To defend women’s rights, we must push back Islamism

The below is my speech at the International Conference ‘Islam in Western Countries’ held in Turin during 4-5th March 2011. I print it here to mark International Women’s Day.

In this day and age, Islam matters because of Islamism. Islam per se is no worse than any other religion. Religious laws, states and dogma belong to an era of medievalism and brutality.

But even so, today – as we speak – there is 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 far-Right movement that is, in many places, including in Europe, part and parcel of the state, the law, or educational systems.

Islam matters to us today because we are living through an Islamic inquisition.

And in an inquisition, ‘Islamic feminism,’ ‘liberal and humanitarian Islam,’ ‘Islamic reformism,’ ‘Islamic democracy,’ ‘Islamic human rights,’ and moderate interpretations of Islam are impossible.

Islamists will kill or intimidate anyone who interprets things differently or who transgresses their norms by living 21st century lives.

Religion in general and Islam in particular can only be considered liberal and reformed (at face value at least) when it has been pushed in a corner and out of the public space – when it has been forced to run soup kitchens rather than courts and Islamic Assemblies.

Given the havoc that Islamism is wreaking worldwide, concepts such as ‘Islamic reformism’ and ‘Islamic liberalism,’ and labels such as ‘Islamic societies’ or ‘Islamic communities’ deliberately or inadvertently become part of the effort to Islamicise countries and communities and hand them over lock, stock and barrel to political Islam. As do any attempts to promote ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ versions of Islam and Islamism.

If we want a ‘cuddlier’ version of Islam, we need to get rid of Islamism.

That does not mean that there are not many Muslims or those labelled as such who have humanist, secularist, moderate, feminist, atheist, liberal, socialist and other viewpoints but this is not one and the same with Islam in power being as such.

I think one of the problems we face when addressing this fight is the focus on Islam rather than Islamism. In reality the fight we face – in Europe and internationally – is first and foremost a political battle against a political movement rather than a purely ideological one.

When the focus is on Islam rather than Islamism, as is often the case, however, this fight is reduced to a fight against or for a belief system, which is exactly what the far-right and pro-Islamist Left do. The far-Right spends its time proving how awful Islam is compared to other religions and calling for a ban on the Koran (as if the Bible and Torah are any better). The pro-Islamist Left, on the other hand, spends its time promoting Islam as a ‘religion of peace’ and deeming racist any criticism of Islam and Islamism.

Neither the far-Right nor the pro-Islamist Left seems to see the distinction between Islam and Islamism on the one hand and real live human beings on the other – human beings with innumerable characteristics who are part of various social movements, classes, political parties, and civil society and who have various beliefs and values.

They don’t see the slaughtered generations of the Middle East, Asia and North Africa buried in mass graves, hacked and stoned to death and hung from cranes in city centres and they certainly don’t see the resistance taking place day in and day out.

In fact both of them are intrinsically racist. The pro-Islamist Left implies that people are one and the same with the Islamic states and movement that are repressing them. The far-Right blames all immigrants and Muslims for the crimes of Islamism. [It is important to note here that Islamism was actually brought to centre stage during the Cold War as part of US foreign policy in order to create a ‘green’ Islamic belt surrounding the Soviet Union and not concocted in some immigrant’s kitchen in London; moreover many of the Islamists in Britain are actually British-born thanks to the government’s policies of multiculturalism and appeasement.]

Both the far-Right and pro-Islamist Left purport that Islamism is people’s culture and that they actually deserve no better, imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling class, parasitical imams and self-appointed ‘community leaders’.

Their politics ignores the distinction between the oppressed and oppressor and actually sees them as one and the same. It denies universalism, sees rights as ‘western,’ and justifies the suppression of rights, freedoms and equality for the ‘other.’

As a result of such politics, 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.

Moreover, the social inclusion of people into society has come to solely mean the inclusion of their beliefs, sensibilities, concerns and agendas (read Islamism’s beliefs, sensibilities, concerns and agendas) and nothing more.

This is precisely what is wrong with multiculturalism. It gives precedence to cultures and religion rather than people and their rights and lives. And it says that human beings – depending on how they are pigeon-holed – are fundamentally different, and should be treated as such. The idea of difference has always been the fundamental principle of a racist agenda not the other way around.

But this is not to say that criticism of Islam is not important. It is.

It is impossible to challenge Islamism if you are not allowed to fully and unequivocally criticise its ideology and banner. And criticism of religion has always been an important vehicle for progress and the betterment of humanity’s lot.

But whilst criticism of Islam is a necessity, it has to be based within a politics that puts people first to have real meaning and affect real change.

I think this point is key for a principled criticism of Islam and more importantly a progressive opposition to Islamism and Sharia law, which is one of the main pillars of Islamism.

In just a few decades, we have witnessed the rapid rise of the application of Sharia law in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia’s Aceh Province, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan, and Europe, including Britain, resulting in ever-shrinking secular spaces and brutal and discriminatory laws, particularly against women.

Under Sharia law, child rape and sexual abuse is legal. Protestors like Neda Agha-Soltan are shot dead in broad daylight and women are sentenced to death by stoning for sex outside of marriage – like Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Even lawyers defending those on death row, like Houtan Kian, are sentenced to death. Their only crime being that they are 21st century human being living under medieval Sharia laws.

