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Women’s breasts: a serious threat

Women’s breasts: a serious threat

Patty Debonitas

Thousands of people have attended breastfeeding protests in support of a Staffordshire mother who was labelled a “tramp” for feeding her baby in public.

The breast is a thing of concern for many. To show it or not, to look or not. To breastfeed or not. In public that is because women’s breasts it seems are public property.
It’s okay for women to flash their boobs, just ask any newsagent. Our breasts, the naked kind, are good enough to be prominently displayed on many newspapers and magazines in any newsagent you enter.
And they sell very well.
It is funny how we seem to be discussing the same things over and over again. For years, for decades, for eternity. Breastfeeding in public? Women going topless?
When you flash your boobs for money no one bats an eyelid. Breastfeeding your baby in public seems to turn you into a disgusting, attention-seeking cretin.
Until today I didn’t even know that breastfeeding women are protected under the Equality Act in Britain and shall not be harassed for doing so.
Shame has a louder voice than the law, and so women are still turning around, stepping aside and crouching in corners with their babies. The act of breastfeeding is apparently so hideous to many that the baby has to eat whilst its face, or rather the breast, is hidden under a piece of cloth.
I have tried hard to understand how and what people can find disgusting about a baby eating in public. The only thing I can come up with is that the attitude itself is disgusting beyond belief.

Secularism, Islamism and the Anti-Immigration Confusion

Secularism, Islamism and the Anti-Immigration Confusion

Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA

Interview with Kenan Malik

Maryam Namazie: Restrictions demanded by Islamists are viewed as the demand of Muslims and immigrants who are seen to be a homogeneous group with no differences of opinion. Immigrants and Muslims are often blamed for all of Britain and Europe’s woes but particularly for the rise of Sharia courts, the burqa or 7/7. Your views?
Kenan Malik: When I was working on my book From Fatwa to Jihad, I interviewed Naser Khader, a Danish MP and one of the best known Muslims in the country. He recalled a conversation he had had at the time of the Danish cartoon controversy with Toger Seidenfaden, editor of the left-wing newspaper Politiken. ‘He said to me that the cartoons insulted all Muslims’, Khader remembers. ‘I said I was not insulted. And he said, “But you’re not a real Muslim”. That sums up the liberal attitude towards Muslims. You are only a ‘proper’ Muslim if you want to ban Danish cartoons, or are offended by The Satanic Verses or think that Monica Ali’s Brick Lane is demeaning to your community. Similarly, you are only a proper Sikh if you are offended by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti. Someone like Naser Khader, on the other hand, or like Salman Rushdie or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, or Monica Ali, are seen as too liberal, too ‘Westernized’, too progressive, to be truly of their community. The consequence has been that the most reactionary figures get to be seen as the authentic voices of those communities. And in presenting Muslim communities in this fashion, liberals do the racists’ job for them. The protests against the cartoons, as Khader put it, ‘were not about Mohammed. They were about who should represent Muslims’. And what was ‘really offensive’ to him was that ‘journalists and politicians see the fundamentalists as the real Muslims’.

It’s one of the ironies of the liberal multicultural view. Liberals argue for multicultural policies on the grounds that we live in a diverse nation. But they seem also to believe that such diversity somehow magically stops at the edges of minority communities. They wash over differences and conflicts in those communities, seeing them instead as fixed, homogenous groups with a single set of views, primarily driven by faith. And they rely on so-called community leaders to be suitable judges of what is and is not acceptable or necessary for that community. As a result, progressive voices often get silenced as ‘inauthentic’ or as not really being of that community.

Maryam Namazie: Free expression is a demand of those without power vis-a-vis the powers that be. It seems more often than not, it is those with power and influence making such demands at the expense of those who need it most. I’m thinking of Islamists using rights language to deny rights and expression. Free speech and expression have often been censored under the guise of respecting the sensibilities of Islamists (couched in terms of Muslim or minority sensibilities).

Kenan Malik: There is a strand of leftwing argument that insists on censorship as a necessary shield to protect the powerless, from the prejudices spewed by the media, for instance, or from hate speech. It is certainly necessary to combat prejudice and to confront hate speech. But censorship is no weapon through which to do so. The question to ask yourself is this: who benefits from censorship? The answer is those who have the need to censor and the power to do so. And they are not the powerless, but those who seek to protect their power.
Any kind of social change or social progress necessarily means offending some deeply held sensibilities. ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
The notion of ‘protecting sensibilities’ suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but also to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged.

Maryam Namazie: Those who scapegoat immigrants and Muslims say they bring with them “alien cultures that are incompatible with Britain or the west”.

Kenan Malik: Almost every wave of immigration has, at that time, been seen as the imposition of incompatible alien cultures. So, at the beginning of the twentieth century there was a great uproar about Jewish immigration to Britain, an uproar that led to Britain’s first immigration controls in 1905. Without such a law, the Prime Minister Arthur Balfour claimed, ‘though the Briton of the future may have the same laws, the same institutions and constitution’, nevertheless ‘nationality would not be the same and would not be the nationality we would desire to be our heirs through the ages yet to come’.

By the 1950s, the Jewish community had come to be seen as part of the British cultural landscape. The same arguments used against Jews half a century earlier were now deployed against a new wave of immigrants from South Asia and the Caribbean. Margaret Thatcher gave a notorious TV interview in which she claimed that there were in Britain ‘an awful lot’ of black and Asian immigrants and that ‘people are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture’.
Just as Jews became an accepted part of the cultural landscape, so did post-war immigrants from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, though the acceptance was more grudging. Today, the same arguments that were once used against Jews, and then against South Asian and Caribbean immigrants, are now raised against Muslims and East Europeans.
What immigration often does is to crystalise existing social anxieties about identities and values. It is the uncertainty about identities and values that drive immigration panics and fuel the fear of the ‘Other’. And that’s the issue that needs tackling.
What the anti-immigration argument confuses is peoples and values. People of North African or South Asian parentage, critics of immigration claim, will inevitably cleave to a different set of values than those of European ancestry. But why should they? Being born to European parents is not a passport to Enlightenment beliefs. So why should we imagine that having Bangladeshi or Moroccan ancestry makes one automatically believe in sharia? Secularism and fundamentalism are not ideas stitched into people’s DNA. They are, like all values, absorbed, accepted, rejected. A generation ago there were strong secular movements in Muslim communities and fundamentalism was a marginal force. Today secularism is much weaker, and Islamism much stronger. This shift has been propelled not by demographic changes but by political developments – the abandonment by the left of universalist values for particularist beliefs, the rise of identity politics, the imposition of multicultural policies, the collapse of broader social movements, and so on. And political developments can also help reverse the trend.
What has eroded in recent years is faith in the idea that it is possible to win peoples of different backgrounds to a common set of secular, humanist, enlightened values. That is the real problem: not immigration, or Muslim immigration, but the lack of conviction in a progressive, secular, humanist project. Our job, it seems to me, is to restore that conviction.
Maryam Namazie: Criticism of religion has always been a cornerstone of progress in a society. Particularly today, there is an important need to criticise Islam and Islamic states and laws though here in the west it is perceived as Islamophobic and racist. It doesn’t help that there are bigoted groups like the English Defence League that criticise Islam and Islamism in order to scapegoat Muslims and immigrants. Many remain silent so as not to be accused of racism. How does one take a principled position on this whilst defending free expression?
Kenan Malik: We need to distinguish between three things: Islam, Islamism and Muslims. As a set of ideas, beliefs and values, Islam has to be as open to questioning and criticism as any other set of ideas, beliefs and values. Islamism, a politicized form of Islam, can often take highly bigoted forms, and needs always to be challenged. Similarly anti-Muslim bigotry needs to be confronted any time it asserts itself.
The challenge is to stand up to bigotry from whichever quarter such bigotry comes. To suggest that we should not criticize Islam or Islamism because racists also do so is a bit like suggesting that we should not criticize Israel because anti-Semites also do so. It is quite possible to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. It is equally possible to distinguish between criticism of Islam and Islamism, on the one hand, and anti-Muslim bigotry, on the other.
When it comes to criticizing ideas, nothing should be out of bounds. But if no criticism should be off limits, nevertheless some kinds of criticism need to be challenged. The other side of defending free speech is the necessity of confronting bigotry. The whole point of free speech is to create the conditions for robust debate. And one reason for such robust debate is to be able to challenge obnoxious views. To argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is, in other words, morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to also stand up to racism and bigotry.
The line between criticism and bigotry is crossed when criticism of Islam, of ideas or beliefs, become transposed into prejudice about people; or when critics demand that Muslims are denied rights, or be discriminated against, simply because they happen to be Muslims. We should oppose all discrimination against Muslims in the public sphere, from discriminatory policing and immigration laws that might specifically target Muslims, to planning regulations that make it more difficult to build mosques than other similar buildings or restrictions on the ability of Muslims to assemble or worship that apply merely because they happen to be Muslims. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence. Whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. A Muslim should have the same rights and obligations as any other citizen.
It is not just the EDL that is the problem here. Many liberals, too, promote insidious arguments about Muslims that often fuel bigotry. Many have bought into the myth of the ‘clash of civilizations’. Others, including people like Sam Harris and Martin Amis, figures who are often lauded by humanists and atheists, argue for discriminatory policies towards Muslims. Harris has even written that ‘the people who speak most sensibly about the threat that Islam poses to Europe are actually fascists’. I am suggesting that they are not bigots in any reasonable sense of the word. But because their arguments often so lack nuance, and are so bereft of context, they both provide intellectual ammunition for bigots and can become a means of mainstreaming bigoted arguments.
Maryam Namazie: Universities UK issued guidelines (now withdrawn) saying sex segregation at universities is permissible if “imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely-held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully.” This seems to be more about a hierarchy of rights rather than free speech or personal religious beliefs.
Kenan Malik: It’s a failure to understand what freedom of religion means. Religious freedom is not a special kind of liberty. It is, rather, one expression of a broader set of freedoms of conscience, belief, assembly and action.
As a society we should tolerate as far as is possible the desire of people to live according to their conscience. But that toleration must end when someone acting upon his or her conscience causes harm to another without consent, or infringes upon another’s genuine rights in the public sphere.
In its internal affairs, religious institutions should be free to act in many ways that may be anathema to secular values. They should be free, for instance, to bar women from acting as clergy or to segregate the sexes in religious services or private meetings, however objectionable such policies or actions may seem. Enforced segregation in a public forum is, however, a different matter and should be vigorously opposed. In public settings, whether in buses or restaurants or universities, people have an expectation of, and a right to, equal treatment. No beliefs, whether religious or political, should be allowed to override such equality.
To insist on this is not, as many believers suggest, to enforce secular discrimination against religious belief. Racists, communists, Greens – many non-religious groups could claim that their beliefs enforce upon them certain actions or practices. It would illegal, however, for a racist café owner to bar black people, or for Greens to destroy a farmer’s field of legally grown GM crops, however deep-set their particular beliefs. There is a line, in other words, that cannot be crossed even if conscience requires one to. That line should be in the same place for religious believers as for non-believers.
Having said this, it is also important that we should not seek to ban groups, however odious their beliefs. The best way to tackle gender segregation in a public meeting is by ‘desegregating’ such meetings, by publicly challenging the seating arrangements, and sitting where we wish to. What we should not do is to provide greater leeway for university authorities to police meetings of whatever kind.
Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer, broadcaster and the author of “From Fatwa to Jihad: The Rushdie Affair and Its Aftermath”.

Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive is just plain offensive


Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive is just plain offensive

Maryam Namazie


Rouhani’s “charm offensive” (including the “historic nuclear deal” and the promise of opening Iran up for business) is the other side of the coin of the regime’s intensification of repression. If you smile rather than scowl and utter sweet nothings and empty promises, the global powers that be are happy to ignore what happens to people in Iran. I suppose it is what they mostly do themselves every few years come election time. Protestations of “human rights abuses” are only useful when the regime doesn’t play nice.


But it’s not a “charm offensive” by any means; it’s just plain offensive.


During the “election”, Rouhani “promised” that “all Iranian people should feel there is justice”. They are certainly feeling it – his version of it at least – with 40 executions in the first two weeks of January and over 300 executions since he took office. Iran remains one of the main execution capitals of the world despite all claims of “moderation”. When Rouhani said “We must do something for all these prisoners to be released”, he must have meant in body bags.


