At a gathering of courageous ex-Muslims, the value of rational thought and personal choice were triumphantly reaffirmed
I enjoyed a rare privilege last Friday, October 10 (which was world day against the death penalty), attending a gathering of brave and principled people to whom the death penalty might be applied in a number of countries around the world because of their beliefs or lack of them. This was the conference organised the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain to discuss apostasy – the “crime” of which all members of the Council are guilty – and associated questions about the place of religion and free thought in civil society.
The members of the Council of Ex-Muslims are people who, having thought things through for themselves, have put aside the religion they were made to accept as children – a common enough feature of the adult attainment of reason among many – but in this case the religion is Islam, which regards apostasy as punishable by death.
I wonder how many reading these words have sat in a gathering of people not a few of whom have received death threats because they think for themselves, and who have chosen a path not only personally dangerous but full of difficulty in relation to their families and communities – and who have done so because of reflectively chosen principle. It is a striking experience. In our relatively peaceful and tolerant western dispensations, disagreements of principle are rarely matters of murder; which is why some people find themselves incapable of grasping what last Friday’s gathering signified.
The symbolic import of the conference was great; the substance of the discussions was absorbing and important. It was about the nature of apostasy, the freedom to choose whether or not to have a religion, and to criticise religion whether or not one subscribes to it; the question whether there should be one and the same law for all or whether Britain’s Muslim minority should be allowed to apply sharia law to itself; and the question of faith schools, religious education and creationist doctrine. The themes all related to the place of the individual in civil society, and whether religious doctrine should be allowed to impose itself on those unwilling to be governed by it or – as with children – powerless to resist it.
The conference was opened by the head of the Iranian Secular Society, Fariborz Pooya, and addressed by the extraordinary and courageous Maryam Namazie, spokesperson of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, who subjected Islamism – political Islam – to scrutiny, arguing that it serves as an agency of Islamic states with serious implications for the lives, rights and freedoms of individuals, many of whom have left their countries of origin precisely to escape the repressive political and social climates there – countries with “moral police” and the death penalty for, among others, gay people, lovers who engage in extra-marital sex and people who reject religious orthodoxy.
A source of frustration for many is that they are lumped into “the Muslim community” whose self-elected spokespeople are more representative of the Islamic states that many in their “Muslim community” have fled: which is why the Council of Ex-Muslims makes a point of calling itself this, to reinforce the point that not everyone who was born into a Muslim community has to be permanently forced into homogenised membership of it. Another reason is to encourage the many closet “apostates” in that community that there is life and succour outside it.
Among those who spoke were Ibn Warraq, Joan Smith, Richard Dawkins, and the founder of Germany’s Council of Ex-Muslims, Mina Ahadi, a woman as extraordinary and admirable as Maryam Namizie. It is a speaking fact that the lead in these eminently important and courageous movements is taken by women: from Lysistrata to the Northern Ireland women’s peace movement, despite all the obstacles and prejudices that women have historically faced, they give a lead and an example which puts their opponents to shame.
The conference was supported by the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association, so that the dozens of ex-Muslims present had the support of over 200 others who believe in the right of individuals to think for themselves and who treat people as human individuals, not merely as bearers of overriding identity labels stuck to their foreheads by tradition and religion. A friend who is a crown court judge once told me that he is always pleased when a member of a jury affirms rather than swears the oath on the Bible, because it indicates independence and maturity of mind. Indeed: that was what was on display last Friday at Conway Hall.
One of those speaking at the conference, my friend Ibn Warraq, recently edited a book on apostasy in Islam, which combines a scholarly overview of doctrines on apostasy in the various schools of Islamic law, with a collection of powerful personal testimonies by those who came to leave Islam either for another faith or none. It was interesting to compare the accounts there given with those in Louise Anthony’s book Philosophers Without Gods, which collects similar accounts by ex-Christians and ex-Jews. The personal cost in family and community terms of rejecting the doctrines of any of these religions is very similar; only in Islam does the danger of being murdered for doing so remain.
But, horribly, it is a genuine danger. That is why some of the speeches made during this conference, and some of the remarks from the floor, were filled with a passion and concern that were as real as they were moving. Not least among the matters that surfaced several times in different contexts was the question of the position of women in Islam. To take just one issue: in sharia law a woman is worth half a man, and thus among many other things receives half the inheritance that a man does. Like other provisions of sharia law, this is a stark example of contrast with the laws of England and Wales and with Scottish law, in both of which principles of justice do not countenance systematic discrimination on the basis of sex. By the oppressive requirements of conformity with community practices, many women in Muslim communities in Britain are obliged to observe the practices that the community prefers, across the whole range from whom they marry to what they wear.
The establishment of sharia law courts would accordingly mean their often being obliged to suffer the injustice of deep discrimination. As with genital mutilation as practiced in some communities, and honour killings in others, that cannot be tolerated: relativism – which alas underwrites the views of some, like Rowan Williams, on this subject – has no place here.
Nothing of what was discussed at this important and moving conference was anything but real: real lives subjected to death threats, discrimination, coercion and stigmatisation – and all because the people involved think for themselves, a right that the rest of us take for granted and, when it is threatened, jealously guard. It was a gentle and informal affair, with the relaxed flavour of a works outing: but there can have been no one there who did not at some point reflect that it was a juicy opportunity for some maniac to get rid of a whole raft of apostates and atheists in one big bang.
The great thing is that the conference would have been a victory for what it represented if that had happened. As it was, it was anyway a victory and a much happier one: a victory for its brave sponsors and their brave cause. A report of the conference can be found here, and video footage here.