Born in Tehran, Maryam Namazie left Iran after the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979. This left-wing, feminist, human rights and refugee activist, founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007, a movement that continues to expand. For years, she has deplored that part of the left does not manage to consider Islamism other than as a local symptom of discrimination, racism or “Islamophobia ” (a term it abhors), while it is a planetary “scourge” and an extreme right-wing ideology. In a major interview given to the Express after the Conflans attacks and Nice, Maryam Namazie castigates the coverage of events by certain Anglo-Saxon media and explains that we must above all not start looking for justifications – such as French secularism or “offensive” caricatures – for an Islamist terror which, far from to be satisfied with striking a secular country like ours, makes every year thousands of Muslims victims in the world.
Interview by Thomas Mahler in L’Express
TM: After this new attack in Nice (and another attempt in Avignon, with a man shot by the police), France seems to be at the forefront against jihadism. Do you understand why?
MN: There is a tendency to discuss the heinous terrorist attacks in France as an attack on French values, or a response to “Islamophobia,” the “insulting” of Muslim sensibilities, social exclusion and/or a colonial past. Fundamentally, in my view, it is none of these.
If we look at the scourge of Islamist terrorism globally, the majority of attacks (with many more foiled) take place in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Just this year, thousands have been killed or wounded in educational centres, farming villages, hotels, temples, maternity wards, mosques, government buildings, marketplaces, on buses and in cars in Afghanistan, Chad, Iraq, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Somalia, Syria… Just this week, in Bangladesh, a man accused of “disrespecting” the Quran was lynched and his body set on fire. The annual statistics of the dead don’t even consider those killed legally by Islamist governments – such as Iran or Saudi Arabia – in what should be considered acts of terror against the population at large. November, for example, will be the anniversary of the 2019 protests in Iran where up to 1,500 protestors were killed by the Iranian regime with others currently facing long-term imprisonment or languishing on death row.
In all these global terrorist attacks, there is hardly a cartoon of Mohammad in sight nor do pundits line up to excuse the killings as a response to social exclusion, military intervention or hurt sensibilities and offence. What this shows is that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons are an excuse for acts of both random and targeted assassinations, executions and terrorism. What some don’t see or choose not to see is that the excuse is not the cause of terrorism. The excuse is there to shift blame on the victims and to justify the unjustifiable.
When we look at Islamist terrorism worldwide, most of those killed are Muslims or presumed to be Muslim due to a lottery of birth, hence why those of us from those regions can clearly see Islamism for what it is: a far-Right political force with state power in many contexts.
The whole purpose of terrorism is to instil fear for a political aim with violence as an end to itself. The Islamist aim – like the aim of all religious-Right movements – is to deny individual freedoms and choices, quash dissent and impose their political project and rule.
As the Algerian sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas says:
In many ways, we are privileged, those of us coming from so-called Muslim countries: we are spared the justification of the Muslim extreme right’s crimes through racism… Religion is the cover up for extreme right political forces; like Nazis with the Aryan ‘race’, the Muslim extreme right believes they belong to the upper religion in the world; like Italian fascists invoking the Glorious Past of Rome, they justify their self-proclaimed highest status with reference to a mythicised past: the Golden Age of Islam. Like fascists and Nazis, they believe this superiority grants them the right and the duty to physically eliminate the untermensch (the sub-humans), which, strangely enough – seem quite similar, from WWII to now: Jews and other ‘inferior races’, communists, etc… to which our home brand of fascists and Nazis add the Kofrs. Among many other similarities, they all assign women to their place: the kitchen, the cradle and the Church/in our case, the mosque.
More than an attack on French or more accurately universal values, Islamist terrorist attacks are integral to a defence of their values – hate, violence, supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, anti-Semitism, totalitarianism… Values that are at odds with 21st century humanity, including a large section of the believing population – hence their need to impose their project with brute force.
Having said that, it must be noted that even if cartoons are an excuse, defending Charlie Hebdo and the right to mock and criticise religion is a task of every secularist today. When Charlie Hebdo draws Mohammed, and stands firm in its right to do so, it gives those of us battling apostasy and blasphemy laws in today’s Islamic states much needed support and strength.
Also, when Hezbollah’s Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah calls the cartoons an “aggression” and the Macron administration’s stance for free expression a declaration of “war,” when former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said “Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past” or Pakistani cleric Khadim Rizvi calls for nuking France, then no one can remain on the side-lines.
