Shrinking the secular space

The filmmaker Jennifer Hall Lee asks why British women are being called “Islamophobes.”

“We are in the ISIS era.”

Houzan [Mahmoud], a Kurdish woman who is a representative of the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, made that proclamation at the recent Feminism in London conference. She was on a panel of four feminists called, “Unlikely Allies: Religious Fundamentalism and the British State,” that focused on the connection between Islamic fundamentalism and British law.

I attended this panel to hear Maryam Namazie, an Iranian Muslim-born woman who lives in London and is a spokesperson for One Law for All, a group that opposes Sharia law in Britain. I was unprepared for the bluntness of the talk about ISIS and the extreme pressure progressive feminists are putting on these women to be silent and to curb their critique of what they see as an untenable situation for Muslim women there.

When Mahmoud said that “We need to reclaim the left and feminism,” and that it is a “historical task and necessity,” the audience erupted into applause. Clearly this is an important topic of discussion in the UK.

But why would these women on this panel feel the need to reclaim feminism? Because they are branded as Islamaphobes by progressives and feminists in the UK for their criticisms of Sharia councils and Islam.

“Progressives” like the LGBTQ+ Society at Goldsmiths; “feminists” like the Feminist Society at Goldsmiths.

I’m fascinated with the new dynamic that’s being creating between what were once opposing groups – feminists and fundamentalists. But now some feminists are aligning with fundamentalism? I believe the use of the word “Islamophobe” is being used as a tool to shut down critical thought about male-dominated religions and the negative impact they have on women. As Namazie said, “Progressives no longer believe in self-expression, they believe in self censorship.”

So what does this all mean for me? I am Catholic and have long been a critic of the Catholic Church. Catholicism is rife with sexism. I consider it a male-dominated religion that preserves the top power spots for men. Moreover, the gown-wearing priests, who boldly opine on women’s roles in society and private lives, are just a religious variation on ‘mansplaining.’

To deny women the opportunity to be priests is discrimination. My right to say so does not make me a Catholic-phobe.

And “Islamophobe” isn’t parallel to “Catholic-phobe” anyway; it would have to be “Muslim-phobe” to be that.

Mahmoud says of the word Islamaphobia, “I think this in itself is racist.” She compared the well-worn history of progressives and feminists who have criticized religion as part of their feminist analysis of patriarchy. As a woman with a Muslim background she claims the same right. Yet these same leftists do not support her right to reject religion, as they would probably support mine.

She refers to these progressives as “white people [who] can ridicule, criticize and break away from Christianity.” She saw discrimination in the way liberals use Islamaphobia to shut down protestors because they are “people from a Muslim origin [who] reject their religion and all forms of religiosity.”

[Gita Sahgal] said, “Multi-culturalism and multi-faithism shrinks secular space.” In other words, by seeing society as just a collection of homogenous groups of people identified by religion we deny their individuality as citizens.

We also give short shrift to all the other ways people can “identify,” in other words all the other things that matter to people.

We are living in a strange time of shifting allegiances, demands for censorship and pleas for safe space. And feminists, when they align with the male religions who attempt to shut down the anti-religion feminists, shrink the secular space.

In fact, a dramatic moment at the panel discussion crystalized the debate when towards the end of the presentation, as audience members were asking questions of these brave feminists, a white woman stood up and criticized them. She labeled them Islamaphobes and then abruptly left the room, clearly not willing to engage in further discussion.

Mahmoud says in general of her critics, “Their criticism will not silence us, because we have a just cause, we own it, we know more about it and we continue to expose all religions for their hypocrisy and women hating.”

When feminist allies turn their backs on secular feminists in favor of allegiances with male-dominated religious groups, we are indeed living in the ISIS Era.


But we are also resisting.

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