Freedom of expression matters. It is not a luxury, a western value and it’s certainly not up for sale (though obviously governments and the UN mistakenly think it to be so).
Sometimes – actually more often than not – it is all we have.
But like many other rights and freedoms, it becomes most significant and finds real meaning when it comes to criticising that which is taboo, forbidden, sacred.
Freedom of expression matters most, therefore, when it comes to criticising religion.
I think this criticism has always been an important vehicle for progress and the betterment of humanity’s lot in centuries past. This is also true today in the 21st century and particularly with regard to Islam.
Of course Islam is no different from other religions. You can find just as much misogyny, cruelty and inhumanity in the Bible or other religious books as you can in the Koran. And I don’t think Islam, Christianity, Judaism or what have you are fundamentally any different from Scientology or Moon’s Unification Church, which are deemed to be cults endangering social and personal development. After all, isn’t that what religion is?
But even so, today – as we speak – there is still a distinction to be made between religion in general and Islam in particular but for no other reason than that it is the ideology behind a movement that is, in many places, part and parcel of the state, the law, criminal so-called ‘justice’ or injustice system or sharia law and educational system.
I think this point is key for a principled criticism of Islam and more importantly a progressive and humane response to the outrage of our era.
This means, firstly, that we have a duty to criticise Islam; this goes beyond the mere right to and freedom of speech and expression.
I am always taken aback by complaints about how reports on Islam often concentrate on the subject of violence and rarely focus on the reality of Islam in everyday life. In fact, though, the reality of Islam in everyday life is far more violent than anything that can be fathomed. Entire generations slaughtered over decades – long before 9/11 – and buried in mass graves in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
The human cost of Islam in power is enough of a reason – the only necessary reason – to make criticism a task and duty.
After all, it is impossible – let me repeat impossible – to challenge a political movement that has wreaked havoc primarily for the people of the Middle East and North Africa if you are not allowed to fully and unequivocally criticise its ideology and banner.
I know some say that the problem is not Islam but the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. But in my opinion, you can’t have Islamic feminism, Islamic reformism, Islamic democracy, Islamic human rights, and moderate interpretations of Islam when it is in power.
Of course there are innumerable Muslims or those labelled as such who have humanist, secularist, moderate, egalitarian, atheist, communist and other progressive viewpoints but this is not one and the same with Islam in power being as such.
In my opinion, a ‘moderate’ or ‘reformed’ religion is one that has been pushed back and reigned in by an enlightenment. And not before.
But criticism of Islam alone is not enough if it does not also come with a criticism of the political Islamic movement and religion industry. The right wing’s criticism of Islam and its sudden championing of women’s rights in the Middle East – whilst legislating religious morality and misogyny here at home – self-servingly ignores the main issue at hand, which is religion and political power.
If we are going to win this battle again – as in centuries past – we have to push Islam and religion out of the public sphere. Full stop.
And for this, freedom of expression and freedom to criticise religion are key.
I don’t think we can compromise on this because too many lives are at stake. And in my opinion compromise includes the misguided liberal attempts at building interfaith coalitions or deeming all religions and beliefs as equally valid. It also includes the more reactionary sorts of appeasement such as that of the recently launched Tony Blair Faith Foundation, which aims to ‘to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.’
Religion wouldn’t need one public relations campaign after another if it was so good, now would it? Even calling it ‘faith’ and avoiding the term religion won’t get around the fact that it is the genocidaire of our age.
Either way – misguided or purely out of economic and political interests – these endeavours only serve to increase, justify and consolidate the role of religion in society – and are part of the problem rather than any solution.
In my opinion, you have to choose.
You must either defend the human being or you must defend Islam and religion. You can’t defend both because they are incompatible with and antithetical to each other.
Of course this doesn’t mean that people don’t have a right to religion or atheism. Of course they do but as a private affair. Having the right to a religion or belief does not include the right not to be offended or the right to have your belief or religion respected, tolerated, and deemed equal and equally valid. Concepts such as rights, equality, and respect raised vis-à-vis individuals are nowadays more and more applicable to religion at the expense of people and their rights and freedoms. And that’s why a criticism of religion is deemed racism, defamatory, libellous – again concepts originally raised regarding people not religion and beliefs!
Islamists and their apologists have succeeded in blurring the distinction between individuals and beliefs. Their use of rights and anti-racist language – at least in the west – are devious ways of silencing criticism and opposition.
Of course the human being is sacred and worthy of the highest respect, rights and equality but not religions, beliefs, cultures.
Clearly, criticism of Islam and Mohammad are not racist or an attack on Muslims anymore than Christ in a nappy in ‘Jerry Springer the opera’ is an attack or racism against Christians.
Actually it is racist to see Islam and Muslims as one and the same and Islamists and Muslims as one and the same. It is racist to imply that this is the belief of all those deemed to be Muslim when in fact it is the belief system of a ruling class and its parasitical imams, organisations and states. It is racist to imply that people choose to live the way they are forced to. That they actually deserve no better and that their rights are culturally relative. Not that they do but even if everyone believed that women were subhuman and gays perverts, criticism of a belief is not one and the same as attacking the person who holds the belief. Female genital mutilation is a good example. You can criticise and condemn the belief in and practice of FGM, but this does not amount to an attack on women and girls who are mutilated or who support the practice.
This type of politics – knowingly or unwittingly – attempts to make criticism of Islam and religion more difficult. Defining certain beliefs as sacred is a tool for the suppression of society. Saying expression offends is an attempt to restrict it.
I still find it astonishing how religion in power hangs the likes of sweet 16 Atefeh Rajabi and stones Maryam Ayoubi to death – even specifying by law the size of the stone to be used – in Iran or sentences Parwiz Kambakhsh to death in Afghanistan for downloading materials critical of women and Islam from the internet and it is criticism of Islam that is offensive!
In the face of this onslaught, a defence of freedom of expression and a criticism of religion, Islam and political Islam is an historical duty and task but it has to be based within a politics that puts people first, that holds the human being – and nothing else – sacred, if it is to have real meaning and affect real change.
It has to be done in conjunction with a defence of secularism – as the strict separation of religion from the state – rather than mere neutrality. It has to be done alongside a defence of universal rights, citizenship rights, and a humanity without labels other than human.
And it has to be done alongside a criticism of US led militarism – particularly important to say as we are here in Washington, DC. This is not a clash between western and Islamic values. Progressive values were fought for and gained by the working class and progressive social movements and so belong to all of humanity. If we don’t look at it in this way we will make friends with false allies and also fail to make links and show real solidarity with a vast majority fighting on the frontlines against Islam in power and US led militarism in places like Iran.
Also, this is not a clash of civilisations but actually the clash of the uncivilised. Human civilisation exists despite political Islam and US-led militarism and is very much at odds with it. After all, political Islam was brought to centre stage during the Cold War as a green belt around the then Soviet Union and as a response to the rise of the left and working class movement in the Iranian revolution.
Western governments have never had a problem with Islam in power – their only problem was that it had moved out of its sphere of influence since 9/11. In fact, their ‘interventions’ in Iraq for example has only strengthened this movement. In the New World Order, in fact, US-led militarism needs and feeds off political Islam. They are two sides of one coin, with the same capacity for infinite violence and brutality, the same reliance on religion and the same bleak message for the people of the world.
Freedom of expression is one of the only means we have at our disposal to resist both camps of reaction and to protect humanity.
We have to defend it unequivocally and unconditionally.
The above is Maryam Namazie’s speech at a plenary session at the World Humanist Congress in Washington, DC on June 6, 2008