I have just returned from the Center For Inquiry’s Rhine River cruise where Richard Dawkins, Ronald A Lindsay and I were speaking. I gave two talks – one on Sharia law, Islamophobia and Secularism and the other on Free Expression and Islam. Here’s my speech on Sharia law:
My talk today is on Sharia law, Islamophobia and Secularism.
It’s a difficult topic, not – as one might assume – because of the threats and intimidations that surround this issue, or the palpable fear associated with it. While these are very real and colour everything, I find this topic difficult primarily because of how many people and organisations are siding with Sharia law at the expense of rights, equality, and secularism.
There are reasons for why a large segment of the population has become convinced that it is not possible to act or intervene and that it is racist to do so.
People will often tell me that they don’t know enough about Sharia law to oppose it but doesn’t everyone know what Sharia law is even if they don’t know of the existence of Sharia courts in Britain or Europe.
You’d have to live under a rock not to know what Sharia law means for people across the world.
Sharia law is Islamic law and it’s based on a combination of sources, including the Quran, the Hadith or Sunna (sayings and actions of Islam’s orophet Mohammad), and Islamic jurisprudence and rulings or fatwas issued by scholars.
Sharia law is far from monolithic and consistent; there are four prominent schools of Sharia in Sunni Islam and one major school in Shia Islam.
But despite the inconsistencies, there is consensus within all schools regarding the necessity of the death penalty for apostasy and sexual “crimes” including homosexuality, on the need for women to be veiled, and on different treatment under the law accorded to men compared with women as well as Muslims compared with non-Muslims.
Sharia law rulings that everyone is familiar with is people being hung in Iran for examples from cranes in city centres for apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, being gay, and enmity against god. There are 130 offences punishable by death under Sharia. Another recent example is of morality police in Iraq stoning dozens of Iraqi youth to death because of their haircuts and tight jeans. Or in the case of Afghanistan, for example, a majority of women prisoners are there for ‘moral crimes’. The case of Gulnaz, which was highlighted in a documentary commissioned by the EU and then banned by it to safeguard their relations with the ‘justice’ institutions, 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 of course there is the latest example of the Islamist-dominated government in Egypt introducing a law that would allow a man to have sex with his wife for up to six hours after her death…
Despite all the evidence – there are quite a few of people some of whom are humanists, freethinkers and atheists who will say they don’t know enough about sharia to criticise it though they know very well what religion in political power means since they spend quite a large chunk of their time fighting Christianity’s role in the public space. But bring up Islam and Sharia law and suddenly the response is hardly audible.
Often times the silence is deafening.
When people tell me that they don’t know enough about Sharia law to oppose it – though we hear about its abominations day in and day out – I think what they really mean to say is that it is not their place to oppose it.
In its very essence the reason for this – for the conviction that it is not one’s place to act – is a false belief that to do so would be tantamount to racism. And I do think this is why we don’t see the outrage that barbarism of this kind deserves and demands.
Now, if you are fighting Islamism or Sharia law in Iran, Egypt or Afghanistan the debate is not framed around racism and Islamophobia. I remember being on a panel discussion in Sweden with a famous Syrian atheist, Sadiq al-Azm and when the Swedes called his criticism of Islam racist, he said I’ve been arrested, imprisoned and called many things but never this. This accusation of racism is specific to the debate in North America, or Europe or Australia.
If you criticise Islam or Islamism in Iran, you’re not labelled a racist, you are accused of enmity against god, corruption, blasphemy, heresy and apostasy. So the accusation of racism and Islamophobia is specific to the debate taking place in the west.
Just to give you an example, when the Saudi government arrests 23 year old Hamza Kashgari for tweeting about Mohammad, it doesn’t accuse him of racism; it accuses him of blasphemy – an accusation punishable by death. The same government though will accuse critics of Saudi policy abroad as Islamophobic.
What I’m trying to say is that Islamists and their apologists have coined the term Islamophobia, – a political term to scaremonger people into silence – by deeming it racist to criticise anything related to Islam.
Of course various contexts can change the way in which one addresses a specific issue but it doesn’t change the fundamentals.
If Sharia law is wrong in Saudi Arabia or Iran, if it is anti-woman, if it is anti-gay, if it is anti-freethinkers and apostates and political dissidents and so on, it is also the same here in the west though it takes various forms.
Sharia courts in Britain for example don’t stone people to death but they do deal with civil aspects of sharia law – divorce, child custody, domestic violence, marital rape, and so on.
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 in Britain, which by the way are the same as the rules that apply in Iran or Afghanistan, 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 – which is a charity by the way though the CEMB has been refused charitable status – 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.’ It goes on to say it is not ‘derogatory’ but ‘the secret of women’s nature.’
What this means in practice is that in Britain, for example, information from the Ministry of Justice, following a Freedom of Information request, has revealed that 32 Forced Marriage Protection Order applications were made for children under 16 in Britain last year. At the Islington court, “five or fewer” orders were made to protect children between the ages of 9-11.
The Centre for Islamic Pluralism reported of a 15-year-old girl in Pakistan who was tricked into marriage over the telephone with a 40-year-old man from Sheffield, who had the mental age of a four-year-old child. “The Home Office refused to recognise the validity of the marriage but the Islamic Sharia Council in Britain accepted it”.
