The below is my speech prepared for European Parliament meeting on 23 February 2016.
Today, I would like to focus on the importance of defending secularism, universalism, free expression, and citizenship rights in confronting Islamism.
To begin with, let me clarify the distinctions between Islam (an idea), Muslims (people) and Islamism (the religious-Right). The three are often conflated to the advantage of the Islamists and to the disadvantage of dissenters and freethinkers.
Let me explain.
Islamism is a political movement with state power. Whilst it relies on religion as well as terror and violence, it is firmly rooted in political equations for the extreme-Rightwing restructuring of society.
All religious-Right movements – whether it’s the Hindu-Right, Christian-Right, Jewish or Buddhist-Right are fundamentally comparable, albeit with differences as in any phenomenon and depending on their power and influence.
The fight for secularism and universal values is first and foremost a fight against the religious-Right in general and Islamism in particular – whether in Europe or globally.
Islam on the other hand is a religion like all others and can and must be open to criticism, even mockery and blasphemy. When you can be killed for leaving Islam, the celebration and normalisation of blasphemy and apostasy are important forms of resistance.
This is increasingly difficult, not just in countries under Islamic law, but here in Europe too where much-needed criticism is often equated with bigotry and discrimination against the “Muslim minority.” Accusations of Islamophobia are often used to scaremonger people into silence rather than out of any patronising “concern for minorities” – as if “minorities” do not need or have the right to criticise religion and the religious-Right.
This homogenisation of entire “communities” and societies refuses to acknowledge that there are many within those who are considered “Muslims” who oppose Islamism or disagree or dislike some or all of the tenets of Islam just like there are those who oppose the Christian-Right and disagree with or dislike tenets of Christianity. Equating criticism of Islam with bigotry aids the Islamists in their imposition of “secular” blasphemy laws using rights language to censor and limit the right to free expression. Freedom of expression without the right to criticise religion is meaningless. Such criticism has been key for social progress. In the age of ISIS, it is also crucial for the defence of rights and equality. It helps to dismantle and subvert the sacred and its political role and open the space for dissent where none is permissible or acceptable by those in power.
When masses of people are homogenised and seen to be one and the same with the Islamists, the right to free expression is reduced to a western demand rather than a universal one. But no one needs free expression more than those challenging or living under the boot of the religious-Right – where criticism of religion is often seen to be analogous with criticism of the state with serious consequences.
This gives added importance to the free expression of those of us who live here in Europe. Our criticism can help push open the space for dissent particularly for those who are unable to do so or who are paying with their lives.
The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain is an excellent example of this. When CEMB was formed nearly 9 years ago to break the taboo that comes with leaving Islam and to challenge apostasy laws, there were hardly any ex-Muslims willing to speak publicly. Today there are many who do so, asserting their right to atheism, including in countries where it is a prosecutable offence – primarily via social media.
In December 2015, for example, the CEMB initiated #ExMuslimBecause; within 24 hours it had trended on Twitter with 120,000 Tweets from 65 countries. This despite the fact that atheism is seen as a serious challenge to Islamic states. Saudi Arabia, for example, introduced a law in 2014 that defines “atheism as terrorism.” And 14 states impose the death penalty for atheists: Afghanistan, Iran, Islamic State, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
Even in Europe, many ex-Muslims remain in the closet and fear upsetting their families, facing ostracisation or placing themselves in danger. Ex-Muslims are often seen though Islamist eyes with labels of Islamophobic, “native informants,” and “coconuts” and are accused of “inciting hatred and discrimination” against Muslims.
Nonetheless, the right to religion has a corresponding right to be free from religion, including for those labelled “Muslims.”
Though dissent is often portrayed as a betrayal or an attack on the “Muslim community,” it is in fact very much part of everyday life as I mentioned before. Everything from the veil, Sharia Law to gender segregation… are highly contested and challenged. Yet because of the homogenisation of “Muslims” and their conflation with Islamists, there is this absurd perception that there is no dissent. It’s as if we don’t have any atheists, secularists, free thinkers, women’s rights campaigners, socialists, democrats… amongst those labelled Muslims. From this point of view, the default and “authentic” Muslim is always the Islamist.
Identity politics and multiculturalism (not as a lived experience but as a segregationist social policy) including the Iraq-isation of the world has so essentialised “Muslims” that solidarity with or opposing bigotry against “Muslims” usually means that the postmodernist Left end up in siding with Islam and Islamism rather than with dissenters and political and social movements and ideals.
