For those of you who don’t know much about my background and why I became an atheist, my piece in 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why we are Atheists may be an interesting read. It’s the first time I have published it on my blog below:
I don’t remember exactly when I stopped being a Muslim. Looking back, it seems to have been a gradual process and a direct result of my personal experiences, though I would like to think (or hope) that I would have eventually become an atheist.
Having been raised in a fairly open-minded family, I had no real encounter with religion that mattered until the Islamic movement took power on the back of a defeated revolution in Iran. I was 12 at the time.
I suppose people can go through an entire lifetime without questioning a religion they were born into (out of no choice of their own), especially if it doesn’t have much of a say in their lives. If you live in France or Britain, for example, there may never be a need to actively renounce Christianity or come out as an atheist. But when the state sends a “Hezbollah” (the generic term for Islamist) to your school to ensure that you don’t mix with your friends who are boys, stops you from swimming, forces you to be veiled, deems males and females separate and unequal, prescribes different books for you and your girlfriends from those read by boys, denies certain fields of study to you because you are female, then you have no choice but to question, discredit, and confront it – all of it.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that Christianity (or any other religion for that matter) is fundamentally different from Islam; it appears tamer (at least today) only because its social status has changed.
A religion that has been reined in by an enlightenment is very different from one that has political power and is spearheading an inquisition. That’s why anything from “improper” veiling in Iran, downloading information on the status of women in Islam by Perwiz Kambakhsh in Afghanistan, publishing caricatures of Muhammad in a Danish newspaper, to the name to name of a teddy bear in the Sudan becomes a matter of life and death (often with Western government complicity).
While political Islam kills and maims indiscriminately, here in the West its acts of cruelty and terror are repeatedly portrayed and excused as “offended Muslim sensibilities.” Rather, though, it is Islamic states and the political Islamic movement that take offence.
I mean, we are all offended at least some of the time. The religious, of course, are offended more often than not. But most of us – religious or not – never resort to death threats and suicide bombings. If it were really a question of “offended Muslim sensibilities,” we would all be living in fear, given that the transgressions that give offence include anything from holding hands or being unveiled in public to dancing. If it were so, political Islam’s first victims would not be those who are Muslims or labeled as such.
Violence and terrorism of the Islamic kind are used as a tactic and pillar of the political Islamic movement, and have nothing to do with the sensibilities of an oppressed people or “minority.” Claims to the contrary imply that people – often at the frontlines of resisting political Islam in places like Iran and the Middle East – freely choose medievalism and barbarity. Rather, in my opinion, equating the intimidation and terror imposed by political Islam to the expression of “Muslim sensibilites” is part of the effort to impose these sensibilities from above. If they were really part of people’s own sensibilities and beliefs, Islamic states wouldn’t need to resort to such indiscriminate violence, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where political Islamists are often in charge of the state, the educational and legal systems, the army and so on. They wouldn’t need to stone women to death, arrest millions for improper veiling, and kill apostates and heretics.
This raises the question of whose sensibilities are deemed to be Muslim – the Islamic state of Iran’s or the “badly veiled” woman’s?
The Hezbollah who arrived unannounced at my school to impose the Islamic cultural revolution, as they called it, and to segregate boys and girls, purge textbooks, sack teachers, as at all other schools, universities, libraries, and so on in Iran at that time, was very much part of the systematic imposition of so-called “Muslim sensibilities” by the state from above on the population at large. And wherever this imposition was met with the resistance of the people it feigned to represent, there were more like him – herds of Hezbollah thugs with the full backing of the sate – to make sure the resistance was crushed.
As the late Marxist thinker, Mansoor Hekmat, said: This phenomenon “is not rooted in a revival of Islam as an ideological system. This is not ideological Islam; rather it is political Islam based on specific political equations. Clearly, with the rise of the power of political Islam, pressure to revive religious appearances in society intensifies. This, however, is a political pressure. The people sometimes yield to these pressures. This Islamic ‘renaissance’ is backed by violence and terror, which takes one form in Algeria and another in Iran.” (1)
That the imposition of political Islam is a result of political pressure from above rather than below is an important point. Otherwise, when an oppressive and reactionary political movement is deemed to be one and the same with an oppressed people or so-called minority, it makes it more difficult to resist. In such a climate, any criticism in the West of the political Islamic movement is deemed offensive or Islamophobic. (Of course, in countries under Islamic rule, there is no time for such sensitivities and niceties.) The argument is that the right to offend skips over the question of whether we are right to offend. Apologists for political Islam argue that we must consider the minority status of those whose sensibilities are being offended and that, while one may have a right to offend, doing so is irresponsible and unnecessarily hurtful. It is, they say, even racist.
In fact, though, this has nothing to do with protecting the “Muslim minority” and combating racism. Demanding that those deemed forever minorities have full citizenship and universal rights, and calling for an end to cultural relativism and a policy of minoritism, will go a lot further to combating racism than limiting free expression. In fact, it is racist to equate all those deemed or labeled as Muslims (when there are innumerable characteristics to define us all) with one of the most reactionary movements of our times. This is of course not to deny that racism, including against Muslims, exists, but racism exists because of the profitability of racism for the class system and not because of critical thought and freedom of expression, however offensive. The argument against free expression also conveniently ignores the fact that the political Islamic movement is a global one with state power.
In reality, “offended Muslim sensibilities” is the catchphrase used by a powerful political movement backed by state power and its apologists to deny and restrict freedom of expression in the society at large and prevent criticism. Defining certain expressions and speech as off-limits is a tool for the suppression of society; saying speech and expression offends is in fact an attempt to restrict it. This is ludicrous when you think about how the concept of freedom of expression and speech was a gain for the powerless vis-à-vis the powerful and very often vis-à-vis religion and, more generally, a legal protection of citizens against state power and abuse. Especially so when you consider that the political Islamic movement deems a woman as worth half a man, sees gays as perversions, sex outside marriage as punishable by death, and so on and so forth – but it is criticism of it that is offensive!
Offensive or not, Islam and political Islam must be open to all forms of criticism and ridicule, particularly in this day and age. Not a second passes without some atrocity being committed by this movement. It hangs people from cranes and lamp-posts; it stones people to death – in the twenty-first century – with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used; it murders girls in cold blood at their school gates. It must be criticized and ridiculed because that is very often all that a resisting population has to oppose it. That is how, throughout history, reaction has been pushed back and citizens protected. And so it must again.
1. The Rise and Fall of Political Islam (2001)
Maryam Namazie is the spokesperson for Equal Rights Now – Organization Against Women’s Discrimination in Iran and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She is especially known for her activities for women’s rights, asylum seekers’ rights, and gay rights, and for her opposition to political Islam and the Islamic Republic of Iran.