The stand to take is certainly not like that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who says that “freedom of expression is not without limits.” Rather the stance to take – a simple one really – is that the aggression and provocation, the crux of the problem, is not free expression but murder.
TM: On a political level, Erdogan called Macron “a fascist”, while Imran Khan explained that the French president “has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens”. How do you explain that these Muslim leaders seem to be more angered by cartoons than for instance about by the tragic situation of Uighurs in China?
MN: The reason Erdogan, Khamenei or Imran Khan are more interested in cartoons than the situation of Uighurs in China or “Muslims” being killed by their own regimes is because “Islamophobia” and the offence industry are seen to be justifiable reasons for murder by too many and it helps them whip up hysteria for their own hateful cause.
They have no real interest in defending the rights of Muslims unless it allows them to justify their rule and maintain power.
TM: The English-speaking medias often criticize the French model of “laïcité”, or secularism, presenting Macron’s decisions after Samuel Paty’s death as a “crackdown on Islam”. American or English journalists seem also to have difficulties to use the term “Islamist” after the beheading of a French teacher…
MN: The Islamist narrative has become mainstream, which is why a number of English-speaking media frame the terrorist attacks as the Islamists do. Watching journalists regurgitate Islamist propaganda by explaining how they were “provoked” to kill – as if the real provocation isn’t murder – is like watching Fox News selling Trump. They have already bought the propaganda hook, line and sinker. Facts and evidence are irrelevant to them.
According to Islamist (and also ironically other far-Right) propaganda, regurgitated by lazy and cowardly “journalism,” there are no distinctions between Islam, Islamism and Muslims. If that were the case, how can it be that the vast majority of victims are in fact Muslims or those presumed to be Muslim? This conflation is crucial for the advancement of the religious-Right and its efforts to silence criticism and dissent but how can this make sense to anyone with half a brain? Is there no difference between Christianity, the Christian-Right and Christians? Do all Christians think alike? Is everyone in the US or Britain Christian for that matter? Do they all agree with Farage or Trump? Is criticism of Trump or the Christian-Right an attack on Christians or white people? Replace these with Islam, Islamism and Muslims, though, and suddenly these “journalists” become incapable of critical thought.
Obviously, targeting Islamism is not the same as targeting Islam. Having said that, the right to criticise and mock Islam and the sacred is an important right. If the right to religion is an aspect of freedom of conscience, so is the right to be free from religion and to doubt and question and even mock. This criticism is particularly crucial for those of us who are Islam’s non-believers.
Islam is a belief like any other and has to be open to criticism, particularly because it plays a role in the bleak situation that we find ourselves. In the same way that Catholicism and the church cannot avoid being challenged by women fighting for the right to abortion in Poland.
On the issue of Laicite, I should just add that Britain is not a secular state by any means given its established Church of England, bishops in the House of Lords and prayers in parliament. It is a secular society despite the established church but this link between the state and church goes a long way to explain why British “secularism” is all about equality of religions and not separation between church and state. This is also the reason why we cannot get anywhere in our challenge of Sharia courts here in the UK. It is because of the implications for the Church and why successive British governments continue to promote a policy of religious communalism at the expense of individual rights and equality. Anything to save the Church’s position in society.
TM: What should we say to Muslims who think that cartoons of the prophet Mohammad offend their faith and their identity?
MN: That some Muslims are offended by cartoons is irrelevant in my opinion. We are all offended at one point or another. I am offended by the Quran and by religions’ views on women, LGBT and apostates but my offence does not give me a license to ban Islam and religion or decapitate, threaten and murder. In fact, unrelenting violence, decapitations, suicide bombs, hostage taking, executions, terror are primarily the remit of the religious-Right and should be treated as such. They are not the actions of ordinary believers, however reactionary. Framing it as Muslim offence is part of the problem and normalises the Islamist narrative. It is like asking “what shall we say to Christians whose faith and identity have been offended” right after an abortion clinic has been firebombed in the US or young people massacred on the Norwegian island of Utoya. Offence is not a defence, especially for murder.
TM: The left in France is profoundly divided about Islamism and djihadism. Some still think that the roots of Islamism are mainly social, because France is discriminating people of Muslim culture with “Islamophobic” policies. How do you explain that progressives here in Western countries can be on the same side than the worst religious reactionaries?
