Here is my opening statement on the International Atheism panel with Faisal Saeed Al-Mutar and Cristina Rad at AACon2014:
Punishing apostates is a long-standing and fundamental feature of all major religions.
Islam is no different except that Islamism – an extreme Right movement with Islam as its banner – is this era’s inquisition and totalitarianism.
To the degree it has power, that is the degree it controls every single aspect of people lives and society via its Sharia laws – from what people wear, who they have sex with, to what they are allowed to think.
Islamists will kill, threaten or intimidate anyone who interprets things differently, dissents, thinks freely or transgresses their norms by living 21st century lives.
One of the characteristics of an Islamic inquisition is the policing of thought. Even for Muslims, a ‘personal’ religion is impossible under an inquisition. You can’t pick and choose as you’d like. You don’t want to wear the veil; acid in your face should teach you a lesson. You want to go to school; maybe they can gun you down on your way there. You want to be an atheist? Being a murtad is the most heinous of crimes. Saudi Arabia just issued a law equating atheism with terrorism.
The bitter irony! They kill us and we are the terrorists.
Apostasy is a prosecutable offence in 30 countries under the influence of Sharia and punishable by death in 11.
Of course there are religious justifications for the execution of apostates in the Koran and Hadith – sayings and actions of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet.
From a religious standpoint, preventing apostasy is crucial to the preservation of Islam as Islamic “scholar” Qaradawi says. I use the term scholar lightly. As Dawkins says, you do need to read more than one book to be considered a scholar. But apostasy laws and the execution of apostates are the ultimate means of political rather than religious control.
It’s used to silence anyone who questions Islamic rule. Most recently, Roya Nobakht in Iran has been charged with apostasy for saying the regime is “too Islamic” and in Bangladesh, two high school students have been arrested for apostasy for questioning the Jamaat Islami.
Challenging apostasy laws therefore is first and foremost a political challenge. Hence the establishment of the Council of Ex-Muslims, an atheist organisation, found now in the UK, Germany, Scandinavian countries, Austria, France, North America and also in Morocco – the first public atheist organisation in a country with Islam as the state religion.
Don’t forget Christianity also used to execute its apostates. It’s not that the tenets, dogma, and principles of Christianity have changed since the days of the inquisition but rather its social and political influence and its relation to the state. A religion that has been reined in by an enlightenment is very different from one that is spearheading an inquisition.
Challenging it means having the courage to think for oneself, as philosopher AC Grayling says of the Council of Ex-Muslims, breaking the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam, and paving the way for others to do so.
It’s mainly though an important aspect of the fightback against Islamism.
Some will ask why we cannot just call ourselves atheists and not ex-Muslims but atheist alone cannot describe the risks and challenges we face.
Others will say our Council is an unnecessary provocation.
It’s a provocation, yes, but unnecessary, no.
Islamists tell us all the time: don’t provoke. Don’t offend. Don’t criticise … and no one need get hurt.
If anyone believes that – and trust me there are still people who do – then they still don’t know this movement.
Islamists need no excuses. Murder and mayhem is part and parcel of their movement.
Throughout history barbarity has always been pushed back – not by tiptoeing around it, accommodating it, appeasing it, tolerating it but by facing it head on.
They say we are not allowed to leave Islam.To them I say: We are not waiting for your permission.
(Photo Evan McHugh)