Also, Rouhani’s “promise” to uphold the rights of the people as enumerated in the country’s constitution is yet another example of an empty exercise in PR. The constitution is one of the obstacles to upholding rights and actually violates them as does a theocracy. Article 20 of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s constitution, for example, says men and women “enjoy equal protection of the law…in conformity with Islamic criteria” and Article 21 states that “the government must ensure the rights of women in all respects, in conformity with Islamic criteria”. As a result, it is perfectly legal that women cannot run for presidency, enter sports stadiums and certain fields of work or study, are segregated and have limited rights to divorce and child custody.


In less than 6 months of his presidency, his pledge to uphold the rights of women and bring legislation to the Islamic Assembly that addressed discrimination has only translated into more discrimination and misogyny, including the legalisation of paedophilia and child rape by making it legal for step-fathers to marry their adopted daughters as well as plans for a “Comprehensive Population and Family Excellence Plan”. The proposed legislation includes new limits on contraceptive use and added restrictions on women from accessing employment and educational opportunities. More efforts in lieu of keeping women in their place – barefoot and pregnant.


Of course the list is endless. Rouhani and his friends Tweet their sweet nothings and have Facebook pages whilst people in Iran are banned from using social media and can actually face arrest and harassment for it. Khamenei just issued a fatwa making it illegal to chat with unrelated members of the opposite sex.


And Iran remains the second largest jailer of journalists (forget political dissidents and opponents) though Rouhani “promised” that “justice means that anyone who wants to speak in a society should be able to come out, speak their mind, criticize and critique without hesitation and stammering”.


Add the regime’s draconian austerity measures and even the welcome end to economic sanctions will not be enough to give relief to the struggling people of Iran.


Absurdly, those celebrating Rouhani’s “charm” claim he is not to blame for the repression as he has no power – the supreme leader Khamenei does. Aside from the fact that Khamenei approved his candidacy, if Rouhani has no power, why so much jubilation? And if he does, then why not hold him accountable?

Of course any relief as a result of a reduction of economic sanctions, which adversely hurt the public, and a move away from threats of war is good but it’s not good enough.


The people of Iran deserve more. Much more.


In the unforgettable words of Bob Dylan:


…Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times must a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?…

How many times must a man look up
Before he can really see the sky?
Yes, how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

World Hijab Day

World Hijab Day


Maryam Namazie

1 February is World Hijab Day. What next? Maybe a World Mutilation Day to show support for women and girls who have been mutilated and World Child Marriages Day when we can marry off our under-aged daughters to show support and solidarity with religious and cultural practices that are making life a living hell for women and girls. How about a World Suttee Day when women can jump (or more likely be pushed) on the burning pyres of their dead husbands, or a World Foot-binding Day?


I keep being told that these are not one and the same but they are. The veil – whether you choose to wear it or not; whether you think it is folksy or not – is a tool like many others to control, restrict and suppress women and girls.


On World Hijab Day, please do take some time out to think not of the very few women who promote the veil as a right and choice (and who mainly live in the west or are Islamism’s defenders) but the innumerable who refuse and resist veiling at great risk to themselves.


On World Hijab Day, let’s remember them, stand with them, and say loudly and clearly that nothing can justify women’s oppression.


Against gender apartheid: Mixing is the future of humanity

Mixing is the future of humanity

Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas


Maryam Namazie: What is the nature of the recent sex segregation scandal at Universities UK where the representative body issued guidance saying side by side sex segregation was permissible? Why does it occur and by whom is it imposed? Also, it’s more than just a question of physical separation isn’t it?

Marieme Helie Lucas: Just like with the niqab, it’s an extreme-Right political organisation working under the cover of religion to promote sex segregation as a pawn in the political landscape and using all possible means to make itself visible and impose its mores and laws. The idea is to permanently demonstrate that the law of god (as interpreted by them) supersedes the law of the people. It is a blatant attack on the very principle of democracy and one woman/man, one vote, particularly relevant in the aftermath of Nelson Mandela’s death.

The UK has laws for gender equity; therefore, the government should be clear that these laws are the only ones applicable in the UK. However we know that this is not the case as it has already accepted a parallel legal system [what’s known as Sharia Courts or Muslim Arbitration Tribunals] which does not grant women the same rights as the law of the land does. This is a major setback.

Às long as all these attempts by Muslim fundamentalists – whether in the form of different rights for different categories of citizens, veiling, sex segregation and so on – is not analysed in political terms – as the expression of an anti-democratic programme, but rather in terms of religion or culture, the British government will not limit the rise of this extreme-Right movement, which will be increasingly difficult to control.

Those of us who clearly see the rise of a new form of fascism – mostly because we come from situations in which we have had to live under the boot of fundamentalists – are left to our own devices to struggle against it. It is not very different from the situation of anti-Nazi Germans who were not listened to, for far too long, until a bloody war was inevitable.

Maryam Namazie: Universities UK’s guidance first said (though it has now been withdrawn as a result of pressure) if women are not made to sit at the back of the room but are segregated alongside men, since none are disadvantaged, then there is no discrimination. Your views?

Marieme Helie Lucas: Whether at the back or on the side, the old argument is always that this is done to protect women – for their own good, of course, and by doing so to restrict their freedom of movement. By the same logic, some twenty years ago, Bangladesh suddenly restricted women from leaving the country as there was a lot of trafficking of women in the region. What appeared to be their solution was NOT to arrest pimps-protectors, but to prevent women from travelling without a wali (a male guardian from their family). Please note that Bangladesh does not even abide by the Maliki School, in which the institution of wali is legal.

What is discriminatory is to assign a place to somebody, whatever that place may be. It says: keep to your place; to women’s place!

Universities have no business pandering to such requests, and if they do, what’s next? Fundamentalist speakers will only address audiences where females are fully covered?

It seems we are already witnessing some of the next steps. According to media reports, in one instance at a UK university, women were not only segregated but had to give their questions in writing to the speaker, whilst men could raise theirs. As one knows, their voices are sexually attractive and fundamentalists plug their ears against temptation – hence the ban on singing in the areas the Taliban control…

What is sure is that fundamentalists will not stop here and will produce more and more demands, since the aim is not to get satisfaction for a specific demand, but to gain political ground.

Maryam Namazie: Omar Ali, of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, says ‘segregation’ is ‘an emotive use of language’. ‘If a society is set up to cater for religious needs on campus, why shouldn’t they?  ‘A lot of people would find it insulting to say this is something discriminatory against women.’

Marieme Helie Lucas: Why should religious needs be catered to on campus? If we launch a society for the rights of naturists, should universities cater to our need to organise healthy debates in the nude (in summer only), and to exclude or seclude those who do not adhere to putting our philosophy in practice? Or is Mr Omar Ali’s religious ideology considered by university authorities more valuable than my naturist philosophy? In that case, I could take the authorities to court for discrimination against my philosophy, for creating a hierarchy of rights amongst different views and beliefs.

What is to be allowed on campus? What is in keeping with a university’s general mission of expanding knowledge and reasoning? I presume that my naturist philosophy could be and should be of interest to all to debate about on campus, but that my insistence to put my beliefs in practice may not be considered as indispensable to the exchange of ideas.

Maryam Namazie: Separating men and women isn’t necessarily discriminatory and can reflect personal preferences, such as women-only gyms on women-only refuges. The head of Universities UK which issued the guidance endorsing segregation of the sexes says: “It is possible for women to choose to be educated in an all-women environment. It’s not something which is so alien to our culture that it has to be regarded like race segregation, which is totally different and it’s unlawful and there’s no doubt about that whatsoever.” Are racial and gender segregation incomparable? Why is it that everyone can see the distinction between a black university and racial apartheid but when it comes to gender, it’s not as obvious?

Marieme Helie Lucas: This is a very crucial question that I have debated a lot, including more than twenty years ago with feminist friends in the USA. While sex segregation was rapidly expanding in Algeria under the heavy weight of the first fundamentalist preachers and religious groups, I was trying to warn them about the potential backlash of their gender segregation policy in the name of feminism.

Many of our feminist weapons have been turned against us along the years… and I have come to this very sad conclusion that we were not smart enough to think, as thinkers and philosophers should, about all the facets of the concepts we were grappling with. Just think of our feminist praise for diversity, whilst all along we knew that difference was used to legitimise the racist South African apartheid regime, or the segregationist states of the USA. This concept is now used to legitimise the imposition of differences on women that make them unequal in the name of religion, ethnicity or culture.

I think we should urgently question the present trend to regroup with ‘the same’ in order to protect ourselves from ‘the other’. It seems to me that this is a general trend, from the creation of Israel to the dismantling of the former Yugoslavia, to the creation of ghettos – whether for Blacks – or increasingly for wealthy Whites, Asians, Muslims, Sikhs… you name it.

We are slowly returning to the ethnic/racial/religious/gender purity which induces us to stay amongst ‘the sames’. Decades ago, I wrote a chapter entitled ‘What is your tribe? The construction of Muslimness’ in which I discussed the fear of the other to discover that the other is the same…

Mixing is the future of humanity.

Maryam Namazie: Cultural relativists will say that gender segregation is people’s culture and beliefs and must be respected. If the speaker wants segregation, and the audience are okay with it, what’s the problem? Is denying the right to “voluntary” gender segregation a denial of the right to manifest religion? The head of UUK says: “If people feel more comfortably about sitting separately, and that’s invariably the situation that will arise in these cases, then universities have to listen to those views.”

Marieme Helie Lucas: There are two underlying questions here: the first one is about the limits to respect for ‘The Other’s’ culture/religion…; the second is about who speaks for culture; who speaks for religion?

On respect, the real question is: should everything be respected? Is Female Genital Mutilation to be respected because old men think that is their culture – and even if some women also think it is their culture? Should forced marriage or child marriage be respected? Should public flogging for adultery be respected? Should stoning to death be respected? Or for that matter should the death penalty be respected at all?

There is a relativist culture of non commitment and neutrality that has been expanding – certainly in the West, under the influence of liberalism, of human rights organisations and of political correctness and the fear of appearing racist. Accordingly, everything is equal; everything has to be respected on par – the right of the capitalist and the right of the worker, the right of the one who holds the gun and the right of the one who runs for his life away from the gun… It is high time to admit that there are conflicting rights, antagonistic rights.

It seems to me that progressive people have forgotten the virtues of being partisan. I want to stand for the right of the worker, not that of the capitalist, for the right of the man who runs for his life, not for the right of the man who holds the gun, and for the right of women to live their lives without interference from extreme-Right religious people.

There can be a principled response regarding respect for ‘The Other’ and its limits, but this first question can also lead to another: who decides that THIS is The Culture of a group?

We could immediately produce, of course, hundreds and thousands and even millions of people, in each specific country, who would vouch that ‘this’ (be it stoning, FGM, child marriage, etc…) is by no means their culture/their religion, not the culture they feel they belong to, or the religion they believe in.

Do we believe that those presently standing in their own countries or in the diaspora against FGM, public flogging, death penalty for atheists, etc… have less legitimacy in representing their people, their culture, their religion than those who stand for it?

Are we really saying that women fighting against sex segregation today in their own countries are alien to their culture? That they are illegitimate representatives of their cultures?

This stems from a definition of culture as fixed in the past, a-historical, not as a moving, living, permanently changing, social organisation. But then WHEN is a culture arrested in history, in which year? In the years of slavery, in the years when women did not vote, in the years when women did not have access to contraception, or could not open their own bank accounts? In which of these historical steps is a culture ‘arrested’ to be seen as authentic?

To me, the women who fight against FGM or stoning for sex outside marriage or for gender equality, etc are the representatives of today’s culture in their country.

It seems to me that cultural relativists are furiously and deeply racist since they exclusively promote as true and legitimate the worst possible opinions of extreme-Right Muslims. If anyone, white, European, would utter similar opinions about their white European co-citizens, these same cultural relativists would shrink in horror and refuse to shake their hand. One can only conclude that cultural relativists think that a Muslim must be a horrible reactionary, otherwise s/he is not a true Muslim. Isn’t that racist?

Maryam Namazie: Universities UK has even gone so far as to say that denying segregation may violate the free speech of those speakers who cannot speak except to segregated audiences due to their strongly held beliefs. Is this really about free speech or for that matter the right to religion?

Marieme Helie Lucas: This is the very old and always successful story of blaming the victim.

When professor Krauss walked out of the debate at a UK university, although he had announced in advance that he would not participate in it should it be segregated, he was shouted out by Muslim fundamentalist students as ‘intolerant’; he was a little surprised…

At the beginning of the 70’s in Algiers I had two similar experiences:

I was in a queue waiting to vote when the man before me handed eleven (11, you read well) ID cards for all the women in his family whom he was voting for to the voting booth authority. I objected that this was illegal; the staff at the voting booth, the very person who was supposed to guarantee the respect of law accused me of being against the right of women to vote. These women, he said, could not get out of the house, hence their only way of voting was by giving their IDs to the male in the family. And who was I, a woman, objecting to women’s rights as citizens; how dared I?

