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Author: Maryam Namazie

The Answer To Inhumanity Is Not More Inhumanity

Editorial

The Answer To Inhumanity Is Not More Inhumanity.

Maryam Namazie

A vast secular movement against the religious-Right is never more needed than in the ISIS era – whether it be in Sri Lanka vis-a-vis the Buddhist Right, India versus the Hindu-Right, the Christian-Right in the USA and Europe or against Islamism from Iran, Algeria to Pakistan. This vast secular movement provides a marker, a human alternative and brings hope in the face of fear and unbridled brutality.

The response to the likes of ISIS and the Taliban which recently massacred schoolchildren in Peshawar is not more militarism, which with cultural relativism has created the climate for the rise of the religious-Right. It is not more Iraq-isation of the world into religious, ethnic, cultural communities and societies, dividing people into every imagined homogenous grouping other than human and citizen. The response is not more “wars on terror” and attacks on civil rights or the legitimisation of torture and executions. It is not xenophobia and bigotry. It is not seeking out the “moderates” and appeasement or behind the scene wheeling and dealings with Islamists. It is also not -as the post-modernist Left have done – defending and siding with the oppressors at the expense of real live human beings. The response in the face of unbridled barbarity cannot be more barbarity and inhumanity.

Those on the frontlines know full well that an uncompromising defence of secularism – the separation of religion from the state – and an insistence on equality and citizenship rights are key in the fight against the religious-Right. Secularism is not a western ideal; it is a demand and necessity for people across the globe. It is not only atheists who are secularists. Many believers and nonbelievers in the Middle East, N Africa, Asia and the Diaspora are secularists – even if they don’t call themselves that. In fact, theocracies give little room for the expression of belief, including for many believers, as ISIS’ murder and intimidation of anyone who doesn’t agree with them shows. No one understands the need for secularism than those living under the boot of the religious-Right. A demand for secularism, citizenship rights and universalism is our response to the religious-Right.

Secularism.
Today.
Now.

The Unfolding of a Human Tragedy

The Unfolding of a Human Tragedy:

On the Israel-Palestine Issue

Interview with Nira Yuval-Davis

The below is an edited transcript of a Bread and Roses TV interview with Nira Yuval-Davis, an Israeli Diasporic Jewish dissident:

Maryam Namazie: I wanted to ask you about the Israeli-Palestinian issue; it’s a human tragedy unfolding before our eyes.

Nira Yuval-Davis: It is a human tragedy and it’s more than that. It’s important to emphasise that this is not something that has started now or even in 1967 or 1948. This is something that has been going on in different ways (and not to the terrible way that it is now though it has always been in many ways horrible) since the beginning of the settler-colonial project of the Zionist movement. The Zionist movement sought to solve the so-called ‘Jewish problem’ – the terrible persecution and pogroms of Jews and anti-Semitism in Europe that culminated in the extermination and genocide of Jews under the Nazis. They sought national liberation but because of the dispersal of the Jewish population did it in a manner that was popular during that time – of settler-colonialism.

In such projects, the indigenous people, in this case the Palestinians, were completely invisible, or when they were visible, there were all kinds of assumptions that either they will disappear (and settlers were always happy to ‘help’ the indigenous people to ‘disappear’ by various acts of genocide), assimilate or like, in the utopian Altneuland (Old New Land) of Hertzl, they would willingly become second-rate citizens.

What’s happening now in Gaza is of course the latest manifestation and the whole evolution and various dislocations that this country has had during more than 100 years, and with all its national, regional and global implications.

Maryam Namazie: When you look at this situation, you find people mainly either siding with the Israeli state or siding with Hamas and the Islamists, whereas in fact there are so many people who are opposed to both and who want real peace.

Nira Yuval-Davis: We should not forget that Israeli security originally helped to bring about the birth of Hamas in the same way that the Taliban was helped and supported by the CIA. This is because they thought that the British imperial policy of ‘divide-and-rule’ would be the best weapon to weaken the PLO and divide the Palestinian resistance. Unfortunately, they succeeded too well but, of course, in their kind of racist superiority they didn’t think that Hamas and the Palestinians in general are not just puppets; they have their own agency and would use the support that had been given to them to promote their own project, which was Muslim Fundamentalism.

And unfortunately now, this is a rising political project of belonging and we see for the first time in the history of the Middle East a series of territories controlled by Muslim Fundamentalists – ISIS in Syria, what is happening in Iraq and Libya, the ongoing fight in Egypt… So we shouldn’t see the rule of Hamas in Gaza in isolation. And this is one of the reasons that once the PLO was willing to have a unity government with Hamas, Israel became so scared by this.

In a way, what is happening now is a direct result of the Israeli government being absolutely determined not to facilitate this unity government and in this sense they achieved this immediate goal, At least for now, but at what cost? The other goal was to end Palestinian resistance, especially in Gaza, which has faced a complete blockade especially now that the military Junta in Egypt is cooperating so closely with Israel. Gaza has no outlets on the Egyptian side, Israeli side or via the sea. In a way they have almost nothing to lose, except, of course those they are very willing to sacrifice – women and children and the people. But, on the other hand, people will not resist them because there is no alternative unless Israel and the world, by exerting pressure on Israel, will allow the space for alternatives to emerge. Otherwise, they are not going to exist.

Maryam Namazie: When you look at the situation, you get a sense that neither the Israeli government nor Hamas want peace. They don’t want a solution because they feed off of each other and use the situation for their own legitimisation.

Nira Yuval-Davis: When people say peace (and in Israel I grew up with this kind of notion of peace), each side wants peace on condition that nothing else changes. Israel wants peace with its privileged position intact. And the Palestinians may agree to peace when they’re in a dominant position – when the whole settler project ends.

Yet, you cannot solve one calamity by creating another in the same way that the persecution of Jews should not have been solved by the establishment of a Zionist settler-colonial state. The reality is that there are a people who have had no other homeland for more than 100 years and they belong to that country like other settler-colonial populations in the United States, Australia, Canada and South Africa. The people are there and need to continue to be able to live there.

Unfortunately unlike in South Africa there hasn’t been an emergence of a counter-ideology in which both the indigenous people and the settlers want co-existence and peace on equal terms. There have been beginnings, some years ago, but, of course, at the moment people don’t see the space.

One of the differences that one can see is that in 1982 when Israel invaded Beirut, there was a mass demonstration of more than 40,000 Israelis, most of whom still saw themselves as Zionists, who protested against the war. Now, there are several hundreds and they are often beaten up. The extreme-Right in Israel is now in a mode of terrible celebratory rationalisation like never before. I saw videos of people dancing ‘death to the Arabs’ and celebrating the killing of children who were killed in the UN school in Gaza, chanting that Palestinians (and Israeli Leftists) are not human beings. I also heard that extreme-Right activists were beating up people in the street if they refused to say ‘death to the Arabs’. This is a fascisisation in a way that is unprecedented in the history of Israel. Although racist ideology has been there from the beginning, it has never ever been so horrific. And this is why it is so frightening. The other side, too, is not going to see sudden enlightenment and humanism and tolerance. Everything is just going to reinforce each other. This is really bleak.

Maryam Namazie: It’s bleak; do you see any hope for the resistance?

Nira Yuval-Davis: I think the politics of hope is very important in order for us not to completely despair and give up. In this sense, Gramsci’s pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will is very important. And there are youngsters as well as older people who see the paradoxes – the horrible catch-22 situation – and they do want a way out. But emotions are not enough. You need to have some kind of a lever of power to be able to change things. And this is why, unfortunately, the way things are now only the superpowers are going to be able to put enough pressure on Israel in order to do it.

However, today there was a declaration of 72 hours of so-called humanitarian ceasefire that was broken by both sides after 2 hours. They were all supposed to meet in Egypt. Very interestingly also in these recent rounds, we see a much closer intervention by the Gulf regimes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and as well as Turkey. The interests of the regional powers in oil economies are much more focused on Gaza these days, at least partly because Gas has been discovered in the Mediterranean, near Israel, Gaza and Cyprus.

Maryam Namazie: What do you think the solution is to the situation? How can you get a two-state solution?

Nira Yuval-Davis: Most of those who promote a two-state solution see the conflict between Israel and Palestine as a question of territories and borders. Indeed in Gaza it does look as if it’s a territorial conflict, after the Israeli settlements were dismantled by the withdrawal under Sharon because they didn’t want to continue a direct role in Gaza as it is such a horrible mess for them. Although what Israel has declared to be a so-called buffer zone is already more than a third of this very tiny territory of Gaza in which millions live, This in itself is horrible, but beyond this we need to remember that more than 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinians and there are so many settlers on the West Bank since 1967 – almost 50 years. So you cannot solve it by simply dividing the country into two-states unless you are going to generate a tremendous expulsion or at least exchange of population.

Of course something like this has happened in the Nakba of 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel and of the Palestinian refugee problem. Importantly, in the so-called Oslo peace process in which the two-state solution was discussed, the refugees were kept completely out of the picture. So, where are they going to live? Most of the people have loyalty and a feeling of belonging to their own village or to their own region. Israel does not have borders in the conventional sense of the term nor does Palestine.

