When the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) started 11 years ago in June 2007, we were hard pressed to find 25 people who would come out publicly to break the apostasy taboo, writes Maryam Namazie.
Today, we are witness to an international ex-Muslim “community” – a tsunami of atheism.
For me, though, this has never been about community as identity politics (people boxed into homogenised, segregated communities with culturally-relative rights managed by “community leaders”). But rather, a community in protest: insisting on freedom from religion and the right to conscience. For the right to apostasy and blasphemy without fear.
Like the LGBT, anti-slavery, anti-colonialist, anti-apartheid, suffragette or civil rights movements, it’s a movement that insists on our common humanity and equality – not difference or superiority.
A movement of people who refuse to live in fear and in the shadows. And who are speaking out for social change in unprecedented ways, particularly via social media.
This movement matters because thirteen states punish atheism with the death penalty – all Islamic.
• Because a series of laws in Saudi Arabia define atheism as terrorism with Ahmad Al-Shamri being sentenced to death for atheism.
• Because Sina Dehghan has been sentenced to death in Iran for “insulting Islam.”
• Because the Egyptian government is producing a national plan to “confront and eliminate” atheism. Because atheist blogger Sherif Gaber has not been seen in public since his arrest at Cairo airport on 2 May.
• Because a Malaysian government minister has said that atheists should be “hunted down” and “re-educated.”
• Because even in secular societies, ex-Muslims can be shunned, ostracised, and face honour-related violence…
• Because even in countries without the death penalty, like Bangladesh, Islamists kill atheists whilst the government turns a blind eye.
• Because atheist poet and publisher Shahzahan Bachchu, above, was dragged out of a shop and shot dead mid-June this year.
This movement matters because you can be killed for leaving or criticising Islam.
The Saudi UN Ambassador Abdallah Al-Mouallimi says advocating atheism is a terrorist offence as it leads to chaos and is dangerous. Absurdly, the Guardian‘s David Shariatmadari agrees that “criticism of religion, Islam especially, can be antisocial, even dangerous.”
These accusations are not new.
The suffragettes, for example, were considered dangerous, subversive, destroying the “natural” order of things. They were also labelled anti-male and traitors for demanding the right to vote during war time.
Similarly, ex-Muslims are often labelled traitors or “native informants.” After all, when one homogenises a “community,” anyone who steps outside of their assigned place will be deemed a traitor, a subversive and a danger to the “natural” order of things.
Like other social and political movements fighting for equality, the ex-Muslim movement is considered “dangerous” for this very reason – that it subverts the status quo – and not because of some paternalistic concern for “one’s” minorities. After all, don’t minorities also have the right to dissent, to equality, to civil rights and freedoms?
And why is blasphemy or apostasy considered “Muslim-bashing”? Is promoting LGBT rights, “straight-bashing” or promoting women’s right to vote, “male-bashing”?
Yet when CEMB took to the streets of London Pride last year, the East London Mosque filed a complaint against our “Islamophobic” placards; it took Pride London eight long months to meet with CEMB and allow us back this year. (Imagine if the Westboro Baptist Church had filed a complaint with Pride against a group that was critical of Christianity and the Christian-Right. Would it take eight months for them to decide whose side they were on?)
Yet when we showed our solidarity with those persecuted in Saudi Arabia for eating or drinking during Ramadan, armed metropolitan police came to the Saudi Embassy’s rescue saying our “eat-in” and fast-defying solidarity action was “offending” those at the embassy …
In my opinion, accusations of “Islamophobia” are less about opposing bigotry (after all you cannot stop racism by outlawing blasphemy and apostasy) and more about defending religious privilege and the status quo. It is used to scaremonger ex-Muslims into silence and impose de facto apostasy and blasphemy laws where none exist. Where they do, we are accused of blasphemy and apostasy and persecuted without any such “niceties.”