Also in the early seventies, when for the first time a non-indigenous form of veiling appeared in the streets of Algiers, in fact an early Iranian style of chador that women in Turkey still wear, a sort of long rain coat on trousers, with a tight head scarf, it was labelled ‘the students’ dress’. Most female students in Algiers, especially during the first decade after independence, usually wore western clothes and did not cover their heads. It was clearly an offensive from Muslim fundamentalist groups; they were doing a lot of social work and, together with other goods, would distribute to poor families the so-called students’ dress, in fact the early model of  what was to become ‘the Islamic dress’. Orhan Pamuk described the same thing in Turkey, saying that it was virtually impossible to refuse this ‘gift’ while accepting all the others indispensable ones.

When I raised the issue of veiling young women, I was told that I was preventing women access to universities; that I was denying women the right to study! Without this outfit, fundamentalists said, fathers would not allow girls to go to university (a blatant lie, as Algerian fathers after independence were most willing to send all their children to university, boys and girls alike; schooling was entirely free and lunch was provided), hence I was depriving girls of their right to education by questioning their alien outfit…

By the way, how come we haven’t heard the devotees of untouchable cultures speaking up against this brand new dress code? Wasn’t this costume that we had never seen before alien to our culture?

While attacking our most basic rights, fundamentalists managed to put the blame us, the victims of their manipulation, just as in rape cases: “yes I raped her, but what was she doing at this time of the day/or night in this place? And what was she wearing; how was she dressed? She was actually looking for it, she is the culprit and I am the innocent…”

We have no more reason to accept this reversing of responsibilities from Muslim fundamentalists than we did from rapists.

Maryam Namazie: There is often a problem in addressing issues such as sex apartheid, “Sharia” courts or the niqab as the links between these and Islamism is often kept hidden and it is portrayed as a matter of choice and rights. We often see the use of rights language to push forwards restrictions on rights in the name of religion. Your views?

Marieme Helie Lucas: Our friend Cherifa Kheddar, herself a survivor of an attack on her family by armed fundamentalist groups in the nineties in Algeria is often quoted by Karima Bennoune in her book and her articles. She says that it is useless to fight ‘terrorism’ without fighting its root cause: ‘Islamism’ i.e. the ideology which engenders terrorism.

There is an ideological battle going on, as well as very concrete ones. Introducing parallel legal systems, making one’s political presence visible thanks to more and more women wearing a so-called ‘Islamic dress’, gender segregation, the revival of medieval forms of punishment such as beheading ( let’s not forget it happened in Woolwich not so long ago) or stoning or flogging or amputation of limbs – all this does not come in a vacuum. There is a correlation between all these demands; and there is a deliberate political will behind it. I cannot believe that there are blue-eyed do-gooders who do not see the links, even if they may not analyse this phenomenon politically.

The very sad and very dangerous part of the story is that only the classical racist far-Right organisations in Europe seem to identify the problem. And they use it to further their xenophobic anti- Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-others agenda.

Our betrayal and abandonment by the Left, its denial of the right-wing agenda of Muslim fundamentalists, its hiding behind anti-imperialism, is what causes most difficulties for us anti-fundamentalists from Muslim-majority countries living in Europe. While denouncing fundamentalists, we have to constantly strive to avoid getting used politically by the classical racist far-Right.

Had the Left in Europe had a clear political analysis regarding the rise of the Muslim-Right, we would not be stuck with the perverse manipulation of liberal language. It is in the name of rights that Algerian anti-fundamentalist resistance has been abandoned to its fate – 200,000 victims mostly at the hands of armed fundamentalist groups. It is in the name of rights that the Iranian theocracy has been put in place. Theocrats being hailed by the Coward Left; what more can one say about the absurd dreadful situation in which we are?

The theory of priorities still operates, as well as that of the “main enemy” and the “secondary enemy”: we are being eaten up by our secondary enemy, whilst the main enemy, US imperialism, is quietly allying in Afghanistan and elsewhere with the secondary enemy, Muslim fundamentalist forces which own and/or control gas and other natural resources…

Maryam Namazie: Gender apartheid is hugely contested in places like Iran, Algeria and Tunisia. Isn’t ironic that it would be promoted at UK universities as a right? What are the links between the fight in the Middle East, Asia and North Africa against gender apartheid and those at British universities?

Marieme Helie Lucas: We are fighting the same battle, except that the issue seems much clearer when one lives inside a Muslim-majority country than when living in the diaspora in Europe. The list of signatories to the petition against UUK guidelines shows that women fighting fundamentalist forces in Muslim-majority countries are very much aware of the fact that it is a common.

Gender apartheid is an Islamist demand

Gender apartheid is an Islamist demand

Maryam Namazie

Segregation of the sexes is an Islamist demand though it is often couched as a right and demand of ‘Muslims’. When Islamists have state power like in Iran or Saudi Arabia, it’s the law. Transgressing it can mean fines, imprisonment or worse. There, women must enter government offices via separate entrances from men; they must sit behind men or boys in classrooms and at the back of the bus…

Like racial apartheid in South Africa, gender apartheid is segregation based on the inequities between genders. The ‘logic’ behind it is that women are not equal but ‘complementary’ to men and if unveiled and unsegregated are the source of fitnah and affliction in society. Whilst this perspective is debasing to women, it’s also demeaning to men who are seen to be unable to control their sexual urges. An unveiled, unsegregated woman is like uncovered meat or sweets, asking for it – a whore. It follows, therefore, that the woman who refuses to veil (or ‘properly’ veil) or segregate and who enters the public space on her own terms is considered open season.

One of the slogans of the Islamists attacking women who had joined the 1979 mass demonstration in Iran against compulsory veiling was: ‘Ya rusari, Ya tusari’ (either the veil or a punch). Abdullah Mohammad Al Dawood, a Saudi Arabian writer, recently asked his followers to sexually molest women who work so as to stop women from leaving their homes. In Egypt, the sexual violence against women is often spearheaded by the state in order to prevent women from protesting in the public space…  This is also fundamentally why the Taliban bombs girls’ schools and why those who have sex outside of marriage are stoned to death:  to keep women/girls in their place – captive, covered, segregated, disappeared, not seen and not heard.

Whilst women and men often resist these anti-women rules at great risk to themselves across the Middle East, Asia and North Africa (and might I add also in the west), the likes of Universities UK (UUK) and Islamism’s apologists defend misogyny as a culturally relative ‘right to religion’.

If anything, however, can be learnt from the recent fight (and small victory) against the endorsement of sex segregation at UK universities, it is that gender segregation has nothing to do with the right to religion; after all ordinary Muslims (not a homogeneous group by any means) manage to go about their lives whilst freely mixing with the opposite sex all the time (and where mixing is banned, spend much of their time getting round segregation).

Gender apartheid is an Islamist demand to increase power and influence by asserting medieval rules on women and the society at large. The groups lined up to defend UUK’s indefensible position are all hard-core Islamists who hide behind ‘Muslim’ and religion to push forward their regressive and misogynist far-Right politics: Hizb Ut-Tahrir, FOSIS (Federation of Student Islamic Societies), Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA), and Islamic Human Rights Commission…

FOSIS, for example, has just had their winter council in December with Kamal El Mekki as speaker who supports death for apostates. Hizb-Ut-Tahrir says gays should be killed and has been classified as a hate group. iERA’s Abdurraheem Green says disobedient women should be beaten; iERA won’t even publish on their website the photos of their women speakers (for women-only events of course)…  The British jihadi Iftikhar Jaman who recently died in Syria fighting for Al-Qaeda affiliate ISIS was part of iERA’s dawah team…

The irony of such groups defending sex apartheid out of concern for ‘women’s comfort’ is lost on the likes of UUK.

As is the fact that Islamists have supporters amongst women. Having women supporters who are pro-gender apartheid doesn’t make segregation of the sexes pro-woman just like having black South Africans defending separate homelands for black people doesn’t makes Bantustans pro-equality. Just like having a Sikh spokesperson for the English Defence League doesn’t makes that organisation anti-racist…

A 20 December meeting entitled ‘A Muslim Women’s Unified Community Response: The attack on gender segregation in Islam’ in London shows that in fact segregation is the Islamist women’s demand (whilst feigning representation of all Muslim women). Per Islamist rules, the meeting is women-only because women are not allowed to address men; their very voices will cause fitnah if heard by men, which also explains why women must write their questions down at meetings rather than voice them. Speakers at this women-only event are from Hizb-Ut-Tahrir, iERA, Islamic Human Rights Commission, and University Islamic Societies. Another speaker is Yvonne Ridley who used to work for the Islamic regime of Iran’s Press TV.  Her former employer has also waded into the debate with a Member of the Islamic Assembly saying sex segregation has gotten attention in non-Islamic countries because universities in the west are ‘swamps of corruption’ and ‘Muslim students’ are in a position to influence and act as role models for non-Muslims…

Of course it is not just Universities UK. Whilst many got it right this time around and opposed UUK’s position that sex segregation is a deeply-held religious belief (sadly only because they see it as ‘their universities’ and not a Sharia court or burqa which only affects ‘the Other’), many – including the British government – have got it wrong countless times before.

Which is why UUK thought it could get away with endorsing gender apartheid and why Islamists can dare to speak of ‘women’s comfort’ whilst simultaneously waging an all-out war on women.

In other equally important fights against other aspects of the Islamist project to increase influence and power, there have been many, including humanists and secularists, who have defended Sharia courts as ‘people’s right to religion’ and the burqa and niqab as ‘women’s right to clothing’.

But as Algerian sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas says: “There is an ideological battle going on, as well as very concrete ones. Introducing parallel legal systems, making one’s political presence visible thanks to more and more women wearing a so-called ‘Islamic dress’, gender segregation, the revival of medieval forms of punishment such as beheading ( let’s not forget it happened in Woolwich not so long ago) or stoning or flogging or amputation of limbs – all this does not come in a vacuum. There is a correlation between all these demands; and there is a deliberate political will behind it.”

The demand for gender segregation like Sharia courts and the niqab help Islamists gain political ground at the expense of the innumerable, including many Muslims who are Islamism’s first victims.

The only way to stop Islamists from gaining more ground and in order to push them back, ‘progressives’ must begin to recognise this far-Right movement for what it is, defend universality and secularism, and fight it politically on all fronts in solidarity with the many women and men battling it from Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia to Iran.

La lucha continua (the fight continues)…

We should not abandon secularism

We should not abandon secularism

Interview with Pragna Patel and Gita Sahgal


Maryam Namazie: The term post-secular is being used a lot recently to say that western secularism may have come to an end and that it’s irrelevant for other societies, particularly given the “religious revival.” Is there a religious revival or is it political? Is secularism western and irrelevant for other societies or the west for that matter? Your comments?

Pragna Patel: Ever since the Salman Rushdie Affair burst on to our scenes in 1989, we have witnessed a steady rise of religious fundamentalist movements in all religions. So the question is not so much about religious revivalism but about the rise of religious political power. The revival of religion and the rise of political religious power which defines religious fundamentalist movements go hand in hand.

In the UK, we have been witness to the revival of religion as the main marker of identity; a framework by which the needs of minority communities have been articulated and addressed. This has led to a greater accommodation of religion within state institutions and in the wider public culture, reflecting a number of global and national economic, political and social trends. But the groups that have tended to dominate as mediators in the development of the new social contract between state and minority communities are authoritarian and conservative if not fundamentalist. Their demands for a seat at the public table are particularly disturbing because what they seek to do is to redefine religious values and identities so that they are compatible with their own reactionary, patriarchal and anti-democratic world views. These fundamentalists often masquerade as ‘moderates’ but there is nothing moderate about their views on women and female sexuality. What they seek to do is to impose strict religious identities that encourage gender apartheid and force women to retreat into the private sphere of the home. It is no accident that in the last decade or so, internal dissent against religious fundamentalist and orthodox values have largely focused on the need to discipline women and to control female sexuality. If we look at the key flash points in the UK, from the Behzti play (involving Sikh fundamentalists who successfully opposed the staging of a play on rape in a Sikh temple) to the imposition of veiling and sharia law on women and girls, they have all been articulated in the name of the right to manifest religion but are really about the control of female sexuality.