The CIP also uncovered the case of thirty-year-old from West Yorkshire, who was 13 when her father arranged her marriage. She went to three different imams who all ruled she was legally married according to the Sharia. “I told them I had been forced but they said that did not change anything.” She eventually secured her divorce because her husband finally agreed to it.
These realities cannot be ignored simply by saying that to oppose sharia courts or Sharia law would tantamount to racism.
And it’s not racism to criticise Islam and Islamism.
Of course people must be respected and people have the right to believe in anything they choose however absurd but not necessarily every practice and belief must be respected. Also Sharia courts have nothing to do with people’s beliefs but with political power.
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 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, the freethinker, the socialists, 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.
Also this viewpoint doesn’t see that this is not about identity but politics and power.
Of course this is not just a problem with Islam as the far-Right says. All religions are equal and equally bad particularly when they have access to political power.
But even so, today – as we speak – there is a distinction to be made between religions in general and Islam in particular though that is changing due to the rise of the Christian right in a places like the USA, a rise that has been spearheaded by Islamism.
I call it an Islamic inquisition and see it as the difference between Christianity today in Europe versus one during the inquisition. A religion that has been reined in by an enlightenment is very different from one that has political power and is spearheading an inquisition.
Under an inquisition, ‘Islamic feminism,’ ‘liberal and humanitarian Islam,’ ‘Islamic reformism,’ ‘Islamic democracy,’ ‘Islamic human rights,’ and moderate interpretations of Islam are impossible.
A ‘personal’ religion is impossible under an inquisition. You can’t pick and choose as you’d like.
Islamists will kill, threaten or intimidate anyone who interprets things differently, thinks freely or who transgresses their norms by living 21st century lives.
One of the characteristics of an inquisition is a total ban on freethinking and policing of thought. Censorship is rife so that one can face the death penalty for reading a book or visiting an internet site. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600; today there are numerous examples of people being killed for similar reasons.
Under an inquisition, torture is the norm. According to their handbook at the time, inquisitors were instructed not to find any accused innocent under any circumstances. The same applies under Islamism. You are guilty. Full Stop. Guilty for laughing, guilty for listening to music, guilty for wearing jeans, for driving, for loving, for thinking and for breathing.
The purpose of the so called Sharia justice system is to elicit a confession.
Under the inquisition, you were killed even if you confessed. A confession would just mean that you would be strangled before being burnt to death rather than being burnt alive. The same applies for Islamism. It’s a killing machine.
Sharia law is designed to teach the masses the damnable nature of dissent.
Moreover, under the inquisition, once you were baptized, it could not be undone. The same is true with Islam. You are just not allowed to leave.
Of course as I mentioned before there are distinctions in the practice of Islamism as in every phenomenon but it is a question of degrees. A little less vile is still repugnant.
The misogyny and inhumanity behind a law that stones people to death in Afghanistan and Somalia are the same as one that denies women the right to divorce and child custody in a sharia court in Britain.
If you look at Christianity in Europe today for example, it’s not that the tenets, dogma, and principles have changed; it has not become more humane since the days of the inquisition and witch burnings. What has changed is its social and political influence in today’s society, in people’s lives, in its relation with the state, the law and educational system. To the degree that it has become undermined and weakened, that is the degree that people have managed to free themselves from the clutches of religion, and in having happier lives and a better society.
The same has to be done with Islam and Islamism.
And it is being done but mainly by the people living under Islamic laws or those who have fled them.
It is the people living under Islamic laws or the many who have fled Sharia and sought refuge who are the principal victims of Islamism, and in the forefront of the struggle against it.
You will no greater opponent against Sharia law than the very people living under, suffering under, and resisting it day in and day out or who have fled it.
Despite this human right catastrophe, it is difficult to gather the support that opponents of sharia and Islamism deserve and demand because opposition is deemed to be Islamophobic and racist.
How can it be racist to defend and support equality, freedom and secularism?
That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist. Of course it does.
But staying silent about Sharia law and Islamism won’t stop racism, it will only exacerbate it leaving countless people under the influence of Islamism – separate and unequal.
And it also leaves the playing field open to the far-right to scapegoat and blame Muslims and immigrants for Islamism’s crimes.
It’s important that there be a vocal opposition to Sharia and Islamism from a rights and egalitarian perspective.
Secularism is an important vehicle in this fight. Firstly, it is a characteristic that distinguishes us from the far-Right, which is not concerned with religion’s role in the public space but only Islam’s role in society at large.
Also secularism can help unite atheists, freethinkers and the religious, including many Muslims, who cherish their beliefs but are opposed to religion’s role in the public sphere.
Secularism is 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 must actively ensure that religion isn’t privileged but also that it doesn’t encroach on the public space.
As a song for change by Algerians opposed to Sharia law in Algeria’s family code says: Sharia law is a code of despair, obsessed with women. It commits the unspeakable and must not be endured.
Sharia law is not ‘our’ culture. It is Islamism’s culture.
It is not racism to say so and stand with the innumerable suffering under and resisting it.
In fact given the deafening silence that we are face with, speaking out is one of the greatest acts of anti-racism we can find today.