

Various freedoms and rights of conscience, belief, expression, speech, and so on were gains for the powerless vis-à-vis the powerful and often vis-à-vis religion. How ludicrous that today powerful religious groups, lobbies and even states are now using these very concepts in an attempt to actually deny and restrict rights and freedoms in the society at large.

These Islamic groups, imams and ‘leaders’ are self-appointed to help keep so-called minorities in their regressive fragmented communities and run them on the cheap. Deeming religious organisations and repressive Islamic states as representative of the so-called Muslim community – which they aren’t – implies that masses of people choose to live the way they are often forced to and imputes on them the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling elite.

Even if it was the belief of a majority that women are sub-human and honour killing is justified, it is erroneous and dangerous to confuse the right to a belief and conscience of individuals with the right to then impose said beliefs and ‘conscience’ on society or segments of it.

Unfortunately, cultural relativism has lowered standards and redefined values to such depths that not only are all beliefs deemed equally valid, they seem to have taken on personas of their own blurring the distinction between individuals and beliefs (whether theirs or imputed).

As a result, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are now more and more applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over real live human beings.

This is why any criticism and ridiculing of or opposition to beliefs, cultures, religions, gods and prophets are being deemed racism, disrespecting, inciting hatred and even violence against those deemed believers.

We saw this during the organised protests by political Islam against the Mohammad caricatures.

The distinction between humans and their beliefs is of crucial significance here. It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them. It is the human being who is sacred not beliefs or religion.

The problem is that religion sees things the other way around.

And this is the main reason why religion must be relegated to being a private matter.

More importantly than the fact that it divides, excludes, denies, restricts and so on is the compelling fact that when it comes to religion, it is not the equality, rights, freedoms, welfare of the child, man or woman that is paramount but religion itself.

The promotion of secularism is an important vehicle to protect society from religion’s intervention in people’s lives, especially in the face of religion’s rising access to power.

Of course nowadays, secularism is often portrayed negatively. Religious groups equate secularism as the other extreme of religious fanaticism. But this is untrue.

Religion excludes whilst secularism is inclusive and ensures that a sect or group does not impose its beliefs on all. That a person’s religion is a private affair.

What secularism does is require that at minimum government offices and officials from judges, to clerks to teachers to doctors and nurses are not promoting their religious beliefs and are instead doing their jobs. In the same way that a teacher can’t teach creationism instead of evolution and science in the classroom; a pharmacist can’t refuse contraceptive pills to a women because of her beliefs; a male doctor can’t refuse to treat a woman patient or vice versa. We are seeing this happening more and more as religion gains influence in society.

These are sometimes portrayed as restrictions on religious beliefs or freedoms and religious intolerance as was the banning of religious symbols in France but again this is not so. One’s religious beliefs are a private affair; public officials cannot use their positions to impose or promote their beliefs on others.

Moreover, when it comes to the veil, much more needs to be done than banning the burqa and neqab and the veil from state and educational spaces. The veil is a symbol like no other of what it means to be a woman under Islam – hidden from view, bound, and gagged. It is a tool for restricting and suppressing women. Of course there are some who choose to be veiled, but you cannot say it is a matter of choice because – socially speaking – the veil is anything but. There is no ‘choice’ for most women. In countries under Islamic rule, it is compulsory. Even here, in Britain, according to a joint statement about the veil from ‘Muslim groups, scholars and leaders’, including the Muslim Council of Britain, Hizb ut Tahrir and Islamic ‘Human Rights’ Commission, it is stated that the veil ‘is not open to debate’. The statement goes so far as to ‘advise all Muslims to exercise extreme caution in this issue since denying any part of Islam may lead to disbelief.’

As I have said before, take away all the pressure and intimidation and threats and you will see how many remain veiled.

When it comes to the veiling of girls in schools, though, children’s veiling must not only be banned in public institutions and schools but also in private schools and everywhere.

Here the issue extends beyond the principle of secularism and goes straight to the heart of children’s rights.

While adults may ‘choose’ veiling or a religion, children by their very nature cannot make such choices; what they do is really what their parents tell them to do.

Even if there are children who say they like or choose to be veiled (as some media have reported), child veiling must still be banned – just as a child must be protected even if she ‘chooses’ to stay with her abusive parents rather than in state care, even if she ‘chooses’ to work to support her family in violation of child labour laws or even if she ‘chooses’ to stop attending school.

The state is duty bound to protect children and must level the playing field for children and ensure that nothing segregates them or restricts them from accessing information, advances in society and rights, playing, swimming and in general doing things children must do.

Whatever their beliefs, parents do not have the right to impose their beliefs, including veiling on children just because they are their own children, just as they can’t deny their children medical assistance or beat and neglect them or marry them off at 9 because it’s part of their beliefs or religion.

Similarly, faith schools – state or private – must be abolished. This is indoctrination of children. Just as we have laws against the physical abuse of children, we must have laws against the psychological, emotional and ideological abuse of children.

