Below is my speech at my first ever QED Conference in Manchester.
It’s a real pleasure to be here. It’s my first QED and for that matter skeptic event. I’m grateful for the things I have learnt this weekend. I have to admit that I would most probably never have attended a talk about werewolves (by Deborah Hyde) but I am really glad that I have.
It made me realise that I and many like me are Islamism’s witches and werewolves – the heretics and blasphemers of our age.
In this talk I want to focus on why secularism is so important – not just for us heretics and apostates – but for everyone, including the religious.
In that sense – secularism is not anti- the religious. In fact it’s a precondition for freedom of religion and atheism because private beliefs are not the concern of a secular state. It’s not for the state to enforce religion or atheism. The state is not involved in the business of religion (and it is a business).
Whilst secularism is good for people – even religious people, it’s not good for the religion industry because don’t forget religion in the state, and educational and judicial system has nothing to do with personal belief; it has everything to do with political power. And therefore, the fight for secularism is also a battle against religion in political power.
Let’s be frank. There is a demand for the separation of religion from the state because it is harmful when it is part of the state, or judicial and educational systems. Because as I often like to say, like cigarettes religion should come with a health warning: Religion Kills. It kills. And Islam is central to this debate on secularism.
The Conservative Minister Warsi’s recent message to the pope (like he needs convincing) is that ‘militant secularism at its core and in its instincts is deeply intolerant and demonstrates traits similar to totalitarian regimes.’
Militant really!? If only.
For the record, I think militancy is a very good thing. We need more militancy against religion.
But secularism intolerant!? Rather it’s religion that is intolerant and totalitarian when in power and why it must be kept out of the state.
If you look at the examples that Warsi is referring to as ‘intolerant’ the absurdity of it all become clearer.
It reminds me of a recent Jesus and Mo cartoon:
Here’s some of the things Warsi is referring to as ‘intolerant’:
* A court ruling in favour of the National Secular Society which says that there should be no prayers at the start of a council meeting. Of course you can pray – just do it on your own time – not during a local government meeting!
* A ruling that owners of a Bed and Breakfast cannot discriminate against a gay couple because it is part of their Christian beliefs! Of course you can still be Christian and believe anything you want – you just can’t discriminate because you’re an idiot.
* France is another example where the banning of conspicuous religious symbols in courts or hospitals or schools is immediately labelled totalitarian as if any ban is such. There’s a ban on smoking in public places because it’s good for social health. Banning religious symbols is also very good for societal health! It ensures that there is no proselytising. Your beliefs are yours; if you promote them, you can’t do your job well.
Secularism is a framework to level the playing field because of religion’s intolerance – not the other way around – otherwise religion would be free to discriminate and abuse and worse…
And by the way, it’s amusing how the powers that be take on victim status – Islamists do this all the time – when it is they that are violating rights.
With regards Islam, it’s what I call an Islamic inquisition. Islamism hangs people in Iran from cranes in city centres for apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, witchcraft, being gay, and enmity against god as we speak. Just recently, there have been reports of the morality police in Iraq stoning dozens of Iraqi youth to death because of their haircuts and tight jeans. It wants to execute 23 year old Saudi Hamza Kashgari for tweeting about Mohammad and status of women in Saudi Arabia. He has Tweeted women in Saudi Arabia can’t go to hell twice – they are already in hell. And it imprisons women for ‘morality’ crimes in places like Afghanistan. Most women prisoners in Afghanistan for example are there for moral crimes. The case of Gulnaz is better known. She was given a 12 year sentence after being raped. After much protest, she was pardoned by Karzai so she could to marry her rapist! And it’s not just in countries under Islamic rule but right here in Europe and Britain with Sharia courts, which discriminate against women and legislate misogyny without so much as a peep from the British government. The government believes it is ‘discriminatory’ to address the courts or Islamic madrasas. It is only so if one prefers to defend Islam over the lives and rights of women and children.
If you look at the Sharia courts here – they are no different from sharia courts in Iran. They deal with the family aspects of Sharia law but just because there are no amputations and stoning and the courts are denying women’s rights in the family, it doesn’t make it any less scandalous. Under its rules, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, a women can’t sign her own marriage contract, men have the unilateral right to divorce whereas a women have limited rights to divorce; child custody goes to the father at a preset age; girls get half of the inheritance boys do and so on.
The Islamic Sharia Council explains why this is so: ‘with regards to women’s testimony, ‘If one forgets, the other can remind her.’ It’s the difference between a man and a woman’s brains.’ ‘A woman’s character is not so good for a case where testimony requires attention and concentration.’ And this also applies to divorce. ‘Women are governed by emotion; men by their minds so he will think twice before uttering talaq [divorce].’ It goes on to say it is not ‘derogatory’ but ‘the secret of women’s nature.’ As I said, a scandal that is ignored because respect for culture and religion takes precedence over real live human beings. And by the way there is now ‘scientific’ evidence from Time magazine to prove why women’s testimony is half that of a man.
