Where do you draw the line? »« Kamloops here I come

Freedom of Expression, Multiculturalism and Political Islam

I got back from Kamloops yesterday. Though I was exhausted, I’m really glad I went – fantastic people, speakers and organisers!

Here’s the speech I gave:

* Kuwait’s parliament recently voted in favour of a legal amendment that would make blasphemy a crime punishable by death following the arrest of a man accused of insulting Mohamed on Twitter.

* In Saudi Arabia, Hamza Kashgari, a 23-year-old reporter from Jeddah, faces the death penalty for blasphemy after he Tweeted an imaginary conversation with Mohammad.

* In April, two young Tunisians, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, (one in absentia) were sentenced to seven years in prison for posting cartoons of Mohammad.

* Alex Aan, a 30 year old atheist, faces up to 5 years in prison charged with blasphemy for saying there is no god on Facebook.

* Asia Bibi faces execution in Pakistan for blasphemy.

* In Egypt, a court upheld the conviction of comedian, Adel Imam, of ‘offending Islam’. Author Alaa al-Aswany says: the court ruling sets Egypt back to the “darkness of the Middle Ages” and that this is “an unimaginable crime of principle”.

* In Britain, 17 year old Rhys Morgan was forced to remove a Jesus and Mo cartoon or face expulsion from his Sixth Form College and there were demands by various student unions at London universities that Atheist societies remove Jesus and Mo cartoons from their Facebook page.

None of this is new.

Having been involved in the fight against Islamism and the Islamic Republic of Iran for some 25 years now I have faced many such threats, attempts at intimidation and censorship, bans, calls for the cancellation of events

Here’s one such experience from Canada of a bogus accusation of racism: in 2002/2003, the Canadian Council for Refugees banned me from their e-mail listserv of refugee rights activists because my writings, particularly ‘Islam, Political Islam and Women’s Rights in the Middle East‘ were deemed in violation of their anti-racist policy by ‘not maintaining and/or promoting an environment free of discrimination and bias by its wholesale condemnation of Islam and Muslims and not demonstrating an acceptance of the equity of all faiths’.

But for Islamism, a far-right political movement, and its apologists, this is business as usual. Islamism has been wreaking havoc in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere for several decades – with a majority of its victims being ‘Muslims’ or those labelled as such.

Where it has political power, Islamists forgo all niceties reserved for western public opinion about ‘respect’ and ‘not causing offence’ and imprison and murder anyone who speaks their minds and ‘offends’ their norms and sensibilities.

Despite their track record, it is therefore absurd how the fundamental debate on Islam and free expression here in Europe, North America and Australia is framed within a context of offence, racism and Islamophobia. Let me explain.

If you are criticising Islam, the veil, sharia law, or Islamism 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 our 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 here.

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 for 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. But that same government will accuse critics of Saudi policy at the UN Human Rights Committee as Islamophobic and racist.

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.

These bogus accusations of Islamophobia and offence serve Islamism in the same way that Sharia law serves them where they have power. It helps to threaten, intimidate and silence criticism and dissent.

In my opinion, charges of offence and Islamophobia are the equivalent of secular fatwas.

It is a warning by the powers that be of what is acceptable and what is not; of what is sacred and cannot and must not be challenged.

The devious thing about using offence to silence people is that it is subjective.

Can you imagine if activists against racial apartheid or abolitionists couldn’t speak out for fearing of causing offence? And what about women in Iran having to stop their fight against compulsory veiling because of fear of causing offense?

We’re not all necessarily offended by the same things. The religious are usually offended more often than not. And Islamists are offended all the time. They are offended if you are gay, if you are unveiled, if you leave Islam, if you listen to music, if you dance, if you have religiously unsanctioned sex, if you’re a woman, if you want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex, and on and on.

By hiding behind the excuse of offence, Islamists (and their apologists) are basically saying that because it is deemed offensive, with the person who is offended making that judgement call, you must limit your right to free expression!

And what’s even more interesting is that not all offensive expression is off-limits. What offends me isn’t off-limits – not that I want it to be. According to them, there must be two women for every man testifying at a Sharia court because ‘it’s the difference between a man and a woman’s brains’, adulterers must be buried to their chests and stoned to death and it’s the size of the stone that is illegal not stoning someone to death, gay people are perversions, women are sub-human, children are on par with animals and it is a criticism of Islam that is offensive!?

Really!?

And it’s absurd how whenever you speak about Islam, there are countless prefects waiting to admonish you. And it is not just the Islamists and their usual apologists that do this but you’ll hear it from some atheists and humanists even. They say: you are being too provocative; you being deliberately provocative. Why establish the Council of Ex-Muslims to publicly renounce Islam and say you are an atheist? Never mind that you need to do this to break the taboo that comes with such a renunciation especially since it is punishable with death? The Egyptian blogger and atheist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy should never have posted a nude photo of herself as a scream against misogyny; nudity is offensive. Your colleague was threatened at a meeting on Sharia law at Queen Mary College – well what do you expect when you discuss such matters (something the security guard said before the police arrived)? And on and on.

