The rise of humanism and secularism in Iran

Maryam Namazie
Speech given at the British Humanist Association conference held during
June 10-12, 2005
Newcastle, UK

* Iranian New Year in March is a celebration of the first day of spring. This is obviously not an Islamic holiday and one that had initially been banned by the Islamic Republic of Iran and denounced as pagan over the past years but to no avail. On the last Wednesday of every year (called Chahar Shanbeh Suri), people come onto the streets, build bonfires and jump over them – a ritual from pre-Islamic times to basically receive the warmth of the fire for the upcoming year. This year, there were reports of Korans being burnt in the bonfires!

* On March 8, International Women’s Day, a day not recognised by the Islamic regime, which has its own Islamic women’s day, men and women gathered in the streets to celebrate. There were a large number of reports of women pulling off their veils and setting them alight.

* In February on Ashura, the tenth day of Moharram which is a month of mourning in the Shia calendar and especially important because it was the day that imam Hussein (a grandson of Mohammed and the third imam) was killed, there are often scenes of men and boys out on the streets, self flagellating with chains and even beating themselves with the edges of swords. It is a scene from the Middle Ages with bloodied men and even children parading through the streets. During this month, it is even illegal to wear bright clothing in Iran. But this year, young men and women came out onto the streets, blasted rock music and danced!

I want to remind you that these astonishing examples are taking place in a country where it is illegal to listen and dance to rock music, remove or even ‘improperly’ wear the compulsory veil, and mix with the opposite sex, let alone to speak, organise, associate, etc. freely. In all the examples I gave, there were also clear expressions of opposition to the government. For example on International Women’s Day, the slogan of ‘neither veil nor submission’ was heard across the country – the same slogan used in mass protests in Iran when the government initially imposed compulsory veiling over two decades ago.

What’s most interesting is that these examples are not isolated incidents but are fast becoming a norm. People, particularly the youth, are using every opportunity – from one of the ‘holiest’ days of mourning to a football match win on June 9 to the upcoming so-called presidential election in Iran to express their human desire to live in the 21st century free from religion and superstition.

I can imagine that for some these examples may sound extreme and shocking in its opposition to the current state of affairs. If it happened here in Britain, it would immediately be labelled ‘racist’ and ‘Islamophobic’ [though a critique of religion or any belief has nothing to do with racism], and even ‘incitement to religious hatred’ – allegations often flung at those of us in exile who speak out against Islam and political Islam. But in Iran, a deep-seated hatred of Islam and its government is a reality, and even an inevitable necessity.

This reminds me of a recent discussion that has taken place in the Guardian about the 21st century atheist where Dylan Evans has criticised Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins for being ‘virulently anti-religion’, saying they are old atheists and that new ones should value religion. Salman Rushdie appropriately responds by saying that in some parts religion is not a ‘polite set of rituals’ or a dead religion like Greek mythology where one can enjoy reading it and gives examples of where this is not the case.

In Iran, too, Islam is a state power, which has executed over 100,000 people in two decades, slaughtered an entire generation, and actually stones people to death for sex outside of marriage with the law even specifying the size of the stone to be used. In the 21st century, it hangs people from cranes in city centres, and won’t even allow choices in dress and music. In Iran, we’re talking about a situation where Islam and its state have been imposed by sheer brute force and violence. It is, therefore, natural and rational to respond to the situation with an anti-Islamic backlash. As the late and eminent Marxist and humanist, Mansoor Hekmat has said: ‘…when you come face to face with movements, which threaten freethinkers like Taslima Nasrin with death, you are obliged to once again refer to the Koran and say that this reaction is feeding from a well, which exactly formulates all this backwardness. The Koran could have been a historical book like many other historical books; people could look at it and not show much sensitivity but when a movement makes it the banner of a contemporary political struggle, then people are forced to take its banner from it, review it, look at it …and discredit it.’

The backlash and opposition in Iran is at its essence strongly humanist, secularist and modern. You can see it clearly in the examples I have given but also in a much more deep-seated way – in rational, popular, and spontaneous acts and the establishment of hundreds of organisations outside government structures and restrictions that are non-religious and purely for the defence of the human being via reliance on human will. For example, there are children’s organisations in many major cities in Iran calling for a secular education, an end to corporal punishment, child abuse and punishment, differentiation between parental and children’s rights and even exerting pressure on the Islamic regime to announce an end to the execution of minors. In practice, when 15 year old Zhila Izadi was arrested and flogged for allegedly having sex with her brother, for example, a committee was formed in her defence; people visited her, supported her and intervened on her behalf with her family.

In all of these, there is an immense sense of solidarity and daily acts of intervention on behalf of humanity – whether it be to rescue someone being arrested for ‘improper’ veiling from the clutches of the pasdaran or revolutionary guards or collecting support for the victims of the Bam earthquake with the stated purpose of helping especially because the government was not.

Again, don’t forget we are talking about a country that has been under Islamic rule for 25 years; a country that has been labelled Islamic by the media and western states day in and day out; a country where half the population are between 14 and 24 and were born under Islamic rule! And still – not only have they not been Islamicised as government officials often complain – but are actually going on an anti-Islamic offensive.

In countries like Iran I think you can often see the real state of affairs by statements made by people affiliated with the government or those who were in the inner sanctum and now want to save their hides. Mohsen Sazegara, for example, a member of Khomeini’s inner sanctum, who helped write the regime’s constitution and set up the notorious pasdaran – revolutionary guards – is now speaking of secularism in this issue’s New Humanist magazine! Aghajari speaks of ‘Islamic humanism’. If you read their statements carefully you see how they attempt to co-opt people’s language and desires but in fact only to save Islam and they say as much.

But it is to no avail. If I can quote Mansoor Hekmat again: ‘…mullahs would at one time come and get paid to read religious sermons and go. They had a role in society. But when they come to the fore, organise society based on their views, turn their internal moralities into external laws for all to observe and we see all of their filth everywhere, then it’s not possible just to permit them to go back into their previous hole. When the wave sets off and people’s anti-Islamic offensive begins, then Islam cannot retreat to its position and stance of two decades ago.’

You also have diehards, such as Ayatollah Hamedani who mention humanism and secularism but in a different context saying: ‘The spreading of prostitution and evil things… and the propagation of crazy ideas such as secularism, liberalism and humanism are part of our enemies’ plans to sow disunity in society.’ But the enemy is society itself, completely home grown, courtesy of the Islamic Republic of Iran; a direct result of naked, bare theocracy.

Of course you can see humanism in other countries in the Middle East, basically because human beings are humanists at heart when you scratch the surface but it is in Iran where it has gained momentum and is significant and historically unprecedented.

We are watching history in the making.

Iran a place where a defeated 1979 revolution has been labelled an Islamic revolution by official journalism; an Iran, which has been a pillar of political Islam over the past two decades is now today at the crossroads of a social, political and cultural upheaval against Islam and political Islam and for humanism, secularism and modernism.

Several decades ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran kick-started contemporary political Islam and religious revival. Today, what is taking place in Iran will kick-start a humanist, secularist revival in Iran and across the Middle East. Its effects will be felt across the globe and in the west – adversely affecting Sharia courts in Canada and Britain to the deceptive notion of Islamophobia as racism and child veiling in Europe.

It is crucial to for people everywhere to recognise and unequivocally defend this movement.

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