So probably, eventually, like in South Africa, like in other settler societies, people will have to learn to live with each other or create some kind of equitable and agreed process. But at the moment the underlying conditions for either solution does not exist. You need a process of rapprochement in which some trust will be built. There was a historical window of opportunity after the first Gulf war, in the Madrid conference, in which Israel for the first time realised that it cannot solve the conflict in a military way; in which they realised that the United States is their ally but in the Gulf war they were embarrassed by them; they forbade them to fight and they felt completely powerless. So, at this time was an historical opportunity and negotiations started in Washington. However, at the same time, in the backrooms in Oslo, they had a parallel process in which peace was used as a continuation of the war in order to crystallise Israeli domination over the Palestinians. And, as we all know, eventually all this broke down and with it the beginnings of trust and the beginnings of hope… and broken trust and hope are much more difficult to re-establish.

So in some way, when we were all a bit more innocent (before the beginning of the Oslo process), it was easier than it is now. But of course, eventually we are part of history so there will be some kind of a resolution even if this resolution will be the continuation of Israel as a warfare society and the continuation of the Palestinian society as a refugee society. Or the other way around… But there is no end of history, unlike in chess when a game is finished. History never finishes; it always continues to move and metamorphose in a way that all too often – for us on the Left, feminists, anti-racists and anti-fundamentalists, – is not what we would like to see or struggle to achieve. But that’s one of my down moments…

‘ISIS’ Is No One’s Representative.

‘ISIS’ Is No One’s Representative.

Interview with Houzan Mahmoud

The below is an edited transcript of a Bread and Roses TV interview with Houzan Mahmoud, International Spokesperson for Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq:

Maryam Namazie: What is the situation in Iraq for women today with the attacks by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Sham)? There have been reports of increasing rapes and sexual Jihad.

Houzan Mahmoud: In any conflict situation, the first received reports are of attacks on women, restrictions on their movement as well as rape. These are not new of such Jihadist movements or groups, which are heavily armed and extremely primitive. They have no respect for human rights or women’s rights. According to news reports, Islamists are going to houses and to families and marrying young girls or children in what they call Jihadist Nikah – which is basically child abuse and against children’s rights and human rights. They are also carrying out lots of killings and public executions. And they are carrying out terror at all levels – which is really dangerous.

Maryam Namazie: In new situations like this, the clash between the general population and the Islamists can be seen clearly. After a while, we are told that people want Islamists and Sharia law, but at the beginning you can see the masses of people fleeing and how very much Islamist values are at odds with the local population.

Houzan Mahmoud: Thousands of people from day one of the attacks have fled to Kurdistan; Kurdistan is full of refugees from the south part of Iraq particularly from Mosul and the surrounding areas. They are seeking refuge in our areas because it is actually the only place that is safe for them. If they were happy with these groups, why would they leave? On the other hand, there has been news that some people in the city welcomed ISIS and that goes back to the Maliki government’s treatment of people in Mosul (which is apparently, according to what is officially said in Iraq, a Sunni majority area). This goes back to the erroneous politics where human beings are reduced to religious beings – sects of religion, for example, Sunni, Shia…

People in Iraq are no longer citizens. You are either: Sunni, Shia, Turkman, Kurd or Arab…even Arab doesn’t have much meaning anymore, in my opinion, because they are divided between Sunnis and Shias.

ISIS doesn’t really represent the Sunni population, that’s if we can call it the “Sunni” population. I myself don’t think religion is something that people should identify with but let’s say that people call themselves Sunnis, still ISIS is not a representative of the Sunni population in Iraq. We must make a very huge distinction between politicized Islam, politicized religion, and the actual faith where people pray or fast and don’t actually want to politicize it, where religion is a personal matter. There is a huge gap between that wrong politicized representation and religion as we know it in society, which is practised by most of our families, my mum and your mum and other people. They never want to see groups like ISIS or Al Qaeda or anybody like that actually represent them and speak on their behalf and kill on their behalf. So I think this is the reality and that’s where the story is lost; that ISIS is nobody’s representative!

Maryam Namazie: You make a good point about the fact that there are no longer citizens in Iraq and in many countries actually. Part of the problem is the ethno-cisation and religion-isation of Iraq. A large part of it has to do with how it was brought into being after the US attack. How much of a role do you think that the US attack has played on the situation that we’re seeing today?

Houzan Mahmoud: Certainly it has a lot to do with the US invasion of Afghanistan previously, and later on of Iraq, whereby these various political Islamic groups were created or supported or backed against the other. So there has been a Western or an imperialist hand behind the situation, whereas also there is a history to the ancient feud or conflict between the Sunnis and Shias. Let’s not forget that Islam was never secularised in our countries and it was never pushed back to where it belongs. And most governments, even from the Ottoman Empire or the Persian Empire before or many other empires before, religion or Islam were endorsed and some sort of Sharia law was in place. But after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the remapping of this so-called Middle East and the division of Kurdistan into four pieces – one to Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria – we have seen a lot of trouble there. For example, let’s say Kurds are known to be Sunnis but we have never had a fundamentalist religious movement in our country. There were some political Islamic groups but actually because of elections now they got very low votes this time. So Kurdish society, in my opinion, has always been secular in one way or another; it had never condoned fundamentalist or the kind of Islamists that we know. Whereas in the South, even during Saddam’s regime, there were political Islamic groups, which were highly oppressed by Saddam’s regime and they were really highly controlled. So they could never gain momentum and popularity but after the invasion they were unleashed. They came out of everywhere – from Iran, from Europe… They came back. They are a kind of political merchants or warlords playing with people’s feelings by saying all Sunnis have been oppressed; Saddam was Sunni and he oppressed the Shias. Now the Shias mobilise and rally people behind them with Saddam as a symbol of Sunnis. So you see there’s a lot of these Sunni-Shia problems. And there are a lot of political parties inside and outside power who are actually using this. That’s where the problem is.

I think both the US and UK have had a very negative role on the Middle East for a very long time and specifically from 2003 onwards. They have created this puppet regime in Baghdad, a regime that is made up of ethno-sectarian groups whereby actually nobody agrees with the other and nobody talks to each other. And there are almost fights between the fractions – between the Parliamentary groups, because they are Sunni or Shia or they are Kurd so they don’t agree on anything. Corruption is widespread as is political violence. Maliki has his own prisons torturing people; other groups carry out their own paramilitary killing and kidnappings. So it’s a zone of terror. And nobody knows why or who is behind all of this. Iran plays a very negative role; Turkey too. There is oil in Kurdistan; they have a very big eye on that. And they are actually benefitting from it; Iran the same. And on the question of independence for Kurdistan, of course, I can say the majority of Kurdish people want independence.

Maryam Namazie: Do you think independence is a possible solution now?

Houzan Mahmoud: I think it has to be a possible solution. Kurdish people or the political groups, at least, helped re-create Iraq after 2003. But it doesn’t work; this government has to fall, in my opinion. A government that is based on the concept of ethno-sectarianism and religious sects and conflicts and ignores the people has to collapse. If people can no longer tolerate each other and can no longer live because this is Sunni or Kurd or what have you. I mean the Kurdish question is a very different question from the Sunni-Shia issue. It’s much more historical and it’s the legitimate right of people to actually have a say about their own future.

I am Kurdish, of course, Leftist and Internationalist. I don’t like borders whatsoever and I don’t think they have helped humanity at all. We are all made enemies of each other just because you are Iranian; he is Iraqi, she is Kurdish… And now we are being reduced to religious sects and, within religions, to Shia/Sunni… This liberal post-modernist creation of so many values and identities has led humanity to a very tragic situation where we can no longer talk within the same religion. I mean Sunni-Shia – what the hell is that? It’s part of the same religion so each of you go to your own mosque. Now this one wants to blow up that one’s mosque. You know it is just crazy where human beings are going in this day and age… in 21st century whereby humanity, social movements, political movements have gained a lot in terms of human rights, children’s rights, women’s rights. This is not the 19th century whereby it’s the beginning of these concepts. We are in the 21st century but we are actually going back to the ancient times whereby tribes are killing each other. And it’s actually what I see in Iraq. It’s a kind of ancient conflict coming back to the fore, but in a different context and a different format.

As for the Kurdish question, it is absolutely a different question and I personally support an independent Kurdish state and that is the legitimate right of the Kurdish people. It is the right of 4 or 5 million people, particularly in Iraqi Kurdistan, but of course all other parts as well. In Syria, Kurds have been denied their rights; Turkey the same. 10,000 political prisoners and Turkey claims to be a democratic country but actually has 10,000 Kurdish political prisoners; that’s not little. Iran is the same of course.

Maryam Namazie: How can people support Iraqi people, Kurdish people?