The same applies to a Sharia Court for so-called minorities something that was successfully opposed in Canada and is now being promoted in the UK as a way to promote ‘minority rights’. Aside from the fact that Sharia law is inherently unjust, it is discriminatory and unfair to have different and separate systems, standards and norms for ‘different’ people. The concept of an Islamic Court adheres to a principle of separate but equal similar to that promoted by the former Apartheid regime of South Africa. It was clear then as it is clear now that separate is not equal. In fact it is a prescription for inequality and discrimination. It makes a group of people forever minorities and never citizens equal before and under the law.

To sum up, one of the important roles of the state is to keep religion out rather than getting the balance right. The law is especially important here. Religious groups often speak of coercion when opposing laws such as the banning of religious symbols or the sexual orientation regulations but much of law is just that – to coerce society to do what has become established norms – from preventing child abuse to domestic violence– much of it as a result of the struggles of the working class and social movements.

Now I know that there are those who say that the vile political Islamic movement has nothing to do with religion. In Europe, Islam is constantly being repackaged in a thousand ways to make it more palatable for the western audience. There is now moderate Islam, Islamic reformism, Islamic human rights, Islamic feminism, Islamic democracy… These notions would have been ridiculed by the avant-gardes of 18th century enlightenment. Nonetheless, Islam is key here both as the ideology behind and banner of the political Islamic movement; in fighting the movement, one cannot excuse or appease the ideology behind it. The battle for secularists is as much a battle against religion and Islam as it is a battle against political Islam.

As Mansoor Hekmat, the Marxist thinker has said: ‘It has been proved time and time again that pushing back religiosity and religious reaction is not possible except through unequivocal defence of human values against religion. It has been proved time and time again that preventing religious barbarism does not come about through bribing it and trying to give it a human face, but through the fight against reactionary religious beliefs and practices. What price should be paid… to realise that Islam and religion do not have a progressive, supportable faction?’ (Mansoor Hekmat, In Defence of the Prohibition of the Islamic Veil for Children.)

Let me end by adding that this has nothing to do with the clash of civilisations. In fact, the clash we are witnessing between political Islam and the US led militarism is the clash of the uncivilised. The majority of humanity, a third camp that wants nothing to do with either side, represents 21st century humanity and values. It is this front that must lead the much needed fight for secularism today.

The above is an adaptation of speeches given at the University of Westminster in London on January 27th at an Inter-Isles Forum for delegates from all elected political parties or their youth wings aged 18 –30 from Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and a secularist gathering in Paris, France on February 10, 2007.

Secularism and Humanism are not Religions or Belief Systems

I spoke on the topic of ‘Secularism and Humanism are not Religions or Belief Systems’ at the Leicester Secular Society today, including the dangers of regarding secularism and humanism as forms of religion, belief or dogma, and how it can prevent people from challenging religion.

I will publish my speech there soon.

Maryam Namazie speaks at an international gathering of secularists in Paris

On Saturday 10 February, I spoke at an international gathering of secularists in Paris, France, which was attended by hundreds of secularists on a panel regarding equality and political Islam. Here’s my speech:

Political Islam and Islam are antithetical to women’s rights, equality between men and women, and other rights and freedoms.

You do not need to look far to see ample evidence of this.

Wherever Islam in particular and religion in general plays a role and the degree to which it has influence or access to governing, state institutions, education, the law and so on, the more detrimental it is for society; the more women and men are unequal and rights and freedoms are restricted.

In Europe, another example is that Islamic groups portray sexual apartheid and the veil as a matter of choice and belief yet where religion is in power, one can quickly see how rights and choice are empty rhetoric to justify their movement and nature, to pacify the general population and to gain access to mainstream politics in the west. However where they rule, things are brutally different. In Iran, women were forcibly veiled under threat of acid, imprisonment and flogging. Another example is Saudi Arabia where girls’ schools are locked as usual practice to ensure the segregation of the sexes. In 2002 when a fire broke out at a school in Mecca, the guards would not unlock the gates and religious police prevented girls from escaping – to the point of even beating them back into the school- because they were not properly veiled; moreover they stopped men who tried to help warning the men that it was sinful to touch the girls. 15 girls died as a result and more than fifty were wounded.

As I said, the degree to which Islamic and religious groups and institutions have access – that is the degree to which equality, rights and lives are at risk.

And I would like to stress this point.

Of course, there may be and are people with beliefs that belong in the Middle Ages and it is their right to believe in whatever they choose so long as they don’t cause harm but organised religions is a very different matter.

Let me clarify; there is a big difference between Muslims and political Islam – as a contemporary right wing political movement like many others, as well as between Muslims and Islam, which is the ideological aspect of this contemporary movement and a belief like many others.

Blurring the distinctions between the two – as Islamists and their apologists often do – and the use of rights and anti-racist language here in the west to do so are devious ways of silencing criticism and opposition – criticism which is particularly crucial given the havoc that political Islam has inflicted in the Middle East and North Africa and more recently here in the west.

