There is a tsunami of atheism in the ‘Muslim world’
I was recently interviewed by Thomas Mahler for the French Le Point. The Freethinker is the first to publish the English version of the interview which has made a lost of waves in France.
Born in Tehran in 1966, Maryam Namazie left Iran after the advent of the Islamic Republic in 1979. This leftist woman, a human rights activist and refugee, became a passionate advocate of secularism and a fierce opponent of cultural relativism.
In 2007, she founded the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain to bring attention to the situation of apostates threatened with death in states where Sharia law applies, and still too often obliged to discretion in our Western countries.
Last July in London, Maryam Namazie organised a conference on “Freedom of Conscience and Expression“, the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history.
This is an interview with a fighter who, for many years, laments the fact that her political camp – the progressives – make alliances with retrograde theocrats, thus flouting freedom of expression in the name of “Islamophobia”, whilst betraying the victims of Islamism who hope for universalising Laicite.
TM: You were born in Tehran. How did you become an atheist? Was it difficult for you with your friends or your family?
MN: I became an atheist gradually. I don’t quite remember when it happened but I do know why. People reach atheism in various ways. For me, it was the natural result of living in a theocracy. If God hates me so, why would I believe in Him?
I can’t say it was difficult. The Iranian revolution was a left-leaning revolution and there were many atheists in Iran. In fact, during the 1980s – the bloody decade –many were executed after summary trials. They were asked: “Do you believe in God?” and when they said “No”, they were sent out and shot. Sometimes hundreds in a day.
I never felt ostracised or shunned for being an atheist. In fact, when I started the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain in 2007, it was the first time I came across people who were afraid of saying they were atheists – many of them British-born. In Iran, there is an anti-Islamic backlash so criticism and mockery of religion is more normalised than it is here. This is ironic given the fact that apostasy, blasphemy and heresy are all offences punishable by death under the Islamic regime of Iran.
TM: You are the co-founder of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Even in a Western country like Great Britain, is it still difficult for people to leave religion?
MN: It is not difficult for everyone to leave Islam. Some have the support of their families, as I always have. Some come from atheist families to begin with. But it is nonetheless still very difficult for some to leave Islam. We do see many young people, in particular, who face violence, shunning, and threats because they no longer want to be Muslim. We have members who still wear the veil and go to mosque – closet ex-Muslims. There are those driven to depression and suicide though many who still choose to live freely despite the threats and risks involved.
TM: What is the current situation of apostates in Muslim countries? Are lives still under threat?
MN: Apostates are very much at risk in countries under Islamic rule. In 13 countries, they face execution. In many more, they can be killed by mob violence or families in the name of “honour”. And even in countries where there is no death penalty, they can still lose their civil rights and risk being murdered by Islamists and mobs.
Whilst here in the West critics of Islam are labelled “Islamophobic” in order to impose de facto blasphemy laws, de jure laws accuse many – including believers – of blasphemy and apostasy and sentence religious minorities, dissenters and freethinkers to imprisonment and even execution.
TM: In France, as in other Western countries, the left is divided between secularists (“laïcs“) or universalists on one side and multiculturalists who think that Muslims are oppressed on the other side. How do you see this opposition (which became violent here in France with a feud between Charlie Hebdo and Mediapart)? And are the apostates not forgotten by the multiculturalist left?
MN: Those defending multiculturalism are actually defending the oppression of Muslims or those presumed to be Muslims – not the other way around. They are more concerned with defending culture and religion than defending the rights of human beings. What racism to think that rights and freedoms, including the essential right to criticise and reject religion, are only for those who are white and Western.
The rest of us are only allowed rights within the confines of Islam? Thanks but no thanks. We are human beings, not extensions of our community, society and culture and religion. By homogenising the “Muslim community”, they side with those in power – the Islamists – rather than those who are challenging power and the status quo.
The fight for rights, particularly women’s rights, LGBT rights or minority rights has always been a fight against religion. It was so in the fight against the church – yet we are not meant to fight Islam and the “mosque”? Yes, of course there is racism. We atheists and ex-Muslims face it too but you cannot fight racism by ignoring sexism or abuses against freethinkers just as you cannot fight sexism and homophobia by ignoring racism. As always, we must fight on all fronts: against racism, against sexism, against suppression of freethought and for universal rights. Laicite is key in all this.
TM: You criticise Islam from the left. But many critics of this religion today are coming from the far right. What are the main differences between you and people from the German AfD or writers like Douglas Murray and Eric Zemmour?
MN: Whilst they hate each other, there is much that binds the pro-Islamist Left and the Far-Right and those who have bought into their narratives. They both dehumanise Muslims by homogenising masses of people and placing them in a box. The pro-Islamist left does this by seeing it as one community to be defended. Since those in power define the community, they end up defending not Left and progressive politics but the Islamists who impose “authentic” culture and religion.
The Far-Right, too, only sees a homogenous mass “invading” the West. They cannot see that many of those coming here – like myself – are fleeing the Islamist movement, that we are voting with our feet against this totalitarianism and that we like everyone else demand and desire freedom and rights that are not western but universal.
TM: After the publication of the Muhammad cartoons, you signed the “Manifesto: Together facing the new Totalitarianism” with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Philippe Val and Caroline Fourest. How do judge writers like Joyce Carol Oates, Russell Banks or Lorie Moore who, in 2015, protested against a PEN Award for Charlie Hebdo, which at this time has been decimated by jihadists because the publication of these cartoons?
MN: What a betrayal. When a writer sides with Islamists as representatives of the “disempowered” and sees Charlie as “cultural arrogance” – the world is indeed topsy turvy. They are looking at Charlie through the eyes our oppressors and not through our eyes. For me, Charlie represents me and the many who speak out against religion and the religious-Right and are charged with blasphemy and apostasy or have had to flee to save our lives.
“I support free expression but not when it offends” is not a defence of free expression; it is a defence of censorship and suppression and sides with the enemies of free speech rather than those battling to defend it.
TM: Are you optimistic for atheism in the Islamic world?
MN: It is not the Islamic world just as the West is not the Christian world. There are so many opinions and beliefs in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia … There are many atheists and secularists, including amongst believers. That it is called “Islamic world” is part of the offensive to make it Islamic. In response, there is a tsunami of atheism – one that we are seeing more clearly due to social media and the Internet, which is doing to Islam what the printing press did to Christianity.
TM: How do you analyse the protests in Iran against a regime governed by the “reformist” Rohani?
MN: The protests in Iran are different to the previous ones. People are unwilling to back down, they no longer have any illusions towards the “reformist” faction of the regime, and they want an end to theocratic rule.
Slogans are anti-poverty and corruption as well as repression. Opposing clerical rule is one of the main slogans found at the protests, which have taken place in over 60 cities in Iran, including the “holy city of Qom”. One of the main characteristics of the protest is that it is a female one. It must be supported by feminists and secularists everywhere.