Where is the line between Islam and Islamism?

A recent conference on freedom of expression threw up issues around relationships between ex-Muslims and reformist Muslims – and the ideological confusion of their allies.

Rahila Gupta
27 July 2017

Public art protest organised by Victoria Gugenheim in solidarity with persecuted freethinkers, at the conference in London.

Public art protest organised by Victoria Gugenheim in solidarity with persecuted freethinkers, at the conference in London. Photo: CEMB.

In the ten years of its existence, the Council for Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) has organised annual conferences to draw attention to issues facing ex-Muslims, their status as apostates and blasphemers, the distinction between Islam and Islamism, islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism, the links with other religious fundamentalisms, and religion and women’s rights.

To mark CEMB’s tenth anniversary, the international conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression that took place in London last month was bigger and bolder than any before it. Appropriately, substantial time was devoted to the journeys and testimonies of women and men who asserted their right to live free from religion and found themselves at best forsaken by family (and that’s no easy option) and at worst risking death and imprisonment.

Whenever speakers gather from around the world I’m reminded of the truism that context is everything. At this conference, those who came from Muslim majority countries tended to be harsher in their condemnation of Islam – one even called it a “virus” – than speakers who have lived in the west where minority status, security concerns and tendencies to see all Muslims as terrorists have obliged them to tread a careful path between the religion and its politicisation.

Jimmy Bangash, a gay Pakistani living in Britain, broke with that pattern in a session called ‘Out, Loud and Proud,’ saying he struggled with the distinction between Islam and Islamism. He referenced the case of Jahed Chaudhury, the first Muslim gay man in Britain to marry, who was spat at and threatened with acid attacks by Muslims. Bangash said it was disingenuous to call this Islamism when it was simply people following Islam.

With that remark, Bangash landed on a central faultline in the conference between those who were practising, progressive Muslims and those who felt that the door marked ‘exit’ was the only option as Islam was essentially unreformable. Could these two groups of people work together in a secular alliance or do atheists and ex-Muslims feel silenced because their critique of religion is seen as offensive by some believers?

Could these two groups of people work together in a secular alliance or do atheists and ex-Muslims feel silenced because their critique of religion is seen as offensive by some believers?These simmering tensions surfaced during a panel entitled ‘Secularism as a Human Right’. Chris Moos, council member of the National Secular Society, lit the fuse when he said it was not helpful to describe religious people as ‘stupid’ (in reference to comments made earlier at the conference) if you are trying to build an inclusive secular movement. He argued for more religious people to be part of campaigns for secularism, but said he feared they stayed away feeling their beliefs “were on trial”.

In her closing statement on this panel, Karima Bennoune, UN special rapporteur on cultural rights, emphasised that while the struggles of atheists are important, they are separate from those of secularists. This drew a passionate response from Maryam Namazie, founder of CEMB. Namazie said her "whole life has been bulldozed by Islam". She expressed frustration at lacking space to say that Islam offends her, for fear of offending some of her religious sisters in a secular alliance.

Gita Sahgal, director of the Centre for Secular Space, argued from the floor that atheism got a raw deal in secular circles. She also talked passionately about the price paid by some ex-Muslims for whom “simply to pronounce their atheism was to fall into a human rights void", losing their homes, jobs, custody of children and all their civil and social rights.

Ex-Muslims in Muslim majority countries have had to undertake dangerous journeys to becoming visible in order to find and give support to other ex-Muslims. Ex-Muslims in the west have had access to many more potential allies. But, as many speakers reiterated, finding the right allies can be a minefield.

In another conference session, Benjamin David, editor of Conatus News, talked about the 'regressive left', the 'liberal left' and the 'progressive left'. Later, David Silverman, president of American Atheists, delivered a high-octane, humorous presentation on ‘wrong left’ and ‘wrong right’ allies. Although talking of the American context, much of what he said applies to the UK too.

A slide from Silverman's talk.

A slide from Silverman's talk at the conference in London.

Though deliberately reductionist, Silverman’s talk made some serious points. Black and minority ethnic (BME) feminists in the west, and particularly in Britain, have never received support from those who should have been their natural allies – the left – in their struggle against religious fundamentalism, particularly Islamic fundamentalism.

Silverman noted that the 'wrong left' believe that criticising Islam is racism, and in fact make no distinction between Islam and Islamism. He said the 'right to not be offended' has been gaining ground among left-liberal circles, shutting down free speech.

A recent example of this is the refusal by organisers of the Pride 2017 march in London to support Maryam Namazie and other ex-Muslims against a complaint filed by the East London Mosque which described a CEMB placard saying “East London Mosque incites murder of LGBT” as itself “inciting hatred against Muslims”. The mosque said it had a “track record for challenging homophobia in East London”.

In a statement, Pride organisers said their community advisory board was considering whether CEMB could join the next march in 2018. “If anyone taking part in our parade makes someone feel ostracised, discriminated against or humiliated, then they are undermining and breaking the very principles on which we exist," it said. "Pride must always be a movement of acceptance, diversity and unity. We will not tolerate Islamophobia”. (That old chestnut!)

the 'right to not be offended' has been gaining ground among left-liberal circles and shutting down free speech

At the London conference, Asher Fainman, president of the Goldsmiths University Atheist Society, deplored how universities had become bastions of the 'right to not be offended'. He described an infamous incident when he invited Namazie to speak and her talk was repeatedly disrupted by students from the Islamic Society. They literally pulled the plug on her Powerpoint presentation when she showed cartoons of Jesus and Mo.

Namazie has been disinvited from talks at a number of universities on the basis that she is an Islamaphobe (a favourite tactic in shutting down criticism). At the conference, Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship, said it was a tragedy that the right to free speech was increasingly associated with the right – though it is too important a right for progressive people to relinquish.

A slide from Silverman's talk.

A slide from Silverman's talk at the conference in London.

I am not sure there is a 'right right' or what its position would be but, in Silverman’s framework, the 'wrong right' is racist because it posits Christianity as morally superior, therefore justifying all critiques of Islam. This position leads logically to support for ex-Muslims but this support is the kiss of death because it further alienates potential left supporters.

Silverman described the paradox that “the right doesn’t care about rape culture, homophobia or sexism unless it is in Muslim culture and we have a left that cares a lot about these things unless it is in Muslim culture. The right says Islam creates terrorists, the left says that criticising Islam creates terrorists”.

In this landscape, organisations like CEMB, Southall Black Sisters and Centre for Secular Space have been trying to occupy that lonely space where the primacy of universal rights is respected, regardless of brickbats from the left and right, of the 'wrong' or 'right' kind. Challenging religion should have no greater consequences than the crossfire of intellectual debate.

This article is part two of a series on the Conference on Free Expression and Conscience, which took place in London in July 2017. Next, we look at the threats and risks facing defenders of free expression, in Bangladesh and beyond.

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