Secular vs. Sacred,Universal vs. Multicultural

By Azam Kamguian

I am delighted to be among my likeminded atheist and secularist colleagues, great thinkers, activists and scholars, in this wonderful occasion. Here, I am talking as an atheist, a critic of Islam and as an activist of women’s rights who has survived an Islamic holocaust in Iran.

 Sadly and unfortunately, in the 21st century we are witnessing that religion and religious movements have gained too much power and influence in the past few decades and in fact religion is now all over the place. In the Middle East and central Asia and some other parts of the world, political Islam has gained the upper hand and has succeeded to take power in Iran, Pakistan, the Sudan and Afghanistan and has become a strong opposition force in some other countries such as Algeria, Nigeria, Palestine and Egypt. Political Islam is a contemporary political movement which seeks a share of power not only in the Middle East but also in the west. The main means of this movement to achieve its goal is terror and making bloodshed. This reactionary movement has made its way everywhere by terror, intimidation, killing, stoning to death and genocide of people. Political Islam created an Islamic holocaust by slathering and genocide of several hundred thousand of innocent people in the Middle East with the start from Iran. In those states where Political Islam holds sway, writers, thinkers, philosophers, activists, and artists are denied freedom of expression. Islamic regimes are notorious for the violent suppression of free thought. The more closely a government identifies itself with Islam the more likely are critics of the government will be accused of heresy, blasphemy or apostasy. Under the Sharia i.e. the powerful instrument of political Islam, people are deprived of many pleasures such as drinking alcohol, playing music, even of reading literature or philosophy, and are denied the opportunity of fully expressing their sexuality or of enjoying the arts.

 While political Islam strives for the continuation of its terrorist activities in the west, it pushes to set up a legal system based on the Islamic Sharia law. The latest attempts are in Ontario – Canada and in the UK. In Marseille in France a 23 year old woman was stoned to death in October 2004. It is horrifying.  Political Islamic groups actively lobby to get western governments’ approval and financial support to build more and more Islamic schools, mosques and Islamic centres. Any voice to criticise Islam and its inhumane and backward laws and practices is silenced as Islamophobia and racism, not only by Islamists themselves but also by western intellectual apologists for Islam, and western governments.

 Western governments encourage and support political Islam as long as it would leave its weapons outside their borders, washes the blood from its hands and does not carry on its terrorist activities in the west. Of course western governments don’t mind at all about what Islamic terrorism and this barbarism does to Iraq, to Iran, to Palestine and to elsewhere in the Middle East. In fact, they brought this movement from the margins to the mainstream in the Middle East, supported and nurtured it. They warmly welcome misogynist, homophobe and anti Semitist mullahs such as Qardawi and generously call them leaders of the immigrants and Muslim community. This is really disgusting.

 So neither in the east nor in the west are people immune from the threat, cruelty and barbarity of Islam and the political Islamic movement. 

 In their attempt to encourage this movement, western governments are ready to pass laws to silence critics either western or eastern who dare to critique Islam. If I criticise various religions which I see as monstrous, misogynist and ridiculous, as all of them are, I could be threatened by the law. In some of the supporting arguments posed by the Home Office when it proposed the law against incitement to religious hatred, the new law was said to be about the promotion of tolerance and religious harmony. What is very arguable is the definition of a tolerant society. A tolerant society is an open and vigorous one, not a closed and stifled society; not one in which you tolerate absurdities, violence and injustices because they are being perpetrated by a religion. In a tolerant society criticism and opposing views are allowed. Is a society tolerant in which in the name of respecting religion and culture, it is not allowed to say or write things which, followers of this or that religion, do not want to hear or to read? And when it is vital to question and to criticise any kind of religion and religious ideas and practices, there are attempts to silence you? In its respect and support for Islam and Islamists, the U.K. government tries to silence critics of Islam and political Islamic movement, provided that, as mentioned earlier, they leave their bloody arms outside the country’s borders.

 So what atheists, women and human rights activists who are stifled by Islam and Islamists, should do? They are subject to threat and intimidations by Islamists, and soon by the legal system. The UK government wants to make incitement to religious hatred a crime, promoting a nasty Islamic campaign. If the government really wants to create religious harmony and a tolerant society, it should abolish all religious schools, and de-religionise the legal and educational system and the public life.  But what they are striving for is to place religion in a realm beyond ordinary argument, and give it an upper hand, and it is happening now. Western governments recognise Islamic rules and practices that have been lobbied for by mullahs and Islamists to oppress people in the west.

