On 10th October 2008, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) celebrated its first anniversary by holding a conference at Conway Hall in London on Political Islam, Sharia Law and Civil Society .
An audience of ex-Muslims and freethinkers were welcomed to Conway Hall by Giles Enders, who chairs the South Place Ethical Society, the oldest freethought community in the world, founded in 1793. He claimed that Conway Hall was the “last bastion of free speech in the UK”, since free speech in Parliament was constrained by the Speaker, the whips and various interest groups, rendering parliamentarians unwilling to pass laws against threats to apostates or the issuing of threatening fatwas. The BBC was hardly supportive of free speech either, employing much self-censorship and steadfastly refusing to allow the voices of the non-religious to be heard on Thought for the Day (a regular interlude on the otherwise popular news and current-affairs radio programme Today).
Documentary about the Councils of Ex-Muslims
Zia Zaffar, Treasurer of CEMB, then introduced a short documentary film by Patty Debonitas about the Councils of Ex-Muslims set up fairly recently in a number of European countries. The documentary featured an interview with Mina Ahadi, the founder of the movement. She said that the movement marked a renaissance: it had broken an important taboo.
The film then featured Maryam Namazie, one of the founders of the CEMB. She said that religion ought to be a personal matter. She would never have wanted to be tied to the label “ex-Muslim”, but it was necessary to break the taboo.
Footage was shown of a pro-hijab demonstration in France in 2004 that was opposed by a pro-secularism counter-demonstration against political Islam. The counter-demonstration featured veiled women being led in chains through the streets.
In a further interview, Mina Ahadi told how in Iran after the Islamic Revolution, women came onto the streets to demonstrate against forced veiling. After the first demonstration, they came back again but were attacked by bearded men who beat them. They still came back again, but this time were attacked by men with knives. When they came back again, they were attacked by men with Kalashnikovs. So fewer and fewer women came back to demonstrate.
The documentary ended with Maryam Namazie saying that they were a vast political movement that was bringing the regime in Iran to its knees, and they were going to bring the same energy to fighting political Islam in Europe.”??
Maryam Namazie, the CEMB’s spokesperson, then gave an opening address, saying that the political Islamic movement used rights and anti-racist language for western consumption so that it could go about its business as usual. While Islamic organisations in the UK talked in public relations terms, they, their courts, their schools, their leaders were nothing but extensions of Islamic states. In the end, political Islam mattered to people because it affected their lives, their rights, their freedoms. And that was why only a movement that put people first could mobilise the force needed to stop it.
Panel on Apostasy Laws and the Freedom to Renounce and Criticise Religion
Caspar Melville, editor of the New Humanist, chaired the next session, a discussion on Apostasy Laws and the Freedom to Renounce and Criticise Religion. The distinguished panel consisting of Mina Ahadi, founder of the German Council of Ex-Muslims, Professor A.C. Grayling, the eminent philosopher, Ehsan Jami, a young Dutch politician and Ex-Muslim activist, Fariborz Pooya, head of the Iranian Secular Society, Hanne Stinson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, and Ibn Warraq, the well-known scholar of Islam. Each of the panel made a short opening statement and then they replied to questions from the floor.
Professor Grayling began by explaining that the idea of punishing apostasy was very old and a familiar feature of monolithic control. In ancient Rome it had taken a quasi-secular form, where failure to observe community rites brought punishment. Within historical Christianity, apostasy had been regarded as one of the worst possible crimes: “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit”.
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) particularly to protect Muslims who converted to Christianity. Islamic states had always objected to this part of the article.
Fariborz Pooya declared that Islam had been imposed on the people of Iran by the Iranian Revolution. Beforehand, many Iranians had lived without Islam. The Islamic regime used apostasy laws as a means to control the population. Any criticism of the administration led to an accusation of apostasy.
Ehsan Jami mentioned that many people in the Netherlands needed police protection because of Islamist threats.
Mina Ahadi reminded those present that the conference was being held on the International Day against the Death Penalty, and that those victims who had been killed for apostasy should be remembered. Thirty years beforehand 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. It should be kept in mind that Islamism was a political movement, and the death penalty for apostasy was a tool of repressive government.