Houzan Mahmoud: I think it is important not to fall into these divisions of religious sects; there are secular-progressive forces in this region and in these areas as well. And there are a lot of Kurdish people who want Independence for Kurdistan and their rights; these legitimate rights should be supported by the international community because in Iraq we have had genocides. Over 180,000 people were subjected to genocide whereby today we don’t even have their corpses, let alone the political imprisonments and violence. I lived under Saddam’s regime. My family were all peshmerga fighters. And, so I witnessed some of or much of this fascism that we were subjected to as Kurds. And that’s not easy really and we never want that to be repeated under the Maliki government. And I think that he’s going in the same direction as well. He’s another fascist but in a different time.

Maryam Namazie: Women are not just victims; they are also active in resisting and defending basic rights. OWFI – Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq – which you are active with has been instrumental in defending women’s rights there. Tell us some of the things that you have been doing on the ground there. I heard that you’re even doing work in areas that have been under ISIS control.

Houzan Mahmoud: Yes, I’m an activist for the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq from the very beginning. From 2003 until now they have been providing shelters for battered women and uncovering all kinds of crimes and violence against women in Iraq even at risk to their lives to get this information out on the rapes and tortures in prison and by the Maliki regime to the killings by the US and to the using of chemical weapons whereby a lot of Iraqi children have been ill and also to the recent situation whereby a lot of women are fleeing the Islamic attacks to the southern cities as well as to Kurdistan. OWFI tries within its limits to basically support these women as much as possible; they go to some of the camps to provide basic necessities to women and children in particular and to document some of the violations as well and to get news out on what is actually happening on the ground.

Murder Can Never Be Justified

Editorial

Murder Can Never Be Justified — On the Israeli Offensive On Gaza

Maryam Namazie

Murder can never be justified whatever the reason – security, a cause, or strongly held beliefs.

The pummelling of Gaza by the Israeli state – from schools to hospitals – is nothing short of murder. It’s a war crime. It’s state-sponsored terrorism, no better or worse than Hamas’ terrorism and crimes.

Those who side with the Israeli state because they despise the Islamists as well as those who side with Hamas because they despise Israeli government war-mongering forget one thing. They do more of what each side does to the other. They justify the mass dehumanisation and collective blame on countless innocent people caught in the crossfire of terrorists.

Whilst many more Palestinians have been killed than Israelis (1,800 Palestinians – mainly civilians to 67 Israelis – 3 civilians), it’s not because Hamas hasn’t tried. It’s just that Israeli military defences are better. Nonetheless, all those killed are human first before they are Israeli or Palestinian. Many of them, like people everywhere, want to see themselves and their children live another day.

We must too.

In taking sides with those committing war crimes, we fail to see the humanity of those no longer with us and in the process, begin to lose our own humanity.

In this latest Israeli offensive on Gaza, the world truly does “stand disgraced”.

………………………………

Secularism is a Human Right

Secularism is a Human Right

Interview with AC Grayling

The below is a Bread and Roses TV interview broadcast via New Channel TV on 20 May 2014:

Maryam Namazie: What is secularism and what is the value of secularism for both believers and non-believers?

AC Grayling: Firstly let me say it’s a great pleasure to be with you as I’m a big admirer of what you do. Secularism has to be distinguished from atheism and from other isms, like for example, humanism, which are naturally associated with it.

Most people who are atheists are probably likely to be secularists, but there are religious secularists as well, because secularism is a view about the place of religion – the religious voice, the religious organisations – in the public square, as this impacts for example, public policy matters. And the idea behind secularism is that the public square of society should be neutral with respect to all the different belief systems or to no belief systems. That what people believe in their private lives and in their religious commitments is not relevant to the public debate other than as a special interest point of view.

I think it is a very important point that religious organisations and movements should recognise themselves as interest groups, lobby groups: they have a point of view, of course they want to put their point of view in public debate, but they should take their turn in the queue with everybody else – other NGOs, political parties, pressure groups, lobby groups – whereas of course for historical reasons, in many societies, religion has a massively inflated presence in the public square. It is given charitable status, it is given a seat at the top table, and is heard first by people in positions of temporal power and that, I think, is where things have gone so wrong in our world.

Maryam Namazie: On the issues of neutrality, some might say that the very fact that a secularist state demands that religion stays out of the public space, means that it is not really neutral, because it’s giving a sort of negative viewpoint on religion. That it’s not a good thing to be in the public space.

AC Grayling: It certainly is a view which has been of course developed from the enlightenment thinking, about how individuals living together in a society can best flourish. So in that sense it is a positive view about allowing all sorts of different viewpoints, all sorts of different beliefs, and no beliefs, to coexist peacefully side by side. Not privileging any one of them, and not therefore coercing others, either to believe or not believe. So in that sense it is a positive view. But the heart of it, the essence of it is neutrality with respect to these different viewpoints. That is, you allow people to have a belief and to practice that belief, providing it does not impact negatively on other people. But also, and very, very importantly, it allows people who have no religious commitment – who are atheists, who are agnostics, who don’t belong to a church or a religious movement – to live without the coercion or pressure, or a social ‘bad odour’, that used to be the case, and in some societies remains the case.

Maryam Namazie: You mention the fact that there can be believers who are secularists but can religion, can Islam, be compatible with secularism?

AC Grayling: Well this is a very interesting question about Islam because it would seem to be in the very nature of Islam that a secular society is impossible because Islam pervades every aspect of life. It is not just a religion; it is a social end and is in many ways a political philosophy as well. Of course nowadays people use the term Islamism to mean political Islam. But Islam is so all embracing. It permeates the lives and thoughts of people from the very earliest memories of their lives, all the way up through their education, and the presence of the religion’s demand on, or offer to, people is there every few hours when the muezzin cries from the mosque. So it’s very hard even to imagine a translation of the English word ‘secularism’ into Farsi or Arabic, which doesn’t have a negative connotation.

The origin of secularism in Christian countries is a very interesting one. It was actually the church that first asked for separation of church and state, of belief from temporal matters, because they didn’t want the state interfering in its business. Of course, it wanted to continue to interfere in the states business, so it was only a one-way change of relationship. But the idea of secularism started with the religious. And took many centuries actually before it was adopted by the genuinely secular wing of society, who said yes, we would like to be able to do science, education, discuss public policy matters, talk about the diversity and plurality in society and how we address it and satisfy all the competing needs in society, without having the distorting effect of a single religious outlook and that really is something that perhaps from the eighteenth century has been operative in western societies.

Maryam Namazie: One of the things that we sometimes hear is that a theocracy, or an Islamic state, is just, it’s fair, and it’s needed for a moral society. The Islamic regime of Iran or Islamists will often say that a secular society is an immoral one.

AC Grayling: Well it’s a very tendentious thing to say; I mean, it’s a party political view on the part of people who want, in a theocratic society, everybody to toe the line. It’s sort of demonstrably a false view this, because a claim that there is a one size fits all answer to how people should live, what they should believe, how they should think, how they should behave. This completely ignores the great diversity and difference, the variety that there is in human nature, and human interests and needs.

People sometimes talk about what’s called the golden rule in some cultures: do to others as you would have them do to you. But that makes you the standard for every one of the 7 billion people on the planet, which is an absurd view to take. But if you really are going to be a good neighbour to your fellows in society, you should be thoughtful about the differences in their individuality. And recognise that a society is a plural domain. In fact the very concept of pluralism is, I think, an uncomfortable one for Muslim thinkers because the homogeneity of society, the fact that everybody believes together, that it’s just one big group with a shared outlook, is of the very essence of what an Islamic society should be like.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say that secularism calls for religion being a private matter and Islam isn’t a private matter. It’s a public matter. Secularism, they would say, violates the right to religion.

AC Grayling: Well, the key thing is that Islam regards itself as a public religion. Interestingly this keeps alive something that pre-existed the rise both of Christianity and of Islam, because religion in the classical world was not a private matter; it was a public matter. What Islam has done is to combine the idea of the private aspect of it, your personal responsibility to Allah, but at the same time regard it as something which completely unifies and homogenises society; makes everyone march in the same direction and at the same pace. So, it’s an interesting hybrid of the most ancient forms of religion, and the new young religious outlook, which is represented by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

My response is to say that the demand that the beliefs and practices of the religion are a public matter, that it’s a public duty of each individual member of a society to be observant of the religion, to follow its code, its practices – even what you eat and what you wear, and women covering their hair – that this is a demand which very fundamentally violates the individual rights of people to self determination, to liberty of conscience, to choices about how they are going live and what they are going to believe. And it closes down so many human opportunities, so many human possibilities, that if everybody has to think just one way, believe and practice just one way, it’s going to shut out an enormous range of possibilities on the horizon of human life.

Maryam Namazie: So you wouldn’t agree with the idea that secularism is a western concept?