This political use of religion has often involved the appropriation of progressive and secular language and spaces created through struggles for democracy and equality by many, including black and minority women. For instance, religious fundamentalists and ‘moderates’ alike are engaged in substituting the demand for equality with the demand for ‘religious literacy.’ That is, the demand for the State to recognise the supposedly ‘authentic’ theological values and traditions of minorities, but not the recognition of the diverse, syncretic, liberal, cultural, political, religious and secular traditions, including feminist traditions, within a community.

These other traditions are in danger of being obliterated by the shift from ‘multiculturalism’ to ‘multi-faithism’ which has of course benefited from and accelerated under successive British government agendas on ‘Cohesion’, ‘Integration’ and the ‘Big Society.’ The struggle for secularism is therefore directly linked to the struggle for gender justice and racial equality which under the shadow of neoliberal economics and politics is being severely undermined.

Secularism as a concept is not alien to minorities or to those from the ex colonies. Indeed in many parts of the world, the struggle against colonialism was also a struggle for democratic and secular societies. And in the course of such struggles, the meaning of secular values was transformed so even if the concept had its roots in western enlightenment, it has evolved through struggles against colonialism. It is vital that we do not forget this history by seeking to distance ourselves from the struggle for secularism. Why? Because what we are witness to is this process of re-definition from above (the state) and below (religious fundamentalist leaders) which is resulting in a diminishing welfare state on the one hand and on the other hand the communalisation (community groups and civil society organising solely around religious identities) of minority communities. The de-secularisation process is extremely damaging to struggles for democracy and human rights (especially women’s human rights) in our community and family institutions. It encourages the State to relate to us not as citizens but as subjects defined only by reference to religious identity which is increasingly defined by religious fundamentalists. It prevents us from uniting with others on the basis of need and weakens our struggles against racism, equality and gender justice based on universal values of human rights.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say defending secularism, and opposing religion in the state feeds into racism and imperialism; it’s colonialist and doesn’t acknowledge the positive role religion can and has played.

Pragna Patel: This is the same old diatribe that is always trotted out when dealing with issues of racism and imperialism. As black and minority women we have faced these accusations many times; whenever we have struggled against issues like domestic and sexual violence within our communities, we are told that we are being divisive and that we are playing into the hands of the forces of imperialism. At best, we are told that ‘now is not the time to deal with these issues’ or at worst we are ‘traitors to the anti-racist or anti-imperialist cause.’ There are many, including on the so called progressive left who say that in the post 9/11 climate defined by the rise in anti-Muslim racism, defending secularism is tantamount to supporting racism and imperialism. We respond to this in a number of ways:

Firstly, conceptualising secularism as anti religion is a false premise. Secularism is not about the absence of religion in people’s individual lives. Secularism is essentially about de-linking religion from political power in the family, community and in state institutions. Religion cannot be allowed to define our roles and our values because it is based on hierarchies of power and inequality. It will always limit the freedom of those who are seen as threatening such as women, sexual minorities and indeed other religious minorities. Religion can play and does play a positive role in the lives of many of the abused women that we see, for example, at Southall Black Sisters (SBS) but that does not translate into a desire on their part to have their needs met through religion. In fact, many see religion as a personal matter but not as the basis for receiving legal and welfare services which they wish to remain secular and free from religious power exercised by corrupt patriarchs.

In 2009/2010, SBS conducted a small study to shed light on whether or not the revival of religion constitutes the counter-voice of the many black and minority women who need help to secure their rights in contexts where they are vulnerable and marginalised. In-depth interviews were conducted with 21 women from different religious backgrounds. The results can be found in ‘Cohesion, Faith and Gender’ and shows that vast majority are acutely critical and even fearful of aspects of their tradition, culture and religion that perpetuate gender inequality, discrimination and violence. Although most are believers and often turn to religion for spiritual sustenance, none express any sense of belonging to a faith-based community. Women in the SBS study reveal how they negotiate and contest their identities on a daily basis. This is precisely why they all cherish the secular space provided by SBS which they experience as an empowering space that enables them to gain access to other ideas, traditions and cultures. More importantly, they values SBS as a secular space because it unlocks their access to secular State services, including the legal and welfare system, which many regard as the final safety net in their struggle to assert their fundamental human rights and freedoms. What the women’s voices tell us is that religion can have a positive role to play but if and only if it is willing to align itself to the demand for a democratic and secular state in which the rights of all are guaranteed.

Secularism is important for women’s freedom but it is also important for others who are marginalised including religious minorities because it has the potential to guarantee freedom of worship for all. However, we also recognise that the demand for secularism – essentially the demand for the separation of church and state – is not in itself a sufficient pre-condition although it is a necessary one. The demand for secularism must out of necessity, also be tied to the demand for democracy and equality to prevent the rise of authoritarianism or totalitarianism.

Secondly, if we don’t defend secular values and instead embrace religious ones then we will be guilty of developing counter resistance strategies against racism and imperialism that hides other forms of oppression. Religion cannot be embraced as a framework for articulating disaffection and alienation or to address questions of equality and rights since its very foundation is based on recognising some rights but not others. We see this most clearly played out in the clash between the right to manifest religion and the right to be free from religion. Women who want to be free from religious impositions that deny them their autonomy and sexual freedom are constantly excluded. But we need to alert to the ways in which this exclusion is actually articulated. Often demands for the right to manifest religion may seem on the surface to be progressive but in fact hide a highly reactionary agenda. A good example of this is the recent capitulation by Universities UK (UUK), a representative body of universities in the UK, to demands for gender segregation in universities. UUK has without any hesitation, accepted the right of external visiting speakers to insist on segregating their audience according to gender on the grounds of their religious beliefs. This response is a victory for Islamist groups who have been the most vociferous in making such demands. UUK has justified its position on the grounds that universities need to accommodate the genuinely held wishes or beliefs of those who are religious and states that this arrangement will not be discriminatory as long as ‘both men and women are being treated equally, as long as they are both being segregated in the same way.’ It would appear that UUK is ignorant of the history and struggles against racial discrimination based on the flawed logic of ‘separate but equal.’ Such logic legitimised racial apartheid in South Africa and now legitimises gender apartheid. There is a disturbing failure to recognise that this stance will allow the right to manifest religion (a qualified right) to trump the right to be free from gender discrimination and subjugation (an absolute right).

What we mustn’t do is capitulate to the form of lazy and expedient thinking and activism that argues that supporting demands for a secular state is fuelling western imperialism. Instead, we have to find the courage and vision to fight racism/imperialism and religious fundamentalism at the same time, which means being alert to those who seek to undermine the relevance of secularism for minorities and to those who use it to mask a language of majoritarianism and ethnocentrism. Taking this position does not make us complicit in anti-Muslim racism or in other forms of racism. Quite frankly, we can no longer afford to put up with the argument that ‘now is not the time to raise religious fundamentalism’ any longer because in the silence that ensues, we hide our own forms of fascism which we then are not willing to recognise. This is a very dangerous path to tread.

Thirdly, ironically, it is the accusation that secularism is a western concept and imposition that actually panders to colonial and racist constructions of minorities because it assumes that minorities can only be defined by reference to their religious identities. This stance denies the very real and urgent human rights struggles that are taking place around the world by ordinary people everywhere, many in the ex colonies. If anyone is in any doubt just take a look at the recent book by Karima Bennoune ‘Your fatwa does not apply here anymore.’ She documents hundreds of everyday struggles waged by individual men and women including politicians, writers, artists and activists against religious fundamentalists across the Muslim world. She argues that their struggles stand for and seek to create secular, human rights and democratic values but they have largely been ignored if not silenced including by those who see themselves as anti-imperialists, to devastating effect. She pleads for the need to bear witness to the countless forms of resistance that is taking place every day against fundamentalist violence. Nor are these struggles inherent to Muslims but can be found wherever religion seeks political power.

Maryam Namazie: There are those who say defending the strict separation of religion from the state is just another form of fundamentalism, namely secular fundamentalism. Can the two be compared?

Gita Sahgal: The people who condemn ‘secular fundamentalism’ are very often the same people who do not like to use the term correctly to refer to religious fundamentalism. They say that they don’t like to use religious fundamentalism because it is only applied to Muslims, or that it covers too broad a category. So it’s really odd that they are willing to refer to secular fundamentalism, which I think is not a sensible comparison; nor do I think it is a legitimate term.

Like Islamophobia, it is almost invariably used to silence criticism. The person using it is saying, “I am reasonable and nuanced and accommodate religious belief. The ‘secular fundamentalist’ does not accommodate religion.” Actually secularism is a view of the world which guarantees freedom to hold religious belief while limiting manifestations of religion which are harmful in some way. I have often been labelled a secular fundamentalist for arguing that religion should be excluded from special protection or promotion by the state, and that the law is made by human beings and does not come from god. Most religious minorities in South Asia are passionately secular in that they oppose a state religion. In Bangladesh, the Awami League government promised to remove Islam as the state religion and return to the original Constitution of Bangladesh. However, they did not do so but left a hotch-potch with secular principles in the preamble to the Constitution, whilst maintaining the amendments that made Islam the state religion. Muslims in India feel very threatened by Hindu fundamentalists and would oppose India becoming a Hindu state. These views are compatible with human rights; in fact they are the underpinning of human rights – since human rights are the inalienable right of all human beings and won through centuries of human struggle. They were not given by revelation or by Holy Writ.

Religious fundamentalists on the other hand represent the destruction of the most fundamental of all human rights principles – liberty and equality. In fact they threaten every part of the legal human rights framework – there is no civil and political right – such as the right to life, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the principles of equality and non-discrimination that religious fundamentalists do not seek to destroy. They also threaten other rights such as the right to the benefits of scientific progress, to health and to education. This is true of numerous movements which work within the law and not only the terrorist groups. I don’t see how you can reasonably compare someone who firmly upholds basic, recognised principles of human rights with someone who seeks to overthrow them. Certainly there are people who use the idea of secularism to promote a racist discourse about minorities. This is particularly true in Europe. In Britain, the same people tend to emphasize British values and the Christian character of the State in order to exclude and demonise. The idea of secularism can be misused but the term secular fundamentalism doesn’t capture this. In any case, the term is seldom applied to European racists who sometimes use the idea of secularism to promote dominant religious values. In India, we also see right wing Hindu organisations attack the Congress for being ‘pseudo-secular,’ and try and own the idea of secularism themselves.

We should not abandon the idea of secular space in our own movements, nor should we abandon the idea of secularism. Many people are leaving fundamentalist organisations and embracing secular space.

The point is to oppose all those who are using a critique of secularism to promote a rule by majority instead of a rule of law. But people using the term ‘secular fundamentalist’ are often not mounting any substantial critique. Instead they seek to demonise those of us who are clear and firm about separating religion from state and from public policy.

I have also been accused, generally by Christians in Britain, not only of being a ‘secular fundamentalist’ but of having blood on my hands when arguing the case for the disestablishment of the Church or for other secular policies. I think it is really odd that someone who takes their inspiration from Gandhi and Nehru should be treated like a descendent of Hitler or Stalin.

In ‘Refusing Holy Orders: Women and Fundamentalism in Britain,’ which I edited with Nira Yuval Davis, we argued that:

“Fundamentalist movements, all over the world, are basically political movements which have a religious imperative and seek in various ways, in widely differing circumstances, to harness modern state and media powers to the service of their gospel. This gospel is presented as the only valid form of religion. It can rely heavily on sacred religious texts, but it can also be more experiential and linked to specific charismatic leadership. Fundamentalism can align itself with different political trends in different countries and manifest itself in many forms. It can appear as a form of orthodoxy – a maintenance of ‘traditional values’ – or as a revivalist radical phenomenon, dismissing impure and corrupt forms of religion to ‘return to original sources’.”

Maryam Namazie: What would you say to those who assert that we should work with everyone we can in the fight against sharia or religious laws and Islamism, including the likes of the English Defence League and Tommy Robinson. They would say the differences between us and them are manufactured, divisive and intolerant and hold back our movement. They would claim our differences are a facade held up by the left in its aim to de-legitimise anyone who speaks out.

Gita Sahgal: I understand why some campaigners against religious fundamentalism, particularly against Islamism are very frustrated. We know that those who should be our allies have allied instead with the fundamentalists of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Jamaat e Islami, the Islamic Human Rights Commission and Cageprisoners. That list pretty much represents a broad range of Islamists around the world: the Saudi backed groups, the pro Khomeini groups, a pro al Qaida public relations network and two of the largest Muslim fundamentalist organisations in the world. I have done extensive work on the Jamaat e Islami and Cageprisoners, who extol the virtues of people with much blood on their hands. It is beyond belief that leftists, Quakers, liberal Jews all of whom are their targets, should choose to sit with these people at inter-faith meetings, donate money to their causes and justify their political agendas. Amnesty International supported the idea of ‘defensive jihad’ and they have never explained why. Human Rights Watch welcomed the Muslim Brotherhood to power and called us racists for pointing out that they were a threat to human rights. The Stop the War Coalition has been exposed by you, Maryam in your work as well as in our book ‘Double Bind: the Muslim Right, the Anglo-American Left and Universal Human Rights.’

