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Convention speech: Maryam Namazie — We resist and challenge because we must

Here is an edited version of the speech Maryam Namazie gave on Sept. 15 at FFRF’s 40th annual convention in Madison, Wis. She was introduced by FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor:

Maryam Namazie is an Iranian-born writer and activist who lives in London. She has a very lengthy resume as a freethinking feminist rabble rouser. The Islamic regime of Iran has called her “immoral and corrupt” and once did an exposé on her titled “Meet This Anti-Religion Woman.” She’s spokesperson for Fitnah — Movement for Women’s Liberation. She hosts a weekly TV program in Persian and English called “Bread and Roses.” Maryam and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain were featured in the 2016 film by Deeyah Khan called “Islam’s Nonbelievers.” She’s received the Julia B. Friedman Humanitarian award among many other recognitions. She’s done a lot of work on refugees. This past summer, Maryam organized the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history, which Dan and I were proud to be

Maryam Namazie holds up her Freedom From Fundamentalism Award presented to her by Henry Zumach, the benefactor of the award, which includes a $10,000 prize. (Photo by Ingrid Laas)

at in London, and which FFRF helped to co-sponsor. She has led many protests and founded Iran Solidarity. And now she will be named the 2017 Henry Zumach Freedom From Religious Fundamentalism award recipient. Hank is here to give her a plaque and her $10,000 award prize. And we are very grateful to the benefactor, Hank Zumach.

By Maryam Namazie

Thank you very much. This is really a wonderful honor, especially coming from people like yourselves who are activists who have been changing the world — the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Dan Barker, Annie Laurie Gaylor, people who I admire greatly. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.

I do honestly feel that this award is not very well deserved, especially when I think of the innumerable people across the world who’ve said no to the Religious Right, particularly people who live in theocracies and are doing so at great risk, and the many unsung heroes who have died fighting against religion’s encroachments in the public space.

I think of people like those who are buried in mass graves in the Khavaran of Iran; it’s called the “Place of the Damned” by the Iranian regime. Thousands upon thousands of people were executed in one bloody summer during the ’80s in Iran. Many of them were killed after five-minute trials. Some of them were asked only one question: Do you believe in God? And when they said “no,” they were taken out and shot. Their families were even made to pay for the bullets that were used.

I think of others slaughtered, generations slaughtered actually, by the Religious Right, by the Islamists in Algeria, for example, the innumerable killed by what the Algerians called the “green fascists.” Green is the color of Islam and the Islamists are our fascists. One of those killed was Katia Bangana. She was a 17-year-old student. The Islamists demanded that she wear a headscarf. She refused to do so and they assassinated her on the spot.

Of course, we know about the Bangladeshi bloggers, like the wonderful Avijit Roy, and I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Yemeni 17-year-old, Omar Mohammad Batawil. He identified as an atheist. He used to criticize Islam on Facebook and was threatened as a result. And one day he was abducted in front of his home — in front of his home! — and he was murdered. And just to show what a wonderful young man he was, there’s a quote of his on Facebook. He wrote, “They accused me of atheism! Oh, you people, I see God in the flowers and you see him in the graveyards. This is the difference between me and you.”

And, for me, when I think of these people, the fallen, it brings to mind that “Les Miserables” song, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” It really does describe how I feel.

“Oh, my friends, my friends forgive me

That I live and you are gone,

There’s a grief that can’t be spoken,

And there’s a pain goes on and on,

Phantom faces at the window,

Phantom shadows on the floor,

Where my friends will sing no more.”

Lucky to be alive

I do often feel that I’m very lucky to be alive. My 11-year-old actually asked me before I flew to this conference, “Mommy, will you be assassinated?” I said, “I’m going to the United States, for goodness sakes, not Iran or Syria.” But a lot of us feel that we’re lucky to be alive. I feel lucky to have a supportive partner, lucky to have parents who got my sister and me out of Iran, lucky that I live in a somewhat secularized society and, of course, parents, who, even though they are believers, love me more than they love religion and religious dogma, which is how it should be.

But we know that’s not necessarily the case for a lot of young people across the world. And to be honest, the fact that I am alive weighs very heavily on me. I feel this great burden of responsibility, so much so that I sometimes feel that if I don’t speak, it would be very difficult to breathe. In many ways, like many others, I speak because I have no choice.