AC Grayling: Secularism is not a western concept actually, because, you look at India, there are very ancient and deep atheist traditions of thought, which imply therefore that society should be a non-religious domain. If you look at China, now here’s a tremendous generalisation about one sixth of humanity, but the Chinese can be very superstitious people, but they are not a religious people. They’ve never had a God, a deity who issues commands and so on. They talk about the concept of ‘Tian’ – of heaven and the way of heaven – but that’s a bit like the stoic philosophers of ancient times who talked about the logos, the principal of things. So very large numbers of human beings have never had an idea that there is a god who is like an emperor or a king in the sky, who issues orders and everybody’s got to obey. And as a result, of course, by default, the view about the nature of society is a secularist view – not given that name, maybe, but in functional terms, that’s what it implies. So it isn’t an exclusively western idea but as we think and discuss about secularism now, it is of course an idea which is being given a great deal of impetus by the European enlightenment of the eighteenth century. So in that sense the idea was revived and was given more ‘juice’ if you like, by the debates in the enlightenment. And it has therefore been a very potent idea in the development of western societies. The growth of science, the technological developments, the building of institutions of law and democracy have all been associated with the secularist impulse that we get from the early modern period.

Maryam Namazie: Would you agree with those (I would think you wouldn’t) who say that as a result of the religious “revival” (they call it) that we’re living in a post-secular age, that secularism is no longer relevant?

AC Grayling: No, I don’t think that, because I have a very different analysis about what is happening in the world with respect to religion. I think that in the last decade, or couple of decades anywhere in the western world, the pressure on religion and religious organisations that comes from the decline of religious observance, because there is a steep and increasing decline of religious commitment in the west. And this makes the people who have a zealous religious commitment anxious. So they raise the volume. They raise the activism. And it makes it look as though there’s more religion, but actually there’s just more noise from an increasingly smaller group of people. It’s a bit like if you corner an animal in a room, it will make a big noise, where it would have been more peaceful before. So actually the appearance of religious revivalism is a symptom of religious decline. And the empirical data supports this analysis, because you look – even at the United States of America, which is thought to be a very religious country because of its Protestant Calvinistic origins in the seventeenth century, in fact, the Pew Centre polling data over the last 30 years has shown an increasingly steep decline in religious commitment. They have a – on their polling data – they have a box, which says ‘none’, so the people who tick this are known as “nones”. You know, a bit like the nuns in church (that’s quite funny). And the increase especially among the under 35s is very significant. And organisations in America, the American Atheist Association (the AAA), the American Humanist Association, the Secular Society in America, the Skeptic Society, they are all of them growing very fast and becoming much more vocal.

Maryam Namazie: You’re seeing that in the Middle East and North Africa as well – the rise of secularist and modern movements.

AC Grayling: Well this is a remarkable and a very welcome thing because of course and a point I’d like to expand on in a moment is that freedom of thought, freedom of conscience, freedom of enquiry, these are absolutely fundamental human freedoms which are so important for the health of society and the health of humanity’s future that the liberation of the human mind from ancient superstitions and ancient religions, the liberation of children from indoctrination into religious views, which are either very difficult to get out of or which imprison them for the rest of their lives (in a certain view), these are crucial matters. This is why in this age of ours, where everybody’s able to talk to everybody through a means of electronic media, this aspect of the conversation about our future, the future of humanity, is key. It seems to me that we’re in a little bottleneck period now. And a last major player in this is Islam, and in particular, Islamism – that aspect of Islam which is perhaps nervous, frightened, feels threatened by the globalisation of western styles of secularism and you can imagine and you can even indeed sympathise with a very sincere Muslim father who’s worried about what his daughters will do, and you can see the anxiety. But maybe it’s his sons who are going to take some action, kick back at a way of living and looking at the world which they find inimical to them and which they find very threatening. So this makes us enter a little bottleneck – a dangerous period – where the people that have these deep commitments and who have become very angry, and anger sometimes turns into violence, and they do terrible things – they commit murder because they are afraid that other people do not share their beliefs. That’s the passage of time we are going through. And we see societies, as in Iran for example, struggling. From outside Iran, when people look at what is happening there, this is an educated, mature society; many people there who would love to have the freedom to develop and to flourish, who are attracted by these ideas, these ideas are not western ideas, these are human ideas, they are ideas about human flourishing. And yet there’s a regime and there’s a powerful, influential group of people in the society who want to stop that. For people from outside, it has the feeling of the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Europe, when something very similar happened. And you do get people saying, and perhaps it’s not a helpful thing to say, but you do get people drawing parallels. I’m talking about a stage of historical development. Personally I hope that’s not true, because if it were true, then it’s going to take another 300 years, and however long you and I live, Maryam, we’re not going to get there.

Maryam Namazie: It’s not going to take that long, I hope and I’m sure.

AC Grayling: I really, really hope not.

Maryam Namazie: You’ve argued that secularism is a human right. Why?

AC Grayling: It is, without any question, a human right for people to be free of coercion, indoctrination, proselytization, of being obliged to act, dress, live and believe in ways that other people want to impose upon them.

Sometimes people say “oh well, so you’re a secularist, you want to impose secularism on other people”. And this is a very false argument; the secularist argument is “think what you like and believe what you like, but you have a duty to others not to harm them by your choices.” That’s a very simple statement, but it’s a very deep statement and a very important point. In fact it was made by John Stuart Mill back in the nineteenth century in his wonderful essay “On Liberty”, where he talked not only about the danger of political totalitarianism, but of social and attitudinal totalitarianism, and the kind of imposition on people’s lives that come from belief systems where very zealous, very eager people want to force you to live in the way that they choose. It’s a key fact about moralists, and religious zealots, that they say: “I think this, therefore you must do that”. And that of course, you can see from just that example, it’s a human right to be free from the pointed finger, and other people saying “you’ve got to live according to my beliefs and my choices”. So, there should be, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more emphasis placed on the thing that says liberty of belief and religious practice and conscience or none. And the “none” part should be taken very seriously. Because even in a society like the English society (I don’t mean the UK society) no school child is free of religious instruction, of religious practice, of prayers or hymns, or whatever it might be in schools. There are very few schools there where this is neutral. And you have to as a parent (as I’ve done with my own children) get an opt-out from these religious observances. It is so much like a great big oil tanker in the ocean to try and turn around people’s views. Liberate the mind; free people. Let them choose for themselves. In a matter as important, or as unimportant as religion, let the people decide for themselves when they have the facts. Don’t indoctrinate children! That seems to me to be a form of abuse, in fact, I will use that word, and it’s a strong word, but it does seem to me to be a form of abuse.

A female earthquake “by stealth”

Editorial

A female earthquake “by stealth”

Maryam Namazie

Tehranˈs Interim Friday Prayers Leader Hojjatoeslam Kazem Sedighi recently said: “In certain towns and cities, some have been seen to have removed their headscarves. This lack of hijab has infiltrated homes via internet and satellite TV…”

Hadi Sharifi, a “media activist” interviewed by Tasnim, a state-run news agency in Iran controlled and operated by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp, has said when a man forces himself onto a woman because she is “showing off her beauty”, this should not be considered rape because it is natural and instinctual for a man to be drawn to the beauty of a woman and seek sex with her. Since men have not granted women permission to show off their beauty, then men who become aroused by the “nakedness” of women do not need the permission of women to pursue their sexual urges…

Recently, too, thousands held a protest in Tehran, urging the Islamic regime to confront what they say is the increasing flouting of the Islamic dress code.

Clearly, the Stealthy Freedom Facebook page, where women in Iran are posting unveiled photos of themselves despite the compulsory veiling law has hit a nerve with the regime and its apologists. And rightly so. The veil is an important symbol of the regime. One of the first things Islamists did after expropriating the Iranian revolution was to impose compulsory veiling. The slogan of their thugs attacking women protesters was “either veil or a smack” (ya rusary ya tusary).

Throughout its 35 year rule, women have challenged the regime’s compulsory veiling law by transgressing them; improper or “bad” veiling has always been a form of resistance to the regime despite the morality police’s constant harassment, and risks of fines or imprisonment.

The unveiling of women, however, in broad daylight, for all the world to see is an even more fundamental challenge to the regime and its rule.

The unveiled woman is the beginning of the end of the regime. A female revolution has long been in the making and it is this movement that will bring the regime to its knees. And not a day too soon.

Equality before the law’ is not just an empty phrase

‘Equality before the law’ is not just an empty phrase

On the Law Society’s Discriminatory Guidance on

Sharia-Compliant Inheritance and Wills Interview with Pragna Patel

Maryam Namazie: British law already allows people to leave their estates to whomever they choose so why does a statement signed by a number of groups and individuals label the Law Society’s guidance on Sharia-compliant inheritance and wills discriminatory?

Pragna Patel: The practice note (guidelines) issued by the Law Society is extremely problematic because what it seeks to do is to institutionalise a profoundly discriminatory approach to the question of property settlements, disputes and trusts concerning women and children in minority communities. It is at best a misguided response but nevertheless dangerous, because it is yet another way of reflecting the growing view that civil matters and disputes in minority communities are to be addressed within a religious framework.

The practice notes states: ‘This is the first time guidance has been published for solicitors to assist them with the intricacies of Sharia succession rules, which is the code of law derived from the Quran and from the teachings and examples of Mohammed’.

