Blogging for Secular Student Alliance

I’m blogging every half an hour from 9am to 3pm UK time in support of the Secular Student Alliance blogathon. The SSA is trying to raise £100,000 by 16 June. I’m not quite sure what I’m meant to write about so I’ll start writing about some of the things that I’ve been meaning to comment on but haven’t had the chance. If there is anything specific you want me to address, please feel free to comment.

And don’t forget to support the SSA. If we’re going to beat the religion industry, we need to support organisations promoting secularism and reason.

Seriously, we are intolerant!?

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’: [Read more...]

Long live Peter Tatchell

On Saturday, I went to the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year award ceremony.

Peter Tatchell was the deserving winner for his life-long commitment to human rights.

NSS President Terry Sanderson said of him: ‘But he has persevered and now he has made the unprecedented transition from public enemy number one to national treasure.’

Tatchell’s been an amazing advocate for 45 years. Some of the things he’s done includes being convicted under the 1860 Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 for interrupting the Easter Sermon of the then Archbishop of Canterbury  in protest to his support for laws that discriminate against gays and ambushing the motorcade of the Zimbabwean dictator, Robert Mugabe, in an attempt to make a citizen’s arrest on charges of torture.

Here’s a piece in the Gay Star News about his win.

Previous winners include Pragna Patel, Steve Jones and moi [Nick Cohen - who also spoke on free expression at the ceremony - wrote about my win in 2005 in a piece called 'One Woman's War'].

They will never learn

Multi-culturalism – not as a positive lived experience – but as a social policy is a politics of division. I agree.

It divides people into cultures and puts cultures (the most regressive aspects) before citizens. But in response, Minister Eric Pickles says a return of Christianity in Britain’s public life will bring about the community cohesion that is lacking under multiculturalism.

No it won’t. Especially because not everyone in a ‘majority’ or ‘minority’ group think alike.  In a plural society, with many beliefs and opinions, you need to keep beliefs out in order to bring about any sort of social cohesion.

And as a first step, you need a concept of citizenship that goes beyond people’s beliefs and to some extent keeps their beliefs our of the state and public insititutions. And you need secularism, which is a minimum precondition, for basic rights and freedoms.

But they will never learn…

***

On a positive note, the fight back by those wanting a larger role for Christianity in the public space (as if having an established church and bishops in the house of lords is not enough) is because they are feeling the pressure of secularists. This is a very good thing. The other good thing is that all this talk of a return to Christian values will get secularists speaking out though they may have been silent when it was about Islam’s role in the public space due to bogus accusations of racism and Islamophobia…

So bring it on.

In defence of militant secularisation

In a recent speech the Tory Party Chairperson Lady Warsi said:

‘My fear is that, today, militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies. We see it in a number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings, and where religion is sidelined and downgraded in the public sphere.

‘For me one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.’

By the way, telling people they can’t carry conspicuous religious symbols or pray at their workplaces or discriminate against gay people because it’s part of their religious beliefs is the ‘militant secularisation’ Warsi is speaking of.

She’s taking her message to the pope who has in the past argued against ‘aggressive forms of secularism’ likening it to the evils of Nazism.

How absurd.

‘Militant secularisation’ is a direct response to religion’s encroachments and intolerance not the other way around. And there is nothing more totalitarian and intolerant than religion in political power. Just look back to the Spanish inquisition of centuries past or today’s Islamic inquisition. [Read more...]

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and RAWA support it – so should you!

More than 2,000 people have signed on to the Manifesto for a Free and Secular Middle East and North Africa including Women Living Under Muslims Laws, Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Writer Salman Rushdie, European Women’s Lobby, and the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). [Read more...]

You really need to sign this

Whilst we are on the subject of campaigning, there’s a really important manifesto that you need to support.

We have to intervene and stop the Arab spring being hijacked by Islamists and US-led militarism and turned into an Arab winter.

Nothing is guaranteed in this world. We have to fight for progressive change and it’s important for freethinkers to support the many in the Middle East and North Africa who want to live 21st century lives.

So please sign this if you can. We want to gather 100,000 signatures soon. It shouldn’t be hard to do – not with your help.

You can sign here. [The link is correct now - sorry about that and thanks for telling me.]

