The Freethinker interviews Maryam Namazie and Marieme Helie Lucas ahead of the International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21 Century scheduled to take place in London between July 22 and 24, 2017.
Why organise an international conference on free conscience and expression?
Maryam Namazie: Atheists and freethinkers are targeted by Islamists and religious-Right movements across the globe. Despite the brutal attacks, blasphemy and apostasy laws are often legitimised.
Even where no such laws exist, there is a chorus of voices insisting that freedom of expression and conscience have limits, particularly when it comes to Islam. “Hurt” sensibilities are almost always deemed more important than threats, intimidation, censorship, violence and even murder. And victims are blamed time and time again whilst perpetrators pose as victims.
On the tenth anniversary of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, the conference aims to bring together the largest international gathering of ex-Muslims and freethinkers as a show of strength to reaffirm the right to think and live outside the confines imposed by religion and the religious-Right.
Many of the speakers are on the frontlines of the tsunami of atheism and freethought that has taken hold of societies under Islamist influence with social media doing to Islam what the printing press has done to Christianity.
When dissenters continue to be threatened, silenced, no platformed, intimidated and even killed for rejecting and criticising Islam, a celebration of apostasy, blasphemy and the free word are historical tasks.
Key issues such as women’s resistance, the veil, religious morality, religion in the law and state, identity politics, communalism and multiculturalism, Islamophobia and secularism as a human right will be discussed.
The conference will highlight and honour dissenters such as the Bangladeshi bloggers; Raif Badawi sentenced to 10 years in prison for blogging and Ahmad Al-Shamri sentenced to death for atheism in Saudi Arabia; ex-Muslim atheist H Farook hacked to death in India; 21 year old Sina Dehghan sentenced to death for “insulting the prophet” in Iran; Ayaz Nizami and Rana Noman arrested on blasphemy charges and 23 year old Mashal Khan lynched by a mob at his university in Pakistan …
The gathering – labelled the “Glastonbury of Freethinkers” – will stand out, loud and proud to remind the world that the freedom of conscience and expression are also for those who reject and criticise religion and the religious-Right. And that the demand for these freedoms are universal.
The conference focus is on freedom from religion; why is that so important and relevant in the right to freedom of conscience? What is link between freedom of expression and right to criticise and leave religion?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Freedom of expression is a consequence, a corollary of the fundamental right of freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience includes the right to believe and the right not to believe – two sides of the same right that cannot be delinked from one another. Freedom of conscience is absolute. No religion or state can put limits on it.
But while, today, the right to believe is rarely questioned – and when it is, human rights organisations run to the rescue of endangered believers, this is unfortunately not exactly the case with the right not to believe, despite the fact that non-believers in many places are threatened by the rising religious-Right, especially but not exclusively by the Muslim far-Right best represented today by Daesh and the likes.
It is interesting to note that freethinkers are not threatening anyone because of their beliefs; still they are the ones asked to ‘respect’ religions and their followers. Their right to freedom of expression is challenged.
Meanwhile, the religious-Right is indeed curtailing the rights of non-believers and/or followers of other religions, and in many places assassinating them, but no one asks them to ‘respect’ different religious beliefs or the absence of religious beliefs.
This inequality of treatment should be of concern to all as it is a clear threat to democracy and to equality between all citizens.
Maryam Namazie: It’s also important to note that the right to conscience and expression are in particular rights for those who think differently. As Rosa Luxemburg said: ‘Freedom is always the freedom of dissenters’. In a world where religion is deemed sacred and the religious-Right have power to legally persecute and execute freethinkers and atheists, and whip up mobs to kill at will, defending the freedom to criticise and reject religion is a matter of life and death for the innumerable.
Criticism of Islam is often labelled Islamophobic as are ex-Muslim events and conferences. Your point of view?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Who, today, would label “Christianophobic” any meeting of people who were born into a “Christian country” and/or a “Christian family” and are now freethinkers?
So the real question becomes: why is Islam singled out among all religions and for what reason(s); why are freethinkers who are born into Muslim contexts (still abusively labelled “Muslims”) discriminated against when it comes to exercising their fundamental right of freedom of conscience? Whose vested interests is this discrimination serving? Why are the Left and the Far-Left buying into this illogical reasoning when it comes to Islam and Muslims, while they would not if it were Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, etc … What hidden racism lies behind this singling out of Islam and Muslims?
Maryam Namazie: Clearly, criticism of religion and the religious-Right is not the same as bigotry against believers. Islamophobia is a political term that aims to scaremonger people into silence and stop criticism of Islam/Islamism by using rights and anti-racist language. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan… freethinkers are accused of blasphemy and apostasy and imprisoned/killed. Here in Europe, accusations of Islamophobia are used to impose de facto blasphemy laws and silence much needed criticism.
Historically, criticism of religion has been key for human progress and it remains so today. Those buying into accusations of Islamophobia effectively side with the Islamist narrative at the expense of dissenters.
With the rise of far-Right populism and racism against migrants and Muslims, should such a conference be held?
Marieme Helie Lucas: Insofar as we define Muslim fundamentalism as a far-Right political movement using religion to cover up their political goals, we are simply facing two far-Rights: the “traditional” one, populist, xenophobic, racist; and the new one which is taking the form of the virulent religious-Right. I do not see any reason why we should challenge one of them without challenging the other too.
Let’s note in passing that the question itself testifies to the confusion of concepts that prevails among progressive people today: it is labelling “Muslims” – without ever inquiring about their religious beliefs – all sorts of people of migrant descent. Just ask Christians from the Middle East if they do not face here the same racism as their Muslim colleagues; just ask Indians if they are not confronted with similar rejection than their Pakistani fellows …
It seems very obvious that we should, all together, combat simultaneously the “traditional” far-Right and the new “religious-Right”. They reinforce each other and feed on each other; they need each other in order to mobilise their troops.
Is there any hope given the rise of the religious-Right everywhere and freethinkers being killed and imprisoned by Islamist states & mob violence?
Marieme Helie Lucas: We are undoubtedly living in a very difficult period of time and we are likely heading towards an even more difficult one. Political clarity is badly needed. The first step would be to fully understand and expose the political nature of the religious-Right, of its programme and its undemocratic theocratic goals.
This conference will give a voice to those who are slaughtered by the religious-Right. Their voice is never heard. All we can do is speak up for their rights … and try and defend ours, here and now.
Maryam Namazie: If anyone feels there is no hope, it is only because they are not familiar with the resistance. Everyone knows Khamenei, Bin Laden, al-Baghdadi but why are Raif Badawi, Avijit Roy, Nadia El Fani, Fauzia Ilyas, Waleed Al Husseini or Zineb el Rhazoui not household names? This conference is the conference of the resistance and resistance to totalitarianism always brings hope.
The conference is sponsored by Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe; Atheist International Alliance; Bread and Roses TV; Center for Inquiry; Centre for Secular Space; Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain; Culture Project; Euromind; Equal Rights Now; Fitnah; Freedom from Religion Foundation; National Secular Society; One Law for All; Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science; Southall Black Sisters; and Secularism is a Women’s Issue.
For more information, contact the Conference Organising Committee.