A shorter version of the below article was published in issue 20 of Gallerie.
Borders Exist To Be Crossed
As I write it is the 26th anniversary of the death of IRA hunger striker, Bobby Sands. His tenacity and endurance in the face of ponderous adversity has inspired many souls throughout the globe to make that daunting step into the cauldron of injustice, the heat of which is only ever tempered by the determination of the human psyche to douse it.
It is often tempting to feel that there is nothing that can be done for Bobby Sands other than to remember him. Perhaps cherish the last few seconds of snatched conversation ever shared with him in a freezing and filthy prison cell on the 18th of December 1980; a mere five months before he succumbed on the 65th day of his hunger strike in demand of recognition that he was political prisoner. Yet to leave it at that would be a disservice to one of the modern era’s most iconic symbols against repression. Bobby Sands was an internationalist. Recognising in other activists throughout the globe the sense of purpose that so animated him affords both further meaning and significance to his life and death.
On the 26th anniversary of his prolonged and torturous demise it is fitting to write of the Iranian exile Maryam Namazie whose activism and writing mirror in so many ways the activities of one unbreakable Irishman who in his own words stood trembling but undeterred on the precipice of finality.
What gives people the strength to cope with adversity is a question often posed when the majority would rather sit in silent anonymity and allow others to risk immolation as a consequence of carrying the torch that casts light into dark corners where injustice mushrooms. Maryam Namazie was never content to view the act of sitting as a strategic option. On many occasions she moved lock stock and barrel from one country to another in furtherance of the justice she thinks is lacking in a heartless world. Nor is she any stranger to torch carrying. Frequently she thrusts it into the vampire-like faces of the things of the night that promote religion as a power structure. Her most recent project, promoting the Third Camp as a radical and humane path between US militarism and Islamic fundamentalism, is only the latest in a long line of initiatives which have placed her at the coalface of confrontation armed only with a voice that so audibly speaks truth to power.
In the campaigning crucible for quite some time, she first came to my attention when she lent her name to a manifesto against totalitarianism. The manifesto was drafted in the wake of the racist religious violence directed against the Danes as a means to discourage Danish artists from exploring perceptions of Mohammed. Namazie was uncompromising in her defence of free speech. One of her co-signatories had been a colleague of the late Theo Van Gogh, hacked to death by a religious bigot as he cycled the streets of Amsterdam in November 2004.
I was appalled as many were by his murder. His ideas and beliefs are not relevant here. He was murdered for expressing them. I think his murder brought home to many the dangers of the political Islamic movement – since assassination has been one of their tools for many decades in the Middle East and also Europe, against, for example, Iranian dissidents.
Her determination in facing down such theocrats and their allies in the totalitarian left has been inspirational to those favouring a broader discussion of the matters that shape their daily lives. When she was profiled in the web journal The Blanket a year ago, her views and activism led to many people professing a better understanding of the issues that so concern her. Seemingly, there had been a pervasive belief that political Islam somehow could be reduced to an anti-imperialist impulse, the dominant strand of which was resistance. Maryam Namazie more than any of the 12 manifesto signatories profiled in The Blanket disabused its readers of that notion. It was uplifting to find amongst their number men who had stood shoulder to naked shoulder with Bobby Sands.
It is this fundamental mischaracterisation of political Islam based on Islam’s own depiction of itself as a resistance force or as a voice for the oppressed and voiceless which annoys her most. ‘I understand the concept that one person’s terrorist can be another’s freedom fighter but there is no freedom for those the Islamists claim to represent.’ Another bugbear is ‘the somewhat fashionable notion that criticizing Islam and the movement is a form of racism – the deceptive concept of Islamophobia.’
Important as her observation is, there is a strong feeling in particular amongst the left that Islamophobia is the racism of our time. Many Muslims claim to be victims of the phenomenon. Namazie remains to be persuaded:
It’s deceptive because opposition to or criticism of, or even ‘phobias’ of ideologies, religions, cultures or political movements are not racism. It is only in the bizarre world of the New World Order’s cultural relativism that Islamophobia has been increasingly given legitimacy as a form of racism. This is an important point and one I have stressed on numerous occasions because I believe the use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ is in itself an attempt to silence a critique of Islam, political Islam and its oppression by deeming all those who do as racist.
For Namazie it seems Islamophilia, an ailment peculiar to sections of the European left, is the equal and opposite of Islamophobia but it goes unaddressed. Consequently, issues that are in need of public airing go unexplored.
At present, the life of Maryam Namazie strikes observers as pretty packed and hectic. She campaigns against stoning, the veiling of children, Sharia law, executions, sexual apartheid, and women’s rights abusers. A prolific writer and social commentator she also serves as the Director of the Worker-communist Party of Iran’s International Relations Committee, host to TV International English and has worked in Amnesty International.