Ehsan Jami felt that immigrants to Europe who retained dual nationality had dubious loyalty to their country of residence. Even some members of the Dutch Parliament had dual nationality. Immigrants to Europe should follow his example and become fully committed to their new countries.
Professor Grayling suggested that there was a parallel between the divided loyalties of some European Muslims and the situation in 16th-century Europe when there could be a conflict between loyalty to one’s country and loyalty to the Pope.
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.
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. In the West, however, people were often given unwanted religious labels. When she had first travelled to Europe, people like her had been seen simply as a “foreigners”. Since 9/11, however, governments tended to label them as “Muslims”. The struggle between the Councils of Ex-Muslims and organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain was a struggle between those who supported human rights on the one hand and fascism on the other.
The panel was divided on the issue of whether to co-operate with Muslims or not. 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.
A.C. Grayling said that the one thing that could not be tolerated was intolerance. Religions wanted to encroach more and more on the public domain and demanded more and more privileges. They had to be told that they were just one interest group among many. His attitude could be summed up as, “You may believe that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden, but don’t bother other people about it!”
Ibn Warraq stated that freedom of expression was absolute: no-one had a right not to be offended. However, in response to an objection from the floor, he agreed that there were limits in international law, under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 
Speaking from the floor, an Iranian refugee from Denmark said that the struggle was one of freedom against fascism. Governments in the West should put pressure on countries such as Saudi Arabia to improve their position on human rights.
Mina Ahadi said that there was a political problem in the West, where the Left was often pro-Islam and tolerant of human rights abuse by Muslim groups and regimes, but the Right was often exploiting the issue for its own purposes. The ex-Muslims from Islamic countries were a third force, against political Islam and for human rights. A.C. Grayling suggested that although this was true, there was also a “decent Left”, who did care about these issues.
Hanne Stinson posed the question of why governments who were theoretically in favour of human rights, freedom of expression and freedom of belief did not demonstrate this in their actions. She thought that the answer was that they were in fear of speaking out.
Ehsan Jami stressed that the campaign against the death penalty should encompass a campaign against laws that punished apostasy or homosexuality.
Hanne Stinson felt that the UK Government had run into problems in its commitment to religious freedom. The New Labour Government was a very religious one and saw so-called “religious leaders” as representing communities; they tended to support group rights at the expense of individual rights.
A.C. Grayling explained that apostasy from Christianity was not well received. In Britain, it meant that it was difficult for apostate parents to obtain entrance to good schools for their children. In the USA, politicians could not get elected unless they paid lip service to religion.
Ibn Warraq 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.
Finally, Mina Ahadi reminded everyone that the councils of Ex-Muslims were fighting for the universality of human rights.
Starting the afternoon with comedy
Opening the afternoon session, Fariborz Pooya called on everyone to remember that we must be the voice of the voiceless.
As a prelude to the serious business that was to follow, the audience was treated to some quick-fire humour about religion from the comedian Nick Doody, well known from his work on TV and radio in the UK and appearances further afield in much of Europe. A few sample jokes:
• “I was raised Catholic. My brother is training to be a priest – and he doesn’t even like kids!”
• “Religion is 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.”
• (Referring to the implications of male Muslims’ desire to keep women covered up and to forbid alcohol consumption) “I know what I’m like – if I have a pint of booze or see a lady’s chin, it’s rape, rape, rape!”
He finished with a true story from the time of the 7/7 terrorist bomb attacks in London. A young couple were in Tavistock Square when the bus blew up. They took refuge in the nearest building, which happened to be a pub. The pub quickly filled up with people fleeing from the carnage. After about 45 minutes an armed policeman came in and ordered the landlord to keep serving free drinks. Nick Doody’s comment was:
“That’s why we shall never have Sharia law in Britain – the response in our capital to a national emergency was a lock-in!”
Panel on Sharia Law and Citizenship Rights
The serious business of the afternoon began with a discussion of Sharia Law and Citizenship Rights. This was chaired by Andrew Copson, Director of Education and Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association. Discussion was led by another distinguished panel. Its members were Mahin Alipour, an Iranian refuges living in Sweden, where she heads Equal Rights Now – Organisation against Women’s Discrimination in Iran, the International Campaign in Defence of Womens Rights in Iran and the Scandinavian Committee of Ex-Muslims; Roy Brown, past-President of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) and IHEU’s main representative at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva; Johann Hari, an award-winning journalist who writes regularly for The Independent, and from time to time for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, Le Monde Diplomatique, The New Republic, El Mundo, The Guardian, The Melbourne Age, The Sidney Morning Herald and South Africa’s Star; Maryam Namazie, Spokesperson of the CEMB, and Ibn Warraq, as before.
