monograph · Evening Discussion with Richard Dawkins
Confronting Islamism with Secularism
A future Europe must be secular. By secularism I mean the complete separation of religion from the state (and not the British version of equal tolerance for religions, which breeds communalism).
Whilst freedom of religion or belief is an important human right, it is a personal matter of conscience and a lived experience. When religion is part of the state or law, it’s no longer about personal beliefs but power and control.
Given the rise of the religious-Right in Europe and internationally, a defence of secularism is an historical task. It’s also a precondition for women’s rights and a guarantee of freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.
The defence of secularism is an important challenge to Islamist projects like Sharia courts, the burqa, or gender segregation at universities in Britain. Islamism, like other religious-Right movements (including the Christian-, Hindu-, Jewish- or Buddhist-Right), uses religion for societal control as well as the far-Right restructuring of society. Opposing Islamism is not an “attack” on “the Muslim community” anymore than criticising the Christian-Right, Pegida, and Christianity is “bigotry” against the “Christian community”.
Even so, because of multiculturalism and multi-faithism as a social policy, religion is now the sole marker that defines countless citizens. As a result, criticism of religion and the religious-Right is equated with real harm against Muslims though there is a huge distinction between the criticism of ideas and political movements versus bigotry against people. [It’s this same regressive identity politics that is contributing to the rise of white identity politics and other religious-Right movements.]
Couching Islamist demands (always intertwined with threats, intimidation and violence) as “freedom of religion” gives the religious-Right legitimacy, ignores widespread dissent, justifies violence and abuse, and shrinks much-needed secular spaces of resistance.
Over the past several decades, the constraints on free expression, the imposition of Sharia law, increased veiling and gender segregation… in Europe are the direct result of a rise of Islamism and not due to people becoming more devout or because of immigration.
Of course with the rise of Islamism, appearances of religiosity increases but much of this is imposed or due to pressure and intimidation; and it is often politically- or state-driven.
In fact, the rise of Islamism has seen a corresponding rise in secular and progressive movements, including women’s liberation and a tsunami of atheism via the ex-Muslim movement. But because of identity politics, this dissent is seen through Islamist eyes, automatically labelled “Islamophobic”, and even vilified.
But clearly, no community or society is homogenous; nor is culture or religion. What is considered the “Muslim community” is as diverse as any other community or society, filled with a myriad characteristics and beliefs. Yet much-needed solidarity with the progressive, secular and feminist forces within are not gaining the solidarity they deserve because Islamism is seen to be the authentic identity of “Muslims”. Solidarity with “the Muslim community”, therefore, has been reduced to support for Islamist projects rather than for secular political and social movements and with regards to class politics.
According to Algerian sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas: “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 is the story of our lives.
The struggle against the burqa and veil is one example. The veil and its ensuing gender segregation is central to the Islamist project for the erasure of girls and women from the public space. There are countless fatwas, billboards likening unveiled women to rotting potatoes and sweets covered in flies with “morality police” roaming the streets to harass and arrest women in places like Iran. Many a woman has been assassinated in Algeria, attacked with acid in Afghanistan, or beaten and imprisoned for refusing to wear the veil in places like Saudi Arabia. Even in Europe where it is not compulsory by law, Islamist organisations, imams and Sharia courts make it very clear that it’s obligatory to wear the veil and that refusing to do so is a “rebellion against God”. Unveiled girls face much pressure by being labelled “whores”; those who are deemed “improperly” veiled are often called “hoe-jabis”. Despite the immense pressures and threats, here in Europe, the discussion around the veil is sanitised and portrayed as a “right” and a “choice”. These are of course formalities when there is little right or choice to remove one’s veil and remain unveiled. In this fight like so many others, countless feminists, liberals and human rights groups rush to defend the veil, the burqa and the burkini but never those fighting for an end to religion’s control over women’s bodies such as the women’s unveiling movement in Iran or nude protests to combat the perverse view that women’s bodies are the sources of fitnah or chaos in society and therefore must be concealed from view.
It’s ironic how religion’s and men’s imposition on women to safeguard “honour” and control their bodies are packaged as a “right” and “choice” for women.
It’s the same when it comes to Sharia courts in Britain. Sharia courts are highly contested and challenged in Europe and globally by black and minority women, including many Muslims. Discrimination and violence lie at the heart of the courts. It’s where the greatest abuses of minority women takes place. For example, under Sharia rules, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; a man can have four wives and divorce his wife by simple repudiation, whereas a woman has limited rights to divorce; child custody reverts to the father at a preset age; and marital rape is not considered a crime. It’s one of the main battlegrounds for women’s rights in the family across the globe. In Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan, Sharia courts have been banned in a measure to defend gender equality. In India, Muslim women are leading the fight against the “triple talaq” rule, which gives husbands unilateral rights to divorce. In Algeria, women’s rights activists have called 20 years of Sharia in the family code as “20 years of madness”, “a code of despair”, “a code obsessed with women”. In Saudi Arabia, the male guardianship rules are being challenged by women’s rights campaigners and on and on. But here in Europe, many feminists promote it as people’s “right to religion”. This is despite the mountain of evidence showing that the courts are discriminatory in content and intent and despite the immense resistance taking place.
It’s the same when it comes to the tsunami of atheism in the “Muslim world”. Social media is doing to Islam what the printing press before it did to Christianity. It’s also given people the opportunity to break taboos, question the status quo and make connections with freethinkers across borders and boundaries.
Though atheists from Muslim backgrounds can face the death penalty in 14 countries and can face shunning, as well as threats and violence even in Europe, many are coming out, loud and proud in support of freethought. Yet human rights and “progressive” organisations and personalities legitimise de-facto or de-jure blasphemy and apostasy laws and more often than not blame the victims. Ex-Muslims are seen though Islamist eyes: “Islamophobic”, “native informants,” “coconuts” and accused of “inciting hatred and discrimination” against Muslims when they are merely standing up for the right to think as they choose, criticise beliefs they have been raised in and to live to tell the tale.
Ironically, many of the liberals always siding with the Islamists might themselves be atheists. The racism of lower expectations and double standards means that they have one set of rights for themselves and another for us… We are only meant to have rights within the context of Islam and Islamic laws! And our dissenters are deemed “culturally inappropriate”, “western”, or “colonialist” because they are only concerned with Islamism’s sensibilities and values and not that of the many who resist. In fact, though, no one understands the need for secularism, women’s liberation and freethought better than those living under the boot of the religious-Right.
Identity politics and communalism is literally killing us by siding with our fascists rather than our dissenters.
More than ever, there is a need to articulate and defend secularism and show solidarity with the palpable fight-back in many communities and societies in Europe and globally.
Islamism is an international movement; so too is the secular movement. This is not about a clash of civilisations but a clash between theocrats on the one hand and secularists on the other – across borders and boundaries.
The systematic and theorised failure to defend secularism and people’s, particularly women’s, civil rights in many countries and communities, has aided and abetted 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 havoc being wreaked by the religious-Right, it is also a precondition for fundamental rights and freedoms.
Secularism is not western or eastern; it’s universal. We need a secular Europe and world and we need it now.
Our very lives depend on it.
Maryam Namazie is spokeperson of Council of ex Muslims of Britain. She hosts the television program Broad and Roses