This is why, for example, the Feminist Society and LGBTQ+ Society at Goldsmiths University absurdly issued a statement of solidarity with the Islamic Society whose “brothers” attempted to disrupt and intimidate my talk on “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Free Expression in the Age of ISIS,” rather than with me.
“What is most upsetting” in all this, says Marieme Helie Lucas “is the implication that oppressed people can only turn out as fascists, never revolutionaries. Is this really what the left in Europe now believes?” She adds: “Can the left accept that citizens are assigned a ‘minority’ identity against their will, on the basis of their name, or their geographical origin, or that of their families? Can the left accept that this communal identity supersedes their civil rights? This was done to the Jews under Nazism. Will the left accept that it be done to Muslims, and those presumed to be Muslims, regardless of their personal religious beliefs? If the left is serious about supporting oppressed minorities, it should realise that those who speak in the name of the community do not necessarily have the legitimacy to do so. By supporting fundamentalists, they simply chose one camp in a political struggle, without acknowledging it.”
This has also been the position of successive British governments whereby multiculturalism and multi-faithism has been promoted as social policies to defend religion’s role in the public space, impose religious identity as the only marker to define citizens, and hand large sections of citizens to be managed and controlled by regressive Islamist organisations and imams.
There are no more citizens but segregated communities with their own faith schools, faith-based services and even faith-based courts: Separate and Unequal.
But you cannot be a 21 century human being and live under Islamic rules – whether in Europe or elsewhere – and not clash with it. It’s impossible. You don’t need to draw a cartoon of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet, to do this.
Just celebrate Valentine’s Day and see what happens. From Indonesia, to Pakistan, to Iran, there are edicts and directives trying to stop people from celebrating it – without success. Last year in Saudi Arabia, five Saudi men were arrested by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and sentenced to 32 years in prison and 4,500 lashes for holding a Valentine’s Day party with “unrelated women, drinking and dancing.” In Islamic schools here in Europe, Valentine’s Day is frowned upon as un-Islamic.
Take any other aspect of people’s lives and this clash is evident. Take music.
ISIS recently beheaded a 15 year old boy for listening to western music on his CD player at his dad’s shop.
In Iran, a metal band called Confess face the death penalty for blasphemy; “advertising against the system”; forming and running an illegal band and record label in the “satanic ‘metal & rock’ music style”; writing anti-religious, atheist, political and anarchist lyrics.
In Mali, the Islamists have banned music. Aliou Toure, the lead singer of Mali’s Songhoy Blues says: “We had no idea that one day we could be forbidden from playing music, because music is universal… It’s like being forbidden to see the woman you love. Music for us is like a woman we love.”
In Britain, too, groups like the Muslim Council of Britain advise that children of Muslim parents should avoid “harmful” music.
As I said, people’s daily lives clash with Islamic rules. If it didn’t – if it was people’s culture and religion, there would be no need for absurdly titled “Commissions for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” or the “morality police. “Islamists would not need to impose their laws with such indiscriminate violence and repression.
In fact, the terrorism we have witnessed in Paris and London but mainly mosques and markets and schools in many cities across the “Islamic” world is just the tip of the iceberg. Sharia law controls and restricts every aspect of people’s lives making clashes inevitable, particularly since a large majority of the populations in the Middle East are under 30. And of course this does not even begin to include those who risk their very lives by criticising Islam directly. People like:
Raif Badawi, sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia
Bangladeshi bloggers, like Avijit Roy, hacked to death for criticising Islam
Hesameddin Farzizadeh, 23 year old writer and student who has been sentenced to 7 years in prison, 74 lashes and the death penalty for apostasy in Iran for a book examining the history and questioning facets of Shi’a Islam
Abdulaziz Dauda, also known as Abdul Inyass, an Islamic scholar sentenced to death in Nigeria for blasphemy for a lecture which was deemed to be blasphemous against Islam’s prophet
Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian poet and artist who lives in Saudi Arabia, who has been sentenced to death for ‘apostasy’ for his poetry which the regime claims has questioned religion and spread atheism
27 Sudanese Muslims from the Qurani sect, charged with apostasy and disturbing the public peace for considering the Quran holy but believing that the Hadith are not authentic
Or Egyptian poet Fatima Naoot given a 3-year sentence for insulting Islam Eid Al-Adha’s tradition of slaughtering sheep as the “greatest massacre committed by human beings”…
The list is endless.