The immediate question that needs to be asked is why does the Law Society not leave it to clerics to clarify the ‘intricacies’ of ‘Sharia’ rules outside the law for those who want it? How can it possibly think that its role is to guide on religious matters? More importantly, why does the Law Society feel that it needs to support and be seen to publicly support the drawing up of discriminatory wills? Quite apart from the fact that it cannot possibly know what is and isn’t ‘Sharia compliant’ given the many contested interpretations of so called ‘Sharia’ law, it actually wades into religious territory and gives succour to the view that religious and secular laws can operate in parallel with the former applying to minorities and the latter to the white majority society.

The role of the Law Society is to promote legal professional standards so that the law is upheld in a fair and non-discriminatory way. The phrase ‘equality before the law’ is not just an empty phrase. Justice must not only be done but seen to be done. The law is symbolic and aspirational at the same time; it is an important means by which just and democratic societal norms are established. The Law Society has no business in normalising ‘Sharia’ principles in British legal culture. The Law Society also has no business in endorsing and promoting discriminatory religious norms and values for minorities because in doing so, it enhances profoundly patriarchal and unequal social arrangements in minority communities.

Maryam Namazie: If it’s not binding, how can it seriously undermine the Equality Act, citizenship rights and one law for all?

Pragna Patel: Those who argue that it is ‘not binding’ and that it is ‘all a fuss about nothing’, miss the point entirely. The guidance signals the view that no matter how discriminatory and abhorrent certain aspects of minority cultures may be, they must be tolerated and even supported! We cannot underestimate the ways in which religion is creeping into the very fabric of legal structures in our society and it is minority women and other vulnerable sub groups who pay the price. By issuing such guidance, the Law Society is helping to create a context that is conducive to the practice of patriarchal oppression and to the legitimisation of anti-human rights religious norms. Religious norms dictate strict gender roles and codes of conduct for women – codes that deny their right to freedom and equality in the family in a range of matters such as marriage, divorce, children and inheritance.

I have noted that the religious-Right (who have been in the ascendency in our communities since the 90s) have been quietly going about trying to create a parallel legal system in the UK. By engaging in a pincer-like manoeuvre, they have on the one hand, obtained official endorsement for the establishment and operation of alternative religious forums for dispute resolutions on family matters, such as Sharia councils and tribunals, and on the other hand, they have influenced the legal system from the inside by demanding ‘Sharia compliant’ approaches to civil and especially family matters. The Law Society’s response is an example of the latter category.

The guidelines remind solicitors that under ‘Sharia’ ‘…as a general rule, a male heir will inherit twice the amount that a female heir will receive, Illegitimate children are not heirs’. This is really extraordinary since it accepts without question, the inherent discrimination that exists in Islam (as indeed in other religions) against women and children born outside marriage. What happened to the ideals of justice, equality and fairness embodied in the law? Far from promoting equality and justice, by its action, the Law Society is helping to arrest the development of justice born out of struggles for equality by women in minority communities. It is one thing to recognise that discrimination exists in all societies, but quite another for the Law Society to be associated with and be seen to promote relativism to questions of equality and justice. The demand for recognition of separate religious or ‘personal’ laws to address family matters are gaining momentum, but it has serious and even life threatening implications for minority women and children and other minority sub-groups.

Maryam Namazie: According to some groups like the British Humanist Association (BHA), the issue has been blown out of proportion. According to them, the Law Society issued the guidance responding to requests from its solicitors. It is purely ‘guidance’ – the document states ‘Practice notes are not legal advice, nor do they necessarily provide a defence to complaints of misconduct or of inadequate professional service’. It’s just advice so that solicitors can provide a service to (Sunni) Muslim clients who want a will that fits with their beliefs. It does not claim to do any more than that. Your response?

Pragna Patel: The BHA would say that wouldn’t they, given that they have led ‘what’s all the fuss about’ chants? I come back to the point: what is the Law Society, a public body that should be preoccupied with upholding good practice and the ideals of justice and equality, doing wading into religious matters and producing guidance on how to draft wills that are ‘Sharia compliant’? The guidelines are deeply offensive to anyone committed to equality and non discrimination. The Law Society’s role is to encourage their members to be compliant on human rights and equality grounds; to foster a culture of human rights that is based on principles of non-divisibility and universality, not to endorse and promote discrimination towards Muslim women and children. This is nothing short of inverse racism. I don’t see the Law Society putting out guidance for those in the wider society who wish to be ‘Bible compliant’ for instance! So why the need to prove their anti-racist credentials in a way that is so dangerous for minority women and children and to the very ideas of equality and justice?

The Law Society’s guidance amounts to nothing less than state sponsored discrimination. It has effectively aligned itself with patriarchal and profoundly misogynist forces in our communities that seek to ensure that minority women stay second class citizens. What a blow to all those Muslim women and men who struggle for their human rights and to all those who want to encourage their daughters to consider themselves as equals to men.

Maryam Namazie: Isn’t this just another example of whipping up hysteria against Muslims or a xenophobic response to Islam as some would say? After all there is a far-Right that uses the issue of Sharia law to scapegoat and attack Muslims and immigrants. It’s not the law, it’s not binding, so it is just another attempt at scapegoating Muslims and raising the Sharia bogeyman?

Pragna Patel: It is easy to label any and every criticism of practices within Muslim populations as just another example of ‘hysteria against Muslims’ and ‘Islamophobic’. I am really getting bored with these accusations because they do not really seek to debate the matter – in this case the separation of religion and the law – but to shut down debate. Discriminatory and harmful practices in our communities cannot be swept under the carpet just because we are a minority and they cannot be talked about as if they are products of neo colonialism and racism as many on the religious-Right and political Left do. Those who argue that the furore by feminists is simply yet another attack on Muslims are the same people who also deny or downplay the practice of for example, FGM, honour based violence, forced marriage, polygamy, child sexual abuse, amongst others, or deny that they are manifestations of women’s inequality propped up by culture and religion. Similar accusations were hurled at us when the question of gender segregation in universities came up. It seems that we can never talk about these things because we live in minority communities. Well, Southall Black Sisters (SBS) has long bucked the tendency to silence us in this way. Indeed from our very inception in 1979, we signalled the view that challenging racism could not be at the expense of challenging women’s inequality and oppression, even if that fuelled racism. However inconvenient these truths are, we have a moral, legal and political responsibility to talk about them even if it leads to the demonization of minority communities. Instead, what we must do is wage the struggle against inequality and racism simultaneously.

Maryam Namazie: Islamic feminists would say that there are feminist interpretations of inheritance in Sharia and so the problem is not Sharia in and of itself. Your thoughts?

Pragna Patel: This is also another excuse that is often heard. It is regularly trotted out whenever the knotty problems of harmful practices and gender inequality in our communities are raised. We are constantly told, including by so called feminists, that the problem is not religion per se but the malfunctioning cultures in which religion is practised. The argument goes that if people only knew and understood the ‘true essence’ of their religion and had the ‘correct’ interpretation, these problems and would not occur. The problem with this argument is that it denies the fact that religion is always mediated through economic, social and cultural processes and that in practice religion and culture are enmeshed in structures that perpetuate all kinds of power relations. So, the use of religion in regulating human conduct is not an abstract matter of debate but one that has life changing and life threatening consequences for those who have no control over their lives.

This kind of argument leads to contestations between different interpretations of religion, each vying to be the ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ version of religion. But when all is said and done, what we are left with is religious essentialism in which all difference and dissent from any kind of orthodoxy is obliterated. There are as many interpretations of religion as there are people, so who gets to decide what is the correct interpretation? Those who decide are those who have institutional power over others, especially women and sexual minorities. At this moment, the Islamic-Right, often masquerading as moderates, now entirely dominate and control the interpretation of Muslim identity and laws, often by subverting the concepts of human rights. This is also happening in other religions.

The Law Society’s practice guidelines tell those drawing up wills to remember that ‘as a general rule a male heir will inherit twice the amount that a female heir will receive…’ So how did it decide that this was the definitive version of Sharia on wills?

That’s one problem with this line of argument but the other problem is that at some point, arguing from within a religious perspective, no matter how liberal, is bound to hit a wall, especially when it comes to ‘wedge’ issues, like sexuality and reproductive rights. All religions are pretty clear about these issues, so no matter how it is interpreted, no religion is going to endorse sexual autonomy or the right of women to control their bodies. You can’t change core fundamentals of religion and those are inherently discriminatory against women and others. I think you rightly pointed out that whilst ‘Sharia’ can be applied in divergent ways, there is consensus within the Muslim schools of thought on the following: the death penalty for apostasy and “sexual crimes” which includes homosexuality and adultery; a penal code based on retribution; on the obligation for women to veil; and in the ordering of men/women and Muslims/non-Muslims according to unequal status before the law.

