My enemy’s enemy - the battle for secularism

250 international campaigners met last week in London to discuss the rise of the religious right. From the frontlines of the struggle against extremism came an impassioned appeal for solidarity and secularism.

Daniel Silas Adamson
22 October 2014

Image: Daniel Silas Adamson

A two-day conference on “The Religious Right, Secularism, and Civil Rights” doesn’t sound like a festival of laughs, but it was hard not to smile at the sight of Richard Dawkins getting roped into a photo op with Inna Shevchenko, Ukrainian leader of the topless protest group Femen. Professor Dawkins, beaming and slightly flustered, had just about composed himself when he was handed a sign that read “The Vaginal Coalition Against Bigotry.”

In the end, though, this event was not about celebrity atheists or media-baiting publicity stunts. It was about a succession of brave women and men who have fought long, unsung battles against religious extremism in places – Somalia, Iran, Algeria, Senegal, Afghanistan – where to speak up for human rights and democratic freedoms carries a real risk of death.  

The event was organized by the Iranian-born activist and campaigner Maryam Namazie, and by the Algerian sociologist and writer Marieme Helie Lucas, both veterans of the secular, leftwing resistance to Islamic fundamentalism in North African and the Middle East.

Their keynotes were followed by a tribute to some of the people who have died in this struggle - people like Samira Salih al-Naimi, the Iraqi human rights lawyer who was captured in September by ISIS in Iraq, tortured for five days, and murdered in the center of Mosul. Hers was just one of the stories told by Karima Bennoune, professor of international law at UC Davis, author of ‘Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here’ and daughter of an Algerian academic who faced death threats in the 1990s for speaking out against fundamentalists. Bennoune’s presentation was a reminder that, for all the publicity given to Western hostages, it is Muslim women and men who hold the front lines against Islamists, and it is Muslim men and women – people who want to educate their daughters, to enjoy basic freedoms, and to have some say in the decisions that affect their lives – who are its primary victims.

The murder of Samira Salih al-Naimi underlined a point made by speaker after speaker: political Islam’s hostility to women, to human rights defenders, to gays and lesbians, to scientists, and to advocates of free thought and free expression makes this an unmistakably regressive, rightwing movement. Like the fascisms of 20th century Europe, Islamism - in any of its variations - is an ideology that allows no place for the dissenter and is always willing to use fear and violence to silence people who voice a different opinion on matters of faith or politics. This was a point made most forcefully by women who had barely escaped: Magdulien Abaida, a Libyan women’s rights activist who was abducted by Islamist militants in Benghazi in 2012 and threatened with death for her work; Nahla Mahmoud, an environmentalist and human rights campaigner who refused to live under Sudan’s Islamic laws, fled to the UK in 2010, and still faces death threats for rejecting Islam; Nadia el Fani, a Tunisian filmmaker living in France who faces arrest and imprisonment in Tunisia for screening the film “Neither Allah nor Master” over the objections of Islamists. 

The groups that murdered al-Naimi, kidnapped Abaida, and tried to silence el-Fani are not identical. But they share this: in Islam, they have found a banner to rally support, a charter that grants divine sanction to political power, and a shield to deflect criticism. In her opening remarks, Maryam Namazie stressed a point that was echoed by many of those who spoke: we must not allow that religious banner to blind us to the far-right attitudes of those who march under it, or let the declaration of faith form a shelter around ideas that deserve to be challenged.

The liberal left’s tendency to blunder into collusion with the religious right is an old failing. One of its first really clear manifestations – the refusal of some elements within the British left to defend Salman Rushdie in 1989 – surfaced in the week leading up to this conference, when Mazen Darwish, a Syrian lawyer and campaigner for freedom of expression, was awarded the PEN Pinter prize for International Writer of Courage by Rushdie. In a speech smuggled out of jail in Damascus, where he is incarcerated for speaking against the Assad regime, Darwish issued a remarkable apology to Rushdie:

“although we may have deeply disagreed with your views, we committed an unforgivable sin in the Arab world when we responded with indifference to the fatwas and calls for your death. So indifferent were we that we colluded – even if just by our silent complicity – in excluding and eliminating difference, while acting as if the whole thing had nothing to do with us. And so here we are today, paying the high, bloodsoaked price of that collusion, and finding ourselves the main victims of the obscurantist ideology now infiltrating our homes and our cities… What a shame this much blood has had to be spilled for us to realise, finally, that we are digging our own graves when we allow thought to be crushed by accusations of unbelief.”

No similar apology has been issued by the western liberals whose first instinct was not to defend Rushdie but to sympathize with those who felt offended by his novel.

If anything, the tendency has got worse, especially since rise of neo-conservatism in the US and the catastrophe of its adventure in Iraq. The Socialist Workers Party and the Stop the War coalition, which was founded to campaign against that invasion and now marches under Hizbullah flags in the streets of London, drew the disdain of Bahram Soroush, an Iranian civil rights activist and founding member of the Council of Ex-Muslims in Britian. “Let’s call things by their names” he said. “This is not the left. This is the right.” Even more confused is the National Union of Students, which the day after this conference ended refused to condemn ISIS because to do so would be Islamophobic. “For some of us”, observed Magdulien Abaidi, “Islamophobia means the real fear of having your head cut off”.