It makes me laugh to hear Sam Harris say “the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists.” Or the far-Right like Pegida saying that they are the only ones “critical of Islam,” crying crocodile tears for the victims of Islamism whilst dehumanising and vilifying its victims and survivors, including by equating refugees with ISIS – all in order to defend what is fundamentally a “white, Christian Europe” against what they perceive to be the Muslim/migrant “savage hordes.”
The defence of the clash of civilisations theses ignores the fact that “Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA,” according to writer Kenan Malik. In reality, there is a clash between theocrats on the one hand and secularists, including many “Muslims” on the other.
What is often forgotten in all this talk equating Islam and Islamism with “Muslims” is that Islamism has been build on the mass graves of our dissenters – Muslims, Ex-Muslims, religious minorities, political dissidents, transgressors and others.
In Iran, an entire generation has been slaughtered for this movement to maintain itself in the state. There are similar stories in many places such as in Algeria where the term “green fascists” was coined.
One has to see this immense dissent in order to begin to separate people from the Islamists and to ally with and show solidarity with progressive social and political movements and see the commonalities in our fight for secularism and against Islamism in Europe and across the globe.
Identity politics ignores and negates the plurality and dissent and fails to see the social and political struggles and class politics.
“The result of all this,” says Kenan Malik, “is that solidarity has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture.”
This is the story of our lives.
Take the example of 27 year old Farkhunda accused by a mullah of being an “infidel” who burnt verses of the Koran in Afghanistan. She was attacked by a mob in Kabul, lynched, stoned, run over, burnt and her body thrown in a river whilst onlookers and police stood by.
What could she expect when she goes against “Muslim sensibilities” tweeted one of these absurd liberal Left do-gooders who only seem to do good for religion and the religious-Right but never women? But wasn’t Farkhunda Muslim too? Actually she was very devout and had gone to the local mullah to tell him to stop selling amulets to women.
What became very obvious after her murder was that not all Afghans or Muslims or Muslim men have the same “sensibilities.” Women carried her body– going against Islamic customs – to her gravesite and with her family’s permission encircled by a chain of men to protect them. They surrounded her coffin right until the end, gave her the respect she deserved, and chanted: “we are all Farkhunda.” And when a mullah who had justified Farkhunda’s killing, tried to join them, they refused, created a circle around her gravesite, and forced him to leave.
Azaryun, a youth activist says, “That is what Farkhunda teaches me: together we can change the narrative that others write about women. We stood up against the most respected mullah. We carried the coffin and buried her.”
Neayish, a medical student, said: “It was the first time I realized my real power and told myself that I’m breaking the boundaries of tradition.”
So “the people” of Afghanistan do not all agree. “Muslims” are not all the same. And I place Muslims in quotes since not everyone living in Afghanistan or Iran are Muslims or Islamists just like not everyone is Britain is Christian or Pegida.
Everywhere, from Iran to Afghanistan and Algeria and in the heart of Europe there are women and men who break taboos and change narratives and stand against religion’s encroachment in people’s lives and against Islamism.
Islamism’s culture is not the culture of the many who refuse and resist. It’s not ours.
As Women Living Under Muslims Laws says: Islamism’s ” main target is the internal democratic opposition to their theocratic project and to their project of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion, including education, the legal system, youth services, etc. When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people, they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters – like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the ‘untermensch’ – the subhumans – among them ‘inferior races’, gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women ‘in their place’, which as we know from experience ends up being a straight jacket…”
Of course with the rise of Islamism, appearances of religiosity increases but much of this is imposed or as a result of pressure and intimidation and state-driven or political “revival.”
In the past several decades, the rise of Islamic states and movements in many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, Europe; the constraints on free expression; the imposition of Sharia law, increased veiling and gender segregation are the direct result of a rise of Islamism and not due to people becoming more devout.
Let’s not forget that Islamism was brought to centre stage as a political tool in aid of US foreign policy during the Cold War in an attempt to create a ‘green belt’ around the then Soviet Union. In contemporary history, the rise of Islamism can be linked to the establishment of an Islamic regime in Iran on the back of a suppressed left-leaning revolution. Of course, now, it is a movement that stands on its own two feet and brings misery wherever it rears its ugly head.