Anyway isn’t it my right to free expression? May I choose how I do it?

And you do it your way. Please don’t barter away what is permissible to say on my behalf.

And whether you like my form of expression or not is irrelevant just as irrelevant as what a woman was wearing when she was raped.

Defence of ‘accommodating’ ‘polite and inoffensive’ free expression only aids and abets Islamism at the expense of those living under it, opposing it or questioning it.

It unfairly puts the blame squarely on those who dare to dissent or refuse to comply because it implies that Islamists would be able to accept dissent if only things were phrased more politely.

Had we known that manners were all that was needed, we could have prevented the slaughter of an entire generation in Iran.

Wrong. Wrong again.

And deliberately or naively, whether out of pragmatism or other matters of self-interest, this poor defence of free expression – which is no defence at all – fails to recognise the realities of a medieval movement with political power that is spearheading an Islamic inquisition and that is the cause of incalculable misery and barbarity.

Despite this it is the causing of offence that has come to mean being ‘discriminatory’ and ‘racist’. The London atheist student groups that have posted the Jesus and Mo cartoon have been accused of everything from ‘harassment’, ‘intimidation’, and ‘harm to the welfare of Muslim students’. Criticising Islam and Mohammad is seen to ‘upset’ ‘social harmony’, ‘inclusion’, and ‘tolerance’.

People, citizens don’t matter anymore; it is all about the inclusion and respect of beliefs, however reactionary and misogynist. Bu there is a crucial a difference between prejudice against a group of people and criticism of a set of beliefs.

There are many reasons for why even amongst some atheists and secularists there is a discomfort in the criticism of Islam that isn’t there when it comes to Christianity.

Partly, this has to do with the racism of lower expectations. ‘We’ can handle offence; ‘they’ can’t. It’s ‘their culture and religion’ imputing on innumerable people the vile sensibilities of Islamism…

Partly it has to do with the climate of intimidation and fear that Islamists have created, leading to censorship and self-censorship.

Partly it has to do with the perception that Islam is an oppressed religion bullied by US imperialism as if US-led militarism and Islamism are not two sides of the same coin.

Partly it has to do with multi-culturalism, which gives identity politics supremacy at the expense of individuals within a constructed homogeneous ‘Muslim community’, thereby portraying and legitimising Islamist sensibilities as the offended sensibilities of all ‘Muslims’.

Have you noticed how the ‘authentic’ Muslim voice is always the most regressive?

This perspective doesn’t see the atheist and ex-Muslim or the many freethinking and secular youth, women and men causing offence within the ‘community’ day in and day out. The gay Muslim. The artist and rapper. The campaigner. It doesn’t see the many who are not offended by a Jesus and Mo cartoon or the Satanic Verses for that matter or who themselves make more fun of Islam and its representatives than any cartoon could.

There is no greater opposition to Islamic rule than by those living under it.

This perspective doesn’t see the resistance, the political, social and civil struggles, and class politics.

And this is something both the far-Right and post-modernist Left do – albeit for different reasons. The far-Right blames and scapegoats all Muslims for Islamism’s crimes – a lot more to do with US foreign policy than immigrants – and the post-modernist Left defends Islamism and its crimes as the ‘right of a Muslim minority’. Both sides oppose or defend Islam and Islamism at the expense of real live human beings.

‘Respect’ like ‘offence’ is another prescription for demarcating that which we are not allowed to question or challenge.

As the late Marxist Mansoor Hekmat said, ‘people’s beliefs are only respectable to themselves’.

Of course human beings are worthy of the highest respect but not necessarily their beliefs.

This doesn’t mean that people don’t have a right to their beliefs. Of course they do but the right to a belief does not include the right not to be offended or the right to have your belief respected, tolerated, and deemed equal and equally valid.

Also when people speak of a right to a belief or religion, they forget there is also a corresponding right to be free from religion and also to be free to criticise religion.

This is not just about free expression for atheists. Don’t forget, even for the religious, there is not only one way of doing religion. With regards Islam in particular though when you live under an Islamic inquisition, any transgression is seen as a criticism and an act of disbelief or apostasy punishable by death or threats and intimidation.

That’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist – of course it does and of course we must fight in unequivocally – but staying silent on Islam and Islamism won’t stop racism, it will only exacerbate it. It leaves countless people under the influence of Islamism – separate and unequal – but it also leaves the playing field open to the far-right to scapegoat and blame Muslims and immigrants for Islamism’s crimes.

In my opinion, concepts such as offence, respect, and Islamophobia are not there to protect Muslims from bigotry but they are there to protect Islam.

Which is why Islamists and their friends insist on blurring the distinction between Muslims and Islam or Islamism so they can ensure that Islam stays off-limits.

But Islam like any belief system cannot be off-limits.

It must be open to criticism and offence. Anything worth expressing will cause offence.