And yet we have people up and down the country attacking ‘militant’ secularists and many of them secularists and atheists themselves who are more concerned with attacking Richard Dawkins than religion’s adverse role in society.
Philosopher Julian Baggini has said for example that the ‘very extremity of the language – the comparisons with Nazism and the way in which such claims are increasingly being seen as self-evident truths – tells us that something has gone wrong with secularism in Britain’. This is like saying the extremity of the language used by Islamists against women – that we are ‘whores’, and ‘dirty filthy kafirs’, and that according to Islam there is ‘no greater calamity than women’ and so on – tells us something has gone wrong with the women’s rights movement…
Tellingly, his article has a photo of Richard Dawkins that is captioned: ‘Richard Dawkins … Often seen by those of vague faith as an aggressive pest.’ And Baggini represents a whole slew of humanist organisations and publications that have this very same viewpoint.
I suppose this is what happens when one is so busy defending secularism as mere ‘neutrality’ and a humanism that is but one of many other religions and beliefs via inter-faith coalitions and the like in order to gain mainstream access, that one ends up in the same camp as those that wish to ensure that religion remains firmly in public sphere to do as it pleases… It is this very position that also sees Sharia courts as people’s right to religion and association. Nonsense.
Baggini says his outlook is pragmatic. This is the problem with pragmatism –to justify it, it soon becomes a matter of principle. Baggini says: ‘It may be unfair to criticise secularists for being “militant” or “aggressive”, but we are often ham-fisted and heavy-handed. If secularism has come to be seen as the enemy of the religious when it should be its best friend, then we secularists must share at least some of the blame.’ Again secularism is not an enemy of the religious; this is the propaganda of the religion industry which some secularists have bought into. Secularism is an enemy of religion in power. The religious right has so confused the two that some secularists have also come to believe it to be true. It’s like Islamists conflating criticism or even mockery of Islam as an attack on Muslims with the bogus concept of Islamophobia – a political term used for scaremongering and to silence people.
My take on the whole ‘militant’ secularism is that it’s not militant enough but even so, it is making enough inroads for the religious right to feel the pressure and it’s about time! I would have to agree with A C Grayling that ‘its hold is weakening’ and that ‘there’s such furore because ‘it is that the cornered animal, the loser, starts making a big noise.’
I say kick it while it’s down not just in Europe but also in the Middle East and North Africa where we saw revolutions that had nothing to do with Islamism’s aspirations and demands. That Islamists take power is as a result of a counter-revolution, and a win for the establishment, not the other way around.
And seriously, the secularists are ‘intolerant’!?
We are not the ones threatening people with death and hanging them in city squares.
As I mentioned before, the right to a religious belief is not the same as the right to a religious state, religious school or religious court, which imposes misogyny and discrimination and barbarity.
Also when people speak of a right to religion, they forget there is also a corresponding right to be free from religion and also to be free to criticise religion. The minute you criticise religion though, you have a long list of overseers telling you not to do so. But that is why I want a secular state. So I can also speak and not have religion bulldoze over me. These are key as well and always seem to be sidelined and forgotten.
Also it is not just about free expression for atheists. Don’t forget, even for the religious, there is not only one way of doing religion, particularly when you live under an inquisition, any transgression is seen as a criticism and an act of disbelief or apostasy punishable by death or threats and intimidation.
The problem is that multiculturalism– not as a positive lived experience – but as a social policy – has created false homogeneous communities – like a ‘Muslim’ community – whereby Islamist values and sensibilities are seen to be the values of all who are deemed to be part of that community.
This doesn’t allow for a personal religion – you can’t pick and choose as it suits you; it’s dictated from above by parasitical, self-appointed leaders and imams.
In this situation, there are no real choices, just impositions.
And it affects Muslims just as much as it affects ex-Muslims or non-Muslims. Alex Aan, an atheist, Asia Bibi, a Christian, Hamza Kashgari, a Muslim – all facing imprisonment and or execution for transgressing Islamist norms.
This is not a question of denying identity as Warsi states. It’s about politics. There are many ‘Muslims’ who are more secularist than a large majority of people in Britain. The greatest opponents against Islamism are people living under, suffering under, and resisting Sharia law day in and day out or who have fled it. But this viewpoint of a homogeneous Muslim community fails to see the resistance and dissent. It doesn’t see the girl who doesn’t want to be veiled, the young lovers who don’t want to be killed in the name of honour, the Muslim who is also gay, the ex-Muslim, and the many closet atheists who walk the streets in Britain wearing a burqa or hejab.