As I have said before, the call of organised religious groups for restraint rapidly becomes one of threats and intimidation when they have some form of political power. In Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, they kill and maim indiscriminately, tolerate nothing and no one, hang the ‘unchaste’, ‘kafirs’ and ‘apostates’ from cranes in city centres, and say it is their divine right to do so.

Interestingly, freedoms and rights used by religious groups to further their stranglehold on European society were originally gained to protect people from discrimination, persecution and oppression not the other way around.

When it comes to the political Islamic movement or other religious groups, the Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi government and so on, then it is no longer a question of freedom of conscience or belief though they often portray it as the right to discriminate against gays; the right to veil women and children; the right to segregate; the right to threaten to death or kill anyone and everyone who transgresses their religious mores…

Various freedoms and rights of conscience, belief, expression, speech, and so on were gains for the powerless vis-à-vis the powerful and often vis-à-vis religion.

How ludicrous that today powerful religious groups, lobbies and even states are now using these very concepts in an attempt to actually deny and restrict rights and freedoms of individuals and of the society at large.

These Islamic organisations, imams and ‘leaders’ are self-appointed to help keep so-called minorities in their regressive fragmented communities and run them on the cheap. Deeming religious organisations and repressive Islamic states as representative of the so-called Muslim community – which they aren’t – implies that masses of people choose to live the way they are often forced to and imputes on them the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling elite.

Even if it was the belief of a majority that women are sub-human and unequal, and that honour killing is justified, it is erroneous and dangerous to confuse the right to a belief and conscience of individuals with the right to then impose said beliefs and ‘conscience’ on society or segments of it.

Unfortunately, cultural relativism has lowered standards and redefined values to such depths that not only are all beliefs deemed equally valid, they seem to have taken on personas of their own blurring the distinction between individuals and beliefs (whether theirs or imputed).

As a result, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are now more and more applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over real live human beings.

This is why any criticism and ridiculing of or opposition to beliefs, cultures, religions, gods and prophets are being deemed racism, disrespecting, inciting hatred and even violence against those deemed believers. This is not the case.

We saw this during the organised protests by political Islam against the Mohammad caricatures.

The distinction between humans and their beliefs is of crucial significance here.

It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them.

It is the human being who is sacred not beliefs or religion.

The problem is that religion sees things the other way around.

And this is the main reason why religion must be relegated to being a private matter.

More importantly than the fact that it divides, excludes, denies, restricts and so on is the compelling fact that when it comes to religion, it is not the equality, rights, freedoms, welfare of the child, man or woman that is paramount but religion itself.

The promotion of secularism is therefore an important vehicle to protect society from religion’s intervention in people’s lives, especially in the face of religion’s rising access to power.

Of course nowadays, secularism is often portrayed negatively. Religious groups equate secularism as the other extreme of religious fanaticism. But this is untrue.

Religion excludes whilst secularism is inclusive and ensures that a sect or group does not impose its beliefs on all. That a person’s religion is a private affair.

Of course, true equality cannot come about without redressing class inequalities but for men and women and children to be equal in society and under and before the law, secularism is needed as a minimum standard to keep religion out of the social sphere.

The law is especially important here.

Religious groups often speak of coercion when opposing laws such as the banning of religious symbols but much of law is just that – to coerce society to do what has become established norms from preventing child abuse to domestic violence– much of it as a result of the struggles of the working class, the left and social movements.

Now I know that there are those who say that the vile political Islamic movement has nothing to do with religion. In Europe, Islam is constantly being repackaged in a thousand ways to make it more palatable for the western audience. There is now moderate Islam, Islamic reformism, Islamic human rights, Islamic feminism, Islamic democracy… These notions would have been ridiculed by the avant-gardes of 18th century enlightenment. Nonetheless, Islam is key here both as the ideology behind and banner of the political Islamic movement; in fighting the movement, one cannot excuse or appease the ideology behind it. The battle for secularists is as much a battle against religion in general and Islam in particular as it is a battle against political Islam.

As Mansoor Hekmat, the Marxist thinker has said: ‘It has been proved time and time again that pushing back religiosity and religious reaction is not possible except through unequivocal defence of human values against religion. It has been proved time and time again that preventing religious barbarism does not come about through bribing it and trying to give it a human face, but through the fight against reactionary religious beliefs and practices. What price should be paid… to realise that Islam and religion do not have a progressive, supportable faction?’ (Mansoor Hekmat, In Defence of the Prohibition of the Islamic Veil for Children.)

Let me end by adding that this battle has nothing to do with the clash of civilisations. In fact, the clash we are witnessing between political Islam and the US led militarism is the clash of the uncivilised. The majority of humanity, a third camp that wants nothing to do with either side, represents 21st century humanity and values. It is this front that must lead the much needed fight for secularism today.