On Saturday 10 February, I spoke at an international gathering of secularists in Paris, France, which was attended by hundreds of secularists on a panel regarding equality and political Islam. Here’s my speech:

Political Islam and Islam are antithetical to women’s rights, equality between men and women, and other rights and freedoms.

You do not need to look far to see ample evidence of this.

Wherever Islam in particular and religion in general plays a role and the degree to which it has influence or access to governing, state institutions, education, the law and so on, the more detrimental it is for society; the more women and men are unequal and rights and freedoms are restricted.

In Europe, another example is that Islamic groups portray sexual apartheid and the veil as a matter of choice and belief yet where religion is in power, one can quickly see how rights and choice are empty rhetoric to justify their movement and nature, to pacify the general population and to gain access to mainstream politics in the west. However where they rule, things are brutally different. In Iran, women were forcibly veiled under threat of acid, imprisonment and flogging. Another example is Saudi Arabia where girls’ schools are locked as usual practice to ensure the segregation of the sexes. In 2002 when a fire broke out at a school in Mecca, the guards would not unlock the gates and religious police prevented girls from escaping – to the point of even beating them back into the school- because they were not properly veiled; moreover they stopped men who tried to help warning the men that it was sinful to touch the girls. 15 girls died as a result and more than fifty were wounded.

As I said, the degree to which Islamic and religious groups and institutions have access – that is the degree to which equality, rights and lives are at risk.

And I would like to stress this point.

Of course, there may be and are people with beliefs that belong in the Middle Ages and it is their right to believe in whatever they choose so long as they don’t cause harm but organised religions is a very different matter.

Let me clarify; there is a big difference between Muslims and political Islam – as a contemporary right wing political movement like many others, as well as between Muslims and Islam, which is the ideological aspect of this contemporary movement and a belief like many others.

Blurring the distinctions between the two – as Islamists and their apologists often do – and the use of rights and anti-racist language here in the west to do so are devious ways of silencing criticism and opposition – criticism which is particularly crucial given the havoc that political Islam has inflicted in the Middle East and North Africa and more recently here in the west.

As I have said before, the call of organised religious groups for restraint rapidly becomes one of threats and intimidation when they have some form of political power. In Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, they kill and maim indiscriminately, tolerate nothing and no one, hang the ‘unchaste’, ‘kafirs’ and ‘apostates’ from cranes in city centres, and say it is their divine right to do so.

Interestingly, freedoms and rights used by religious groups to further their stranglehold on European society were originally gained to protect people from discrimination, persecution and oppression not the other way around.

When it comes to the political Islamic movement or other religious groups, the Catholic Church, the Muslim Council of Britain, the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudi government and so on, then it is no longer a question of freedom of conscience or belief though they often portray it as the right to discriminate against gays; the right to veil women and children; the right to segregate; the right to threaten to death or kill anyone and everyone who transgresses their religious mores…

Various freedoms and rights of conscience, belief, expression, speech, and so on were gains for the powerless vis-à-vis the powerful and often vis-à-vis religion.

How ludicrous that today powerful religious groups, lobbies and even states are now using these very concepts in an attempt to actually deny and restrict rights and freedoms of individuals and of the society at large.

These Islamic organisations, imams and ‘leaders’ are self-appointed to help keep so-called minorities in their regressive fragmented communities and run them on the cheap. Deeming religious organisations and repressive Islamic states as representative of the so-called Muslim community – which they aren’t – implies that masses of people choose to live the way they are often forced to and imputes on them the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling elite.

Even if it was the belief of a majority that women are sub-human and unequal, and that honour killing is justified, it is erroneous and dangerous to confuse the right to a belief and conscience of individuals with the right to then impose said beliefs and ‘conscience’ on society or segments of it.

Unfortunately, cultural relativism has lowered standards and redefined values to such depths that not only are all beliefs deemed equally valid, they seem to have taken on personas of their own blurring the distinction between individuals and beliefs (whether theirs or imputed).

As a result, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are now more and more applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over real live human beings.

This is why any criticism and ridiculing of or opposition to beliefs, cultures, religions, gods and prophets are being deemed racism, disrespecting, inciting hatred and even violence against those deemed believers. This is not the case.

We saw this during the organised protests by political Islam against the Mohammad caricatures.

The distinction between humans and their beliefs is of crucial significance here.

It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them.

It is the human being who is sacred not beliefs or religion.

The problem is that religion sees things the other way around.

And this is the main reason why religion must be relegated to being a private matter.

More importantly than the fact that it divides, excludes, denies, restricts and so on is the compelling fact that when it comes to religion, it is not the equality, rights, freedoms, welfare of the child, man or woman that is paramount but religion itself.

The promotion of secularism is therefore an important vehicle to protect society from religion’s intervention in people’s lives, especially in the face of religion’s rising access to power.

Of course nowadays, secularism is often portrayed negatively. Religious groups equate secularism as the other extreme of religious fanaticism. But this is untrue.

Religion excludes whilst secularism is inclusive and ensures that a sect or group does not impose its beliefs on all. That a person’s religion is a private affair.

Of course, true equality cannot come about without redressing class inequalities but for men and women and children to be equal in society and under and before the law, secularism is needed as a minimum standard to keep religion out of the social sphere.

The law is especially important here.

Religious groups often speak of coercion when opposing laws such as the banning of religious symbols but much of law is just that – to coerce society to do what has become established norms from preventing child abuse to domestic violence– much of it as a result of the struggles of the working class, the left and social movements.

Now I know that there are those who say that the vile political Islamic movement has nothing to do with religion. In Europe, Islam is constantly being repackaged in a thousand ways to make it more palatable for the western audience. There is now moderate Islam, Islamic reformism, Islamic human rights, Islamic feminism, Islamic democracy… These notions would have been ridiculed by the avant-gardes of 18th century enlightenment. Nonetheless, Islam is key here both as the ideology behind and banner of the political Islamic movement; in fighting the movement, one cannot excuse or appease the ideology behind it. The battle for secularists is as much a battle against religion in general and Islam in particular as it is a battle against political Islam.

As Mansoor Hekmat, the Marxist thinker has said: ‘It has been proved time and time again that pushing back religiosity and religious reaction is not possible except through unequivocal defence of human values against religion. It has been proved time and time again that preventing religious barbarism does not come about through bribing it and trying to give it a human face, but through the fight against reactionary religious beliefs and practices. What price should be paid… to realise that Islam and religion do not have a progressive, supportable faction?’ (Mansoor Hekmat, In Defence of the Prohibition of the Islamic Veil for Children.)

Let me end by adding that this battle has nothing to do with the clash of civilisations. In fact, the clash we are witnessing between political Islam and the US led militarism is the clash of the uncivilised. The majority of humanity, a third camp that wants nothing to do with either side, represents 21st century humanity and values. It is this front that must lead the much needed fight for secularism today.

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