Despite this, let’s also remember that the rise of Islamism has seen a corresponding rise in atheism, women’s liberation and secularism in “Muslim” societies and communities – a form of backlash and resistance.
Social media and the internet have had similar effects to the printing press, giving masses of people access to ideas and information normally censored and suppressed by Islamist state controlled media. It’s also given people the opportunity to say the unsayable, break taboos and question the status quo. A quick look at only the Arab atheist pages recently censored by Facebook gives a small idea of what I can the tsunami of atheism.
There are countless examples of this huge political fight against the Islamists by those deemed to be of “Muslim heritage” and how these contestations are ignored in Europe with only Islamism’s narrative given credence.
In Iran, for example, women are fighting hard to enter sports stadiums where they are banned due to gender segregation rules. In Britain, however, gender segregation is actively promoted. One good example of this is when in December 2013, Universities UK, a regulatory body, endorsed gender segregation in its guidelines on external speakers, saying: “Assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds merely by imposing segregated seating. Both men and women are being treated equally, as they are both being segregated in the same way.” (The familiar separate but equal arguments we heard during racial apartheid in South Africa.)
UUK was eventually forced to withdraw its guidance after women’s rights campaigners and secularists protested the guidelines; as a result of our campaigning efforts, the Equality and Human Rights Commission ruled against it saying: “Gender segregation is not permitted in any academic meetings or at events, lectures or meetings provided for students, or at events attended by members of the public or employees of the university or the students’ union.”
Sharia family codes are another area where women’s rights campaigners have fought hard to oppose discriminatory laws. Under Sharia’s civil code a women’s testimony is half that of a man’s, women have limited right to divorce whereas men have unilateral right to divorce, child custody is given to the father at a pre-set age irrespective of the welfare of the child and marriage contracts are entered into between the man and the woman’s male guardian.
The Islamic Sharia court in Britain explains why a woman’s testimony is half that of a man’s: ‘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.’
According to human rights campaigner Gita Sahgal, “there is active support for sharia laws precisely because it is limited to denying women rights in the family. No hands are being cut off, so there can’t be a problem …”
But this is an area of fightback for many years.
In Algeria, women’s rights activists singing for change label 20 years of Sharia in the family code as 20 years of madness. They sing:
“I am telling you a story
Of what the powerful have done
Of rules, a code of despair
A code obsessed with women…”
“This law must be undone…!”
In Iran, after the establishment of Sharia law there, the Iranian Lawyers’ Association came out in full force against the new religious codes only to be met with arrest and exile; some opponents were even charged with apostasy, which is a “crime” punishable by death…
But here, the British government has so far failed to defend women’s rights and equality and even groups like the British Humanist Association state that Sharia courts are people’s “right to religion;” its Chief Executive has stated after visiting a Beth Din and the Islamic Sharia Council that he was “left without a single secularist reason to say that they should not be allowed to operate as they do.”
Also, despite its discriminatory nature, the Law Society in Britain issued a practice note for solicitors on how to draw up ‘Sharia-compliant’ wills, stating that:
“… illegitimate and adopted children are not Sharia heirs … The male heirs in most cases receive double the amount inherited by a female heir … Non-Muslims may not inherit at all … a divorced spouse is no longer a Sharia heir…”
The note was withdrawn only after the protests of women’s rights campaigners and secularists.
It’s the same with regards the veil, burqa and niqab, which are highly contested.
In Iran, for example, there is an unveiling movement though improper veiling and unveiling is punishable by a fine, arrest, and up to two months in prison.
In Iran, billboards will compare unveiled women to unwrapped sweets – free for the taking. Here in Europe, pressures include calling improperly veiled women “hoejabis.” Despite this, “progressives” often defend the hijab as a “right” and a “choice” when, socially speaking, it has been imposed by brute force. Defenders of the veil here in Europe forget that there is a corresponding right to unveil and for unveiled women not to be perceived as whores and sources of fitnah.
What I want to say is that in areas where there is a huge fight taking place, like against Sharia law, the veil or gender segregation, rather than siding with those defending women’s rights and equality, there is often a defence of the Islamists under the guide of defending “Muslims.”
How to change things? We need to go back to basics. It is the human being who has rights, deserves respect and equality, not religions, cultures and beliefs and certainly not the religious-Right.