Since giving birth to her child a year and a half ago she senses that the volume of her political activity has lessened. Holding down a full time job while bringing up a child that is breast fed means long hours and sleepless nights. Quitting however is not a feature to be sketched into the landscape of Maryam Namazie. When asked by her father would she give up political activism with the birth of her son her response was to tell him that she had more incentive to engage politically because it has become even more important to have a better world for her child.
Although an unalloyed secularist she was brought up in a Muslim household by parents who were not strict on applying the teachings of Islam. As a result being Muslim never figured as part of her identity. This fortified her emotionally for the intellectual challenge involved in viewing Islam through a critical prism, a path she wandered onto as a result of the Islamic regime being established in Tehran where she had been born and raised as a child. With her family she left Iran in 1980 after the installation of the Islamic regime. Since then her odyssey against oppression has seen her domiciled in the US, Sudan, India and Britain where she currently resides. Her departure from Iran was initially considered only a temporary measure:
Since the schools had been shut down in order to Islamicise them, my mother brought me to India (the only place we could get into at the time because of someone my parents knew) to put me in a school and return but then she never did. My dad had to leave with my baby sister and joined us a few months later.
Life in India was not a matter of simply settling down. The family could not gain residency in the country and so after sitting her O-Levels it packed suitcases and moved to Bournemouth in the UK where Maryam began studying for her A levels. But acquiring residency in Britain proved no easier than it had been in India. The family was on the trek once more, crossing an ocean and state borders. The US became ‘the place that gave my family a home and a place to belong.’ A two year interregnum from the US was spent in Sudan where she worked assisting Ethiopian refugees. A newly installed Islamic government, however, threatened her for setting up a human rights body. She fled the country and returned to the US.
The major influences in her politically nomadic life have been ‘the Iranian revolution, my family, worker-communism and Mansoor Hekmat.’ Tragically, the life of Hekmat was to be cut short by cancer in 2004. He was part of the leadership of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran which was surviving in exile in London. This ultimately brought her to the British capital. She first heard of Hekmat in Turkey ten years before he died and was impressed by his humanity. In distilling the influences in her life down it is evident Hekmat was the most important:
The Iranian revolution gave me first hand experience of the power of people to overthrow a dictatorship. Unfortunately, the revolution was expropriated and crushed by the Islamic movement. A revolution gives you hope, reveals the power of human will, and politicizes you. The experience of flight and the seeking of another home as well as starting over for my family and many others we knew was another. So was the reliance on family and loved ones to get through difficult times.Finally, the most important influence on my life was that of worker-communism and Mansoor Hekmat.
When asked to detail the purpose of the Third Camp she is clearheaded in her presentation of the crucial issue, the intellectual cataract that fails to see that by focussing on US militarism alone, the problems of oppression and injustice are not addressed in a holistic fashion.
The third camp is an attempt to provide people with a principled and human way to mobilize against war without falling either for US militarism or Islamic terrorism. Right now, much of the mainstream ‘stop the war’ coalitions are focused on US militarism alone and are apologetic towards the political Islamic movement. But a vast majority of people across the world are very opposed to political Islam and Islamic terrorism too. On the other hand those who have seen the atrocities of the Islamists and Islamic terrorism sometimes support US militarism. The third camp is the voice of the majority of people who see both as guilty of crimes against humanity and want to defend and represent humanity instead.
It is difficult for many on the left to see an equivalent threat posed by political Islam and US militarism. Some have expressed abhorrence that people claiming to be progressive argue that the greatest threat faced by global civilisation today comes from Islamic totalitarianism. Namazie responds:
Islamic totalitarianism poses such a great threat because it is spearheading a right-wing restructuring of the ruling class in the Middle East which is in essence anti-Left and inhuman.
Like Professor Fred Halliday she is amazed and appalled at the support the ‘anti-imperialist nationalist left’ has given to this phenomenon. She firmly believes that Western governments have been instrumental in developing political Islam and fails utterly to comprehend why the anti-imperialist left would therefore want to support something that was deliberately fostered and nurtured by imperialism as a battering ram against the Soviets in Afghanistan and left movements in countries like Iran. There is now an added dimension:
Since September 11, its reach has moved beyond the Mid East to affect societies across the globe. It has helped pave the way for political religion’s revival. Not to forget though that it is a creation of Western governments vis-à-vis the former Soviet Union and has a lot in common with the right wing US administration.
Despite leftist discourse having a long history of opposition to totalitarianism Namazie feels much of it is posturing. Totalitarianism represents a strong current within political Islam.
