In Defence of Secularism Religion must be pushed back

Speech made by Azar Majedi in the 5th February meeting in France in defence of new French legislation
by Azar Majedi

I am delighted to witness the growth of an active secular movement, to see that secularism is gaining momentum and is parting with its silent and marginal position in the society. We need another strong and formidable force like the French revolution to push back religion into private sphere where it rightfully belongs. Religion and religious movements have gained too much power and influence in the past decades. Political Islam has gained political power in some important countries. Religion has found an influential position in the running of so-called Eastern bloc countries. The ideological right has gained the upper hand after the fall of the Soviet Union, and as a result of these developments the racist concept of cultural relativism has been invented, a concept which defends the violations of women’s rights and children’s rights, and the universality of human rights. As a result we have witnessed the creation of a silent majority who dare not question these clear human rights violations out of fear of being marked racist or non-libertarian. But the times are changing. The freedom loving majority is moving and beginning to become verbal and outspoken; the secularist movement is pushing forward, and the women’s right movement is coming to the fore. It is time to stop the inroads made by religious groups and push them back to the margins of society. Religion must be a private matter and stop meddling in the state, with legislation and education. 

I am talking here as a veteran women’s right activist, as a political activist that has defended freedom and equality, and has fought against a religious dictatorship i.e. the Islamic Republic of Iran. I am talking here as the first hand victim of religious suppression and tyranny. I am talking here as the first hand victim of political Islam. 

How much more evidence do we need to be convinced that meddling of religion in the state and in education will only create inequality, oppression and brutality. I am not going as far back as the time of the Middle Ages in Europe. Look at the Middle East and all those countries where in one way or the other Islam has the upper hand - the Islamic Republic of Iran, Taliban, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Nigeria to name some examples. Look at what is happening in Iraq at the moment, with Islamists coming to a prominent position; Sharia law is about to become the law in the country. Even in Islamic communities in the West, governments have left religion to rule in communities unabated. Women are being oppressed, kids are being deprived, and particularly the plight of girls is appalling. How many cases of honour killings are enough to say ‘stop’ to religion? How many beatings and actual house arrests of girls will be needed for us to say stop? How long and to what extent must girls be deprived of equal opportunities, of equal access to a joyful and happy life for us to put a halt in religion’s meddling with children’s lives, and women’s rights? We are duty bound to defend women and children from religion’s rule, from religion’s influence and from a mafia-like hierarchy - the mullahs, or the so-called religious leaders of the community, that profit from this situation. 

In this brief statement that I am making here today, I would like to say that the proposed legislation in France banning conspicuous religious symbols in state schools and institutions is essential and an important step forward in the defence of secularism and women’s and children’s rights, but it is not enough. We have to go further. There are other items on the agenda. One very important issue is to ban veiling of girls under legal age. Veiling of small children is a blunt violation of their rights. 

“…putting the veil on the heads of children and adolescents who have not come of legal age should be prohibited in law,” states Mansoor Hekmat in his dissertation in defence of banning the veil for children in 1997, “because it is the imposition of a certain clothing on the child by the followers of a certain religious sect. It so happens that the defence of the civil rights of the child and the child’s right to choose (not an absolute in itself) require that this imposition be legally prevented. The child has no religion, tradition and prejudices. She has not joined any religious sect. She is a new human being who, by accident and irrespective of her will has been born into a family with specific religion, tradition, and prejudices. It is indeed the task of society to neuturalise the negative effects of this blind lottery. The society is duty-bound to provide fair and equal living conditions for children, their growth and development, and their active participation in social life. Any body who should try to block the normal social life of a child, exactly like those who would want to physically violate a child according to their own culture, religion, or personal or collective complexes, should be confronted with the firm barrier of the law and the serious reaction of society. No nine year old girl chooses to be married, sexually mutilated, serve as house maid and cook for the male members of the family, and be deprived of exercise, education, and play. The child grows up in the family and in society according to established customs, traditions, and regulations, and automatically learns to accept these ideas and customs as the norms of life. To speak of the choice of the Islamic veil by the child herself is a ridiculous joke. Any one who presents the mechanism of the veiling of a kindergarten-age girl as her own “democratic choice” either comes from outer space, or is a hypocrite who does not deserve to participate in the discussion about children’s rights and the fight against discrimination. The condition for defending any form of the freedom of the child to experience life, the condition for defending the child’s right to choose, is first and foremost, to prevent these automatic and common imposition.” 

Another important issue is banning of religious schools. Passing of the new proposed legislation would only be a half-hearted attempt at the defence of secularism, if we announce to religious parents and communities that, if you do not like this legislation then send your kids to religious schools. This goes against the essence of creating a secular society, and creating equal opportunities for every child. By doing this we are encouraging the growth of religious schools, expanding the ghetoization of already existing ghettos, discriminating against children born in religious families, depriving these kids, especially the girls from equal rights. This is like saying to hell with you; we only safeguard the secular section of the society. The new legislation would only be effective in its aims if religious schools are banned altogether, and the principle of obligatory education for children under the legal age is upheld firmly by the state.

In conclusion, I would like to appeal to you to stand firm against the religious movement’s offensives and to support our fight against political Islam and for freedom and equality in Iran, in Iraq and the whole Middle East. Our struggle against political Islam will eradicate it in the west, as well.

I would also like to state that we should mobilize an historic 8th of March this year against political Islam, for secularism and for the equality of women and men.