Council of Ex-Muslims holds conference in London: Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society

  • post Type / Conferences
  • Date / 7 November 2008

In October 2008, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) celebrated its first anniversary with a conference on Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society. The audience at Conway Hall, London (described by Giles Enders as “the last bastion of free speech in the UK”) were treated to some brilliant presentations and lively discussions from many of Europe’s leading freethinkers. In addition to this summary, we have a full report of the conference and the text of Maryam Namazie’s opening address.

a Conference organised by the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, Conway Hall, London, 10 October 2008

The program began with a short film about the European Councils of Ex-Muslims, featuring an interview with Mina Ahadi, the founder of the movement. She said that the movement marked a renaissance: it had broken an important taboo. Later, there was an adaptation of the notorious film Fitna by Gert Wilders, remade by Reza Moradi to broaden the context and provide a better reflection of reality.

Apostasy and Freedom to Criticise and Renounce Religion
A.C. Grayling explained that the idea of punishing apostasy was very old and a familiar feature of monolithic control. Apostasy from Christianity was still not well received. In Britain it was difficult for apostate parents to get their children into good schools. In the USA, politicians could not get elected unless they paid lip service to religion.

Ibn Warraq pointed out that the drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had insisted on the inclusion of the right to change one’s religion (given in Article 18). Islamic states had always objected to this part of the article. He was worried by the huge amount of self-censorship in western society. It was evident among scholars of Islam. Biblical criticism had been an important force in producing the Enlightenment. Koranic criticism could do the same.

The conference was being held on the International Day against the Death Penalty, and Mina Ahadi called on the audience to remember victims who had been killed for apostasy. Thirty years ago in Iran she had been able to say openly that she was no longer a Muslim. In Germany in 2006, such a declaration had evoked death threats. Ehsan Jami stressed that the campaign against the death penalty should encompass a campaign against laws that punished apostasy or homosexuality.

Hanne Stinson emphasised the need for a secular society if freedom and democracy were to flourish. All the Abrahamic religions, and not just Islam, were strongly against apostasy.

Fariborz Pooya noted that the Iranian regime used apostasy laws as a means to control the population. Any criticism of the administration led to an accusation of apostasy. Islam had been imposed on the people of Iran by the Iranian Revolution. Beforehand, many Iranians had lived without Islam.

A.C. Grayling said that the one thing that could not be tolerated was intolerance, and Ehsan Jami mentioned that many people in the Netherlands needed police protection because of Islamist threats.

Human Rights
For Ibn Warraq, no-one had a right not to be offended. Several speakers characterised political Islam as fascism. Western Governments should put pressure on countries such as Saudi Arabia to improve their position on human rights.

Mina Ahadi and Hanne Stinson identified a political problem in the West: the Left was often pro-Islam and tolerant of human rights abuse by Muslim groups and regimes. Governments theoretically in favour of human rights failed to demonstrate this in their actions. The UK Government saw so-called “religious leaders” as representing communities, and tended to support group rights at the expense of individual rights.

An Egyptian Copt in the audience told how non-Muslims were denied justice in Egypt. A Muslim who had murdered a Christian received a suspended sentence of one year. Non-Muslim lives had lower value than Muslim lives.

Mina Ahadi reminded everyone that the councils of Ex-Muslims were fighting for the universality of human rights.

Sharia Law and Citizenship Rights
Maryam Namazie pointed out that many women in Britain dealt with by Sharia courts did not know that they had another choice. Women before Sharia courts were those in most need of secular courts. Sharia law was heavily weighted against women. It was not racist to oppose Sharia law; it was racist to want to drag people back to mediaeval laws.

Mahin Alipour described Sharia as a platform for political Islam and a Trojan horse within Western society. Political Islam was fighting for more power and using Sharia as a tool to this end. The West was turning a blind eye to ongoing abuses such as stoning of women and execution of children. She spoke of the near impossibility of practising her profession as an engineer in Iran. She escaped to Sweden but still encountered discrimination against ethnic minority women, not helped by the attitude of the Swedish Government.

For Ibn Warraq the two groups who suffered most from Sharia were women and non-Muslim minorities. The Sharia regime introduced in Pakistan had had a huge impact on women. Yet until the 1930s, Islam had sometimes been more tolerant than Europe.

Roy Brown pointed out that, over 50 years, mainstream Islam had evolved to become far more radical. Sharia law was the flagship demand of the Islamists, supported by massive funding from Saudi Arabia. The Muslims of West Ham hardly needed a £600 million mosque. It was clear that the purpose of this mosque, close to and dwarfing the 2012 Olympic Stadium, was to proclaim to the world, “We are the masters now”. They were not, and must not get away with it.