I know this is true for many people who are coming out as atheists under very difficult circumstances in the Middle East, in North Africa, in South Asia, thanks in large part to the internet and social media. I think what we’re seeing now, the tsunami of atheism, is a result of social media and the access it has given. And social media and the internet are doing to Islam what the printing press had done to Christianity.

Many of us feel that we are all going to die, aren’t we? But many of us prefer to do it standing. And we make no apologies. I have said it many times before: When you can be killed for leaving Islam, for criticizing Islam, then you need to do it publicly, loudly and proudly. You need to celebrate blasphemy and apostasy when it is illegal because these are important forms of resistance.

When 16-year-olds are hanged in city squares for acts incompatible with chastity and gay men are being thrown off of buildings because of Sharia “justice,” then criticism of religion, the Religious Right and religion’s role in power becomes a historical task and necessity. And this challenge takes place in many different ways.

For example, you may have heard of the unveiling movement in Iran where women — even though it is compulsory to be veiled, even though it is punishable by fines and up to two months in prison — are unveiling as a way of challenging the veiling laws. And men are veiling in solidarity with women, saying, “Look how stupid it is to be veiled.”

I think it’s important to be able to criticize the veil. And particularly when you think of the veil, very often it’s promoted; it’s the propaganda that it’s empowering: “Oh, it feels so good to be not seen and not heard and to be invisible and walk around in a mobile prison; how lovely!” And that’s why as a challenge to that, we’ve had nude protests. Not an objectified nudity, not a nudity that’s commodified, but one that is in the hands of women as a form of political protest. It can be hugely empowering and an important challenge to the Islamist movement.

Another form of protest has been eat-ins during Ramadan. All we hear is “Happy Ramadan!” or how lovely Ramadan is, let’s all celebrate Ramadan. Ramadan is a bleak month for a lot of people because you’re forced to not eat, you’re forced to not drink. You can be arrested and beaten and flogged if you do. Of course, people have a right to fast, but a lot of us don’t want to fast and we should also have that right. So, we have eat-ins in front of embassies where it’s illegal, drinking wine and eating pork sausage rolls. I know some might find it distasteful, but it is a serious solidarity action.

We went in front of a number of embassies last year and this year. The only embassy that called the police was the Iranian Embassy. I wonder what they told the police? “There are people eating in front of our embassy!”

It may seem funny or silly, but these are important ways of resisting and challenging the Islamists and the religious right. It’s something that’s been done by young people in Morocco and Tunisia and Algeria and many of them have been beaten and arrested. It’s something that we think is important to do to show solidarity with those persecuted for eating during Ramadan.

I’m just trying to give you some examples of the various forms of resistance. Another was #Ex-MuslimBecause hashtag. We thought we’d start it to see why people have left Islam, to give an opportunity for people to speak because so many are in the closet, they’re frightened, they’re fearful. We didn’t expect more than a few hundred responses, but it actually went viral in 24 hours. We had 120,000 tweets from 65 countries. It was very moving. A lot of people said they sat behind their computers and cried because it was the first time that they had come out. Even though it’s on the internet, even though it’s anonymous for many, and there’s still so much fear around it, it was empowering.

And here’s a few funny, sad, moving responses to the #ExMuslimBecause hashtag.

• “#ExMuslimBecause I’m a woman.”

• “#ExMuslimBecause bacon, Yum.”

• “#ExMuslimBecause no 72 virgins for me.”

• “#ExMuslimBecause my own mother told me I should be killed because I didn’t believe the same things she did.”

• “#ExMuslimBecause my dad said there’s no such thing as rape in marriage in Islam, and that I’m a liar when I asked him to tell the man he’d married me off to at 17 to stop raping me. My own dad.”

There are Muslims who also showed solidarity with us. But a lot of them hid their faces because of fear of the backlash.

Double standards

We joined Gay Pride Parade in London. Some of us were topless — we were body painted by the award-winning body painter Victoria Guggenheim. We had flags of countries that execute LGBT and the aim of our involvement was to say that there are 15 countries or territories that execute LGBT. One of our activists had the Chechnya flag on his ass, which is exactly where it should be, particularly since Chechnya’s president had said that he wanted to eliminate gay people by the beginning of Ramadan.

