We Need to Fight the Battle for Enlightenment

I am delighted to be here today to speak at such a wonderful conference. Here, I talk as an apostate, an atheist who left Islam and religion altogether at the age of 15, a veteran activist of women’s rights who survived the atrocities committed by political Islam in Iran.

My being a Muslim, like all other children who are accidentally born into Muslim families, was hereditary. My parents were ordinary Muslims. My father was relatively open-minded but my mother indoctrinated us and used religious rules for protecting her children. In my childhood, faith meant that I had an all powerful all knowing father figure watching over me. Anything bad that happened to me – he’d take care of me. To me it was comforting to Know that evil would not triumph, that the anguish of the innocent in this world would not go un-avenged was comforting. The temptation to subordinate your being to a deity ; to a god was immense.

My doubts about god began seriously when I was 12 years old. I would give a lot to be able to believe. But in the end I had to tread the rocky and non-comforting path of atheism. I gave up the shelter of a divine shadow – but I gained a life that could question and explore the life and human existence. I questioned and rejected religion and became an atheist because I could not answer the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of religion to myself, and because religion limited me as a human being – I remain an atheist because I have discovered myself as human being not alienated by any god or religion and I do not need religion to tell me who I am.

But those years of exploring and searching for truth was soon replaced by horrors years of brutality and atrocities by political Islam in Iran. Though I left Islam, I had to live Islam. In my youth and young adulthood in Iran, I lived through thousands of days when political Islam shed blood. Since 1979, a hundred thousand men, women and children have been executed in the name of Allah. I have lived through years of assassination of infidels, apostates and opponents of the Islamic republic inside and outside Iran. Years of suppression of women and brutal treatment of those women who resisted the misery of mandatory Hijab and the rule of sexual apartheid. I, along with thousands of non – believers and political prisoners, was tortured by order of the representative of Allah and Sharia; tortured, while the verses of the Koran about non-believers were played in the torture chambers. The voice reading the Koran was mixed with our cries of pain from lashes and other brutal forms of torture.

Non-believers – atheists under Islam do not have “the right to life “. They are to be killed. According to Islamic culture, sins are divided into great sins and little sins. Among the seventeen great sins, unbelief is the greatest, more heinous than murder, theft, adultery and so on. Courageous apostates aim to skewer the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of a faith that commands the allegiance of a billion people–as well as the hypocrisies of those Western defenders of Islam who would not tolerate its strictures in their own cultures.

A free discussion of Islam is extremely dangerous not only in countries under Islamic rule but also in the west. Most keep their feelings to themselves. Those Muslims who disown or even criticize their faith publicly are likely to be accused of apostasy, a crime punishable by death under Islamic law–a penalty enforced by a number of Islamic states, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan.

The Islamic position on apostasy has been described as: “total disbelief that any sane person could possibly have a genuine reason for leaving ‘the most perfect religion’. He or she must therefore, by definition, be acting in bad faith. Essential aspects of our civilised humanity, such as freedom of speech and freedom of belief, are best exemplified in Islam by those thinkers and writers it calls apostates. The importance of apostates and other religious dissidents is crucial.

Freedom from and of religion does not mean merely the freedom to have a faith but also the freedom to change one’s religion, and freedom to be free from religion. But under the Sharia, apostasy (either advocating the rejection of Islamic belief or announcing such rejection by word or deed) is not permitted and for a man is punishable by death. The punishment for a woman is more lenient – she must stay in prison until she reverts, however long it takes. Even when the death penalty is not applied, those accused of apostasy can be subject to the most violent treatment. This discrimination is clearly contrary to freedom of religion and belief and to the principle that religion should be a private matter for the individual.

