Part 2 of an Interview with the radical secularist Maryam Namazie.
sister-hood interviewed her after the ‘Celebrating Dissent’ event she co-organised with the DeBalie venue in Amsterdam.
sister-hood is an award-winning digital magazine spotlighting the diverse voices of women of Muslim heritage.
This is part two of a two-part interview.
sister-hood: How did growing up in Iran shape your political understandings? What do you think the future is for that country?
MN: My politics were shaped by the Iranian revolution and by worker-communism. The Iranian revolution was not an Islamic one; it was expropriated by the Islamists who went on to slaughter an entire generation to secure their rule. To me, that revolution is unfinished and we see it clearly in social and political and working-class movements in Iran. Women are at the forefront of this struggle for change. The future revolution of Iran is clearly a female one. Iran has a chance to become another centre of feminism and secularism in the region. Like Rojava, a centre of secular space and feminist enlightenment in a war zone. I wonder though how it will be able to garner the international solidarity it deserves, when so many are stuck in identity politics and cannot fathom what real solidarity looks like.
sister-hood: Can you describe what you mean by secularism, and how you think secularism would benefit women?
MN: Laïcité, the separation of religion from the state, is what I mean when I speak of secularism. Any religion in the state, law, educational system or in public policy is bad for citizens in general and particularly bad for women. If we agree that religion or belief is a private matter, then its presence in the state is not about belief, but about power and control. More importantly, a state cannot have a belief. What about citizens who have different beliefs or none? Even most believers will not agree with the rules imposed upon them by a theocracy. If it is an imposition and compulsion, then it is no longer about the right to believe in what one wants.
Since women are seen to be the embodiment of culture, religion, national ‘pride’, male ‘honour’… controlling women is the first task at hand for the religious-Right and for patriarchs in general. Subservient women are visible signs that all is as it should be according to God and his prophets. In Iran, for example, they came for women first through imposing compulsory veiling rules. In the US, now, you can see how the rise of the Christian-Right with Trump has resulted in women’s right to abortion and reproductive rights being attacked first…
sister-hood: You’ve been very critical of the concept of multiculturalism. Can you explain why?
MN: Multiculturalism as a lived experience is a wonderful thing. People from all over, living together and sharing in our common humanity. But multiculturalism as a social policy, similarly to identity politics, divides and segregates people into homogeneous communities run by unelected ‘community leaders’ who determine the culture and religion of the group. Anyone who transgresses is an ‘Islamophobe’, a ‘coconut’, a ‘native informant’, a ‘house Arab’… This only applies to minorities of course. It’s funny how people living in the UK or the Netherlands for example can demand gay marriage and the right to abortion – but we are only allowed to live within the constraints imposed by Islam and Islamism. Isn’t that racist in and of itself? It is as if we ‘savages’ are incapable of demanding and hoping for freedom and equality. It’s as if we don’t belong to social and political movements, working class politics or progressive ideals… And when we do, we are accused of bigotry! Telling us that our fight to unveil or blaspheme or become apostates is akin to an attack on Muslims is as absurd as saying that being a suffragette is anti-male, being anti-apartheid is anti-white or being for gay rights is anti-straight… Multiculturalism and identity politics further blames victims – and allows perpetrators to play victim.
sister-hood: You took part in a documentary made by Deeyah Khan, sister-hood’s founder. How was that experience?
MN: Deeyah is one of our modern-day heroes. As a Muslim woman, she took a risk in making a film about a vilified and hated section of our communities and societies. Islam’s Non-Believers was one of the first times that our struggle for equality and recognition reached a mainstream audience. The establishment of CEMB, the #ExMuslimBecause hashtag, and Deeyah’s film are some of the key points in our movement – a movement that is not about identity politics but for equality and rights like many of the other great movements such as women’s liberation, civil rights movements, anti-colonial movements and gay rights.
I know a lot of people asked Deeyah why she was doing this film and maybe thought they could pressure her into focusing elsewhere. But that is Deeyah for you. There is always courage in her work and doing what is right rather than what is expedient.
I do feel sad, though not surprised, that Islam’s Non-Believers hasn’t got the recognition it deserves. When the Guardian wrote about her films, it said she had made four and then went on to name all of them but this one. Also, all her other films have received awards. Assuming that her filmmaking capabilities didn’t suddenly diminish for this particular film, I think the fact that our film was ignored is at least partly due to the fact that minorities can only be victims (as in the case of honour killings) or if they do ‘resist’ they can only do so by becoming Islamists and jihadis – the only ‘authentic’ form of minority ‘dissent’.
But dissent that kills and maims and decapitates and denies universal human rights and destroys democratic politics isn’t dissent: it is fascism. For sure, the jihadis have grievances, as do the white nationalists. All of us do, but many of us channel our grievances into positive movements that defend universal rights and our common humanity rather than demanding superiority or privilege at the expense of the ‘other’. That somehow just isn’t newsworthy. It also goes against the dominant narrative that brown and black people who become feminists, trade unionists, ex-Muslims, freethinkers, secularists, universalists, progressives and so forth are somehow ‘Uncle Toms’ and/or ‘native informants’. They are not ‘authentic’ enough, where really what that means is conservative or regressive enough, to be to anyone’s liking. More than saying anything about us, it says a lot about the racist ‘clash of civilisations’ worldview that sees minorities as a regressive lot that deserve only victimisation, vilification or protection. Start defending your own rights, start speaking up and then all hell breaks loose and every effort is made to shut you down.
sister-hood: You’ve contributed a section to a new Civitas report critical of the concept of Islamophobia, and you’ve also written on this topic for sister-hood. Briefly, what is your main issue with the idea of Islamophobia?
MN: Clearly, anti-Muslim bigotry exists. We live in a time where we are seeing the rise of fascism again. Apparently, it is business as usual to see ‘go home’ vans around our cities, deny citizenship to the Windrush generation or watch migrants die on our shores for the ‘crime’ of wanting a better life.
But criticism of Islam or Islamism is not bigotry. Conflating bigotry with blasphemy and apostasy aids fundamentalists and exacerbates racism by insisting that brown and black citizens are ‘different’ and in need of paternalistic protection and to be treated with hyper-sensitivity in case (god forbid) they start burning books… or worse. Call it racism, anti-Muslim bigotry, xenophobia but not Islamophobia. Islam is an idea, and a bad one at that. It must face unrelenting criticism like Christianity has faced. Islamism must face unrelenting criticism as must all far-Right movements. They are inhuman political movements. All the while we must unrelentingly also defend freedom of conscience, expression and our common humanity.
sister-hood: Women in the Muslim world are often depicted in stereotypical ways – as passive victims or religious extremists. What’s your perception?
MN: They only like us when we fit in the mould created by multiculturalism and identity politics. If we dare to turn our backs on religion or the religious-Right, we face a chorus of ‘It’s your culture and religion goddamnit! Respect it!’ so that ‘well-meaning’ people can feel better about our vilification, silencing and censoring. Well, sorry, no can do. As the saying goes, obedient women never make history – but we intend to.