By using the term “religious right” and by gathering together so many voices from the South and from Muslim-majority countries, Maryam Namazie and Marieme Helie Lucas not only exposed the moral disorientation of the left, they also made clear that, in their reluctance to condemn Islamism, western liberals have betrayed the very people they ought to be supporting. Gita Sahgal, an Indian-born writer and activist, said that those on the frontlines of the fight for human rights had been abandoned by a generation of western leftists, and that they would now have to seek alliances with younger activists and with an older generation “who still remember what solidarity used to mean.”

It is not only in Muslim-majority countries that human right defenders get ignored by western liberals. Yasmin Rehman, a British consultant on racial and gender equality, said that in the wake of the Lee Rigby murder it had been impossible to get the UK government to listen to her because she was not wearing a faith badge. Kenan Malik spoke about the unconscious racism that makes elements of the left deaf to progressive voices within religious and ethnic minority groups and that adopts the most conservative voices as “community leaders” while dismissing liberal or secular spokespeople as “not real Muslims.” This is the point, said Malik, at which leftwing anti-racism meets rightwing anti-Muslim bigotry.

And that was the gathering’s real strength: it took the accusation of racism, so often levelled against those who criticize Islamist ideology, and turned it firmly against the cultural relativists who, while enjoying all the rights and freedoms of secular democracies, think that Muslims should live under a different set of laws. The cry of ‘racism’ or ‘Islamophobia’ may carry a certain sting when it is raised against Bill Maher and Sam Harris, but in this company it would have been laughed out of the room.

There were certainly people here whose hostility to the religious right bled into a wider antipathy towards religion itself. A.C. Grayling gave an entertaining talk, but one that could just as easily have been delivered to the god-bashing neo-atheist crowd. Even fiercer critiques came from ex-Muslim women who saw injustice as the inevitable outcome of religious belief, and for whom atheism and secularism are inseparable facets of a single worldview.

Louder, though, were the voices warning against the conflation of secularism with the denigration of faith. Several speakers felt the need to remind the hall that secularism does not exclude the religious - that it is a set of political principles based on the separation of faith from political power and on the extension of equal rights to people of all religious beliefs and none. Others avoided the word entirely, resorting to the French term laïcité. Sahgal insisted  that secularism is the only guarantee of protection for religious minorities. Bennoune drew applause when she said “Secularism does not mean the belittling of religion or of religious people.”

The other missile habitually launched at critics of Islamism is that they are siding with the neo-con right, colluding in a corrupt, neo-colonial alliance against the oppressed people of the South. There are contexts in which this argument may hold currency, but, like the accusation of racism, it looked utterly bankrupt in this company: almost all of the fifty or so speakers came from the internationalist left and many had served for decades on the frontlines of the struggle for social justice in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It would have been hard to find a group of people more aware of the hypocrisy inherent in America’s struggle against Islamist terrorism, or more articulate in their condemnation of it.

Lila Ghobady, an exiled Iranian writer and documentary film maker, recalled American support for Islamist movements in the last decades of the Cold War, when the US funded and trained jihadists from across the Middle East to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Horia Mosadiq, an Amnesty International researcher and journalist who grew up in Herat, spoke about the horrors that these American-backed mujahadeen visited on Afghan girls and women during that conflict, and that continued under the Taliban in the 1990s.

No one here thought that the West’s support for Islamic extremism was simply a mistake made thirty years ago in the fog of the Cold War. Bennoune has condemned UK and US support for regressive, authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf, regimes that spend their petro-dollars exporting the fundamentalist Islam that lends sanction and credibility to groups like ISIS. Even worse is the West’s longstanding supply of funds, arms, and legitimacy to dictators and security states across the Middle East, a stance that has allowed Islamist groups to present themselves as freedom fighters waging a war of resistance against corrupt, American-backed regimes.

This rejection of the neo-con agenda was part of the triple-edged ‘no’ voiced in this hall: ‘no’ to religious fundamentalists of all stripes and to their relativist allies on the left; ‘no’ to the self-interest and hypocrisy that has marked Western foreign policy and created such fertile soil for extremism; ‘no’ to the UKIP-style racists and xenophobes whose real agenda is the demonization of ethnic and religious minorities and who use progressive ideas as cover for small-minded, anti-immigration bigotry.

The ‘yes’ was even clearer. Its core principles - equal rights, freedom of thought and expression, and the complete separation of religion from government - had been distilled into a ‘Manifesto for Secularism’ that was projected onto a screen behind Maryam Namazie as she gave an emotional summing up. “This banner might have been abandoned by many,” she said, “but it has been fought for, tooth and nail, day in a day out, over decades, by many of you and many across the world.”

That was precisely what made this feel more like a political rally than a talking shop. Namazie’s audience included men and women who have defended these ideas not just in the pages of academic journals but on the streets of Algiers and in the mountains of Afghanistan. When Helie Lucas said that human rights and democratic ideals were a global achievement, she spoke with the credibility of frontline experience: no-one could plausibly claim that secularism is an exclusively western inheritance when its principles have been articulated, shaped, and defended by people from so many countries and cultures, often at the risk of their own lives.

The Guardian’s coverage in advance of this event focused, inevitably perhaps, on the presence of Dawkins and Grayling. But it was the unsung activists from the South that Maryam was referring to when she said, close to tears, that this was conference of heroes. “We are calling on people everywhere, from this room…to join us in an international front for secularism…The Islamists, the religious right are an international movement. So are we. They are strong. We are stronger.”   



You can see the Manifesto for Secularism, and biographies of all the speakers at this event, here - 

Maryamn Namazie’s closing speech, Youtube -

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