What multiculturalism does is shrink the space to breathe and think and live for anyone deemed part of the ‘Muslim’ community and hands over masses of people – citizens – to the Islamists.
Of course it is not just Islam as the far-Right says. All religions are equal and equally bad.
Warsi says ‘secularism is ‘attacking Christian foundations’ of the society but society today is the result of the fight against religion and Christianity not because of it.
And the same fight has to take place against Islam.
Secularism is a precondition for basic rights and freedoms. It’s inclusive unlike religion. And it’s essential for a plural society. When there are countless beliefs, you need to keep beliefs out in order to include people. Inclusion, rights, equality, and respect are for people not beliefs. Secularism doesn’t deny religious belief as a private matter; in fact it’s central to protecting it and all beliefs or lack thereof. But as I’ve said before; it does make a value judgement on religion in power and so it actively ensures that religion isn’t privileged but also that it doesn’t encroach on the public space.
As a minimum secularism calls for the banning of all faith schools. Religion in general and Islam more so because of the rise of Islamism, indoctrinates children – often violently. Religious schools by nature must teach the superiority of their belief system and the baseness of non-believers and kafirs. Unfortunately, the debate on faith schools has for too long focused on scrutiny, monitoring, and changing admission codes and employment practices rather than that they are fundamentally bad for our children. Again this is the pragmatism of this movement at the expense of principle. This is because they are more concerned with the inclusion of religion – the religion of the child’s parents – than the inclusion, wellbeing and educational needs of the child.
Schools and faith are antithetical to each other. Education is meant to give children access to science, reason and the advances of the 21st century. It is meant to level the playing field irrespective of and despite the family the child is born into. It is meant to allow children to think freely and critically – something that religion actually prohibits and punishes. Education can only truly be guaranteed by a secular educational system and by ending faith schools once and for all.
Secularism also means that religious symbols in schools and public institutions must be prohibited. 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. A teacher mustn’t be allowed to teach creationism instead of evolution and science in the classroom; a pharmacist can’t refuse contraceptive pills to a woman because of his beliefs; a female doctor can’t refuse to treat a male patient or vice versa.
Banning religious symbols is sometimes portrayed as restrictions on religious beliefs or freedoms and religious intolerance but again this is not so. One’s religious belief is a private affair; public officials cannot use their positions to impose or promote their beliefs.
Secularism also requires the banning of burqas because they are straitjackets for women and mobile prisons. Of course you can’t ban the veil for adult women but you can still criticise it without attacking women who are veiled. 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, child 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. 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.
Secularism also requires the banning of religious and Sharia courts because it is inherently unjust, 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.
These are secularism’s minimum demands. However, atheists and free thinkers need to call for a lot more on the religion industry than secularism alone.
According to the Marxist Mansoor Hekmat:
Secularism means the separation of religion from the state and education, the separation of religion from a citizen’s identity and the definition of a citizen’s rights and responsibilities. Turning religion into a private affair. Where a person’s religion does not enter the picture in defining their social and political identity and in their interaction with the state and bureaucracy. In view of this, secularism is a collection of minimum requirements.
I, for example, cannot fit my entire stance regarding religion and its place in society into this concept. I do not just want secularism, but also society’s conscious struggle against religion – in the same way that a segment of society’s resources are spent on fighting malaria and cholera, and conscious policies are made against misogyny, racism and child abuse, some resources and energy ought to be allocated to de-religionisation.
By religion I of course mean the religious machinery and defined religions and not religious thought or even belief in ancient or existing religions.
I am an anti-religious person and want society to impose more limitations, beyond mere secularism, on organised religion and the ‘religion industry.’… I am referring to organised religion and ‘religion industries’ and not religious beliefs. Anyone can have any beliefs, express them, publicise them and organise around them. ‘The question is what regulations society puts in place to protect itself.
Today society tries to protect children from the tobacco industry’s advertising. The religion industry’s advertising could be treated in exactly the same way. Smokers have all their rights and can establish any association and institution to advertise the benefits of tobacco and unite all smokers, but this does not mean giving a green light to the tobacco industry.
The machinery of Islam and the other main religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.) are not voluntary societies of believers of specific ideas; they are enormous political and financial institutions, which have never been properly scrutinised, have not been subject to secular laws in society and have never accepted responsibility for their conduct. No one took Mr. Khomeini to court for issuing a death fatwa against Salman Rushdie; notwithstanding that inciting to murder is a crime in all countries of the world.
And this is only a small corner of a network of murder, mutilation, intimidation, abduction, torture, and child abuse. I think that the Medellin drug cartels (Escobars), the Chinese triads, and Italian (and American) mafia are nothing in comparison to organised religion.
I am speaking of a legitimate and organised struggle by a free and open society against these enterprises and institutions. At the same time, I regard believing in anything, even the most backward and inhuman doctrines, as the undeniable right of any individual.’