Those who say that expression is offensive are looking at it from their own self-interest within the context of offence. They aim to challenge those that want to change things in society. It is a means of control, censorship and limiting rights.

Limiting free expression to that which is acceptable restricts the right to speak for those who need it most. Saying Islam and Islamism are off limits means first and foremost that the victims and survivors of Islamism are not allowed to do one of the only things at their disposal in order to resist.

It is telling people they cannot oppose theocracies and religious laws and call for secularism in the Middle East and North Africa. It is telling people they cannot oppose sharia and call for one universal law for all or telling ex-Muslims they don’t have a right to break the taboo and challenge apostasy laws. It’s telling the likes of Egyptian blogger and atheist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy that she cannot post a nude photo as a scream against misogyny and other women’s rights campaigners cannot do a nude photo revolutionary calendar to support her because it offends. It’s telling people who need free expression most that they must remain silent…

Well sorry, no can do.

Progress in every era has always been linked to criticising that which taboo and deemed to be sacred, it’s meant offending deeply held sensibilities – very often religious.

It is no different today.

Our era’s progress is intrinsically linked to a criticism of Islam and Islamism.

How can we begin to imagine a world with no Islam, no religion, no superstition if we are not allowed to unequivocally speak out against it in any way we want – I am particularly in favour of militant, radical, uncompromising expression. Nothing has changed in history by accommodating barbarity, tiptoeing around it or appeasing it. It has always had to be met head on.

Education, ending discrimination and inequality are also important as is secularism, and universalism, which are not western values but human ones.

The dereligionisation of society is something that we must push for as well.

According to the Marxist Mansoor Hekmat:

‘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.’

If the law required religions to register as private foundations or profit making companies, pay taxes, face inspection and obey various laws, including labour laws, children’s rights, laws controlling the prohibition of sexual discrimination, defamation, libel and incitement as well as laws protecting animals, etc. and if the ‘religion industry’ was treated like the ‘tobacco industry,’ only then would we approach a principled position on religion and the legal scope of its expression in society.’

Thank you.

Comments

  1. says

    Maryam, thanks for always taking the time to share your invaluable thoughts. I believe that faith and religion are two different things, over time the ‘performance’ of faith in order to ‘belong’ to a religion has been in fact a project that served those at the top of religious hierarchies exclusively. Why should we all know (or care) about each other’s faith? Surely faith is about closeness to God? Personally I am non-religious, but come from an intensely religious family. What this has taught me is that performances of piety be that through dress codes, language or abstinence of a key social practice- ultimately makes invisible less morally sound behaviours. Intelligent people should not stand for the morally bankrupt actions of so called religious people anymore, wherever I speak I try to ram home the message, that doing nothing is itself a political act. Sitting on the fence is something that farmers do, it’s not something any of us have the luxury of doing any more.

  2. Jeffrey Risner says

    Very well written and thought out. I find it very difficult to “respect” superstitions especially when they are harmful to the “believers” or the unbelievers. It is time to stop appoligizing for renouncing superstitions and time to speak plainly and constantly about the evils they cause us all.

  3. oldebabe says

    I’d have liked to have been there (missed the entire Kamloops conf., i.e. forgot my passport and had to return home from the border) to hear this talk. Just engrossing and excellent.

    Tho your blog is better than nothing, when and/or where, do you plan to be/speak again?

  4. Paulo Alves Reis says

    Thanks for your blog and site, thanks for writing.
    What you write is a challenge … for me.

    This post and your link ‘Islam, Political Islam and Women’s Rights in the Middle East‘ made me think about what is Respect, Toleration and Contempt. And made me re-think.

    “Of course human beings are worthy of the highest respect but not necessarily their beliefs.”
    I agree with you.
    On the other hand it is difficult to me to accept that all the Muslims defend sharia and defend some middle age ideas.
    Isn’t there in Islam spirituality not connected to the “religion”?

    For me it is important to give a sense to life, and it can be by spirituality, politics, philosophy, …
    Give sense to life simply by knowing that going from the small circle around the belly bottom, towards something that is bigger them us, make us happier and healthier.

  5. Siverly says

    Brilliant, Maryam. Brilliant.

    As a lifelong left-winger I’m coming to the unnerving conclusion that I’ve not challenged my views enough! Understanding multi-culturalism, relativism and apologetics recently has re-landscaped my expectations about what ‘liberalism’ means. You’ve broadened my horizons to be sure. It seems the worst ideas-so many overtly sexist and totalitarian- get treated with ‘respect’. So many Left-leaning liberals are operating under so many double-standards it’s breathtaking! Mock the pope but not the Grand Mufti? Sometimes I think its mainstream Liberalism that protects the most vile ideas and practices more than the ultra-right, operating under the veneer of ‘moderation’. I’ve become much more aware of the fascistic urge on the Left as much as the Right. BBC, Guardian, ecumenalists, fearful Humanists and Islamist apologists take note: No More Bullsh*t. I’m still a Liberal, but I’m much more sceptical about other ‘liberals’ who try limit my thoughts and speech.

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