Maryam Namazie explained that “ex-Muslim” was not an identity. CEMB stood for citizenship and humanity. Political Islam was not a problem just for Muslims and ex-Muslims; it was a problem for everybody. She called on those present to help organise a mass demonstration against Sharia to be held it in March on International Women’s Day.

Johann Hari and Mina Ahadi both raised the problem of immigrants being put into a box labelled “Muslim” and expected to behave in a certain way for life, instead of being seen as human beings entitled to the same rights as other citizens.

Accepting certain human rights abuses on the grounds that they were part of someone’s culture was akin to excusing slavery by claiming that it was part of the culture of the deep South.

Hamid Taqvaee came from an Islamic country but, he said,“ “I am not a Muslim”. We should not be labelled with the religion of our parents. Richard Dawkins thought that calling a child a “Muslim child” or a “Christian child” was evil – a form of child abuse.

How should we respond?
Mina Ahadi declared that, unrecognised by most people in the West, there was a huge secular movement within Islamic countries, although it was savagely repressed. The struggle between the Councils of Ex-Muslims and organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) was a struggle between supporters of human rights and supporters of fascism.

The panel was divided on possible co-operation with Muslims. Ehsan Jami was strongly against it, but Fariborz Pooya suggested that there were Muslims with whom they could work for a secular society where religion was a private matter. Roy Brown argued that liberal Muslims could be our strongest allies in the fight against Islamism and the Sharia and must not be abandoned to their fate. We should fight Sharia courts because we stood for equal rights. And we must make clear the distinction between criticism of Islam and incitement of hatred against Muslims. We could never eliminate Islam; our objective must be to push it out of politics and law and back into the private sphere.

Johann Hari maintained that Islam could only be modernised if we could criticise it and ridicule it, but Maryam Namazie believed that Islam would not be modernised unless it were deprived of power.

Ibn Warraq thought it was important to assert the positive achievements of Western civilisation, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Creationism, Religious Education and Faith Schools
For comedian Nick Doody, religion was like an enormous dog. If it’s yours, you love it, but it is terrifying to everyone else. “Above all it should be kept away from children.”

Richard Dawkins dealt with the Atlas of Creation by Harun Yahya of which millions of copies had been distributed free throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Using just a few examples he showed the depth of ignorance of its author and utterly demolished its pretensions to any kind of scientific validity.

People believed in creationism because childhood religious indoctrination sometimes proved more persuasive in later life that even a first-class scientific education.

Keith Porteous Wood attacked the dangerous development of publically funded minority faith schools and Joan Smith said that the National Curriculum should insist that all publically funded schools met minimum standards, did not segregate children and had proper sex education.

Terry Sanderson referred to a publication by the MCB that demanded no singing, dancing, figurative drawing or swimming in schools. There was political pressure for the National Curriculum to comply with this agenda and, for example, to supply segregated education for girls. Creationism was being allowed into biology lessons in Muslim schools. The only solution was the complete secularisation of the state education system and it was essential to strip the power of indoctrination in schools from all clerics.

Hamid Taqvaee maintained that religious schools were a contradiction: education was about truth and religion about faith.

Bahram Soroush said that just as we protected children from sexual abuse, so we should protect them from mental and emotional abuse. Faith schools should be dismantled.

Richard Dawkins criticised the artificial separation of children by faith schools and hoped it would be possible to demand that religious education be about religion, not indoctrination.

Joan Smith thought it was wrong that UK taxpayers were paying to force little girls to wear the hijab. And might faith schools be a way of re-introducing anti-homosexual measures by the back door? There was a need for research into what students thought when they emerged from faith schools.

Bahram Soroush said that religion was like a huge multinational company that evaded public scrutiny. We fought against disease, tobacco, drugs and organised crime; we needed to fight against religion. He objected not only to state-funded religious schools but to all such schools, although some other speakers disagreed.

Hamid Taqvaee pointed out that the reactionary, anti-human political Islam that had produced a demand for Islamic faith schools. We were facing a political movement that had nothing to do with Islam as a personal religion, but Islamists gained support from Muslims because they claimed to speak in the name of Islam.

Joan Smith said that we must stop worrying about offending people and just say that state-funded faith schools were wrong.

Finally, Richard Dawkins described religion as an excuse for evading the rules. Religion got a free pass and benefited from fantastic privilege.

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