I think that feminist interpretations of religion can be a useful tactic in certain, limited contexts, especially where secular spaces have completely shut down, but here in the UK, it is dangerous to insist on liberal or feminist interpretations from a religious perspective because this kind of argument is used to undermine the secular spaces that we have struggled to create. The greatest danger posed by this kind of argument as I see it, is that it de-legitimises the view that secularism is a feminist issue for minority women.

Maryam Namazie: How does the guidance unwittingly aid Islamist attempts at subverting democratic laws and principles with a de facto parallel legal system where minority women and children have increasingly fewer rights than other citizens? Where does the Islamist movement come into all this since so far it is mainly portrayed as a personal matter for Muslims?

Pragna Patel: As I have said, the guidance clearly subverts the protection, equality and justice principles in our society in respect of women’s rights. To this end, it serves to further the political Islamist agenda. Fundamentalist Muslims and others from minority religions have been campaigning for many years for the State to incorporate aspects of religious or personal laws into the legal system.

In the last ten years or so, the UK has seen a rise in the demand for parallel legal systems, emanating especially but not only from some powerful Muslim organisations that have campaigned for the right to be governed by Sharia laws in family matters. This demand can be directly linked to the growth of political Islam and more generally to the rise of fundamentalism in all religions. The State has aided and abetted fundamentalist demands for parallel legal systems by strengthening the ‘faith-based’ approach to minorities through government policies on preventing violent extremism, cohesion and now the Big Society and localism agenda. Fundamentalists and religionists alike have also benefitted from the austerity measures which have lessened access to justice for vulnerable groups. Religious or so called faith-based organisations have been empowered to shape and direct public policy and the law on a range of social and welfare issues. In the current situation, for example, both the Jewish Beth Dins and the Muslim Arbitration Tribunals are making use of the Arbitration Act 1996 to formally pronounce religious judgements in areas of family, children (residence/access/custody) and inheritance cases, although they are not supposed to. This has become an ever more pressing issue in the context of legal aid cuts. We see the effects of these cuts in our daily work with abused women at SBS and it is truly frightening because the final safety net provided by the welfare and legal system is literally being taken away from under their feet. Make no mistake: a social contract has developed between the State and authoritarian if not fundamentalist religionists. The latter have capitalised by entering the field of the law and education in particular, with the aim of producing new forms of morality as is evident in the ways in which the Law Society has behaved.

Maryam Namazie: Where do you think people should stand on the issue of Sharia law in general and in Britain in particular?

Pragna Patel: Clearly they must stand with us in opposing these profoundly worrying developments. It must be emphasised that marriage/divorce, family, child custody and inheritance issues are not private matters but rather matters in which State regulation and legal protections are central to delivering women’s and children’s equality and human rights. The suggestion that issues to do with the family should be the subject of arbitrary and culturally relative processes is flawed. We believe that to see them in this way is to undo the decades of feminist input into the development and extension of law and public policy to cover domestic and family issues.

We believe the State does have an important role to play. In particular the State has a responsibility to safeguard the interests of the vulnerable, of women and children and to protect them from violence and abuse. This does not encroach on an individual’s rights to conduct their relationships as they choose but the question of entitlements and rights when that relationship breaks down or comes to an end and especially if there are violations, is most definitely a matter of public concern and carries with it a role for the State. This responsibility must not be abrogated by creating and validating spaces to be governed by religious laws. State backing of religious norms and arbitration systems directly contradicts and flouts equality laws and the Human Rights Act 1998 in the UK. Moreover it contravenes international human rights law. More specifically, the State’s obligations to act with due diligence; and to ensure gender non-discrimination under Article 16 of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and Resolution 1464 of the European Council on women and religion, which stipulates that member States must guarantee the separation between the Church and the State in order to ensure that women are not subjected to religiously inspired policies and laws (for example, in the area of family, divorce, and abortion law).

The development of parallel legal systems signals the view that it is legitimate for minority communities to operate a second-rate justice system based as it is on unaccountable and partial mechanisms of conflict resolution! This in itself is a racist response to demands for equality and justice, especially in view of the fact that even in countries where State-sanctioned religious laws operate, there are substantial movements, often led by women and human rights activists, for their repeal on the grounds that they are not compatible with universal human rights principles.

It is worth reiterating that if religious arbitration tribunals in relation to family matters are allowed to operate for different communities, they will inevitably dilute the process by which human rights are asserted within society as a whole, thus preventing a culture of human rights from taking root, let alone progressing in society.

Maryam Namazie: Does the difference in attitude to such rules surprise you? In the sense that it is highly contested in many places where Sharia is the law, and tolerated and even promoted in a place like Britain?

Pragna Patel: No it doesn’t surprise me although it greatly depresses me. As black and minority women struggling for rights in the UK, we are knee deep in dangerous waters and really swimming against the tide. It doesn’t appear to matter that elsewhere in the world, the implementation of ‘Sharia’ laws is a highly contested matter and that struggles for democracy and human rights are taking place all the time everywhere. It doesn’t even make a difference that in asylum and immigration law in the UK itself, ‘Sharia’ law has been regarded as highly discriminatory and incompatible with human rights by the courts when determining cases of women fleeing gender persecution from other parts of the world. Yet, public bodies like the Universities UK and now the Law Society are falling over themselves in an attempt to appease the religious-Right whose agenda is to create a parallel legal system.

As feminists, we seek the equal rights of all to one universal legal system. We believe the debate about religious laws should be firmly located within a debate about human rights and safeguarding equalities and not within a politics of identity and cultural and religious relativism. Religious arbitration encourages public bodies like the Law Society to defer decision-making in respect of women and family matters to the religious tribunals and authorities for the sake of expediency and out of fear of being labelled ‘racist’ or ‘Islamophobic’. Moreover, in response to the allegation that a system of universal human rights curtails other rights such as the ability to exercise freedom of religion and belief, it is important to remember the right to religion and belief is not an absolute right, it is a qualified right, to be restricted where it is justified in the public interest. The present legal system may be imperfect but it offers one important safeguard: that the right to manifest religion cannot trump other more fundamental human rights such as the right to life; the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to family life, and the right to non-discrimination on the basis of gender.

Maryam Namazie: How do we further the coalition fighting against Sharia compliant rules in the family or inheritance when the far-Right uses this issue, the pro-Islamist Left defends Sharia over the rights of women and some Muslim feminists stress Islamic interpretations rather than the necessity for secularism? Where can progressive forces meet to move the campaign against discriminatory religious laws forward?

Pragna Patel: This is the critical question and one for which there are no easy answers. At present, we are witness to this unholy alliance between the religious-Right and the far Left who are in bed together. And then we have the problem of some Muslim feminists asserting the right to be ‘Muslim feminists’ which means that they think they can win the struggle for equality by re-interpreting religious texts. I am not sure where we seek allies because our natural allies, many so called feminists and those on the Left have deserted us. I have often said that ours is a very lonely struggle because in this current political climate, we can no longer be sure of our allies. I guess we have to keep on struggling and reaching out and seeking alliances from wherever we can. But we must be careful that the alliances we create are not uncritical or forged out of political expediency. We cannot enter into uncritical alliances with those who wish to use these issues to whip up racism or argue that feminism and secularism are ‘western’ ideals to which minorities have contributed nothing. Instead, they must be forged in a way that enhances our ethical positions based on the principles of justice, democracy, secularism, equality and human rights.

I am always so heartened by the views of the women from all religious backgrounds who come to SBS for instance, seeking support in the face of all kinds of horrors and violence. Even though they are acutely marginalised and face the full brunt of gender discriminatory practices and racism, they are often so clear in their vision of what constitutes a just and fair society. They really help to prevent our politics from losing its moral compass. We need to do more to build solidarity amongst women in our communities rather than look to the usual suspects. The one thing that prevents us from sliding into post modern cultural relativism and regressive identity politics is their demand that we separate the law from religion which they regard as a personal matter and not the basis for the assertion of their rights.

Sharia law is madness Maryam Namazie

Editorials

Sharia law is madness

Maryam Namazie

Sharia law is highly contested and vehemently opposed in many places across the globe.

In Algeria, women’s rights activists singing for change label 20 years of Sharia in the family code as 20 years of madness. They sing:
“I am telling you a story
Of what the powerful have done
Of rules, a code of despair
A code obsessed with women…”

“This law must be undone…!”

In Iran, after the establishment of Sharia law there, the Iranian Lawyers’ Association came out in full force against the new religious codes only to be met with arrest and exile; some opponents were even charged with apostasy, which is a “crime” punishable by death…

How tragically ironic, then, that the British Law Society, has decided to side with the Islamists and issue Sharia-complaint guidance which matter-of-factly endorses discrimination against females, non-Muslims and “illegitimate” children.

Rather than being at the forefront of defending equality before the law, they legitimise inequality and bring back patriarchal and archaic concepts of “justice” that deny rights to women merely because of their gender and children merely for being born out of wedlock! A recent film called “Bastards” shows single mother Rabha El Haimer, an illiterate child bride, in her fight to secure a future for her “illegitimate” child in Morocco.

Thanks to the Law Society, this will be the fate of British children and women too!

How very shameful!