But as your book, Enemies Not Allies, pointed out, it is no use allying with one set of extremists to oppose another. The English Defence League are a nasty rabble who want to spread terror on the streets. We don’t know if they are responsible for the attacks on mosques and Muslim schools and community centres. But they were certainly the inspiration for Andre Brevik in his murderous attack on a plural society. It is true that the European far-right have in recent times not killed nearly as many people as the Muslim far-right movements. But we should not be choosing to side with murderers or those promoting murder. You cannot build a principled movement on foundations where basic principles have become blurred.

As for Tommy Robinson: it is clever of the Quilliam Foundation run by former Islamists, to persuade him to leave the English Defence League because it creates confusion in their ranks. But he doesn’t yet really appear to have fundamentally changed his views. In fact, the presence of the EDL on the streets has mobilised the SWP and its allies and the Muslim fundamentalists as well as some genuine anti-racist who don’t have an anti-fascist movement to turn to. And that is what we need – a real anti-fascist, anti-extremist movement.

I would really urge anyone thinking of entering into any sort of alliance with the EDL to refrain from doing so. They have very little actual presence and what little short term gains they made in getting a new audience of a few angry young men, would soon be lost. Valuable work showing the damage done by Islamism – gender apartheid, sharia courts, etc. would be twisted into a fundamentally racist discourse.

It is true that many pro-fundamentalist leftists and post-modernists do seek to silence people who speak for One Law for All or the Centre for Secular Space (Southall Black Sisters are the good cops to our bad cops and I don’t know of attempts to silence them), but whereas we stand today on firm and principled ground, we would not be able to do so with far-right allies.

But I don’t want to sound too disheartened. There is an entire generation of political activists and post-modernist and post-colonial academics who I think of as a ‘lost generation.’ I think there is little use trying to wean them away from their thinking as post-feminist, post-secular and post-colonial types. They have invested too heavily in talking mumbo-jumbo and they really can’t stop. But there are older people who remember a universalist left and there are younger people who have come into politics through their challenge to religion on the one hand or fundamentalist organisations on the other. We should not only notice the rise of political religion, but also a very public rise in mass movements challenging religion and fundamentalism. The Atheist, Humanist and Secular Society – a British student movement, attracts students from all over the world. There are young people struggling against the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat e Islami in many countries. The movement of ex- Muslims is quite phenomenal. These are the people we are working with at the Centre for Secular Space. It would be a betrayal of their struggles against racism in this country and the promotion of fundamentalism by the British state to ally with racists who want to kill them.

Maryam Namazie: Some will say that people have a right to a western perspective, a right to their country, and a right to object to the changes and dangers brought to it by mass influxes of people from cultures they don’t understand or recognise. Is that really the main problem here?

Gita Sahgal: Pragna and I are first generation immigrants. We are among that mass influx and we certainly wear strange clothes, eat odd food and refer to values and beliefs that are little recognised in Britain. I remember when we issued our statement in support of Rushdie, we referred to our secular traditions, because of course we knew that Britain was a Christian state – and though it was a liberal state, it was precisely the unfairness of having an established religion that allowed fundamentalists to demand equality by having a blasphemy law that protected Islam. So we had to argue a third position – against the established Church and for abolishing the blasphemy law. We are also republicans. Does that mean we are against British values?

Pragna and I and many other progressives have had a critique of multiculturalism which is over twenty years old. It is quite different from the critiques mounted by a range of right wing commentators, who tend to blame immigrants and immigration for the problem; and whose analysis of multiculturalism really removes the state from its responsibility. They do not apply this analysis to the conduct of foreign policy either. If it were not for immigrants such as Pragna, Kenan Malik or me, there wouldn’t be the critique of multiculturalism that we have today.

A low wage economy, the destruction of the welfare state and the lack of infrastructure to absorb migration are many of the reasons that some people may become afraid. It is very wrong to blame the people who helped to build the state and create an intellectual critique of fundamentalism and racism, for the problem.

There are many people with a pride in their country and their religious traditions who are not extremists or racist in any way. Certainly the cosmopolitan left, of which I’m a part has often failed to recognise that. I’ve seen critiques of the historian and peace activist EP Thompson for being too ‘English.’ The people who said that didn’t know what they were talking about. He was the most internationalist of men and unusually defended young Indians who were fighting the Emergency (a period of dictatorship in India). Indira Gandhi had allies in the Labour party and people like Michael Foot supported the Emergency. He also worked hard to develop relationships with dissidents in Eastern Europe and not simply make alliances with the official state-sponsored peace movements which were really just Soviet fronts. That is a very good model for us to look at.

I think back to my ancestors who were jailed for years for opposing British imperialism. They were also visceral anti-fascists and utterly opposed to Nazi Germany and Japan’s brutal attacks on other Asian countries. They argued that India would join the war effort as an independent country but not as subject nation. However, they did not ally with Germany or Japan (though some Indian nationalists did on the ‘enemy’s enemy’ principle). If they could keep their faith in a progressive and plural nationalism and in universal values in that most difficult of times, so can we.

Maryam Namazie: Why is secularism so important in this day and age and particularly as a pre-condition for women’s rights? Islamic feminists would say that women’s rights can be respected under Islam too and there is no need to separate religion from the state if it is properly interpreted.

Pragna Patel: Perhaps the most urgent struggle taking place today in a variety of contexts is the struggle for women’s right in the face of religious fundamentalism. The rise of religious identity as a counter hegemonic identity has very specific consequences for all progressive struggles but especially for those waged by minority women, whose bodies have become the battleground for the control of community representation.

Some feminists from minority backgrounds talk of the need to develop a feminism that is sensitive to the growth of religious values especially in the light of anti-Muslim racism. But these ‘religious feminists’ seek to work within religious frameworks that make the demand for the recognition of religious identity paramount rather than the need for substantive gender equality. We argue that this trend towards developing a religious based feminism makes no sense in contexts like the British situation where secular spaces still exist and where there is a long, rich and vibrant tradition of secular feminism as in the UK.

Without a shadow of a doubt, over the last three decades, secular black and minority women’s projects across the UK have been the driving force behind successful campaigns and services for women who experience gender-based violence including specific cultural and religious forms of harm within black and minority communities. By establishing advice centres, counselling services and refuges, black and minority women have challenged community norms that reproduce a culture of denial and silence. In the process they have developed the analysis and the experience needed to challenge State and community practices that justify and excuse violence against women. Despite often operating in contexts of great hostility, these efforts have led to new laws, improved legal interventions and helped to create statutory guidelines on a range of issues such as domestic violence, honour related crimes, forced marriage and child abuse. It is this work and not the work of religious and community leaders or institutions that has led to increased awareness and to progress in respect of black and minority women’s human rights.

Despite this track record, ‘religious’ forms of feminism have emerged as a counter voice to so called ‘western secular feminism.’ Often our critique of such feminism and their demands for greater religious recognition in state institutions, for example the demand to wear the veil or seek a divorce through sharia courts, is met with the accusation that we are denying Muslim female agency. Yet questions of which social and political forces are at play in demands for greater accommodation of religious identity and who defines religious values and for what purpose, are rarely considered. Instead, notions of ‘community’ and ‘autonomy’ – the cornerstone of feminist analysis, embodied in campaigns for freedom, especially in the private sphere, are being used to shore up a regressive multi-faith framework.

We should for example, be extremely wary of demands for separate religious laws to govern family matters in minority communities because what they appear to do is to create the conditions for the establishment of parallel legal systems based on divine law which is profoundly anti-democratic, misogynist and homophobic. Such arbitration systems seek to uphold rather than interrogate patriarchal power. There is an assumption that women who access such religious arbitration forums are doing so voluntarily and are therefore exercising their autonomy but this is misleading, since few women, irrespective of their backgrounds, have the legal knowledge or the resources to withstand pressure to conform to custom or invoke a broader set of citizenship and human rights. It is precisely because of the lack of any internal democratic means of accountability and other difficulties in securing their safety from within their communities that many minority women, as the SBS study shows, prefer to seek protection through a range of secular state agencies.

Discussions of Muslim female agency are in any case removed from the increasingly transnational religious political and social movements that give rise to the kind of demands that are being made. The critical point that is ignored is that female agency is constrained and framed through religious forces and that what we are witness to is the unfolding of a bigger power struggle for the control of female sexuality and women’s freedoms and rights more generally – a central goal of all religious-right projects. This is the danger that religious feminists do not recognise but ordinary women engaged in struggles for greater freedom in the private sphere so readily recognise.

Ultimately, such ‘religious’ forms of so-called feminism seeks to align themselves with rather than challenge religious right movements which in the UK have increasingly dominated the ‘anti-racist’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ counter voice. Their goal is clear – to bring secularism into disrepute as a ‘western’ concept and to restrict minority women’s exit options from oppressive patriarchal family practices.

Religious fundamentalism poses a serious threat to the universality of human rights and to the secular fabric of the legal and other public institutions that are so central in gaining access to justice and protection for women and other marginalised people. This is why the struggle for secularism is so directly related to the struggle for women’s rights.

Pragna Patel is the Director of Southall Black Sisters. Gita Sahgal is the Director of Centre for Secular Space.

News Flash Nov-Dec 2014

News Flash Nov-Dec 2014

Bangladesh  Iran  Iraq  Malaysia  Saudi Arabia  Syria  Turkey


Transgender women are calling for changes to the law to enable them to inherit property. Although individuals were granted the right to identify as Hijra and have been recognised as a third gender in law they are still barred from inheriting or even claiming their inheritance under the laws that apply in Bangladesh. It was recommended that if the law was enacted Hijras should be allowed to choose whether or not to inherit as a male or a female, since men are entitled to more than women under Sharia law.


British Iranian Ghoncheh Ghavami 25 joined a protest in June to challenge gender segregation rules that apply to Iranian sporting events featuring male teams. She was arrested, released and rearrested, moved from prison to prison while she and her family have been kept in the dark regarding the charges against her. Ghoncheh is currently out on bail and staying with family in Tehran, while the campaign continues to have charges against her dropped altogether.

A bill was passed in the Islamic Assembly in Iran allowing paramilitary forces to enforce compulsory Islamic dress codes. The Bill coincides with efforts to introduce legislation protecting vigilantes who take it upon themselves to “correct” fellow citizens’ whose state of veiling they regard it as inadequate. The move is believed to be linked to a string of acid attacks on women which have blighted Iranian society recently, and have been the subject of huge public protests on 25th October some of which can be seen here.

After 5 years on death row, Reyhaneh Jabbari was hanged by the Islamic regime of Iran on 25th October 2014, despite international appeals for a reprieve. She had acted in self-defence when Abdolali Sarbandi attempted to sexually assault her, and that her confession had been obtained under duress. She was 26 years old.


The lives of Iraqi women and girls, many from the minority Yazidi religion, are being systematically destroyed under the advancing Islamic State (or ISIS). IS has used its online magazine to justify the practice of taking slaves saying “One should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffar — the infidels — and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Shariah, or Islamic law”. Girls and women who have managed to escape ISIS have explained how their slave trade works.


The Malaysian Sharia system has traditionally banned men and transgender women from wearing clothes that are considered to be women’s clothing. That ruling has recently been overturned in the appeals court which described the law as “degrading, oppressive, and inhumane”. Three transgendered women who had been involved in the case were arrested four years ago by Islamic Officers for the crime of cross-dressing.

Saudi Arabia

The Shura Council which advises King Abdullah has recommended that the ban on women drivers be lifted, with certain provisos: only women over 30 will be allowed to drive, they must be off the roads by 8pm and, no make up is allowed behind the wheel. Also any woman wishing to avail herself of the new freedom to drive would need to secure the permission of a male relative, and once on the road she would be subject to a range of restrictions regarding any interaction with male drivers or traffic police – in fact a male driver could be prosecuted and sentenced to a month in jail for speaking to a female driver. The ban has been protested in various forms since 1990, when 50 women were arrested and faced legal sanctions including having their passports confiscated for driving. More recently female drivers have been posting footage of themselves taking the wheel on social media.