MN: If that is true, then white nationalism in the US, Marine Le Pen in France or the Golden Dawn in Greece are the result of social policies that discriminate against white people or Christians. Identity politics is also being used by white nationalists to justify their burning down of asylum centres and murdering labour MPs.
Coming from the Iranian Left, I find it infuriating that some in the European Left can only envision the Islamist far-Right as a vehicle for “resistance.” Do they equally consider those joining neo-Nazi groups in Europe as a justifiable response to unemployment, disenfranchisement or disillusionment? Do they think, progressive organising in trade unions and labour organisations and feminist or secular movements are not for us minorities? It’s paternalistic and racist to think that we can only be fascists when faced with bigotry, social inequality or imperialism. How racist to assume that when it comes to us – sheer violence, terror and homicide are the only forms of “protest.”
It is obscene how this section of the Left has forsaken its anti-clerical and revolutionary traditions to defend Islamism and reaction at the expense of class politics and progressive secular political and social movements.
Another point needs to be made here. There is racism in France and Europe as there is in Iran and Sudan and… Racism is integral to profit-making as is religion. However, you cannot stop racism by banning blasphemy. We have to fight blasphemy laws and racism. We have to fight the far-Right, including the Islamists. We have to defend freedom of religion and atheism. Most importantly, we have to defend Laicite everywhere. Our rights and lives depend on it.
TM: The former French Prime Minister François Fillon claimed that “there are problems with Islam, and not with the other religions”. Do you share his views, or should we perhaps not forget what is happening in Poland for instance?
MN: There are serious problems with Islam – the main problem being that it isn’t a private affair. If it were– then to each their own. But I wouldn’t agree that it is only a problem with Islam. France’s 1905 law separating religion from the state, after all, was in response to Christianity’s role in the public space. It had nothing to do with Islam. Also, today, we see how other religions are used to perpetrate human rights violations and terrorism. See the Buddhist-Right’s attacks on the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar or the Hindu-Right’s attack on Muslims in India or the Jewish-Right’s assault on the Palestinians as evidence of this in the here and now. Poland and the US are examples of what happens when the Christian-Right gain power. Depending on the degree of political power, that is the degree to which they deny rights and silence dissent. And they always come for women, LGBT, and minorities first. This has been our experience with Islamism over many decades – from Algeria to Iran.
TM: In France, some people at the right think that immigration and Islamism are the same topics, and the see "Muslims” as a monolithic group. What is your answer to that?
MN: I think it is a huge mistake to link immigration and Islamism. There is a bigotry behind the need to link the two. No one links white nationalism to citizenship rights because no matter what heinous crimes are committed, the white nationalists are seen to be part of the society they live in and are prosecuted for their crimes in that society. As they should be.
That immigration is an issue when it comes to Islamism shows how those from more recent migrant backgrounds are never seen to belong. Jail is the option for Breivik in Norway, yet it can be deportation or loss of citizenship rights for someone from a Muslim background even if they were born in Europe.
Linking Islamism’s crimes with immigration places collective blame for the acts of individuals. We don’t blame all Christians for Brevik’s killing spree; why would we think that blaming immigrants or Muslims for the crimes of Islamists is acceptable?
The important point about the terrorists who heinously killed Samuel Paty or 3 others in a church in Nice is not that they were Chechen or Tunisian or newly arrived refugees but that they were Islamists. Full stop. Recognising their allegiance to the Islamic far-Right helps us target the political movement. At the same time, we must continue to defend Laicite, the right to freedom of conscience and expression, equality of all citizens, and uncompromisingly oppose racism.
TM: In a long term, are you optimistic?
MN: In the long-term, I am cautiously optimistic because I believe that Islamism is being challenged by secular, modern, women-led, left-leaning movements in Iran, the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. Rojava, a secular feminist centre in the middle of a war zone is testament to what can be. But for our movements to succeed, they must have the support and solidarity of good people everywhere. Unfortunately, too many still, are more concerned with defending Islamism and death rather than defending its victims and dissenters and life. So we shall see who will win in the end. I am banking on us.
The above is the English version of an extended interview published in L’Express magazine on 1 November 2020. You can see the full interview in French here.
The English was published on Secularism is a Women’s Issue.
The English was published on Secularism is a Women’s Issue.