Of course, the minute we got there, the police converged on us because people had been offended by our placards. They were particularly offended about the placard, “Allah is gay.” And we talked to the police about how there are countless signs saying, “Jesus is gay” and “Jesus has two dads” and making fun of the pope and on and on and on. But the minute you talk about Islam, you’ve got the police converging on you. They did try to take our placards and they did say it was illegal and this and that, but you’re not going to mess with us. We marched anyway and it was a wonderful march.

As expected, some “Muslim leaders” complained. They asked for an apology, which we are not giving. And they said that our placards were “Islamophobic.” First of all, they’re not “Muslim leaders.” It’s interesting how anyone who is regressive and reactionary suddenly becomes a “Muslim leader” and we all have to listen to them. The East London Mosque was one of those that complained. They were incensed because one of our placards said, “East London Mosque incites the murder of LGBT,” and it does. And that’s what they’re calling “Islamophobic.” The way things are phrased just shows how much we live in a world where cultural relativism reigns supreme, and every homophobe and reactionary can say that they’re a Muslim leader and we all have to listen to them.

This East London Mosque is a center of homophobia. It’s invited preachers that have called for the death of apostates and blasphemers, and they want us to apologize? I don’t think so.

This is what Gay Pride in London wrote when they received the complaint against us. They said, “If anyone taking part in our parade makes someone feel ostracized, discriminated against or humiliated, then they’re undermining the principles on which we exist.” And they said they “won’t tolerate any discrimination of any kind.” And they “won’t tolerate Islamophobia.” That’s very interesting, because we had Muslims march with us and our placards were against racism. Most of the people marching were migrants and people from Muslim backgrounds and minority backgrounds. And we were very clear that our placards were against Islam, against Islamism, against Islamic homophobia, and against racism. The conflation of bigotry with criticism of religion and the Religious Right benefits reactionaries and disadvantages us and other dissenters. As of now, Pride is assessing whether they will allow us to march again next year. And we’ve told them that we don’t need their permission to march for LGBT rights. We will march nonetheless.

We held placards for people’s rights. People did that in the feminist movement, they did that in the civil rights movement against segregation. That’s basically what lots of people do when they’re fighting for people’s rights.

It does anger me to think that these “progressives” look at us in the same way that the Islamists look at us. While criticism of Christianity or the Christian right is seen to be “progressive,” similar criticisms of Islam and Islamism are considered “Islamophobic” and bigotry against Muslims. There is a racism behind the double standards that finds “Jesus is Gay” to be permissible at London Pride but finds “Allah is Gay” to be offensive.

They see dissent through the eyes of our fascists and they vilify this dissent. The reality is that it’s not all about demographics, it’s about people’s politics and their choices. You’ve got professors at universities saying ex-Muslims are “native informants,” “coconuts” and “Uncle Toms” and linked in with the Christian Right. But the Islamists are our Religious Right, and more closely linked in aims and actions to the Christian Right than they like to let on.

Always blamed

It reminds me of the fact that whatever happens, we’re always to blame. The Islamists are never to blame. There’s always an excuse for why they have to kill people and decapitate people. Poor things, you know they feel desperate. They’re upset about U.S. imperialism. They faced racism. A lot of ex-Muslims have faced racism, faced imperialism, faced injustice and poverty. We don’t tend to decapitate people, though, do we?

It does remind me sometimes of a woman who’s been raped. It’s the length of her skirt that must have been the problem, not the rapist. And very often you see that sort of blaming the victim by Islamists and Islam itself and their many apologists.

There’s been many times where I’ve received death threats and I’ve been told, “Well, what do you expect? You know you shouldn’t have been talking about these things.” Well, I’m sorry but I expect NOT to be killed for talking about religion and criticizing it.

We see this victim blaming with the attack on Charlie Hebdo as well. If only they hadn’t drawn that cartoon. “They shouldn’t have been killed, but. . .” There’s always some “buts,” as if offense is more important and more offensive than murder. And, of course, we know racism exists. It kills. But I don’t think ex-Muslims need a lesson in racism. We live it all the time. Particularly, many of our family members remain Muslims, and racists can’t really tell us apart anyway. They can’t even tell the difference between Muslims and Sikhs. We all look the same to them. Obviously, also, criticism of Islam and Islamism is not the same as bigotry against people. It’s been conflated so we have to keep explaining that criticizing Islam is not racism, criticizing Islamism is not racism.