An area in the North East of Syria which has been under self rule since the outbreak of civil war has issued a 30-point decree declaring “equality between men and women in all spheres of public and private life”. The self-ruling democracy of Jazira province has stated in its decree that, among other things, women have the right to run for office, to work and be paid, to divorce and to inherit.


Recep Tayyip Erdogan has infuriated rights activists in Turkey by claiming that gender equality is against nature. This is not the first time Erdogan has raised hackles among rights campaigners – he has commented on women’s unsuitability for some work and his views on motherhood are considered by some to constitute infringements on women’s autonomy over their own lives and bodies.

Secularism as a Universal Right


Secularism as a Universal Right

Maryam Namazie

The concept of ‘post-secularism’ aids in theorising efforts to diminish secularism’s importance just when it’s needed most. A theory that insists that secularism lacks relevance, particularly for ‘non-Westerners,’ is part of the project to dismantle it and knowingly or unwittingly enhances the regressive role of the religious-Right under the guise of defending culturally relative ‘rights;’ it is also based on a number of false premises.

Contrary to its assertions, the so-called religious revival is about politics rather than religion or increased religiosity. Also, secularism (the separation of religion from the state) is a precondition for safeguarding religious and cultural rights; is not western but universal; and is a fundamental right and necessity for all, and particularly those living outside of the west.

In fact, the articulation and defence of secularism is more urgent than ever given the encroachment on civil rights and freedoms across the world by the religious-Right (particularly Islamism) and the urgent need for solidarity with the palpable fight-back in many countries.

Whilst secularism is often portrayed as anti-religion, in fact it guarantees the absolute right to religion and belief. This is not the case when religion has a role in the state. The death penalty for apostasy or blasphemy, including against believers, is one example of many. In Iran 130 offences are punishable by death, including heresy and enmity against god.

Secularism also defends the right to expression of belief even whilst limiting the role of expression in the public space. For example, the Christian-Right calls for laws forbidding reproductive rights for all citizens yet laws granting such rights do not force Catholics to practice either contraception or abortion.

On the flip side, there are sharia law courts in Britain, which are a parallel legal system where a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; women have limited rights to divorce whereas men have unilateral right to divorce and child custody is given to the father at a pre-set age irrespective of the welfare of the child. Where the law is secular, women would have equal rights and access not available to them under religious laws. Restricting these sharia courts would still allow women to give up their rights to alimony or child custody in a civil court if they felt they deserved nothing whilst protecting the many who don’t want to or are coerced into giving up their rights under sharia.

What is often touted as ‘religious rights’ is in fact an imposition by the religious-Right and Islamists and aims to implicate the state in the implementation of inequalities in the name of rights. There is, however, no right to oppress and discriminate against.

As author and human rights lawyer, Karima Bennoune says:

“…in applying freedom of religion, both those who believe and those who choose not to believe, as well as those who seek to manifest belief and those who do not wish to be coerced to do so, must be taken into consideration. This is only possible in a framework of secularism…

“…The term secularism here means emphasis on the temporal over the religious in law and an accompanying minimization of the role of religion in the functioning of the state and legal system. The significance of the temporal for human rights is not that it is always morally superior to the religious, [though I would argue it is] but rather that it is contestable. The temporal allows space for dissent which the ‘you cannot argue with God’ paradigm forecloses.”

One fallacy of the theory of post-secularism is that secularism has come to an end given the return or revival of religion. In fact, the ‘religious revival’ is not because of increased religiosity but due to the rise of the religious-Right, spearheaded by Islamism.

Whilst Islamism may use Islam as a tool for the far-Right restructuring of power structures (just as the Christian-Right uses Christianity) the movement is not fundamentally about religion as an ideology and belief but about enhancing the power and influence of the religious-Right in society.

In the past several decades (though there is a palpable change in era), the rapid rise of Islamism in Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Indonesia, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan, and its increasing influence in Europe, including Britain; the constraints on free expression; increased veiling and so on are not due to people becoming more devout Muslims but because of the rise of Islamism.

In fact, Islamism was brought to centre stage as a result of US foreign policy during the Cold War in an attempt to create a ‘green belt’ around the then Soviet Union. In contemporary history, the rise of Islamism can be linked to the establishment of an Islamic regime in Iran on the back of a suppressed left-leaning revolution and its exportation internationally. Saudi Wahabbism has also played a role.

Despite this, and partly because of post-modernism and cultural relativism, Islamism is seen to be one and the same with ‘Muslims,’ thereby legitimising oppression under the guise of respect for culture and tolerance.

Multiculturalism (not as a positive lived experience but as a segregationist social policy) and cultural relativism ignore and negate the plurality in any given society or ‘community’ by giving precedence to the dominant culture and religion and implying that that human beings – depending on how they are pigeon-holed – are fundamentally different, and should be treated as such.

Because it is those in power that determine the dominant culture, Islamist values and sensibilities are seen to be those of ‘authentic Muslims.’ The conflation between ‘Muslim’ and Islamist means that for example, even though historically there have been portrayals of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet, including by Muslims, it is now considered an ‘offence against Muslims’ to do so. Opposing veiling or Sharia law is seen in the same way, though both are highly contested in many contexts.

The theory of post-secularism sees Muslims as a homogeneous community that is conservative, Islamic and anti-secular. But there is no homogeneous culture anywhere. Conflating Islamist with Muslim ignores the immense dissent and denies the social and political struggles and class politics. It is a narrative peddled by Islamists and their apologists – many of them on the Left (and I say this being on the Left myself) – in an attempt to feign representation, restrict dissent, and prescribe the limits of ‘acceptable’ expression.

Ironically, like the nativist far-Right which opposes multiculturalism and cultural relativism yet benefits from its idea of difference to scapegoat the ‘other’ and promote its own form of white identity politics, the post-modernists use multiculturalism to side with the oppressor by demanding respect and tolerance for oppression characterised as ‘difference’ no matter how intolerable.

And whilst feigning to be inclusive, the theory of post-secularism is really western-centric. It doesn’t see the many secularists within the ‘Muslim community’ in the west and in societies in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

According to the Iranian Marxist Mansoor Hekmat: ‘The religious, cultural, ethnic and national categorisation of people is always the first step in denying their universal rights as human beings. If the genocide in Rwanda is the continuation of an African tradition, if stoning is the Iranian people’s Islamic tradition, if veiling is part of the culture of women in ‘Islamic societies’, if marrying off a nine year old girl is a tradition of the people of those countries themselves, then they can really be forgotten, humiliated, bombed and left to the mercy of their own rules beyond the fortresses of western civilisation and democracy. But if it becomes clear that these people like all others live and produce in a capitalist society and global market, if it becomes apparent that these Islamic traditions and laws have been imposed on them by sheer force of imprisonment, torture chambers, street patrols, knives, executions, and stoning, if it becomes apparent that these people like all others are yearning for freedom, equality and an end to discrimination… then all this hypocritical ideological monument will collapse and the damage will be beyond words.’

As a result of cultural relativism, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are instead applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over individuals.

Though Muslims or those labelled as such are Islamism’s first victims and on the frontlines of resistance, the conflation of Islam and Islamism with Muslim has meant that much needed criticism is often condemned as racism. The distinction between humans and their beliefs and far-right political movements is of crucial significance here. It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them.

Moreover, it’s the idea of difference that has always been the fundamental principle of a racist agenda not the other way around.

Contrary to that which is argued by the theory of post-secularism, in plural societies, with diverse beliefs, religion must be kept separate from the state in order to treat all equally, despite and irrespective of individual beliefs. The state must be secular if it is to be inclusive, accessible, non-discriminatory and if it is to be underpinned by principles of equality, non-discrimination and individual rights.

Of course when speaking of Islam or any religion, I am not referring to religion as a personal belief. Everyone has an absolute right to religion and atheism but religion in the state is no longer a question of personal belief but a matter of political power and control.

As Women Living Under Muslim Laws says: “Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism. It is not a legitimate response that can be supported by the progressive forces of the world. Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to their theocratic project and to their project of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion, including education, the legal system, youth services, etc. When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people, they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters – like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the ‘untermensch’ – the subhumans -, among them ‘inferior races’, gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women ‘in their place’, which as we know from experience ends up being a straight jacket…”

Those who consider a demand for secularism as ‘culturally inappropriate,’ ‘western,’ or ‘colonialist’ are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist. Islamism is a form of colonialism though it is seen as ‘authentic.’ Islamists in Niger or Mali are de-Africanising the lived Islam there, for example, and the niqab and burqa were unheard of in many countries just a few decades ago.

Plus even in many western countries the fight for secularism is not over. Britain for example, has an established church. The queen is the head of the Church of England. There are unelected bishops in the House of Lords and daily prayers in Parliament. Even in France, which is renowned for its secularism, judges take sharia law into account in, for example, the annulment of marriage and have even introduced sharia’s civil code for some of its citizens of North African descent via bilateral agreements.

Also, the post-secularism theory ignores the reality that believers can be secularists too. Recent surveys in France show that about 25% of the population in France is atheist, with the same percentage being Christian and also Muslim. 75% of the population, however, are secularists. Research carried out by Southall Black Sisters in the UK shows that many women, including those who are ‘deeply observant want to be able to traverse different religious spaces for their social and emotional lives and secular spaces for their activism and advice.’

The theory of post-secularism implies that this is about a clash of civilisations or an antagonism between a ‘secular West’ and a ‘religious East,’ but it is not. It is about a global struggle between secularists, including many Muslims and believers on the one hand, and theocrats and the religious-Right on the other.

There are strong secular movements in so-called Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Pakistan, Algeria and Mali, despite the great risks involved. Karima Bennoune has brought to light many such groups and individuals in her recently published book, the title of which is based on a Pakistani play where the devotional singer who is beaten and intimidated for singing deemed ‘un-Islamic’ retorts: ‘Your fatwas do not apply here.’ The uprisings and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, such as the mass protests against Islamists for the assassination of Socialist leader Chokri Belaid in Tunisia; the vast secular protests in Turkey against Islamisation; the Harlem Shake in front of Muslim Brotherhood headquarter in Egypt and the largest demonstration in contemporary history against the Muslim Brotherhood – 33 million people – are all evidence of that.

Post-secularism (leaving people at the mercy of ‘their own culture’) and the systematic and theorised failure to defend secularism and people’s, particularly women’s, civil rights in many countries and communities, only aids and abets the religious-Right to the detriment of us all – believers and non.

As British philosopher AC Grayling has said: secularism is a fundamental right. Today, given the influence of the religious-Right, it is also a precondition for women’s rights and equality and for rights and freedoms in the society at large. It must be actively defended, promoted, and articulated.

The veil is nothing but the flag of the Muslim far right

The veil is nothing but the flag of the Muslim far right

Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas

Maryam Namazie: Limitations on the veil in schools and an all-out ban on the burqa or niqab are often seen to be authoritarian. Your views?

Marieme Helie Lucas: First of all, it is useful not to conflate the two issues: that of veiling girls in schools and banning the face covering. I will thus answer them as two separate questions.

When talking of veils in schools, one automatically refers to the veiling of under-aged girls, i.e. not the veiling of women. The question thus becomes: who is to decide on girls’ veiling – themselves or the adults who are in charge of them? And which adults?

I know of only one book that looks at this issue; it is a pamphlet entitled ‘Bas les Voiles’ (by Chahdortt Djavann, Gallimard 2003) that was published by an Iranian woman exiled in Paris at the time when the Stasi Commission in France was collecting the views of concerned women (and men) before the adoption of the new law on religious symbols in secular state schools. The author states that the psychological damage done to girls by veiling them is immense as it makes them responsible for men’s arousal from a very early age. This point requires special consideration given the new trend to veil girls as young as 5 as shown in the numerous campaigns throughout North Africa. The author goes on to explain that the girl’s body is thus turned into the site of “fitnah” (seduction or source of disorder) meaning that she cannot look at it or think of it in positive terms. This attitude builds girls that fear, distrust, and feel disgust and anguish at their own bodies. At such an early age, little girls have no way of countering this shaping of their self; they are entirely under the thumb of anti-women men. The women growing up from these psychologically damaged girls are likely to need a lot of help to be able to reconsider themselves and their bodies in more positive terms, to reconstruct their self image, to conquer their bodily autonomy, to abandon guilt and fear – and to give back to men the responsibility of their sexual acts. I think it would be very useful for more women researchers to delve into the psychological damage done to girls who are veiled from an early age.

Also, who is the ‘adult’ in charge of protecting the girl-child’s rights? The state already plays this role on numerous occasions, such as in preventing families from perform FGM on girls, or in preventing forced marriages for instance. Why should it not also take responsibility in preventing the deep psychological damage induced by wearing a veil before adulthood?