Mahin Alinpour told her personal story. A qualified engineer, she had been prevented from working because her then husband had refused permission for her to do so. Later, she was again refused permission to work as an engineer, on the grounds that “it was not suitable work for a woman”. Finally she was employed because of a shortage of suitably qualified men, but she was forbidden from interacting with her fellow workers because they were all men. She was obliged to wear a hijab and chador and had to have a driver to take her to work – her male colleagues could drive themselves.
In the end she escaped to Sweden, where she obtained a divorce and custody of her children. Nonetheless, even in such a supposedly advanced country, she still encountered discrimination against ethnic minority women, living in ghettoes and at risk of so-called “honour killings”. Foreign women could be married at the age of 15, even though this was not allowed for native Swedes. As a result of her struggles and that of other women, this law had eventually been changed. But the Swedish Government continued to make many compromises with Islamists, such as establishing special health clinics for Muslim women.
Maryam Namazie pointed out that Sharia was not just an issue for women: it affected everyone.
Ibn Warraq explained that there were two groups who suffered most from Sharia: women, and non-Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadis, Bahais and Zoroastrians. The Sharia regime introduced in Pakistan had had a huge impact on women. The female prison population had rapidly soared by 300 per cent.
Maryam Namazie said that in Iran and some other Islamic countries the state was promoting child abuse by insisting on the veiling of young children. Imagine a young girl of seven forced to wear enveloping garments – never allowed to let sunlight touch her body, never allowed to play with boys of the same age.
Roy Brown pointed out that Islam was not just another religion. Over the past 50 years mainstream Islam had become far more radical. Saudi Arabia had poured billions into promoting its extreme form of Islam. He did not believe that the Muslims of West Ham needed a £600 million mosque. It was clear that the purpose of this mosque, which would dwarf the 2012 Olympic site, was to proclaim to the world “We are the masters now” They are not and we must not let them get away with it.
Johann Hari expressed the view that in Britain there was a problem that an immigrant was put into a box labelled “Muslim” and expected to behave in a certain way for life, instead of being seen as a human being 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. There were a lot of people from the deep South called “slaves” who had not agreed with it. They were supported by other people, and eventually they won.
An Egyptian Copt in the audience told how non-Muslims were denied justice in Egypt. A Muslim who murdered a Christian received a suspended sentence of one year. Non-Muslim lives had lower value than Muslim lives.
It was mentioned that Gordon Brown had expressed a wish that Britain should be the capital of Sharia-compatible finance. However, Baroness Cox had spoken out against the acceptance of parallel legal systems.
Johann Hari maintained that Islam could only be modernised if we could criticise it and ridicule it, but Maryam Namazie said that Islam would not be modernised unless it were deprived of power. Many women in Britain who were dealt with by Sharia courts did not know that they had another choice. The women who went to Sharia courts were those in most need of secular courts. Sharia law was heavily weighted against women. For example, in a divorce case, a father would automatically gain control over his sons when they reached the age of seven, even if he had been abusive and violent. It was not racist to oppose Sharia law; it was racist to want to drag people back to mediaeval laws.
Mahin Alipour said that Sharia was a platform for poltical Islam and was a Trojan horse within Western society. In pre-1979 Iran, Sharia law had been used for political aims. Political Islam was fighting for more power and was using Sharia as a tool to this end. The USA had been responsible for the growth of political Islam, by supporting Khomeini, the Taleban and other Islamist regimes and movements. The West was turning a blind eye to ongoing abuses such as the stoning of women and execution of children.
Ibn Warraq said that it was helpful in discussing Islam to distinguish between what he called Islam I, Islam II and Islam III. Islam I was what was in the Koran and what the Prophet was supposed to have said. Islam II was the hadith and traditions and the theological construction developed by Islamic scholars. Islam II was what Muslims actually did do, as opposed to what they should have done.
