Below is my speech at Reason Rally 2016 on 4 June 2016 in Washington DC.
I’m very happy to be here. Thanks to the organisers for this wonderful event. Thanks to all of you for coming out today. I think you should give yourselves a huge round of applause. It’s well deserved.
In the age of ISIS and the retreat of reason, being out, loud and proud for secularism is important. If only to say: We exist and that there are many of us.
This – in and of itself – be it in Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia or the US – breaks the fear and despair.
It makes us see that we are not alone.
It brings hope and with it courage…
Being out, loud and proud also means that we stand in solidarity with and honour our dissenters.
* People like Raif Badawi, calling for secularism, sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia. This month marks his 4th year in prison.
* Waleed Abulkhair, Raif’s lawyer, has also been jailed. It’s his birthday this month.
* Dissenters like the beloved Avijit Roy and other Bangladeshi atheists and secularists who have been hacked to death in broad daylight for defending reason. (Bonya Ahmed, Avijit’s widow who was also brutally attacked is here today and I would like to pay her my greatest respects.)
* The likes of Fatma Naoot, an Egyptian poet, sentenced to 3 years in prison for criticising Islamic animal slaughter.
* Activists of “Raqqah is being Slaughtered Silently” literally dying to expose ISIS.
* Jafar Azimzadeh and labour activists facing long-term prison sentences as well as the 17 gold mining workers flogged 30-100 times just recently for organising in Iran.
* Narges Mohammadi sentenced to 16 years in prison in Iran for her human rights work.
And on and on.
Wherever the theocrats have power, it is the beginning of the end of reason, freedoms, and rights for everyone.
Despite this, there are some on the Left – and I say this as someone on the Left – who defend Islamism as a defence of “people’s culture and religion.”
Thanks but no thanks. Islamism is not our culture; it is the culture of our fascists.
If it were people’s culture, the theocrats would not need to ban everything, including music like in Mali. Recently, the Iranian regime flogged 35 boys and girls for attending a graduation party.
They would not need to terrorise populations through indiscriminate violence if everyone agreed with them.
There would not be mass migration from countries where they rule.
Let’s not forget that Islamism has been built – often with US government complicity – on the slaughtered generations of the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
Girls like 16 year old Katia Bengana assassinated for refusing to wear the veil in Algeria in the 1990s and political dissidents buried in mass graves in the Khavaran in the 1980s in Iran after 5 minute trials. Their murders are commemorated every year by families and the mothers of Khavaran despite threats and arrests by security forces.
When people say that secularism is a “western neo-colonial” demand, I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Because no one understands the need for the separation of religion from the state more than those living under the boot of the theocrats – be it the Islamists, the Buddhist-Right, Hindu-Right, Christian-Right, Jewish-Right…
Of course there are differences amongst and within this phenomenon and of course the Islamists are the worst because of the sheer extent of their power but fundamentally the consequences of theocratic rule on people’s lives are the same.
Any degree of power for them means a corresponding degree of lack of rights and freedoms for us.
This is ignored by those on the Left who side with the Islamists at the expense of dissenters. I don’t side with US militarism to oppose the Islamic regime of Iran; they should learn to do the same. It’s called multi-tasking; fighting on several fronts at the same time.
As Algerian Sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas says: “By supporting fundamentalists, they simply chose one camp in a political struggle, without acknowledging it.”
The far-Right does the same thing – conflating Islamists with migrants and Muslims and blaming us all for Islamism’s crimes. Whether it’s Pegida or Stop Islamisation of America or the English Defence League shamefully placing collective blame on dissenters, victims and survivors.
I don’t blame all Americans for the KKK, the bombing of Iraq and Donald Trump – this is after all also the country of the 1912 Bread and Roses strike, Joe Hill and the magnificent civil rights movement – so please don’t blame us all for Islamism or terrorism by calling for the profiling of Muslims or closed borders for victims fleeing for their lives.
This is why identity politics is bogus. It erases social and political movements; class politics; the choices we make; where we stand – despite our names, our immigration status and our places of birth.
There is an atheist, for example, in every “Muslim” family. There are ardent secularists amongst even the most religious of believers and in the smallest of villages…
Dissent exists – often out, loud and proud – despite the risks. Like the unveiling movement in Iran even though veiling is compulsory and punishable with prison sentences and fines or in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan where Sharia courts, forced marriages, and polygamy have been banned and veiling rules for women imposed by ISIS torn down.
Identity politics or multiculturalism as a social policy makes it hard to see this immense dissent and our common humanity irrespective of our differences…
When I Tweeted I was speaking here today (of course not on Facebook as I have been banned yet again) someone challenged me to prove why secularism is better when according to him “it brings AIDS and encourages the rape of women unlike in Saudi Arabia.” (Since of course Saudi Arabia is such a haven for women!)
My answer was simple: you have more rights in secular societies and no one gets legally thrown off of buildings for being gay.
That’s “proof” enough for me.
In fact, secularism is a basic human right, as the Philosopher AC Grayling says.
It is often conflated with atheism but it isn’t just important for atheists, or religious minorities like Ahmadiyyas or Bahai’s, women, LGBTQ, but for everyone – including believers. After all just because one is a believer, it doesn’t mean one wants to live under rules imposed by theocrats. The overflowing prisons and gallows as well as the mass flight of refugees clearly show this.
“When government does God, it imposes religion on us all,” says Richard Dawkins. And an imposition is no longer about the right to religion as a private matter but about control and power.
In the world they want everyone dies; in the world we want, everyone lives.
Nonetheless, we are the “aggressive secularists” sometimes even – no joke – compared to the Taliban. Don’t believe it; it’s just propaganda. In the world today, it is the secularists who are being slaughtered not the other way round.
They kill and threaten freethinkers and we are accused of being offensive and censored at universities, in the media (like Ayatollah BBC), by governments, Twitter and Facebook (shame on Facebook for banning Arab atheist, Iranian atheist and Bangladeshi atheist pages)?
As if cartoons and blasphemy are more offensive than murder.
We are accused of “denying people’s rights to religion” when we are merely fighting for a corresponding right to be free from religion and of course to be able to live to tell the tale.
When you can be killed for your atheism and criticism of Islam – criticism that is much needed by the way – normalising and celebrating apostasy and blasphemy – out, loud and proud – are important forms of resistance.
They kill, maim, kidnap children, bomb our schools and marketplaces and we are accused of being “unnecessarily provocative.”
No, we are just fighting back.
We merely refuse to live on our knees.
For many of us, the fight for reason and secularism is a matter of life and death.
It’s not western, it’s not eastern; it’s universal.
That’s our message today – from DC to Tehran to Riyadh to Dhaka: We want secularism and we want it now.