We must not excuse fundamentalism because of racism. And we mustn’t excuse racism because of fundamentalism. I think it’s important to fight on several fronts. We fight for LGBT rights, we fight for women’s rights, we fight for the right to be free from religion. We are complex people and we fight on very many fronts so we can also fight against religion, including Islam. We can fight against the Religious Right, which includes Islamists and the Christian right. Look what the Hindu Right is doing in India. It is killing people for eating beef, for goodness sakes. The Buddhist Right, we know what it is  doing to the Rohingya Muslims there. The Jewish Right, what it is doing in the Palestinian territories. We have to fight them. But, at the same time, adamantly defend the separation of religion from the state, citizenship rights irrespective of people’s beliefs, and human rights, irrespective of our migration status, where we come from, what our backgrounds are and so on.

The charges of Islamophobia are de facto blasphemy and apostasy laws. In countries under Sharia, they kill us, they imprison us, they call us apostates and blasphemers and send us to the gallows. Here in the West where such laws don’t exist, they cry “Islamophobia” with the support of many people who are supposed to be on our side. It’s a way of silencing dissent and criticism. But we have to criticize Islam because our lives depend on it.

I want to end now with a few words from Mohammed Alkhadra. [You can read his story in the January/February issue of Freethought Today.] He spoke in July at the freethinkers conference that Annie Laurie and Dan were at, the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history, and he just blew us away. He is a star. He’s someone we should all know. He has started the Jordanian Atheists in a country where you cannot legally be an atheist. You can be killed by mobs for being an atheist and he’s publicly shown his face there. I want to end with his words:

“I’d like to first thank Maryam Namazie, the bravest woman I know, for hosting this. I’m Mohammed Alkhadra. One day, four years ago, I was becoming more and more Salafi. And I was believing in the Caliphate and having that Caliphate again be the greatest Arab nation or the Muslim nation. And then this man Richard Dawkins . . . I found a YouTube video of him and I began to learn and learn more. And then I woke up. To be able to wake someone up, that’s what stands for being ‘out, loud and proud.’ Because if he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. And I’m sure that this is the same situation for a lot of people here. To be ‘out, loud and proud’ is to give a chance to people who are in the closet to come out.

“You give a chance to people to think, ‘How do I know what I know? How do I know that the Earth is round? How do I know about the theory of evolution?’ There’s someone that says, ‘OK, it’s creationism.’ But I need to find out. This debate and this reasoning with people, you can’t have that while you’re hiding. And I know that a lot of people here are open, but to be open in the Middle East is something else.

“In August 2016, Nahed Hattar, a journalist and an atheist, published a cartoon about the god of ISIS. It showed that this is what jihadists look for in heaven. The whole country was calling for the government to get him. And it did. And after it got him, while he was going up the stairs at the courthouse, he was shot to death on the 25th of September last year.

“This is the con, this is the major con for being out. Death is what we are fearing. Maryam said in the opening of this conference that the tsunami is coming. Yes, that tsunami is coming, but it’s coming from us, from the ones who are on the front line. But here you guys are losing.

“Yesterday, at night, I had a small paper that says, ‘Awesome Without Allah.’ And we left here and we went to have dinner. An ex-Muslim with me at the conference grabbed me and took away that sign. And I asked her why. She said that because there are Muslims next to us, we might get in trouble. This is in London. This is in the 21st century. This is in the free world. Where are your priorities? While we die there, you all are thinking about Islamophobia. Being out is being able to speak and to be who you are. So if we think about which is better, the cons or the pros, I will definitely pick the pros. Why? Because you can never live with yourself. You can’t live with yourself if you just choose to be quiet. And this is what you are doing. You’re being quiet while we’re not. Look what we are having to give and what you are giving. You’re giving your freedom and we’re giving our life. Don’t give up the things that you have. You have freedom of speech. Use it. You have the freedom to offend.”

Yes, you have the freedom to offend. Use it. Thank you. Thank you so much.