Secularism is my right; freedom is my culture

Below is Maryam Namazie's speech at the May 2013 Women in Secularism conference in Washington DC. It originally featured on her own blog
Participants joined in an action to defend Amina Tyler, Imad Iddine Habib, Bangladesh’s bloggers and Alex Aan

* The outrage over the attempted assassination of 15 year old Malala Yousefzai shot by the Taliban for defending girls’ education
* The mass protests against Islamists for the assassination of Socialist leader Chokri Belaid and Amina Tyler’s topless activism in Tunisia – My body is not the source of your honour and fuck your morals
* The anger over the murder of Neda Agha Soltan in broad daylight at a protest in Iran
* The February day of action against sexual terrorism in Egypt, Egyptian atheist Aliaa Magda ElMahdy’s nude scream against misogyny and the Harlem Shake in front of Muslim Brotherhood headquarters…

Even if you’re not looking, you can still see the immense resistance and dissent taking place.

It’s a new period of human development after decades of Islamism, US-led militarism, unbridled free market reign, cultural relativism and the retreat of all things universal.

Today is an era of the 99% movement and revolutions and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa – many of them female-led.

Whilst it may sometimes be hard to see given the perceived “gains” by Islamists in the region (in fact as counter-revolutionary forces aimed at suppressing the revolutions), the change of era is palpable.

Nonetheless, many post-modernist and culturally relativist Leftists, liberals, and feminists remain firmly on the side of the Islamists.

Any opposition to Sharia law, (which is based on the Koran, Hadith, Islamic jurisprudence), the veil, and Islamic misogyny are met with charges of racism and Islamophobia, cultural imperialism and more.

Those who say so though have bought into the culturally-relativist notion that societies in the Middle East and North Africa (and even the “Muslim community” in the west) are homogeneous, “Islamic” and “conservative”. But there is no one homogeneous culture anywhere.

Since it is those in power that determine the dominant culture, this point of view sees Islamist values and sensibilities as that of “authentic Muslims’.

But as Musa Budeiri, a professor at Birzeit University, the oldest Palestinian University, who was threatened for posting a cartoon on his office door says: Islamists:

resort to abuse, and threats of physical violence, attempting to appropriate to themselves the sole authority of what Muslims can and cannot think, can and cannot do. There are and will remain as many different Muslims as there are unfettered minds.

In fact, “Muslims” or those labelled as such include secularists, ex-Muslims, atheists, free thinkers, women’s rights activists, LGBT campaigners and socialists. Even someone like the wonderful Salman Rushdie speaks for Muslims. As writer Hanif Kureishi says: “He speaks for their doubts. He speaks the bits of them that they actually think and feel sometimes – do I really believe in all this stuff – but can’t say…”

Conflating Islamism with Muslim is a narrative peddled by Islamists in an attempt to feign representation, restrict dissent, and prescribe the limits of “acceptable” expression.

Those who assert that a demand for secularism and opposition to the veil and Sharia law are “foreign” and “culturally inappropriate” are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist.

This shouldn’t be surprising. A large young population in many countries of the Middle East and North Africa brings with it challenges to the status quo as does the recent women-led revolutions and the backlash against Islamism.

As 34 year old Egyptian female cartoonist, Dooa Eladl who calls herself a Muslim anarchist and is facing blasphemy charges for her political cartoons that poke fun of Islamists says: “The extremists don’t scare me”. “Whatever they do, I will continue to use my skills to poke fun at them. They must understand that we Egyptians have changed with the revolution, and we will not go backwards.”

In the same way that there are opponents of nude protest and supporters of the veil, Islamism and Sharia in the “west”, there are also supporters of nude protest and opponents of the veil, Islamism and Sharia law in the “east”- even more so as you will find no greater opposition to Islamism than from those who have lived under its rule.

This has nothing to do with “cultural imperialists” patronisingly “rescuing Muslim women” anymore than the fight for women’s suffrage was a rescue attempt and a form of cultural imperialism (after all the idea was “foreign” to begin with and started in one specific place).

Only those who see their rights and lives as separate and different from those deemed “other” and who have bought into (or are selling) Islamism’s narrative can see solidarity and the demand for equality and secularism in this warped way.

Ironically, like the far-Right which “despises” multiculturalism yet benefits from its idea of difference to scapegoat the “other” and promote its own form of white identity politics, the post-modernists also use multiculturalism to side with the oppressor by demanding respect and tolerance for “difference” no matter how intolerable.

As Algerian Marieme Helie Lucas says, however, “Difference and diversity are double-edged concepts; we should never forget that they have been used by reactionary forces to maintain in their difference – by force – peoples and categories of population. What lies behind ‘respect for difference’ is the deep desire that the ‘other’ remains different…”

Defending secularism, free expression, and equality and opposing Sharia law and Islamic states have nothing to do with “prejudice against Muslim communities”, racism and Islamophobia.

Saying so ignores the immense dissent including amongst those considered Muslims and denies the social and political struggles and class politics.

Clearly, criticism of a religion or far-Right political movement, which Islamism is, has nothing to with racism.

Islamophobia is a political term used to scaremonger people into silence. Charges of Islamophobia have been coined not because anti-Muslim bigotry is the main concern of these apologists but in order to protect Islam and Islamism. If they were so concerned about Muslims or those labelled as such, they would oppose not support Sharia and Islamism and stop justifying Islamic terrorism which kills more “Muslims” than anyone else.

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…

US suffragette and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said “The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of woman’s emancipation”. This is true in particular with regards Islam and Islamism today.

Of course when speaking of Islam or any religion, I am not referring to religion as a personal belief. Everyone has a right to religion and atheism but Islam today is not a personal matter but the banner of a political movement, an industry, a mafia, a killing machine.