“Muslims” or those labelled as such – whether citizens of Europe for generations or migrants who arrived today – are individuals not to be collectively blamed or held to account for Islamism’s crimes. Also religion or culture cannot trump human rights. A defence of universal rights in the face of cultural relativism is most needed and urgent.
Key in all this is secularism.
Secularism (the separation of religion from the state) is a precondition for safeguarding individual rights; is not western but universal; and is a fundamental right and necessity for all, particularly for those living outside of the west or in minority communities here in Europe.
In fact, the articulation and defence of secularism is more urgent than ever given the encroachment on civil rights and freedoms by the religious-Right (particularly Islamism) and the urgent need for solidarity with the palpable fight-back in many communities and societies.
Whilst secularism is often portrayed as anti-religion, it in fact guarantees the right to religion and belief.
This is not the case when religion has a role in the state. The death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy, including against believers, is one example of many. In Iran 130 offences are punishable by death, including heresy and enmity against god.
Secularism also defends the right to expression of belief even whilst limiting the role of expression in the public space. For example, the Christian-Right calls for laws forbidding reproductive rights for all citizens yet laws granting such rights do not force Catholics to practice either contraception or abortion.
On the flip side, there are sharia law courts in Britain, where women’s rights are discriminated against. Where the law is secular, women have equal rights and access not available to them under religious laws. Restricting these sharia courts would still allow women to give up their rights to alimony or child custody in a civil court if they felt they deserved nothing whilst protecting the many who don’t want to or are coerced into giving up their rights under sharia.
What is often touted as ‘religious rights’ here in Europe is in fact an imposition by the religious-Right and Islamists and aims to implicate the state in the implementation of inequalities in the name of rights. There is, however, no right to oppress and discriminate against.
As author and human rights lawyer, Karima Bennoune says:
“…in applying freedom of religion, both those who believe and those who choose not to believe, as well as those who seek to manifest belief and those who do not wish to be coerced to do so, must be taken into consideration. This is only possible in a framework of secularism…
“…The term secularism here means emphasis on the temporal over the religious in law and an accompanying minimization of the role of religion in the functioning of the state and legal system. The significance of the temporal for human rights is not that it is always morally superior to the religious, [though I would argue it is] but rather that it is contestable. The temporal allows space for dissent which the ‘you cannot argue with God’ paradigm forecloses.”
Those who consider a demand for secularism as ‘culturally inappropriate,’ ‘western,’ or ‘colonialist’ are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist. Islamism is a form of colonialism though it is seen as ‘authentic.’ Islamists in Niger or Mali are de-Africanising the “lived Islam” there, for example, and the niqab and burqa were unheard of in many countries just a few decades ago.
Plus even in many western countries the fight for secularism is not over. Britain for example, has an established church. The queen is the head of the Church of England. There are unelected bishops in the House of Lords and daily prayers in Parliament. Even in France, which is renowned for its secularism, judges take Sharia law into account in, for example, the annulment of marriage and have even introduced Sharia’s civil code for some of its citizens of North African descent via bilateral agreements.
Also, what is often forgotten is that believers can be secularists too. Recent surveys in France show that about 25% of the population in France is atheist, with the same percentage being Christian and also Muslim. 75% of the population, however, are secularists. Research carried out by Southall Black Sisters in the UK shows that many women, including those who are ‘deeply observant want to be able to traverse different religious spaces for their social and emotional lives and secular spaces for their activism and advice.’
There are strong secular movements in so-called Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Pakistan, Algeria and Mali, despite the great risks involved. Karima Bennoune has brought to light many such groups and individuals in her recently published book, the title of which is based on a Pakistani play where the devotional singer who is beaten and intimidated for singing deemed ‘un-Islamic’ retorts: ‘Your fatwas do not apply here.’
The uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, such as the mass protests against Islamists for the assassination of Socialist leader Chokri Belaid in Tunisia; the vast secular protests in Turkey against Islamisation; the Harlem Shake in front of Muslim Brotherhood headquarter in Egypt and the largest demonstration in contemporary history against the Muslim Brotherhood – 33 million people – are all evidence of that.
The systematic and theorised failure to defend secularism and people’s, particularly women’s, civil rights in many countries and communities, only aids and abets the religious-Right to the detriment of us all – believers and none.
As British philosopher AC Grayling has said: secularism is a fundamental right. Today, given the influence of the religious-Right, it is also a precondition for women’s rights and equality and for rights and freedoms in the society at large. It must be actively defended, promoted, and articulated.