Sadly, much of the anti-imperialist nationalist left have fallen for this movement and they see the political Islamic movement as a ‘third worldist’ resistance force to US militarism; quite ridiculous actually when you think about it because the political Islamic movement is a right wing reactionary movement that has state power and or is vying for power in many places and which has a lot in common with the US right wing administration. It is a great threat because of what it means for human beings and their lives. Anywhere it rules or has power, it means nothing but human suffering in its most medieval forms (including stoning and amputations). But it is also a huge threat for universal human values in places where it is not necessarilya state power but is vying for access like in Europe. It is paving the way for an increase in religion and its influence in society at large.
Unlike others who distinguish between Islam and political Islam Namazie makes no such distinction. But does this not make more difficult the task of winning allies within the Islamic world?
I am wary of the term Islamic world as it associates millions of people as being represented by the political Islamic movement. But more to the point, the relation between Islam and political Islam is the same as between nationalism and fascism. One provides the feeding ground for the other. Islam is the banner of political Islam. You cannot fight one without also fighting the other. It’s important to do so from a left and anti-racist perspective so that in fact those deemed or labelled Muslims or who consider themselves Muslims are supported and defended. As the right to religion is a private affair, criticizing Islam has nothing to do with attacking Muslims. The Islamic movement wants to portray it as such. It is our task to show that this is not the case.
It was the Islamic regimes in both Iran and Sudan that showed her ‘the true role of religion and in particular the inhumane capacity of Islam to violate the most basic of rights.’ But becoming an ‘ardent atheist and secularist’ was far from being an overnight event. Working for eighteen years with refugees and asylum seekers, whom she terms, the victims of Islam and political Islam, alienated her from any concept of Islam as a spiritual property. It became clear that religion was a material power structure. Complementing her growth as a human being unfettered by spiritual chains was the thinking and activism of Mansoor Hekmat. He provided a generation of activists in Iran with a framework for developing critical thought and a Marxist humanism. One of her co signatories to the manifesto against totalitarianism, Taslima Nasrin, once asked her how come so many Iranians are such ardent and passionate defenders of secularism and rights. ‘I would say Mansoor Hekmat had more to do with it than anything else.’
One of her most burning campaign issues concerned the brutal Islamic murder of 16 year old Atefeh Rajabi.
She was a 16 year old girl who was hung in a city square in Iran for ‘crimesagainst chastity’. The wasted hopes and dreams and life of a sweet 16 girl.I remember being 16 and what I had to look forward to. I think the victimsof political Islam are so great – that sometimes people don’t understand itsscale – otherwise how could they ever excuse it. I think Atefeh for me isthe human representation and personification of what it means for people’s lives.
Unmitigating in her defence of women against Islam does she fail to see that there are other women in Britain with origins in the Muslim tradition, who claim to be radical yet who sit on the opposite end of the continuum from herself? The Respect activist Salma Yaqoob, for example, has defended the wearing of the veil. How does Namazie explain this?
I think Yaqoob does so in order to defend the political Islamic movement and justify it. With regards the veil, I couldn’t say it better than Salman Rushdie – ‘the veil sucks’. It is a tool for suppression and repression. Defending it is like defending the chastity belt or foot binding. It’s an abomination.
Another of her more provocative concepts is her characterisation of cultural relativism as ‘this era’s fascism.’ She condemns it on the grounds that it excuses violations of rights and holds culture and religion above the human being.
The idea of difference has always been the fundamental principle of a racistagenda. The defeat of Nazism and its biological theory of difference largelydiscredited racial superiority. The racism behind it, however, found anothermore acceptable form of expression for this era. Instead of expression inracial terms, difference is now portrayed in cultural terms. Culturalrelativism is this era’s fascism. Cultural relativists are defenders of thisera’s holocausts.
For Maryam Namazie, Western societies are under threat from an insidious political Islam. She strongly advocates that the West defends the rights of all political refugees and that no amount of multicultural positioning should ever allow any group within society to claim special privilege for itself in which it is free to pursue its culture over the human rights of others.
Maryam Namazie is nothing if not someone who pushes and probes at the boundaries of life. In ways her writings resonate deeply of those of the anti-fascist Chilean writer Ariel Dorfmann who also explores the imposition of boundaries. Hers has been one of breaking the mould, leaping the barriers that are sometimes called borders, and which delineate and constrain our identities.
I really feel I have crossed so many of the boundaries – much of them constructed – that restrict people, whether it is that of religion, race, nationality, ethnicity, gender. I have come to understand that none of them are sacred; none of them matter; only human beings do.