 Fear of offending the religious feelings is gaining ground everywhere. It is getting harder to argue against Hijab and the Koran's rule of women's subordination. As a teacher, advisor, health or social worker you are seen as racist if you question and object to the oppression of women and girls within many Islamic communities. How could we ignore the many ferocious Koranic verses calling for the blood of non-believers, verses that justify terror and oppression of women? Both the Koran and the Bible ought to be banned under the proposed law, since both are full of God's incitements to barbaric violence.

 In the wonderful world of Islam we’re not allowed of looking critically at Islam in the way that we have looked at Christianity and other religion; in the way that we have criticised the Bible. Higher Biblical criticism has existed since at least the 17th century with Spinoza, going on to the 19th century in Germany. And yet nobody dares to look at the Koran in the same way. Even in the academic community it is a taboo to discuss the Koran scientifically. While there exist a growing critical movement to criticise religion, particularly Islam, Islamists, apologists for Islam, and western governments have come up with the idea of Islamophobia. They try to silence critics. Islam must be subject to critical examination. By silencing critics and calling them racists, Islamists and apologists intend to keep religious domination intact. In Iran the price for criticising Islam is death in its most horrendous way. How many more fates of Theo Van Gogh’s are we expecting in the west?

 Under the guise of respecting “other’s culture and the policy of multiculturalism, religion is promoted and dissent is stifled. By promoting multi –culturalism, western governments, the mainstream media and the majority of liberal intellectuals turn a blind eye to the oppression of women under Islam in immigrant communities controlled by sheiks and mullahs. The truth is that all cultures are not equal and humane. Human beings must be respected but not all cultures are very of respect. We cannot hope to have a civil society if we do not value the same rights, if we do not pursue the same goals, and we cannot do this if we keep emphasising the differences. We must have a shared core of values, and it seems essential that we get beyond this divisive multiculturalism, which means nothing but bashing western civilised values, we will not get anywhere until we emphasise the things that we value, like separation of religion and state, freedom, equality, and the value of freedom of expression and so on. Yet western governments pour even more money into keeping people apart.

 Needless to say what the Islamic movement is doing to Iraq and how Islamists are moving fast to set up their Sharia based arbitration system in Canada. Needless to say how women and girls from immigrant and Muslim origin are oppressed both in the east and in the west. Religion is in rise everywhere and people across the world are suffering under the rule of religious tyranny. The Pope and the Christianity are relentlessly campaigning to bring religion back into the states, laws, education, and to all aspects of public life in Europe.

 In the West, and despite the religious inspiration of much of its governments, the separation of religion and state is still widely recognised as the sine qua non of a modern, free and open society. In the East, however, religion and state have never been separate; though, there is a strong need, demand and movement for materialising it in Iran.

 In the face of this grim situation, we witness a third force, a vast majority who is sadly, silent and not willing to come to the fore, to question and to protest these human rights violation, and to stop the revival of religion.

 We the secularists, atheist and freedom –loving people need to do more, much more. We need to push religion back to where it rightfully belongs. We should fight for unconditional freedom of speech including freedom to criticise religion in general and Islam in particular. We should raise our voice for secularism and separation of religion and state loud and clear in the east and in the west. We need Enlightenment. Secularism must be recreated and regenerated by us secularists, freethinkers and atheists.

 About three years ago when I spoke at the 15th international congress of IHEU, I called upon all secularists, atheists and freethinkers to build a secularist force to combat political Islam and to eradicate this fascistic movement. Since then, we have made some progress, but we must build an international force to fight political Islam, to secularise our society and to stand firmly for universal human rights and human dignity.

 I call upon all of you and many others, the secularist, freethinkers, atheists and freedom loving people to recognise the urgency of an international force to fight political Islam, to demand equality and liberty for women, and universal human rights for everyone.


Adapted from the speech delivered at the 5th World Atheist Conference in Vijayawada – India, 7-9 January 2005, held by The Atheist Centre. This speech was warmly welcomed and got standing ovation from the 600 participants of the event