Those who equate opposition to religious misogyny with racism and an attack on “Muslims” erroneously or more likely deceptively see an attack on misogynist beliefs and movements as an attack on people and choose to side with culture and religion over the lives and rights of human beings.

This culturally relativist perspective implies that women’s liberation is only for those who are ”white” and ”western”; the rest of us are only allowed “freedom” within the cultural and religious confines of Islam.
Islamic “feminists” like Shirin Ebadi will say that women have full rights under Islam and if they don’t it is because of the practice and interpretation of states. They don’t need secularism she says. There are several problems with this position.

Firstly, the Koran and Hadith (which are the saying and actions of Mohammad, Islam’s prophet) upon which Sharia law is based are full of anti-women rules and regulations (even if you choose to leave Islamic jurisprudence to one side). Stoning to death for adultery, for example, is in the hadith whilst wife-beating is in the Koran.

Secondly, often when there is a discussion about women having full rights, you must ask what is meant by “rights”. Even Islamists will say women have full rights under their rule but that is because to them women and men are not equal but complementary thereby justifying difference in “rights”.

Also, the problem with interpretation is that yours too is just one of many. Even if you have a “good” interpretation, it is usually a regressive imam or Sharia judge deciding for you. But more importantly I question whether a “good” interpretation is possible.

If you follow the arguments made by the “good” interpretations you will soon realise the absurdity of this line of defence. Take Sura al-Nisa (the Women) in the Koran 4:34 where it says: “As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) beat them (lightly)…” You have Islamic feminists saying that men are only meant to beat their wives with thin sticks or feathers. For Sharia judges (at least in the UK where domestic violence is a crime), as long as it is not on the face and genitals and leaves no mark, this does not constitute violence. The point is though that no woman should be beaten. Full Stop.

Clearly, one cannot leave women’s rights and lives at the mercy of religious rules and forms of interpretation.

Religion is a personal matter. When it comes to religion in the state and law and educational system, then it becomes a matter of political power and control.

No religion frees women, particularly not one that has access to political power and is spearheading an inquisition.

Women are freer the less of a role religion plays in the public space, in the state, in the judicial system – not the other way around. Secularism is a precondition for the improvement of women’s status – all women – not just those who are ‘western’.

The conflation between Islamism and Muslim has meant that Islamist demands are seen to be the demands of those living in the Middle East and North Africa. But this is not the case. None of the revolutions in the region had Islamist demands, which are compulsory veiling, sharia law and Islamic states. Islamism is a counter-revolutionary force to suppress revolutions.

If people really wanted to live under medievalism, if it was really people’s culture, Islamists would not need to impose their rules with such sheer brutality. The fact that they must control the streets and arrest and fine people for what they wear and what they think is evidence enough that their rule is an imposition.

Of course there might be those who prefer Sharia law to secular law as there might be people who prefer to bring back slavery or racial apartheid but that is irrelevant here. Sharia law and Islamic states are oppressive. There is no “right” to oppress.

Their post-modernist friends will tell us that our demands are western. But since when are secularism, rights, freedoms, equality “western”? Islamists use the latest technology to advance their barbarity – and these very people are at the forefront of demanding the Islamic regime of Iran’s right to nuclear technology – but when it comes to women’s rights and secularism they’re “western” and “foreign”?
Even if rights are western (which they are not), they were fought for by progressive social movements and the working class and belong to all humanity.

In the words of women’s rights campaigners who chanted on the streets of Tehran in 1979 in opposition to compulsory veiling: “Neither eastern nor western, women’s rights are universal” and “Freedom is our culture”.

In this new era after decades of brutality, terrorism and militarism, it is finally our moment to shine. It is we who must now be on the offensive.

The Islamist obsession with controlling and targeting women and the many decades of resistance along with a new era of revolutions has meant that the women’s liberation movement is at a place where it will bring Islamism to its knees.

Whilst misogyny will not end with Islamism, the situation of women will improve greatly across the world as one of the leading proponents of feminicide is brought to its end.

Of course no fight is predetermined. It depends on sheer human will and intervention.

The point of course is where each of us will stand in this final battle. As the late Marxist Mansoor Hekmat has said:

We are not sitting in judgement of the world; we are players and participants in it. Each of us are party to this historical, worldwide struggle, which in my opinion, from the beginning of time until now has been over the freedom and equality of human beings… (Mansoor Hekmat, Islam and De-Islamisation, January 1999)


  1. I feel slightly uneasy reading this piece, I am not a GOD (Allah) fearing person, and, it's about time everyone throughout this planet realised, The so called Holy Book was written by man for man, not by GOD (ALLAH).

    I have one question Maryam, You have posted quite a lot on TPQ, but you have never answered one question, so, I will ask you this question. DO YOU REALY BELIEVE THAT GOD (ALLAH) EXISTED and STILL EXISTS?. My own belief is, that if GOD ,(ALLAH) created all those miracles as has been written in the so called HOLY SCRIBES, then in my view , no human being could to do such a thing, so if it were true, what distant planet did he come from?. and , before you call me a scientoligist, I AM FAR FROM IT, that is an other money making racket which I detest. PLEASE REPLY. I know your a very busy Lady, but I am Curious about your real thoughts on my thoughts?.

  2. Itsjustmacker,

    Maryam does not post here as such. She writes for her own blog and if I see something that for some reason catches my attention I have her approval to reproduce here. She does not send her stuff to the blog to be published in the way that say Franklin Lamb does. I will draw her attention to your comment if you wish in case she has not read it.

  3. Anthony:

    Thanks , but I will just leave it at that, If she got round to reading it , then , I'm sure she would reply with a rebuff.