And whilst Sharia law is now the most widely used religious law, this is not because people have suddenly become more devout and are demanding Sharia law and death by stoning when they didn’t before but because of the rise of Islamism.

Sharia law is fundamentally the demand of Islamism to limit citizens’ rights.

A good example is the increasing numbers of Sharia courts in Britain which did not exist prior to the establishment of an Islamic Republic of Iran and the rise of this contemporary movement. The One Law for All Campaign has come across many Muslim women who state that they did not need to go to Sharia courts before but have to now for civil matters.

Under Sharia law’s civil code, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; a woman’s marriage contract is between her male guardian and her husband and a Muslim woman is not permitted to marry a non-Muslim. A man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman must give justifications for requesting a divorce, some of which are extremely difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age, even if the father is abusive; women who remarry lose custody of their children even if the child has not reached the preset age; and sons are entitled to inherit twice the share of daughters. Marital rape and domestic violence are seen to be the prerogative of the husband.

And whilst there is an obvious difference between stoning a woman to death and denying her the right to divorce and child custody, the fundamentals and misogyny behind Sharia’s civil and penal codes are the same – it is just a matter of degree.

Despite all efforts to package Sharia’s civil code as mundane, its imposition represents a concerted attempt by Islamists to gain further influence in Britain and Europe. By undermining legal principles of equality before the law, the universal concept of one law for all and the protection of the rights of women and children, these courts help to increase discrimination, intimidation and threats against the most vulnerable. They also deny people their rights and leave countless human beings at the mercy of Islamists.

Another good case in point showing that this is the demand of Islamism not ‘Muslims’ is the case of Shiria Khatun, a secular Muslim woman councillor from Tower Hamlets (an Islamist stronghold) who has been forced to dress more conservatively after receiving death threats. She has so far refused to wear the hijab, which she says is a more common sight on the streets of Tower Hamlets in London than in Bangladesh itself and that compared to the sixties: “It’s all changed so much now for younger women.”

If we don’t see the rise in Sharia courts, burkas, the veil and Islamic schools as a direct result of the rise of Islamism, these courts and schools are reduced to ‘minority relations projects’ that need support rather than a form of totalitarianism that must be stopped. It also prevents us from showing real solidarity with people living under Islamic laws elsewhere. And its stops us from holding those responsible for Islamism to account: The Islamic states and organisations such as Hizbullah, Hamas, the Muslim Council of Britain, and Muslim Brotherhood to the Saudi government and Islamic regime of Iran. Western governments for their role in the rise of Islamism not just during the Cold War but today. Some of their closest allies are Islamic states. Iraq has become more Islamic since the US-led attack. In Afghanistan, British troops are helping to set up Sharia courts and people are being sentenced to death for apostasy. And there is talk of bringing the Taliban back… And here in Europe, governments promote Islamic schools, ghettoise entire communities and hand them over to Sharia courts and Islamic organisations and shrug all responsibility to large segments of our citizens.

In the face of this onslaught, secularism, universalism and values worthy of 21st century humanity have to be defended and promoted unequivocally.

We must not allow any more concessions to cultural relativism; we must no longer allow the respect for and toleration of inhuman beliefs and practices. We must hold the human being sacred not beliefs and certainly not regressive political movements. We must stop sub-dividing people into a million categories beginning with religion and nationality and ethnicity and minority and not even ending in Human.

At a minimum, we must have the complete separation of religion from the state, the law and educational system. Secularism is an important vehicle to protect society from religion’s intervention in people’s lives. A person’s religion has to be a private affair. All religious and religious-inspired notions and references must be omitted from laws. No reference must be made to them in any official documents or in the media, whether as individuals or groups.

Faith schools must be abolished. Child veiling and religious symbols in schools and public institutions must be prohibited. Children and under 16s must be protected from all forms of manipulation by religions and religious institutions. Cultural and religious practices or ceremonies, which are violent, inhuman, or incompatible with people’s rights and equality must be banned. Any kind of financial, material or moral support by the state to religion and religious activities and institutions must be stopped. All religious establishments must be registered as private enterprises, taxed…

And it is the state that is duty bound to implement these. Everyday, the state intervenes to protect people whether they want it or not (e.g. in domestic violence or child neglect cases). It has to do so with regards to religion as well. Not necessarily because it likes to but because civil society and established norms force it to.

Civil rights, freedom and equality, secularism, modernism, are universal concepts that have been fought for by progressive social movements and the working class in various countries.

That people worldwide continue to struggle for equality, freedom, secularism and to overcome their lack of rights and repressive regimes is a confirmation of this universality.

Of course, cultural relativists have said and will say that universal rights are a western concept. This is just more deception on their part. When it comes to using the mass media to broadcast their decapitations, or using the web to organise terrorist attacks, and the internet to issue fatwas and death threats, the Islamists do not say it is western and incompatible with an Islamist society. It is only when it comes to universal rights, standards and values, and secularism, that they suddenly become western. Even if such rights and values are western, it is absurd to say that others’ are not worthy of them.

In fact, though, rights are gains taken by the working class and progressive social movements. Therefore, any gain or right obtained anywhere is a gain and a right for all humanity.

Today, more than ever, we are also in need of the de-religionisation of society – a concerted battle against the religion industry, which is above the law, unregulated and never held accountable for its fatwas, murder and mayhem.

As Mansoor Hekmat, the late Marxist thinker 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)