While many of us watch in horror as ISIS advances, and fundamentalist ideas spread across religious traditions around the world, Maryam Namazie and Marieme Hélie-Lucas – secular feminists from Iran and Algeria – told Karima Bennoune why they are convening the International Secular Conference in London next weekend.
Karima Bennoune: Can you explain your own journey to secularism?
Marieme Hélie-Lucas: I have been a secularist throughout my life, someone who believes a democratic state should not take orders from religions. My mother was a mystic, but also a secularist, and was strongly aware of the anti-women stance in all religions. Her feminist teaching on religions always remained within me, especially when I was confronted with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in Algeria.
Maryam Namazie: I became a secularist after Islamists expropriated and suppressed the 1979 Iranian revolution and established an Islamic state. I knew instinctively that there was something very wrong with religion in power, as do many people living under the boot of Islamism or the religious right – even if they do not call themselves secularists. My father was raised a strict Muslim (by my grandfather who was an Islamic scholar) but he never made me feel different because I was a girl. I never had to be veiled or felt unequal, until an Islamic state came into being.
Bennoune: Why did you decide to organize the International Conference on the Religious Right, Secularism and Civil Rights now?
Namazie: Our era is marked by the rise of the religious right, and in particular Islamism, with its unspeakable brutality. There has been many a slaughtered generation from Iran to Algeria. For every shocking and tragic beheading of a journalist and aid worker by ISIS that makes headlines, there are countless unreported others beheaded, crucified, flogged, segregated and “disappeared” via the veil…
In the fight against these movements, secularism is key, including for many believers. No one better understands the need for the separation of religion and state than those who have lived under the religious right. Secularism may not be the only challenge, but it is certainly a minimum precondition for freedom in any given society.