Maryam Namazie: Why should the state be seen as authoritarian when it prevents the veiling of girls but not when it protects them from FGM?

Marieme Helie Lucas: It is interesting to remember that groups of lefties and feminists (alas!) in Europe and North America defended ‘the right to FGM’ in the seventies as a ‘cultural right’ and denounced ‘western imperialism’s’ attempts at eradicating the practice in Europe. At no point was any reference made to the struggles of women on the ground to eradicate it in the limited parts of Africa where FGM was practiced both by animists, Christians and Muslims. We see the same pattern replicated regarding ‘the right to veil’, which is now seen as a ‘religious right’ despite the fact that numerous progressive interpreters of the Qu’ran have stated that it is not an Islamic injunction.

What strikes me is the imbalance in treatment of ‘authoritarianism’ by those on the left and in the human rights community in Europe and North America. Millions of women in predominantly Muslim set-ups have been assassinated for standing for their right NOT to be veiled (so far, veiled women are not assassinated for wearing a veil in Europe, nor in North America, even if it is true that they may be verbally attacked by far-right racist individuals, who, may I emphasise, are then taken to court and generally convicted – as should be the case).

I wish the magnitude of the vociferous defence of veiled women’s ‘choice’ and ‘right to veil’ by ‘progressive people’ would be matched with their defence of women slaughtered for not veiling. But what we see, instead, hidden behind the left and human rights community’s unilateral defence of the human rights of veiled women, is in fact a clearly political position. ‘Progressives’ have chosen to defend fundamentalists who they depict exclusively as victims of US imperialism, rather than the victims of fundamentalists, i.e., amongst others, the millions of unveiled women who have resisted their diktats as well as the millions of secularists, agnostics, atheists, and so on who have been abandoned as ‘westernised’ or even ‘allies of imperialism’! History will judge this short-sighted political choice just as it did the cowardice of European countries at the onset of Nazism’s rise in Germany.

With regards your question, I can only speak from my perspective as an Algerian living in France at the time of the debate on the two French laws that are incriminated the world over as being ‘anti-Islam’: the law on veiling in schools and the ban on face covering. These are two different issues and in France they have been treated separately.

The ban on religious symbols in state secular schools is done in the name of secularism, whilst the ban on the face covering is done in the name of security. The burqa has been added to other forms of face covering such as masks (outside a carnival setting) or full motorbike helmets (when not riding) as all of these are routinely used to protect the identity of rioters or ‘terrorists.’ (As an Algerian old enough to have lived through the Battle of Algiers during the liberation struggle from French colonialism, I know for certain that veils were used to carry arms and bombs from place to place – hence I cannot be surprised that full face coverings are added to the list of forbidden outfits.)

Let me deal with veiling in schools.

The situations of France and Britain are very different.

France is a secular country that, since the French revolution, separated the new secular state from the political influence of the Church. The secular laws that established this separation date from 1905 and 1906, way before any immigration from predominantly Muslim-majority countries. Article 1 of the 1906 law guarantees freedom of belief and practice. Article 2 of the same law states that beyond this guarantee of fundamental individual rights the secular state will have nothing to do with religion and its representatives. The state will not recognise churches, nor fund them, and so on. In the words of a modern analyst of secularism, Henri Pena Ruiz, the state declares itself ‘incompetent in religious matters.’ Beliefs become a private matter, and established religions (at that time mostly the Catholic Church) lose all political power over the state. The secular state will simply ignore them as political entities. Citizens are the only partner the state recognises, through democratic election processes.

It is a consequence of the definition of secularism as a separation of state and religion that, since 1906, displaying ‘any symbol’ of religious or political affiliation is forbidden in exclusively two specific situations: for both personnel and pupils in primary and secondary secular state schools (i.e. for under-aged children, and not including universities where students are of adult age), and for civil servants in contact with the public.

The rationale for this is that children come to the schools of the Secular Republic (where education is free) to be educated as equal French citizens, not as representatives of any specific community. Education as equal citizens is a powerful tool against communalism and the divisive specificities that lead to unequal legal rights within a given country, as is already the case in Britain, with the so-called ‘sharia courts’ becoming parallel legal systems in family matters.

Similarly, civil servants when in contact with the public have to perform their duties as representatives of all citizens of every ethnic or religious background, and that is why they are requested not to display their affiliation within the time frame when they represent the Secular Republic.

This is a far cry from, for instance, British police stations, where one can request to be heard by a policeman of his or her own cult or ethnic group as if a civil servant cannot be educated not to be biased, and is necessarily first and foremost faithful to his or her ‘community’ rather than to fellow citizens.

Maryam Namazie: It is thus in the name of secularism that veiling has been outlawed in secular state schools and for civil servants in France, just as crosses or kippas have. Interestingly, the emphasis is on the veil, not on crosses or kippas. Why? And who is behind this hierarchy?

Marieme Helie Lucas: What blurred the issue was that the rightwing president Sarkozy passed the new law in 2004 whilst trying to rally the xenophobic far-right in favour of his candidacy. There was no need for such a new law; the 1906 law merely had to be applied.

The right and far-right forces in France have never stopped attacking the 1905-6 secular laws for the past 100 years. They have now found active and powerful partners in Muslim fundamentalist far-right forces which also want to dismantle secularism and to return to the stage when religions had political power and official representation. It is clear that while different religions will compete at a later stage – if they are to succeed in their attempt to eradicate secularism in France – they are useful allies to each other. Just watch how representatives of the Catholic Church and Jewish high authorities support practically every demand by Muslim fundamentalists! The issue of the veil in primary and secondary schools in France is but one of the many demands they constantly devise to fundamentally challenge the laws of the Secular Republic.

Isn’t it ironic that laws passed a century ago, at a time when there was virtually no immigration from Muslim-majority countries, now pass off, the world over, as laws against Islam? This alludes to the expertise of Muslim fundamentalists in media communications.

Coming back to the issue of veil and burqa in the UK, let me state that Britain is NOT a secular state. The Queen is the Head of the Anglican Church, thus it cannot root its ban of the burqa or niqab or even head scarf on secular laws dating back to more than a hundred years nor show its commitment to free and quality non-confessional education for all children as is the case in France.

Britain has devised an alternative definition of secularism, not as separation, but as equal tolerance by the state vis-à-vis all religions. Thus the state in Britain interacts with religions, and considers ‘churches’ (or the like in other religions) as political partners and representatives of communities. It is this which leads to communalism and cultural relativism. Isn’t it high time for Britain to return to the original definition of secularism and to a form of democracy in which citizenship is at its centre?

What we see happening is the fragmentation of people, of fellow citizens, into smaller and smaller competing entities that each demand different rules are applicable to them and their ‘community’ in the name of cultural and religious identities. Laws that were voted by all citizens are challenged for the benefit of supposedly divinely ordained laws – a direct attack on the very principle of democracy. We see the eradication of the notion of citizenship, and this will have drastic political consequences in the near future. All in the name of rights!

Maryam Namazie: What happens to a woman’s right to choose her clothing? Some would say forcing women to unveil is on par with forcibly veiling them.

Marieme Helie Lucas: I would like to first point out the fact that the debate is formulated in ‘western’ terms. To my knowledge, women in Muslim contexts are NOT prevented from veiling and that’s the vast majority of supposedly Muslims in the world. In most instances, they are forced to cover, to various degrees, often by law and we have yet to hear a worldwide outcry about their situation.

In sharp contrast, we hear so much about the poor women ‘forced to unveil’ in non-Muslim contexts – mostly in Europe and North America – but I have yet to find WHERE this happens; nowhere to my knowledge. The limitations on veiling, in specific circumstances in France, have been addressed in my response to the previous question (under-aged girls are requested not to veil only within the premises of secular state primary and secondary schools and burqa-clad women are requested to uncover their face for purpose of identification; the rest of their body, hair, and head can be covered as they like). Also, as per my knowledge, when veiled women are verbally or physically attacked, there are tribunals to defend them against any form of aggression. In actual fact, the debate is reduced to the right to veil in Europe and North America with no regard for the resistance to veiling everywhere in the world and the dire circumstances for resisters. This reduction is utterly unacceptable to me.

On the one hand, there are millions of women worldwide forced to veil who risk their liberty and lives when they transgress veiling orders. They are abandoned to ‘cultural’ and ‘religious’ rights with no analysis of the far-right political forces manipulating and hijacking culture and religion for political gain under the politically correct pretext that US imperialism misused the defence of women’s human rights to conceal its economic reasons for invading Afghanistan and that ‘whites’ are racists. On the other hand, there are women of the diaspora in Europe and North America whose ‘right to veil’ is defended by a politically correct coalition of left and human rights defenders who show little interest in the numerous cases of young women trying to escape forced veiling.

Maryam Namazie: Isn’t there some disturbing imbalance in such an utterly discriminatory political choice between those whose rights deserve to be defended and those who don’t qualify? Could these champions of our rights publicly clarify their reasons for such a hierarchy of rights?

Marieme Helie Lucas: Clearly the question here exclusively refers to the ‘right to choose’ of women who want to veil in Europe and North America and that this is a very limited and partial way of addressing the problem; it means ‘disappearing’ the vast majority of concerned women.

About ‘choice’ in general, much has already been written by feminists about how much freedom one can expect in situations where women have no say either legally, culturally, religiously or otherwise. Recently, a powerful academic article by Anissa Helie and Mary Ashe: ‘Multiculturalist Liberalism and Harms to Women: Looking Through the Issue of the Veil’ (published in UC Davis Journal of International Law and Policy, Vol. 19.1, 2012) concluded that ‘proponents of veiling often insist on an individual ‘women’s right to choose (the veil)… Crafted by the theoreticians of radical Islam (who usurp the mantra of supporters of abortion rights for women), such slogans can confound Western liberals who, afraid of being labelled racist, fall into the trap of cultural relativism.’

I would, however, go back even further to the old debate sparked by Marx on workers’ ‘freedom to work’ at the time of Britain’s industrialisation, i.e. a time when in order to not actually starve and die, workers’ only ‘free choice’ was to work 14 hours a day in hellish circumstances that also killed many of them, including women and children under the age of 10.

Maryam Namazie: Women in many countries where Muslim fundamentalists rule and terrify populations have the same ‘choice’ that workers had in a Britain that was industrialising: to die of starvation or survive a little bit longer as slaves / to die because they resist fundamentalists or survive as slaves. Great ‘choice’ indeed! Is that the only alternative women are offered by cultural relativists?

Marieme Helie Lucas: The number of women assassinated by family members, as well as by fundamentalist armed groups, or imprisoned by fundamentalist states in our various countries on all continents for the simple reason that they do not conform with veiling diktats should at the very least count as more important in the eyes of human rights defenders than the ‘plea of veiled women’ who may occasionally have to cope with racists comments in ‘the West.’

How can one dare compare, for instance, the 200,000 victims of the ‘dark decade’ ( through the 1990s) in Algeria, a vast majority of whom were women assassinated by fundamentalist armed groups, mostly ignored and abandoned to their fate by international human rights organisations, with a handful of veiled women yelled at in Paris or London? Yes, how dare one compare. This accepted inequality of treatment only shows that for human rights organisations and left parties, the West is still the centre of the world, and what happens there – however small and marginal – takes precedence over the many crimes committed elsewhere.

I would like to point out an interesting blind spot in the analysis of the left and human rights crowd, which if it were taken into account would prevent the reducing of the issue to ‘individual choice.’

The number of veiled women in the streets of European capitals has been steadily growing over the past two decades only. Their number is not proportional to a significant increase of migrant populations. These women do not wear their national costumes (including head covering or not) but the Saudi veil instead which never existed in other countries. There is a growing number of women adopting the most drastic form of not just hair covering but of face covering.

Maryam Namazie: In light of this, how can this form of veiling be seen as a cultural issue when it in fact eradicates all traditional forms of hair covering and of national and regional dress?

Marieme Helie Lucas: How can this form of veiling be seen as a religious issue when progressive theologians and scholars of Islam on all continents keep demonstrating that veiling women is not a religious prescription, that it is a cultural one, circumscribed to the Middle East, both for men and women, adapted to its climate, and common to all religious groups as should be largely demonstrated by Christian iconography that depicts the Virgin Mary and all the holy women that shared the life of Christ in his times as well as Jewish women as veiled. Why not rise in defence of all these endangered cultures? How can they not make the link between the propagation of the Saudi veil and Saudi funding of most of the mosques and religious organisations that have been popping up in European capital cities? How can they not see this form of veiling as fundamentalism’s political flag? How can they not link its propagation with the other political activities of Saudi (and Qatari) imperialism? How can they not make a political analysis of this sudden explosion of veiled women in the diaspora? How can they reduce it to ‘individual choice’ of individual women in the wake of such a massive and sudden new phenomenon?

