Simo Says

By Sarah Braasch

In loving memory of my baby brother, Jacob Michael Braasch (01/28/86 – 02/02/10)

The other night I fled for my life. I fled a brawl in Paris. No, I didn’t get entangled in a drunken bar fight. Again. Actually, I was in an elementary school.

Ni Putes Ni Soumises (NPNS – Neither Whores Nor Submissives), the women’s rights organization in Paris where I have been working as a human rights fellow, organized a public debate on the issue of the anticipated public burqa ban in France. The French Parliament is in the process of enacting a public ban on identity obscuring face coverings in France, which would include both the burqa (the all encompassing body covering) and the niqab (the face covering that leaves a slit for the eyes). The debate over the ban has embroiled all of France, and all of Europe, for that matter, in a battle over the role of religion in both government and public life in a democratic republic that espouses a strict secularism as the only foundation for equality amongst its citizens, including gender equality.

We chose a location, Montreuil, which is an inner ring suburb of Paris with a diverse population. We showered the local community with flyers and volunteers, engaging the inhabitants and inviting them to participate in the debate, both those in favor and those opposed to the ban. The goal was to have a real and meaningful exchange of ideas and opinions. Local community leaders and politicians were on the docket, as well as women’s rights activists, such as Lubna Al Hussein, the Sudanese journalist who faced 40 lashings of the whip for wearing pants in Khartoum, and Sihem Habchi, the current President of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. Ni Putes Ni Soumises has, since its inception, made a point of holding open, public debates and panel discussions in the heart of the cités and quartiers of France (the ghettoized suburban housing projects surrounding France’s major cities, which are primarily composed of marginalized Muslim immigrant communities).

I was absolutely heartbroken by the way in which the evening unfolded. It confirmed many of my worst fears about the fate of humanity and the utter incompatibility of religion and the survival of our species.

One of the women’s rights activists would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she is afraid of being attacked by Christian and Atheist Frenchmen, and that she thinks French society is disgusting because women wear thongs and Christie’s auctioned off a portrait of Carla Bruni.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

One of the elected officials would get up to speak. He or she would speak about secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation as the foundational pillars of a safe and egalitarian public space in which all citizens enjoy equal rights and equal protection under the law in a democratic republic.

Then, one of the Islamists would respond by telling us what Mohammed said or did as was recorded in the Quran or the Hadith and how wonderful Islam is for women, because it gives them rights according to their differentness. And, sum up with a lovely comment about how Jews are pigs or something or other and the speaker is an anti-immigrant racist who hates Muslims and is in league with the Zionists.

Then, a veiled woman would tell us that she really likes being the property of her husband, because that’s what Allah commands, and no one can tell her that she shouldn’t be a slave.

Then one of the secularists would state that any discussion of Islam is completely irrelevant and that anti-Semitic slurs will not be tolerated.

And, then someone would lunge at someone else.

And, so on and so forth.

Eventually the situation became scary enough that the police were called and the debate halted. At one point, my mammalian survival instinct usurped control of my bodily functions, and without a second thought, I fled the premises. I made a beeline for the nearest exit, and I wasn’t the only one. Once outside, I turned back to peer in through a window to see what was transpiring. I was standing alongside a woman in hijab, and we both turned to look at each other. Without speaking a word, our faces communicated what we both were thinking, “These mofos are crazy.”

It was truly an exasperating, disheartening experience. I literally walked out of that truncated debate thinking, “We’re doomed. It’s all over. Don’t bother. Instead of just metaphorically drinking the Koolaid, we should all just go ahead and literally drink the Koolaid.”

Did the Islamists really expect the secularists to acquiesce after a little Quranic exegesis? Oh, ok, well if Mohammed said it or did it, I guess that settles that.

Refusal to consider the religious viewpoint in the context of secular, democratic governance is not bigotry; it is not racism; it is not intolerance. It is common sense. This is why freedom from religion IS freedom of religion. How would you even begin to prioritize the litany of religious opinions on even a single subject? The only results would be either tyranny or anarchy. Do you think the participants in that room would tolerate being lectured on the tenets of Judaism? Of Christianity? Do you think they would say, “Oh, ok, well if Moses or Jesus said it or did it, then I guess that’s the way it has to be”?

