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Articles and Speeches

Unveiling the Debate on Secularism and Rights

Maryam Namazie
Published in WPI Briefing
January 19, 2004

The French government's draft law banning conspicuous religious symbols in state schools and state institutions has caused heated debate regarding secularism vs. religious freedoms giving us the opportunity to reiterate our defence of secularism and women's and children's rights. While Islamists and their supporters have proclaimed that banning religious symbols in schools and state institutions is a 'restriction of' 'religious freedoms' or 'freedom of belief', 'religious intolerance', 'a violation of women's and girls' rights', 'racist', 'discriminatory', and so on, we believe the truth is simple and quite contrary to what they claim. In brief:

The ban is pro-secularism not a restriction of religious freedoms and beliefs: A ban on conspicuous religious symbols in state schools and institutions is but one step toward secularism or the separation of state and religion. Secularism is an advance of civilised humanity. In the nineteenth century, this was a demand targeted against the Church resulting in for example France's 1905 law; today, it is first and foremost a demand against political Islam, particularly since that movement has wreaked havoc in the Middle East and the world. At a minimum, secularism ensures that government offices and officials from judges, to clerks to teachers are not promoting their religious beliefs and are instead doing their jobs in a neutral and impartial manner. In the same way that banning a teacher from instructing creationism instead of science in the classroom isn't a restriction of his or her religious beliefs or freedoms and is not considered religious intolerance, so too is the banning of religious symbols not to be considered so. One's religious beliefs are a private affair; public officials cannot use their positions to impose or promote their beliefs on others.

The ban is pro-children's rights: When it comes to the veiling of girls in schools, though, children's veiling must not only be banned in public institutions and schools but also in private schools and everywhere. Religious schools must also be banned. Here the issue extends beyond the principle of secularism and goes straight to the heart of children's rights. While adults may 'choose' veiling, children by their very nature cannot make such choices; what they do is really what their parents tell them to do. Even if there are children who say they like or choose to be veiled (as some media have reported), child veiling must still be banned - just as a child must be protected even if she 'chooses' to stay with her abusive parents rather than in state care, even if she 'chooses' to work to support her family in violation of child labour laws or even if she 'chooses' to stop attending school. States must intervene to protect children no matter what. Also, states must level the playing field for children and ensure that nothing segregates them or restricts them from accessing information, advances in society and rights, playing, swimming and in general doing things children must do. Whatever their beliefs, parents do not have the right to impose their beliefs, including veiling on children just because they are their own children, just as they can't deny their children medical assistance or beat and neglect them or marry them off because it's part of their beliefs or religion.

The ban is pro-women's and girls' rights not vice versa: In addition to being pro-children's rights, a ban on conspicuous religious symbols is pro-women's rights not vice versa. It protects women (albeit minimally) from being harassed and intimidated into veiling. Those of us who have fled political Islam know full well the levels of threats and intimidation women have faced both in the Middle East and here in Europe and the West to wear the veil or else. The political Islamic movement behind veiling is the same movement that is waiting to execute Kobra Rahmanpour in Iran, impose Sharia law in Iraq and enshrine Islamic inequalities in the Afghan constitution. It is the same movement that has blown up innocent people on buses, cafes and in office buildings across the globe. Everywhere it has had power, it has murdered and brutalised. Women and girls have been its first victims. Now it is this very movement that is demanding the institutionalisation of its repressive measures against women in the heart of Europe, framed in terms of 'women's rights' and 'religious freedoms'! What cheek! It is this very movement that have become accomplished and renowned in and symbolic of the assault on women's right and freedoms. The debate on veiling must be seen within this wider context.

'My Hijab, My Right' - I don't think so: Of course an adult woman has the right to practice her religion, customs and beliefs in realms other than those where she is representing the state or the educational system. Of course it is her 'personal choice' to be veiled. But if you remove all forms of intimidation and threats by Islamists, Islamic laws, racism, cultural relativism and ghetto-isation by Western governments, norms that consider women half that of men, and so on I assure you that there will be very few women wearing the veil. Even if there are still those who do so, one must remember that it is not a positive right. 'My Hijab, My Right' is like saying 'My FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), My Right'!!! The veil is an instrument to control a woman's sexuality, like FGM. It is meant to segregate women. It is in no way like a nose ring as one writer has claimed! Have innumerable women been killed, tortured and flogged for transgressing the nose ring in Europe? I don't think so. Today, more than ever before, the veil is political Islam's symbol and women and girls are its first victims. The veil is not just another piece of clothing - just as FGM is not just another custom. I suppose if it were to be compared with anyone's clothing it would be comparable to the Star of David pinned on Jews by the Nazis to segregate, control, repress and to commit genocide. There is much that will come to light about this Islamic holocaust when the Islamic regime in Iran - a pillar of political Islam - is overthrown.

The ban is not racist or discriminatory: Some say that banning religious symbols is racist or discriminatory; in fact, it is discriminatory and racist to create separate laws and policies for different people, including immigrants and women living in Islamist communities in the West. Such 'differences' have been so hammered in by cultural relativism and multi-culturalism that a ban of religious symbols immediately causes some to cry racism and demand 'the right to wear the veil'! In fact, crying racism is the new catch phrase of Islamists and the political Islamic movement along with their supporters in order to shut people up and hinder opposition, as they know full well that no one wants to be called a racist even if the matter has nothing to do with racism.

And this labelling as 'racist' anyone who criticises Islam or the political Islamic movement has reached preposterous heights. As an example, one woman wrote to me saying she smelt 'Islamophobia' (whatever that means) in our call for secularism because 'Christmas, Easter and many other religious events are celebrated in Britain' and she could not 'demonstrate in favour of secularism when [she] knew this [was a] double standard'! She therefore joined the Islamists' demonstration in defence of the Hejab and against secularism instead of our counter demonstration! Why not join secularist forces and call for further demands such as the banning of religious schools and all religious holidays (as we have)? Suffice it to say that multi-culturalism has made irrationality into an art form. True, racism is part and parcel of the system, but defending secularism has nothing to do with racism. Was the battle for secularism in Europe in the nineteenth century racism against the Church or Christians?

This has nothing to do with supporting 'imperialist' France: And of course I mustn't forget our dear anti-imperialists, which say defending secularism equates supporting the 'imperialist French state and its education system'. The struggle for secularism and women's rights has nothing to do with supporting the French government and everything to do with defending progressive human values. These are values that people and the working class have fought and died for. Also, if you continue their bogus rationale then for example no one in France should have opposed the war on Iraq since it would have been siding with the 'imperialist French state'. These anti-imperialists are so staunchly anti-imperialist that they can be nothing else. Interestingly though they are only anti-imperialist if they can remain reactionary at the same time. When Western governments promoted the Taliban and promote the Islamic regime of Iran, they seem to have amnesia. When women are stoned to death in Iran, when the Afghan Constitution asserts that no human right can contradict Islam, or Sharia law is imposed on Iraq, they are unable to even mutter syllables to show us they are at least alive and breathing.

There are no more pressing issues: And finally, for now, for those who keep on about how many more pressing issues there are than a 'piece of clothing'; yes, we know the drill - when it comes to women's and girls' rights, there are always far more pressing issues. It's one way of ignoring critical issues and hoping they will go away. But they won't. At least not while we're around.