If, let’s say, there was a sudden spread of nuns’ outfits, concomitantly in Italy, France and Spain, and if Catholic women in visible numbers would aggressively assert their right to be clad as ‘true Catholics’ ( a modern invention that would be contested by respected Christian theologians, – just as this new rage for veiling is contested by numerous progressive Muslim theologians and scholars of Islam that neither the left nor human rights organisations ever quote in defence of unveiled women against the inaccurate claims made by fundamentalists), wouldn’t the left point at the right and far-right political movements hidden behind this supposedly religious revival? Wouldn’t the left analyse it in political terms, rather than in religious ones, and denounce it? If there were rumours, or examples of ‘improperly’ clad Catholic women being coerced into this outfit, or beaten up, or forcibly secluded, or killed, wouldn’t human rights organisations start looking into it? Wouldn’t they defend the victims? Wouldn’t they denounce these as human rights violations? Or would all these supposedly progressive forces continue to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses and to the cries for mercy of victims? Would they focus on the ‘right to veil’ of Catholic women?

It is clear to me that by reiterating the claims of fundamentalists over women, without even checking out the most blatant of their lies, the left and human rights crowd only betray their fear of being labelled ‘Islamophobic.’ They unwittingly (I hope) reinforce fundamentalist views which claim they are the only legitimate representatives of Islam, and that their opponents anti-Islam.

This is what is behind the question of ‘choice’: it places the debate away from any political analysis that would point at the right and far-right nature of fundamentalists’ manipulation of the veil. The right and far-right views of the supremacy of the individual are rooted in economic liberalism.

Maryam Namazie: Whilst we might consider secularism a precondition for women’s rights, Islamists consider Sharia law a precondition for women’s rights in the way they see them. Who is to say who is right? They would argue secularism is a western concept and a form of cultural colonialism.

Marieme Helie Lucas: I object to using the term ‘sharia law.’ It presupposes that there is somewhere written a body of laws that are used by all Muslims. A simple overview of laws in Muslim-majority countries shows that there is no such thing. The vast diversity of laws in predominantly Muslim contexts show that laws have different sources: from giving legitimacy to local cultural practices (FGM passing off as Islamic in some regions of Africa), to different religious interpretations (for example Algeria legalised polygamy whilst Tunisia bans it using exactly the same verse of the Qu’ran but with a different reading of it!), to using laws of former colonisers (such as the ban on contraception and abortion in Algeria, using the 1920 French law), and so on. It would therefore be a huge mistake to think that all the laws in Muslim-majority countries have their source in religion.

‘Sharia’ is a term coined by fundamentalists in order to make believe that such a body of laws exist; using the term just allows more people to believe in its existence. Exactly just as media started using other terms coined by fundamentalists, such as jihad ( which means a spiritual fight within oneself to come closer to God, rather than a ‘war’ with weapons, as they interpret it) ; or ‘the Islamic veil’ when they propagate Saudi veiling; or ‘Islamophobia’ when one challenges their views on Islam… Do not use the language of the enemy! It gives credibility to their lies…

As I have already pointed at, there are lots of places in the world where veiling is compulsory and no forced unveiling anywhere. Not even in primary and secondary schools in France because ultra-orthodox families have a choice to enrol their daughters in religious schools of their choice. The only obligation of families is to send their daughters to school but the choice of that school is not within the mandate of the secular state.

And nowhere are women forced not to wear a veil in public; they are only asked in France to not cover their face. Hence secularism neither veils nor unveils women. Undoubtedly, however, fundamentalists’ interpretation of supposedly divine orders aims at veiling women. Secularism is not an opinion nor is it a belief; it is exclusively a definition and a regulation of the position of the state vis-a –vis religion. Either the state interferes with religion or it does not. Secularism is the formal set up in which the state does not interfere with religion. We should not accept any other definition of secularism.

As for the accusation of secularism being a western concept, haven’t we heard that of feminism for decades? But if we are to look into history, especially the history of women in Muslim contexts, we find out that many women, for centuries, fought for what is now considered feminist ideas and women’s rights, that they dedicated themselves to literature, poetry, women’s education, politics, legal rights for women, just as is the case now and that they were supported by enlightened men and women, both believers and atheists, just as is the case now. Anyone interested in exploring some of these stories from the past should read ‘Great Ancestors’ by Fareeda Shaheed and Aisha Shaheed (published by Women Living Under Muslim Laws).

Similarly, there have been many supporters of secularism in Muslim contexts over the past centuries, just as there are many today. That includes atheists, agnostics and believers who thought and still think religions benefit from the fact that political power does not interfere with personal beliefs or spirituality. Today, the former Great Mufti of Marseilles is a strong supporter of secularism in France, as are many progressive Imams who go public every Sunday in a religious TV show on French channel 2 about their support for French secularism which guarantees freedom of belief and freedom of practice.

So the real question for me is: why don’t we hear more about such Muslim supporters of secularism and why won’t the media give less public space to the expression of fundamentalist hatred for secularism? It is yet another fundamentalist distortion to present facts in the light of secular law being against divine law…

Recent surveys show that about 25% of the population in France declares itself atheist, and the percentage is the same among supposedly Christians and supposedly Muslim individuals. But the percentage of all those who declare themselves in favour of secularism rises to 75%, and is identical for presumed Muslims and presumed Christians.

There are strong movements for secularism in all so-called Muslim countries, whether in Pakistan, Algeria or Mali. Citizens go public in support of secularism risking their lives in places where fundamentalists run armed groups that attack their opponents. Why are photos of their public events and street demonstrations never seen outside their national media?

Maryam Namazie: Some will say this raises the question of how far we are willing to allow the state to intervene in private matters such as the way we dress. Your comments?

Marieme Helie Lucas: If we do agree that this sudden rise of specific veils worldwide passing off as THE ‘Islamic’ veil is neither cultural nor religious but a political flag that fundamentalists use in order to increase their political visibility at the expense of women, then we must also admit that wearing this form of veil – now – in Europe and North America has a political purpose; the women who wear it, whether they are aware of it or not, are wearing the flag of a far-right political party. Hence I could hardly agree with the formulation: ‘a woman choosing how to dress.’ This veil is definitely not to be equated to wearing high heels versus flat shoes, or miniskirts versus trousers. It is not a fashion; it is a political marker. If one decides one is going to wear a swastika as a brooch, one cannot ignore its political meaning; one cannot pretend one does not care for the fact that it was the ’flag’ of Nazi Germany. One cannot pretend one just likes its shape. It is a political statement.

Women from all over Asia and Africa who wear a face covering or burqa today whether they do so in Europe and North America or whether they wear it in their own countries are wearing a form of veiling that they have never seen before, except if they grew up in a very specific and limited part of the Middle East. They cannot pretend they are going back to their roots and wearing the dress that their foremothers wore centuries ago nor can they pretend that they wear it for religious reasons. Muslims were Muslims for centuries without wearing such an outfit: in South Asia, they were wearing saris or in the Sahel they were wearing boubous…Today, burqa-clad women wear an outfit that was unseen and unheard of until a couple of decades ago when fundamentalist political groups ‘invented’ the burqa as their political flag.

Hence if the state were to regulate burqas or the niqab, it would not regulate ‘the way we dress’, nor would it deal with a personal taste in fashion, but with publicly wearing the political sign of an extreme right movement.

It may be the role of the state to do so. This can be debated. But what is not debatable is that women wearing the burqa today are in the grip of a transnational far-right movement. Whether burqa-clad women are aware of the present day political significance of their veil or whether they are alienated into the fundamentalists’ politico-religious discourse is irrelevant.

Maryam Namazie: In practice, how can restrictions be put in place (also looking at the French example) without further inflaming racism and bigotry against Muslims and immigrants and what is the connection between the two? I ask this given that some will argue that a criticism of the veil and niqab are racist.

Marieme Helie Lucas: In that case, is resistance to niqab/burqa/head scarf and any other form of veiling to be labelled ‘racist’ in our countries too? Were the women who chose to die rather than to veil in Algeria in the nineties all racist against their own people and against their own faith as many of them were believers in Islam?

Can’t we stop thinking ‘the West’ is the centre of the world? What about the Sudanese woman who at this very moment in Khartoum risks flogging and imprisonment for refusing to veil? What about the numerous Iranian women who have been jailed for decades for wearing ‘un-Islamic’ dress?

Racism, xenophobia, marginalisation of and attacks on migrants (or people of migrant descent) have always been there. At the beginning of the twentieth century in Southern France, there were pogroms against Italian migrants who ‘came to steal the bread of French workers’ – sounds familiar today, doesn’t it ? There were numerous dead and wounded. But if we look at French citizens whose family names betray an Italian origin today, they are fully integrated and no one even thinks of contesting their belonging to the French nation. It is the same for Spaniards, Portuguese, Greeks or Poles and Russians who all came to live in France in recent history, became French citizens and have now ‘melted’ into the general population.

There are a growing number of well known people in France with Arabic names (and often erroneously presumed Muslim); they are professors, lawyers, medical doctors, scientists, journalists, film makers, actors, bankers, computer experts, entrepreneurs… This signifies their incorporation into the nation just like the Italians, Spaniards… less than a century ago.

A beautiful play entitled Barbes-Cafe was shown last year in different cities of France. It was entirely the work of people of Algerian descent, most of whom fled fundamentalists’ death threats and attacks on them in the nineties. This play is a hymn to emigration using popular songs in Arabic from the beginning to the end of the 20th century and traces the history of emigration from North Africa, the pain and longing of migrants and the terrible conditions of work but it also celebrates the law that allowed families to join workers, the free and secular education for their children, the solidarity between indigenous and migrant workers in unions and left parties and so on. It ends with images of those of migrant North African descent who ‘made it’ and open the gate for generations to come. It is a manifesto of hope, albeit not trying to conceal the hardship many workers faced – for their children and grandchildren to become a part of France.

October 27 was the anniversary of the March For Equality and Against Racism that four young men and women, French citizens of North African origin, initiated in October 1983. They started from Marseilles and walked for two months throughout France, visiting towns and villages, speaking to their urban and rural fellow citizens, denouncing racist crimes and discrimination, and advocating the equality of all citizens. They also denounced the label ‘Muslim’ that was imposed on them for reasons of geographical origin. Along the way, other citizens of all origins joined them and started marching with them. When they arrived in Paris, 100,000 people had gathered to welcome them and support their goals.

It is not predetermined that oppressed people or victims of discrimination turn to far-right movements. In such circumstances, people have a choice to become revolutionaries or fascists. The fundamentalist response to racism is a fascist response. We should not under any pretext grant them any legitimacy. We should support people’s movements for equality and full citizenship.

Fundamentalists have a keen interest in making sure they get the benefit of racist incidents; just like the traditional (xenophobic) far-right political movements, they need to radicalise their troops and recruit more people to their cause. Both these apparently antagonistic far-right forces share the same goal: they welcome bloodshed. Hence they are prepared to provoke racist incidents. In the past few years, fundamentalist inhabitants of a Paris neighbourhood started praying in the streets and blocking traffic for hours on Fridays. The pretext was that their local mosque was not big enough. But for sure the Great Mosque of Paris, only a few tube stations away from them was/is permanently quasi-empty. Police watched on without doing anything and this has now been going on for more than seven years. The only response, of course, came from a far-right group which launched public invitations to share a ‘wine and pork’ aperitif on the very same streets on Sundays.

The cowardly left should have taken this into its own hands, demanding that people vacate the public space if they have not received police authorisation to occupy it as is legal. The cowardly left is prepared to ignore provocations by Muslim fundamentalists because they do not want to be seen as ‘Islamophobic.’ In a way, one feels they do not make a difference between believers in Islam and the far-right supposedly religious movement that feigns to represent all Muslims.

It was in the hope of avoiding a confrontation with Franco that European governments, including the then socialist government of France, refused to help and to protect the legitimate government of the Republic of Spain. It was with the hope of avoiding a confrontation with the well-behaved Hitler that European governments went to Munich and allowed the invasion of Poland by Nazi troops. History shows that cowardice in politics leads nowhere and that everyone has to pay the price for not standing for principles and rights in due time.

Victims of racism need to be defended, including legally; social and political problems need to be addressed by social and political means, not with religious ones.

Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist and founder of Women Living Under Muslim Laws and Secularism is a Women’s Issue.