“Muslim feminists” tell us that the Law Society has accepted de facto an Islamist interpretation of Sharia law – which is true. It is always those in power who determine the laws and rules, and when it comes to Islam, due to the power and influence of Islamism, it is their brutal version that affects innumerable lives.

“Muslim feminists” also tell us that there are more women-friendly interpretations out there, which the Law Society has ignored. That may well be the case (though I have never seen one that is favourable or fair enough). In my opinion, no religious law can ever give 21st century women and men the full equality they deserve.

In any case, a focus on interpretations misses the point: which is that religion is a private matter open to as many interpretations as there are believers. Once it becomes part of the state or law, it becomes a matter of repressive political power and control with women and girls as its first victims.

The real point is that religion – be it Islam or Judaism or Christianity or what have you – must be kept separate from the state and law if women and everyone else are to be protected and considered equal.

Clearly, there is no place for Sharia in Britain’s legal system just as there is no place for it anywhere.

The fight against the Law Society is part and parcel of the fight against Sharia and religious laws everywhere. And don’t be mistaken. This is not just about opposing institutionalised discrimination. It is about 21st century humanity rejecting a code of law that belongs to the Middle Ages, that sees women as sub-human, that deems sexuality, sex and women’s bodies as illegal whilst legalising child marriages, stonings and misogyny.

Sharia – like all religious laws – is based on a 1400 year old dogmatic and regressive philosophy and its warped understanding of the concepts of equality and justice. Where Islamists have control over the state, Sharia law terrorises the population to submit by showing the damnable nature of dissent. It is a primitive and patriarchal system based on inequality, retribution and religious [im]morality. It is not a rule for equals and has no place in a modern state or system of law.

Only a few days ago, a representative of Khamenei , Iran’s “Supreme Spiritual leader” (absurd titles that only come with religious rule) said: “Sadly, over the past three decades we have seen many working to establish a secular state [in Iran] which will undermine people’s Islamic values and culture”. Of course we have. No one opposes Sharia law more than those who have lived under, fled, or resisted it.

I am sure the Islamists are very grateful to the Law Society for upholding their values at the expense of the many others who demand equality and secularism.

Law Society listen up: you must immediately withdraw your shameful guidance. Withdraw it now!

In the words of Algerian women singing for change:

“We aren’t asking for favours.

“History speaks for us.”

This is my body; I will do whatever I want with it

This is my body; I will do whatever I want with it

Interview with Amina Sboui and Aliaa Magda Elmahdy

Maryam Namazie: Why did you do the nude action in Egypt?

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: In Egypt, a woman is like a lifeless body, a corpse. This body is owned by other people. They think if she doesn’t follow the rules, it is okay to beat her, to harass her; it is okay to kill her. So the best way to say no to all of that is to say “This is my body and I will do whatever I want with it.”

Maryam Namazie; Is that how you felt too Amina?

Amina Sboui: It’s mostly not just in Egypt, not just in Tunisia. It’s in the Arab world that women are treated like that. I guess we have the same reasons why we did it. Actually we did it to show the world how we are treated and mostly to try to change things. Hopefully we will be able to change things – at least a little.

Maryam Namazie: Your action has hit a cord with a lot of people. Do you think there is an universality to what you say? It’s not just the Arab world (though it is very important for the Arab world) but it hits a cord for everyone?

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: Yes practices may differ but sexism is the same everywhere. Maybe the practices differ, the degree differs.

Maryam Namazie: Some people will say that what you are doing is not culturally appropriate; it is offensive and you’re not respecting people’s culture.

Amina Sboui: I think that what the old feminists did in their time was not culturally appropriate like when they asked for women’s vote or women to go to school. Times change and people change. We can’t use the same methods that they use. When we go back in time their methods were considered inappropriate or something coming from the western countries. People will always insult the feminists because most of the people do not believe in equality between men and women.

Maryam Namazie: So you wouldn’t agree that the demand for the right over your own body or for equality is a western demand as that is what some have said.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: It’s like they are stripping us from the will to be free. You’re very angry and you want to fight for your rights and then they tell you: “No, shut up, that’s not for you.”

Maryam Namazie: Obviously what you did, especially because you did it in Egypt and Tunisia, there is a great deal of risk involved. Do you regret the risk and the fact that it has changed your lives considerably?

Amina Sboui: If we regretted it you wouldn’t find us like this.

Maryam Namazie: One criticism of nude protest is that women’s bodies already sexualised and commodified and by using your body you are playing into the hands of sexists.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: Not our nudity. Nudity can have several meanings.

Amina Sboui: If our nudity was pornographic, we would not face any problems.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: Yes, they would not be that angry.

Amina Sboui: There are a lot of Arab women who do pornographic movies and who get naked in movies and nobody says anything to them. When we did it all the people started criticising us. We are doing this for good reasons. We are not doing this is a sexy way but to tell the world that the body you spend all your life either pushing me to hide it or to show it for sex, I’m using it for a political message.

Maryam Namazie: I think what you do is revolutionary; I know some don’t think so because they say nudity is not necessarily revolutionary and it might not be. What is it that makes what you do revolutionary and why inspired so many?

Amina Sboui: there are so many women who have our ideas but they don’t have the courage to do it. When Aliaa did it she encouraged me and maybe when we do it [on 8 March in Paris], we will encourage other girls. We just hope we will keep encouraging people.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say it was fine doing it in Egypt or Tunisia but here in the west it is a different matter.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: We still have internet; we can still reach people with our message. We were forced to leave our countries we didn’t choose that. We would prefer to do it in Egypt but we were forced out.

Maryam Namazie: What would you say to Muslim women activists who say: “don’t force your nudity on me? I find my hijab liberating”.

Amina Sboui: we are not forcing our nudity. The pictures that they did of Muslim women against FEMEN made me laugh. It makes me feel that when Aliaa was in Egypt or I was in Tunisia, I was forcing women to get naked, telling them to take off their clothes in the street or with guns saying “take off your clothes”. We are not forcing any women.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: I did a campaign before to publish photos of women who willingly took off their hijab with their stories and how they were forced to put it on or how people reacted to it when they took it off. And people said “you want to force women to take off their hijab”. I said “No I want to give them a space to talk about how they are forced to wear it.”

Also the “Muslimah Pride” group posted pictures of children in hijab and then they are talking about us forcing people to take off their clothes!

Maryam Namazie: Some women’s rights campaigners will say that nudity has no place in the women’s rights movement. I think it is crucial. Would you agree and why is nudity so key?

Amina Sboui: So important because people are not used to it. In the Arab world since we are kids our mums and our grandmums keep telling us that our bodies are not yours, that we must not show your body that you must hide it. When you grow up people start to tell you to show your body. For example people never stopped telling me I must be a model. And then others tell you to hide it. So I think now the main problem for women is not education or health, we have that, (in other countries we don’t have that but in many we do) – now it is about the body.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy: and it because of the view of the body that women can be deprived of their education and everything because they are viewed as something – not someone.

Aliaa Magda Elmahdy is the Egyptian blogger who posted a nude photo of herself as a scream against misogyny. Amina Sboui is the Tunisian topless activist who was imprisoned for her actions.

I will be nude, I’ll protest and I’ll challenge you!

I will be nude, I’ll protest and I’ll challenge you!

Maryam Namazie

All religions have a disturbing view of the female and her body. Islam is no different. Given that Islamism – a regressive political movement with state power and political influence in many places – is using Islam as its banner, however, women’s sexuality and bodies are policed and criminalised and misogyny is encouraged and imposed by the state.

In Iran, under Sharia law, for example, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, she can’t travel without the permission of her “male guardian”, and there’s segregation based on gender. Certain fields of study and work are closed to women; girls from puberty onwards can be “married”; veiling is compulsory and women who transgress these norms can face imprisonment, flogging, and even stoning to death.

The idealised woman is obedient, properly veiled, submissive, and accepting of her assigned “place” in society. The rest of us are whores, often compared to unwrapped sweets – covered in flies and free for the taking. We are the source of fitnah in society and blamed for every calamity and natural disaster, as well as the disintegration of the family and society, and deserving of punishment in order to maintain national and Islamic values, pride and honour.

You don’t have to look far for evidence of this. Women protesters in Tahrir Square were given virginity tests and routinely blamed for the rape and sexual assault they faced. In Tunisia, Islamists use violence to “correct” the behaviour of women. And in Iran, women are routinely arrested or harassed for acts against chastity and morality.

Islamism’s obsession with women’s bodies and its insistence that women be veiled and hidden from view means that nudity becomes an important form of public resistance. Islamists want us bound in body bags, not seen and not heard. We refuse to comply.

A nude woman is the antithesis of the idealised veiled and submissive woman. Whilst nude protest is not the only way to resist Islamism and the veil, it is a very modern, practical and appropriate way of doing so. It also challenges discrimination against women and a system which profits from the commodification and sexualisation of women’s bodies.
Detractors argue that nude protests play into the hands of sexists by further commodifying the female body. Their erroneous conflation of nudity and obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and immorality buys into the attitude that female bodies serve only as titillation for the male gaze. They see a nude protestor and cannot see beyond her “tits and ass”.