In history, Islam had not been a relentless series of philosophies. Until the 1930s, Islam III had sometimes been more tolerant than Europe, for example with respect to homosexuality. And multiculturalism, like cholesterol, came in two forms, one good and one bad. The good aspect was a respect for different cultures. The bad led to ghettoisation.
Roy Brown argued that we must not abandon Muslims to their fate. We should not fight against Muslims. We should recognise that our strongest potential allies in the fight against Sharia courts because they were Islamic, but because we stood for equal rights. And we must make it clear that there was a distinction between criticism of Islam and incitement of hatred the Sharia and political Islam were liberal Muslims and Muslim women. We could never eliminate Islam; our objective should be to push it out of politics and the law and back into the private sphere.
Ibn Warraq thought it was important to assert the positive achievements of Western civilisation, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Johann Hari warned that there was a growing prejudice against Muslims. We must not project our own good intentions onto Western governments, who were only too happy to get into bed with evil regimes such as that of Saudi Arabia.
Maryam Namazie concluded this session by explain that “ex-Muslim” was not an identity. CEMB was for citizenship and humanity. Political Islam was not just a problem for Muslims and ex-Muslims; it was a problem for everybody. And political Islam and US militarism were not in opposition to one another: they were two sides of the same coin.
We should not accept an attitude equivalent to saying “We already have slavery” or “We already have apartheid” and “therefore we have to accommodate it and work round it”. The state had a duty to treat people as equal citizens and not hand over power to backward imams.
She called on those present to help organise a mass demonstration against Sharia. It would be appropriate to hold it in March on International Women’s Day.
Short film: Fitna Remade
The next item was a showing of a film entitled Fitna Remade. This was an adaptation of the notorious film by Gert Wilders, Fitna, edited by Reza Moradi to make it a better reflection of reality.
Harun Yahya’s Atlas of Creation
Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene and many other best sellers, then analysed the widely distributed book, Atlas of Creation, by Harun Yahya. He began by saluting the CEMB, which could become the nucleus of thousands of even hundreds of thousands of like-minded people.
Adnan Oktar (pen name Harun Yahya) was a naive Turkish creationist who worked hard to give the impression that the whole Muslim world was taken in by creationist nonsense. He had produced a lavish book which had been widely given away in an attempt to influence opinion formers. Professor Dawkins had asked a contact at the Oxford University Press to estimate the cost of Harun Yahya’s book, and the answer was about £500 000 for 10 000 copies.
Harun Yahya was also offering a £4.4 trillion prize to anyone who could come up with an “intermediate fossil”. Professor Dawkins calculated that this sum was about 36 times the GNP of Turkey! Since there was a sense in which all fossils were “intermediate”, it was a little hard to understand what Yahyah was looking for.
Professor Dawkins then showed a number of slides taken from illustrations in Yahyah’s book, to illustrate Yahya’s thinking and misunderstanding, or as he put it, “ the depth of his erudition”. Harun Yahya was what is known as an old-Earth creationist. He accepted the great age of the Earth as determined by science, but he believed that animals had been created by God and that there were no differences between ancient and modern animals.
One of the slides showed that Yahyah thought a crinoid (a deuterostome ) was equivalent to a modern annelid worm (a protostome ). They could not be more different! Another slide showed him equating a 95-million-year-old fossil eel with a totally unrelated modern sea snake. Then there was the brittle star that was supposed to be the same as a modern starfish. The room erupted in laughter when Professor Dawkins showed an illustration where Yahya had compared a 25-million-year-old caddis fly preserved in amber with a man-made tied fishing fly with fish-hook still attached. Perhaps Yahya really thought that caddis flies had hooks!
After reading Yahyah’s book, Professor Dawkins had finally come to understand what Yahya was looking for when he offered the prize for an “intermediate fossil”. He apparently thought it should be an animal like a “fronkey”, half frog and half monkey, or half crocodile and half squirrel, or half fish and half lizard or half lizard and half bird. But, of course, no such creatures could possibly exist according to the Theory of Evolution.
People believed in creationism because of childhood religious indoctrination. An example was Kurt Weiss, who, despite first-class scientific studies at Chicago and Harvard, declared that, if all the evidence in the universe contradicted the scriptures, he would have to choose the scriptures. There was no defence against that sort of thinking.
Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahyah) had claimed that Richard Dawkins had assaulted his rights and as a consequence a Turkish court had banned the Dawkins website , although Professor Dawkins had received no official notification of this. Despite the ban, Professor Dawkins had many Turkish supporters who had found ways to continue access to the site.
Keith Porteous Wood, General Secretary of the National Secular Society, spoke from the floor to say that the EU Enlargement Commissioner had been asked to refer to the court decision against the website in relation to Turkey’s wish to join the European Union.
Panel Discussion on Creationism, Religious Education and Faith Schools
The last panel of the day was chaired by Keith Porteous Wood. Panel members were Richard Dawkins; Terry Sanderson, President of the National Secular Society, who is a journalist and human rights and gay rights activist; Joan Smith, well known as a columnist in The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard, who also writes in The Times, The Guardian and The Sunday Times and is also known as a novelist, human rights activist and former chairman of the English PEN Prison Committee; Bahram Souresh, a founding member and Executive Committee Member of CEMB, and political and social analyst and commentator; and Hamid Taqvaee, social commentator and analyst and current leader of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran, who has played an important role in opposition to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Keith Porteous Wood started by attacking the dangerous development of publically funded minority faith schools.
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 Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) that outlined what they wanted for Muslim pupils: no singing, no dancing, no figurative drawing, no swimming, etc. There was political pressure for the National Curriculum to comply with this agenda and, for example, to supply segregated education for girls. The only solution was the complete secularisation of the state education system. Research in a Muslims girls’ school had shown that creationism was being allowed into biology lessons: first the scientific explanation would be supplied and then the koranic explanation.
Hamid Taqvaee maintained that religious schools were a contradiction: education was about truth and religion about faith. He objected to the labelling of people as Muslims. He came from an Islamic country; he was not a Muslim.
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 thought that calling a child a “Muslim child” or a “Christian child” was evil – a form of child abuse. Demographic projections sometimes stated that by some particular date a specified proportion of the population would be Muslim. This betrayed a hidden assumption that a child would grow up in the faith of its parents. He hoped it would be possible to demand that religious education must be about religion and not be indoctrination.
Joan Smith thought it was wrong to impose the veil or hijab on little girls of six or seven. It was dreadful 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?
Terry Sanderson felt that it was essential to strip the power of indoctrination in schools from all clerics.
Hamid Taqvaee said that it was not just children but also adults who unthinkingly adopted the religion of their parents. Joan Smith suggested that there was a need for research into what students thought when they emerged from faith schools.
Bahram Soroush said that religion was an industry like a huge multinational company that evaded public scrutiny. We fought against disease, tobacco, drugs and organised crime; we needed to fight against religion.
Hamid Taqvaee pointed out that in the arts, science and politics we chose our own beliefs. It was only in the case of the religion of our parents that we received a label for life. It was the reactionary, anti-human political Islam movement that had produced a demand for Islamic faith schools.
Richard Dawkins pointed to research by Eileen Breughal that had shown that children of five or six were not aware of differences. They should be able to grow up without separation and differentiation. We needed to stop the artificial separation of children by faith schools.
For many young men, Islam had become a badge of rebellion. He had taken part in the great anti-war march on the eve of the Iraq war. But when it was hijacked by someone shouting, “Allahu akbhar!” he and his friends had left the march.
Terry Sanderson referred to one Muslim woman who had told how when she was at school, her parents had forced her to leave home every morning wearing full Islamic dress. At the school gate, she would stuff her outer clothes into a carrier bag, go through the school day without them and then reverse the process on the way home. There were many of these “carrier bag” girls.
Hamid Taqvaee stressed that we were facing a political movement that had nothing to do with Islam as a personal religion. The Islamists gained support from Muslims because they claimed to speak in the name of Islam. In a similar way, people in Iran had originally supported Khomeini because he was against the Shah, and not because they agreed with his political agenda.
Bahram Soroush objected not only to state funded religious schools but also to privately funded religious schools. They meant that children lost some of their basic rights and he favoured the abolition of all faith schools, although not all of the panel agreed with him.
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 a fantastic privilege.
1 See their website for videos of the whole conference, http://www.ex-muslim.org.uk/indexPressreleases.html