Islamists are called Islamists for a reason. They really do want to impose Sharia upon the societies in which they reside, and not only upon the Muslim populations within those societies. For them, there is no compromise. There is no other viewpoint worth considering, other than the Islamic viewpoint.

This is the result of brainwashing and indoctrinating and inculcating in religious cults. These people were incapable, quite literally incapable of allowing for a society structured on any other principles than those enumerated in the Quran and the Hadith. It was simply inconceivable to them that someone would not accept and conform to the example of the Prophet. Their brains were hardwired for Islam. All neural networks were devoted to Islam. All synapses were firing for Islam. The notion of the irrelevancy of Islam to the conversation about good democratic governance left them without an argument. They didn’t know how to respond. In their desperation to respond to such a blasphemous suggestion, they short-circuited and the unspent energy exerted itself in eruptions of violence. It was scary. Quite simply – it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. Not because of the violence, but, because of the futility of the exercise. For that debate to have actually taken place, in any sort of realistic, credible, viable manner, years of religious deprogramming of all participants would have had to occur first.

I know some, even many, will say that religion is not the problem; fundamentalism is the problem, or fanaticism is the problem. I think this argument is asinine.

Imagine a society in which we brainwash all children to believe that they can fly. From the moment they are born, all children are taught that, if they jump off any sufficiently high precipice, and they are worthy and morally sound, they will be able to flap their arms and take flight, saving themselves from a deathly plunge. With the modernization of society, many parents have ceased to inculcate their children in this belief, having realized its fallacy. And, of those who persist in perpetuating the custom, most reveal the hoax to their children before they are old enough to test its claims. Others have reformed the tradition, advising their children that they best not attempt to test the belief, given that few are so worthy. But, regardless of the claims of modernity, the custom persists, and, as young adults, a certain percentage of our youth attempt just such an act, resulting in many needless deaths.

Now, imagine that the purveyors of this custom defend the practice by claiming that the problem is not that they brainwash their children into believing that they can fly; the problem is that a certain percentage of these children believe it. The problem is that a certain percentage of these children grow into adults who persist on believing it. The problem is the fundamentalists and the fanatics who refuse to reveal the hoax or admonish their children against attempting flight. The belief simply needs to undergo a reformation, an enlightenment, if you will. A moderate version of the belief is acceptable in a modern society, and even compatible with science.

I acknowledge that I work with many wonderful Muslim women who claim their religion and the right to interpret their religion for themselves, who strive on behalf of secularism and gender equality and gender desegregation. We are able to work together in harmony, regardless of our disparate views on religion, because we are both striving for the same goals: secularism, gender equality and gender desegregation.

Obviously, I think it is a waste of time to try to reform Islam into a gender-friendly, or, even, a gender-neutral doctrine. I think women would be better off rejecting religion all together. Trying to find a place for gender equality in the context of religion is like trying to find a place for racial equality in the context of Nazism. But, despite my abhorrence for religion, in a legal context, this is not my fight.

In a legal context, my fight is secularism. My fight is women’s rights. The fight for secularism is NOT an act of aggression against religion. The fight for women’s rights is NOT an act of aggression against religion. It might appear this way to religionists, because religion is the institutionalization of misogyny. But, the way in which secular, democratic governance appears to religionists could not be more beside the point. I hate religion. I fight against religion, but NOT in a legal context. But, in the open, public marketplace of ideas, as it should be. I would never support the criminalization of religion. Never. I just wish religionists would extend me the same favor.

After the debate, I found myself standing on the street guarding Lubna Al Hussein’s luggage and the amp and chatting with Sihem Habchi. Someone who was obviously having trouble cooling off took a last lunge at Sihem. I was impressed by how quickly the police and security guards acted. They swooped in, scooping up Sihem and whisking her away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. Then I realized that no one had swooped in and scooped me up and whisked me away behind a line of stern-faced police officers. And, I was on the wrong side of that line of stern-faced police officers. I was on the side with all of the bearded and veiled Islamists who were having trouble cooling off. “What should I do?” I wondered. I tried to get rid of my scared face and affect an angry face instead.

It was an impossible situation, and a perfect metaphor – law and order standing between the secularists and the violent Islamists.

And, while I hate to be fatalistic, more and more I fear that, eventually, reason will lose out to faith to the downfall of humanity.

But, I’m not going down without a fight.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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