The idea that the female body is shameful, dishonourable, gross and crude fits within this debased view of women’s bodies. The shocked outrage at nudity reflects the discomfort with the female body rather than any problematic related to nude protest.

There is nothing wrong with nudity in and of itself. That the female body is used for profit, sexualised and commodified does not make the female body obscene just as it does not make breastfeeding in public vulgar.

Commodification relies on an objectified image that is separate from the reality of women’s bodies, minds and lives and which is used to regulate, control and suppress. Whilst Islamists often portray their rule as a prescription for the debasement of women in western societies, their image of women is the ultimate in objectification. In fact from early on, girls are over-sexualised with the imposition of child veiling. (This viewpoint also sees men as rapists unable to control their urges.)

The actuality and frankness of women’s bodies as a form of protest challenges this negative image of females, turns it on its head and undermines the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable. It’s subversive and threatens the status quo.
This is different from pornography which is widespread in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, the more overtly religion and the state intertwine, the more chauvinistic the society and the more pervasive and blatant are pornography, sexual assaults, harassment and violence against women.
It’s nudity as protest and outside these socially accepted limits of the woman as either whore or submissive that so enrages.

As Soraya Chemaly writes: “when women refuse to sexualise themselves and use their bodies to challenge powerful interests that profit from that sexualisation, the words we should use aren’t ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’; they’re ‘threatening’ and ‘destabilizing’. Women who use public nudity for social commentary, art and protest are myth-busting along many dimensions: active, not passive; strong not vulnerable; together, not isolated; public, not private; and, usually, angry, not alluring. The morality offense is misogyny, not nudity”.

Nude protest makes women visible in the public space and redefines who controls the female body. It’s the reclamation of a tool used for suppression and an insistence that our bodies are our own, not “owned” by anyone, nor the source of honour, shame, national embarrassment…

Reclaiming nudity by women has special meaning under circumstances where women’s bodies have been abused or raped as weapons of war or repression. In Iran, for example, young virgins were raped before execution to prevent them from going to heaven. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out mass rapes in the 1990s in Algeria as part of its terror campaign. In response, nudity has been used to confront armed and repressive forces from the Indian subcontinent to Africa.

Nude protest is not confined to the west. Some of the most famous examples of nude protest are from elsewhere. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in Egypt and Amina Sboui in Tunisia are cases in point. In China, supporters of Ai Weiwei have been posing naked after the Chinese government accused the artist of pornography for a series of nude photos. Hundreds of women in Niger Delta staged a topless protest against non-implementation of an existing agreement by Shell. Late last year in Argentina, an estimated 7,000 women, some of whom were topless, stormed a cathedral demanding women’s autonomy. A “bare buttocks” women’s protest took place in Swaziland in 2000 to oppose evictions by the king’s brother. In March last year, a women’s group in Orissa, India staged a semi-nude protest against land acquisition for a proposed steel plant… There have been nude protests in many places for everything from opposition to war to a defence of the environment.

An incidental positive outcome of this form of protest is a more open and relaxed attitude towards nudity but nude protest is a means of political protest that goes beyond the issue of nudity. Nude protest challenges discrimination with important implications for other aspects of women’s lives – much of which have to do with control and suppression. Those who say that there are more important fights for justice other than nudity miss this important fact. A woman’s control over her own body translates into her being considered a real and distinct human being separate from the men who “own” her. This translates into more freedoms such as the freedom to study what she wants, work where she wants, visit friends and family when she wants, travel without permission, mix freely with members of the opposite sex, have the right to divorce and child custody, marry whom she wants, choose to be an atheist if she wants, have sex when she wants, and refuse sex when she wants, as well as to have the right to food, clothing and healthcare irrespective of how she is perceived by her male guardian or the society. In a society where women have ownership of their own bodies, everything from veiling to Female Genital Mutilation, stonings and honour killings become impermissible.

Nude protest aids in the fight for women’s liberation in one of the key battlefields – her body. Whilst women’s oppression is fundamentally a product of the economic and social system, which benefits from the commodification and objectification of women as well as sexual division in the production process, it is also the product of religious values and chauvinistic traditions and beliefs. Nude protest challenges the status quo.

Those who say nude protest is not the task of Communists and the Left have no clue about the role and responsibility of the Left. Class struggle does not take place in factories alone. Workers also include women with a myriad of problems many related to the control and suppression of their bodies. Women’s inequality springs from the same system that is responsible for workers’ inequality.

If the measure of a society’s freedom is based on women’s freedom, then nudity’s political challenge is an important one. Detractors who argue that nude protest pushes the women’s liberation movement backwards, including those who consider themselves progressive, Left and “veteran” women’s rights campaigners, equate women’s nudity with obscenity and indignity and cannot see its political, revolutionary, taboo-breaking, liberating and deeply humanising effects.

And the closer the nudity, the more uncomfortable. For many Egyptians, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy was said to embarrass the Egyptian revolution. Amina Sboui was blamed for pushing back the Tunisian women’s liberation movement. I have been accused of pushing back the women’s liberation movement in Iran and putting women’s rights campaigners in Iran at risk. No repressive regime needs excuses to suppress and deny the rights of women. It is absurd to blame the Islamic regime of Iran’s misogyny on those of us who resist. I have also been accused of embarrassing the Left which will apparently face further accusations of “immorality” as a result of my nudity.

Nothing brings out the misogynists from their hiding places like nudity.

This discomfort means that the same rules don’t apply when it comes to an analysis of nude political protest. The Ukrainian revolution is not denigrated for being “white” and “western” but FEMEN (whatever your opinion on the group) is often referred to in this way. The relatively small numbers of nude protestors are highlighted when what matters are not numbers per se but significance and effect. Many taboo-breaking protests and demands were raised and organised by a minority, an avant-garde who first led the way. Also, geographical location not politics is stressed when it comes to nude protest. Distinctions are made, for example, between Aliaa’s nude protest in Egypt versus her actions in Stockholm and our 8 March nude protest in Paris. The actions of Islamists have a global impact and so does nude protest irrespective of where it takes place. Our nude protest on 8 March in Paris has been hotly debated amongst Iranians from Tehran to London and Islamists have rioted in Kalkata when photos of our protest were published in a local paper.

If Occupy Wall Street can take the form and content of Tahrir Square, why not nude protest? In fact, the material bases of the protests, including nudity, are similar. Those who fail to see the importance of nude protests addressing deep-rooted discrimination against women don’t see the deep-seated discrimination in the first place.

Even in a majority of western countries, women still cannot appear topless in beaches or parks as can men. Breastfeeding in many public places is considered taboo. Facebook doesn’t allow nipples to be seen. Earlier this year, Facebook temporarily shut down a French museum’s page after it uploaded one such image. Recently, a French politician called for censoring a children’s book “Everybody Get Naked” , which shows people from all walks of life taking off their clothes in an aim to calm children’s fears about their own bodies. At our 8 march nude protest with Amina Sboui and Aliaa Magda Elmahdy we were kettled in, with a large number of police brought to arrest us. We were shouted at, grabbed, and arrested. At the station, the police wrote down all our personal details as well as the slogans we had on our bodies, what we chanted, and what flags we carried… We were held for several hours and chastised for wasting police time. This gives nude protest universal significance.

Detractors who criticise nude protests taking place in the west ignore the real risks involved for those who do it in places like Egypt or Tunisia. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and Amina Sboui were forced to leave their countries because of it.

Critics have dared me to hold my 8 March Paris protest in Iran. If I could, I would do it in Tehran’s Azadi Square – and like in Paris cut out the “Allah” from the Islamic regime of Iran’s flag and put my vulva in its place (pussy riot, Iranian style according to one) but that would mean a death sentence. This type of criticism is akin to telling exiled political opponents that they must either remain silent or dissent in their countries of origin even if means death. It ignores the repression that many of us have fled from and the real risks involved with any form of protest against Islamism, especially nude protest, even when it is done outside of the Middle East and North Africa.

Opponents have called our nude protest “offensive” and “culturally inappropriate” but anything that breaks taboos and demands fundamental change will offend existing sensibilities and will be deemed inappropriate for its time.

Even so, not everyone is offended. Whilst there are many who condemn it, there are also many who vehemently support it. No culture or society is homogeneous. Those who consider nude protest as “foreign” and “culturally inappropriate” are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist. In the same way that there are opponents of nude protest and supporters of the veil in the west, there are also supporters of nude protest and opponents of the veil in the east. In fact more so because there is no greater opposition against Islamism and religious misogyny than from those who have lived under, survived and resisted it.

The call for free, equal and autonomous women is also a call for a free Iran, Middle East and North Africa. No society can be free without women being free.

When it is a crime to be a woman, nude protest is an important public political challenge. It says loud and clear: “Enough! No More”! “I will be nude, I will protest, and I will challenge you to your very core!

fitnah.movement@gmail.com