The charge of “Islamophobia” protects religion and the religious-Right, not believers. There is a clear difference between the term xenophobia, for example, in which people who are migrants are targeted or homophobia, where LGBT are targeted versus Islamophobia, where an idea is targeted. Religion is an idea; Islamism and the religious-Right are political movements. They must be open to unrelenting criticism.
Conflating criticism of Islam and Islamism with “Muslim-bashing” sees dissent as bigotry rather than for what it is – a defence of blasphemy and apostasy when one can be killed for it.
That doesn’t mean that bigotry against Muslims, migrants, minorities doesn’t exist. Of course it does. We live in class-based societies that profit from racism. Ex-Muslims and their families (many of whom are still Muslim) understand this better than most. We also face closed borders, travel bans, hate, violence and discrimination.
And, yes of course, there are ex-Muslims who are bigoted against Muslims just as there are Muslims who are bigoted against ex-Muslims; as there are women who are misogynists and men who are feminists … But individuals – not a “community” – must be held accountable for their choices. We are not extensions of our “communities” to be defended or condemned depending on which “tribe” we belong to.
Victim blaming is the natural outcome of an unconditional defence of the “community” no matter what atrocities take place. (If only we had not offended, if only we had minded our manners … there would be no need to threaten, kill or silence us …)
Ironically, placing collective blame is also a natural outcome of identity politics, which moreover legitimises racist white identity politics. The argument that cultures are homogenous and need protection has aided the rise of xenophobia and anti-migrant sentiment. Trump uses this notion all the time as does far-Right groups like Pegida, Five Star Movement, For Britain and the English Defence League.
Like the murder of apostates, letting migrants drown in waters and separating toddlers from their parents at borders is the height of defending one’s “culture” versus the “invading hordes” – to hell with the human consequences.
Whilst touted as progressive, identity politics is a politics of difference AND superiority – these are two sides of the same double-edged sword. The politics of difference has always been the fundamental principle of a racist agenda, not the other way around – whether it is Nazism, the biological theory of difference and racial superiority or expressions of difference in cultural and religious terms.
Identity politics is the corruption of the fight for social justice by degrading it to a mere defence of culture and the homogenous “community” – no matter what.
Which is why when Goldsmiths Islamic Society tried to cancel and disrupt my talk, the LGBTQ+ and Feminist Societies sided with the ISOC against my “Islamophobia” – even after the ISOC President’s homophobic tweets came to light and he was forced to resign.
And it is why the Muslim LGBTQ charity Imaan has asserted our presence at Pride last year served only to “deepen divisions between communities” or why a Guardian piece by a gay Muslim accuses us of “Islamophobia” whilst defending the East London Mosque that is a centre of homophobia.
From the point of view of identity politics, it is better to defend the East London Mosque with its preachers calling for the death penalty for LGBT, than to be seen to side with “those ex-Muslims” defending the rights of Muslim AND ex-Muslim LGBT.
Identity politics ignores and vilifies dissent, political and social movements and class politics; it erases progressive voices and amplifies only the narrative of those in power because it is they who determine “authentic” community, culture and religion. Identity politics, therefore, doesn’t allow one to see one’s allies and enemies within and outside the “community.” It prevents people from mobilising real solidarity and seeing how our lives and rights are interlinked across “communities,” borders and boundaries.
In an age of regressive identity politics and cultural relativism, an ex-Muslim community in protest matters because it reaffirms universal values, anti-racism, secularism, the fight for equality, social justice and our common humanity.
A movement that is about equality not privilege. Rights without permission. And gives no apologies.
The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain marched again at Pride in London in July. This year, we marked the 40th anniversary of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a rebellion against the church’s religious morality, by marching as the Imams of Perpetual Indulgence.
Instead of being the Council for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice that terrorise people by enforcing Islamic morality codes with brute force in the countries some of us have fled from, we were the Council for the Promotion of Vice and the Prevention of Virtue.
• Maryam Namazie is spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. This piece is a shortened version of her speech at the Muslimish Conference in New York City in June 2018.