Political Islam vs. Secularism
‘Islam against Islam’ is an interesting topic. The irony of a believer criticising the beliefs is provocative. I am not a Moslem; I am an atheist. However, I have lived Islam; I have firsthand experience of Islam. I was born within a religious conflict: a religious mother and an atheist father. From childhood, I began to see the flaws, the restrictions, the misogyny, the backwardness, the dogma, the superstition, and uncritical nature of Islam vis-à-vis the enlightenment, the freethinking spirit of atheist thinking.
I became an atheist at the age of 12.
The establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran after a failed revolution laid bare many other appalling and cruel dimensions of Islam, which we later came to label political Islam. It was not only dogma or superstition anymore. It was torture, summary executions, stonings, amputations, and the rape of 9-year-olds in the name of marriage. Another face of Islam? Perhaps. But a real one. Millions in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Nigeria, and Iraq are experiencing this true face of Islam daily.
With the coming to power of the Islamic Republic in Iran, we began to witness a revival of the Islamic movement as a political movement, i.e. the emergence of political Islam. I prefer not to talk about this movement as fundamentalism, but rather political Islam. We are talking here about a contemporary political movement which refers to Islam as its ideological framework and vision. It is not necessarily a doctrinaire and scholastic movement, but it embodies different and varied trends of Islamic tendencies. It is a political movement seeking hegemony and a share of power in the Middle East, North Africa and in Islamist communities. This movement embodies Islamists who hypocritically defend freedom of clothing, so as to oppose the banning of veils in schools and for under-aged girls in their fight against the secularisation of society in the West, and those in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Algeria who throw acid at unveiled women, slash them with knives and razors, and who flog them for not observing veiling. They are part and parcel of one movement. This movement is a threat to humankind. It is a movement, against which all freedom loving, equality seeking human beings must take a firm and uncompromising position.
‘Islam against Islam’ may imply finding ways and means to reform Islam, to resort to so-called more moderate interpretations of Islam. As a personal, private belief this may be possible, but as a political movement it is not. The movement which has terrorised the world, we are experiencing today, and which we have become firsthand victims of, is incapable of reform. We are dealing with a political movement which resorts to terror as the main means of achieving power. My experience in Iran explicitly shows that the only way to deal with this movement is to relegate it into the private spheres, eradicate it from the state, education and societal sphere. To do this, we need to build a strong movement both in the region and worldwide.
In my opinion, there are a number of points which can be the basis for an international united front against political Islam in order to make the world a better, more humane and safer place.
Defence of secularisation and de-religionisation of society is one of them. This banner has historically proven successful in the fight against the church and now against the gains of political Islam. The voice for secularism has become loud and clear in Iran. There is a strong movement for the secularisation of society in a country under the siege of political Islam for 25 years. We should unequivocally raise this banner in the West and in the East. We should recreate the spirit of the 18th century, the enlightenment, and the French Revolution, in a contemporary manner.
The fight for universality of human rights and women’s rights is another important cause. In the past two decades the Islamists were largely aided by the proponents of cultural relativism. By defending this racist concept, the Western academia, media and governments turned a blind eye to the atrocities committed by this misogynist and reactionary movement, not only in the so-called “Moslem world”, but in Islamic communities in the West. Apparently, according to this concept, there are some rights that are suitable for Western women and not appropriate for women like me, who are born in the other part of the world.
The veil, sexual apartheid, and second class citizenship were justified by reverting to this arbitrary concept of “their culture”. A violation that felt appalling if committed against a Western woman, was a justifiable action committed against a woman born under Islam. This double standard, this sheer violation of humane principles must be stopped. I must admit that it has been pushed back a great deal. We have fought hard against it for more than one decade.
Defence of children’s rights is another fight which must be extended to areas where so-called religious beliefs are concerned. The veiling of under-aged girls must be banned, not only in schools, but altogether. The veiling of children is a clear violation of their universal rights. Just as we fight for obligatory education for children, abolition of child labour, banning of corporal punishment, we should fight for the banning of veiling of under-aged girls. This has the same significance as other basic children’s rights. The veil deprives a child from a happy normal life, and healthy physical and mental development; it brands their life as different by segregating them. It defines two sets of gender roles and imposes it upon children who have no way of protecting themselves and demanding equality and freedom. Children have no religion; they are only by accident born into a religious family. Society has a duty to protect them and uphold their rights as equal human beings.
Abolition of religious schools is another important arena. This is also an important principle of a secular state, and for the protection of children’s rights. Children must be free from official religious teachings and dogmas. Religion’s hands must be eradicated from children’s lives. The new legislation in France regarding banning of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools and institutions, is an important step but insufficient. In order to safeguard children’s rights, religious schools must be abolished. Otherwise, we create religious ghettos, segregate children living in religious families from the society, and condemn them to a life in isolation. The new legislation is the easiest way out for the state. But we cannot remain indifferent to these children’s lives. The society and the state have the duty to protect their rights. They should be allowed to integrate in the society, to go to school like any other child, and to be free from the meddling of religion in their lives, at least until they are still children.
The recognition of the right to unconditional freedom of expression and criticism is one of the important pillars of a free society and free thinking. The right to criticise Islam is another important means of fighting religious dominance in society. We need to and must criticise Islam relentlessly, without the fear of being beheaded in countries under the siege of Islam, or of being called racist in the West. Islamophobia is a new term created by Islamists or their apologists in order to stop a growing critical movement against Islam and Islamic movements. This is as hypocritical as it is regressive.
I call upon all of you here to recognise the importance and the urgency of demanding secularisation and the de-religionisation of the state and society, unconditional freedom of expression and criticism, recognition of women’s equality and the universality of their rights, the banning of child veiling, and the abolition of religious schools. In order to build a better, safer, freer and a more egalitarian world, we must unequivocally raise this banner.
The above is a speech made by Azar Majedi in a Paris conference entitled ‘Islam against Islam’ on 30 October 2004. Azar Majedi is the head of the Organisation for Women’s Liberation.