The fight for a secular society in Iran is intrinsically linked to the fight for a secular one in Britain

I received the following letter from ‘a group of students from Tehran University the other day. They wrote: ‘We are a group of Iranian students at Tehran University. We found about your group activity two years ago when you held an event on 10th of October 2008 (International day against the Death Penalty). We all were very interested in your group since most of us inside Iran hate any religion ruling us, we are all born in Muslim families but hate Islam more than any other religion so we are also ex Muslims. But we were very disappointed when we realized that you use our cause and suffering inside Iran to achieve your goals such as one law for all in Britain. For example this year you are planning to use Neda’s anniversary to rally against sharia law. Neda, Ashkan, Sohrab and those of our friends who died in Iran and those who are in prison, are paying a price for the freedom of Iran. Don’t mix things; don’t use our suffering to achieve your objectives. You can have separate rallies for your problems in Britain, and if you care about Iran (which I am sure you care) have a rally for Iran but with all the respect to England, we don’t like you to use the name of our dearest Neda, the symbol of freedom in Iran, to achieve your goals in Britain. We would like to concentrate our effort to free ourselves. We were very very disappointed that the communist ideas of your group are more important to you than freedom of Iran. We want freedom and democracy and None of us know what happens to us in our next demonstration on days of June 2010, some of us may die or end up in prison but we are happy to pay the price for it. We don’t want any religion or communist ideas to come and rule us. We are tired of being used. In a free Iran, we do not want atheists mullahs and communists to come and rule us with different form of fundamentalism.’

My response follows:

Thanks very much for your email. I appreciate receiving your comments. I would like, however, to make the following points:

* Neda’s murder has affected all of us deeply – not just those of us living in Iran or exiled but ordinary people everywhere. I think this is mainly because her cold-blooded murder was seen by many across the world in a way that countless murders by the Islamic regime over thirty years have not been. How could anyone not be moved? But also I think it is because her demand for freedom against all odds – her desire to live a life worthy of the 21st century – is really a demand for people all over – irrespective of where they were born.

So I think it is actually quite apt for us to remember Neda in our battle for equal rights in Britain or wherever we happen to live and whether we are Iranian or not. It is not ‘using’ her but holding her dear and not allowing the world to forget her in the fight that still lies ahead. I mean were civil rights activists in America ‘using’ Stephen Biko (killed by the apartheid regime of South Africa) when promoting equal rights there?

Rather, showing solidarity – mobilising towards it – across borders – means being able to show the real links between people in Iran and those living in Britain and elsewhere.

Reducing the protests and resistance of Neda and people in Iran (and those of us in exile who have fled because of our activities, lost many a loved one and continue to be threatened with death and have our families in Iran harassed by the regime because of our activities abroad) into a national sort of suffering that only those still in Iran are privy to misses the point.

* Moreover, Neda is linked to the issue of Sharia law in more ways than one. Sharia law is not ‘Britain’s personal problem’ and Neda is not ‘Iran’s problem.’ They are both the result of the rise of the political Islamic movement of which the Islamic regime is a cornerstone. In fact Sharia law in this country came into being in the late 80s after the establishment of the Islamic regime of Iran. The fight for a different and secular society in Iran is intrinsically linked to the fight for a different and secular one in Britain.

* You say you hate Islam more than any other religion but in my opinion religions are all alike. If given political power they will do what Islam has done and have in the past. A ‘kinder’ religion is only one that has been pushed in a corner and out of the public space. Islam only seems worse today because we are living through an Islamic inquisition. And this Islamic inquisition like the Christian one in centuries past must be pushed back by a new enlightenment that is being shaped in my opinion in Iran.

* So I do think actually that it is important to ‘mix things.’ The fight against Sharia in Britain is an important front in the ongoing battle of the people of Iran against the Islamic Republic. Also, Sharia law has been used by the far-right to promote its anti-immigrant and racist agenda. They want no Sharia in Britain but don’t mind the Church of England’s role here nor care a whit about people struggling elsewhere or even in the ‘Muslim community’ here with similar problems. ‘Mixing’ the two – whilst standing up for people everywhere and showing the humanity of us all – also attacks the cultural relativism and racism that is rampant and excuses gross violations in the name of culture and religion for the ‘other.’

* Finally, One Law for All or the Council of Ex-Muslims are not communist organisations but I am a communist. You may not want or like my communist ideas but I do. And I believe strongly that worker-communism is a humane and much-needed movement (that has proven to be so over several decades and been at the forefront of everything from opposing the death penalty, refugee rights, secularism to equality not just in Iran, and also when many such issues were not fashionable in the Left). I have a right – as you do – to promote my ideas and debate them. In a ‘free Iran’ as you call it – whilst you many not want ‘fundamentalist’ atheists and communists alike, we must have a right to speak and organise and mobilise support as all other political groups and ideologies.

Otherwise it wouldn’t be very free would it? And both you and I will have to let people in Iran choose and decide what they want. I believe that in free and fair elections they will choose us but again for that we will have to wait and see…

Let me end by saying that I sincerely wish you all safety and success in your activities.

Warmest wishes

Maryam

Maryam Namazie