In a feeble attempt to disguise the Islamic attitude to apostasy, apologists often quote the Koranic verse: “There shall be no compulsion in religion”. For a Muslim wishing to leave Islam this is simply not true. In Yemen it’s punishable by death as it is in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan under the Taliban and other Islamic states. The most famous incidence of Apostasy was in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini announced a fatwa, or death sentence against Salman Rushdie for his alleged apostasy in writing “The Satanic Verses”. In a similar vein in Iran in July 1998 a man was executed for allegedly converting a Muslim woman to the Baha’i faith, this was even though the woman claimed that her mother was Baha’i and that she was raised according to that faith. Freedom House’s Centre for Religious Freedom recently protested the forthcoming trial, before a Sharia court of Islamic law, of Hamid Pourmand, the 47 year old lay leader of a small Assemblies of God church in the southern port city of Bandar-i-Bushehr. Pourmand, a convert from Islam, is facing charges of apostasy from Islam and proselytising Muslims, both capital offences in Iran. The government of Iran puts someone on trial for his life solely for his religious belief. The state’s criminalisation of apostasy is always subject to political manipulation and indicates an absolute negation of individual rights and freedom. Iran applies an extremist interpretation of Shiite Islamic law or Sharia, which harshly represses the free expression of belief, including religious conversion by Muslims. Iran’s Sharia courts view non-Muslims as second-class citizens, whose testimony is given less weight than Muslims, and sometimes even as non-persons, without any legal protections.

In countries ruled by Islamic law and where political Islam holds sway, writers, thinkers, philosophers, activists, and artists are frequently denied freedom of expression. Islamic regimes are notorious for the violent suppression of free thought. Often, as a government allies itself closely with Islam, any critics of the government will be accused of blasphemy or apostasy.

In Islam, there exists a horror of putting the Koran to critical scrutiny. Ordinary people do not dare to question the Koran. The result is tyranny, thought police, and stagnation, no intellectual and moral progress. Even in the academic community it is a taboo to discuss the Koran scientifically. While there exist a growing critical movement to criticise religion, particularly Islam, Islamists, apologists for Islam, and western governments have come up with the idea of Islamophobia. They try to silence critics. Islam must be subject to critical examination. By silencing critics and calling them racists, Islamists and apologists intend to keep religious domination intact. In Iran the price for criticising Islam is death in its most horrendous way. How many more fates of Theo Van Gogh’s are we expecting in the west?

The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible. We must win the right to criticize the religion without fear of retribution. Criticism, free speech, is the foundation of an open society. We need to criticise and use reason to solve our problems.

No belief, rational or irrational, scientific or divinely inspired, should be exempt from critical examination. If a belief is sound it will stand on its own merits. If it is not it deserves to fail. No religion should seek immunity from the examination of its claims, or seek freedom from moral criticism of its practices.

In the West, the Enlightenment brought about defence of individual freedom and civil liberties. The battle against the Church and backward culture caused a deep change in society’s horizon and values and advanced the society. Western society shook off backward and religious thoughts and beliefs. Most of our contemporary ideas about freedom of speech and civil liberties come from the Enlightenment.

We the atheist and freethinkers need to fight the battle for enlightenment in the East. We need to push Islam back to where it rightfully belongs. We should fight for unconditional freedom of speech including freedom to criticise Islam. We atheists have to challenge religious authority. For every vilified and oppressed atheist, two more, ten more, a thousand more will spring up. No matter how brutal inquisitions and Islamic holocausts, atheists and freethinkers will spring up because people’s minds and needs cannot be imprisoned forever. Today our society under political Islam is being held prisoner by Islamic captors, who fight to dominate this world.

And I am delighted to say that hopes continue coming from Iran where the society has changed dramatically and deeply since 1979. The movement for secularism and atheism, for modern ideas and culture, for individual freedom, for women’s freedom and civil liberties is widespread. Contempt for religion and the backward ruling culture is deep. Women and the youth are the champions of this battle; a battle that threatens the foundation of the Islamic system. Any change in Iran will not only affect the lives of people living in Iran, but will have a significant impact on the region and worldwide.

Therefore, we must fight the battle for Enlightenment in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Adapted from a speech delivered at a conference entitled “Victims of Jihad”, held parallel to the UN’s 61st commission of Human Rights on 18th April 2005, in Geneva, Switzerland.

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