I caught a later train than I had intended (household routine disrupted by mortal illness of insanely loved dog — whoever says you can’t love a dog as much as a person doesn’t know what love is) so I unfortunately missed the welcoming session at the conference. I walked in on the first plenary discussion group. Chaired by Caspar Melville, Editor of New Humanist, the members were Ehsan Jami (Dutch politician of Iranian origin), Hanne Stinson (British Humanist Association), A C Grayling (needs no introduction), Fariborz Pooya (one of the organizers, impressive) and Mina Ahadi (Iranian Ex-Muslim leader from Germany, who spoke in German with an interpreter). The topic was Apostasy laws. and the Freedom to Renounce and Criticise Religion. There was little disagreement among the panel. In the Q & A, the chairman established a pattern for the day, which worked rather well. He took questions in bunches of about five, then allowed the panel to answer any one question, with no obligation to answer more than one. As you might expect, A C Grayling was especially impressive, but none of the panellists could be described as lightweight,
At the end of the session, I was assigned a bodyguard, but it didn’t seem necessary while I went out to lunch with Andrew Copson of the British Humanist Association. We had an interesting discussion, and he updated me on our plans for the BHA to distribute, at RDF’s expense, DVDs of Growing Up in the Universe to British schools. Things are looking good on that front.
After lunch we began with a lovely stand-up comedy routine from the comedian Nick Doody, telling good jokes at the expense of religion. One that I remember: Religion is like a very big dog, comforting to the owner but terrifying to everybody else. Then another panel discussion, this time on Sharia Law. The chairman, Andrew Copson, adopted the same policy as before, and again it worked well. Again, one member of the panel, Mahin Alipour [Edit: I wrongly said this was Houzan Mahmoud before, sorry], spoke through an interpreter, which held things up a bit. Other members of the panel were Roy Brown (rightly respected elder statesman of the British Humanist movement, now living in Switzerland), Maryam Namazie (Iranian born leader of the British Ex-Muslim movement), Johann Hari (brilliant Independent journalist), and Ibn Warraq (author of Why I am Not a Muslim and one of the great heroes of today’s secularist movement). This panel showed flashes of real oratory, especially from Johann Hari (for example, on the question of respect: “I respect you as a person too much to respect your ludicrous beliefs”) and from Maryam Namazie, who urged us to put together a lawsuit, in the civil courts, against the Sharia courts who presume to set themselves up in Muslim communities. Theoretically these Sharia courts are supposed to be voluntary: everybody has the option of going to proper British courts, but Sharia courts are available as a voluntary alternative. Speaker after speaker pointed out that this apparent voluntariness is a wicked sham. Women are ordered by their husbands or fathers to go to Sharia courts, not British courts. Many of them don’t even realise there is an alternative. Those who do are accused of being “unislamic” if they opt for real British courts.
The session on Sharia Law provoked some constructive suggestions from the floor, and ended with Maryam in a rousing reiteration of her call for a lawsuit, in the British courts, against the Sharia courts. It sounds as though this might really happen. I want to look into the possibility that RDFRS might make a contribution to the legal costs, although that might be ruled out by our own statutes with the Charity Commissioners.
The next item was a remake of the film Fitna — remade by Reza Moradi, who was also acting as the projectionist and technical expert for the conference. I wasn’t too clear which bits of the film we saw were the original, and which bits the remake, but it was impressive anyway.
After the tea break was my own talk, about the infamous Harun Yahya. It was pretty much based on my article on this website, called something like Slippery Eels, Venomous Snakes and Harun Yahya, with Keynote slides of the pictures of fossils and modern animals that they are — mistakenly — alleged to resemble. I am going to supply Reza with the Keynote slides, so he can drop them into the film he is making of the conference. I spoke for only 15 minutes, in order to leave time for 15 minutes of questions. The question session went well, I think.
The final event of the day was another panel discussion, this time on educational issues, chaired by Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, that extremely useful and resourceful body. I was part of this panel, and was joined by Terry Sanderson (Keith’s partner at the NSS, and its current President), Joan Smith (wonderfully trenchant Independent columnist) and two eloquent leaders of the Iranian resistance against the Islamists in that country, Hamid Taqvaee and Bahram Soroush. One of these, I think Bahram, defended Islamophobia. The word is used to stifle opposition to islamism, to which it is a legitimate and understandable response. Everybody in the room, it seems, was deeply disturbed by faith schools, and especially the move to institute new Islamic schools.
This last session typified the whole conference in its conspicuous lack of ‘herding cats syndrome’. It was as though the menace of Islam is so sinister that the normal differences that divide atheists were put aside. A pair of formal resolutions was put to the vote, and carried nem con:
“The conference calls for the immediate release of all those imprisoned for ‘apostasy’, abolition of the death penalty, and cancellation of laws that punish the right and freedom to renounce or criticise Islam.”
“The conference calls on the British government to bring an end to the use of Sharia law in Britain, which is discriminatory towards women and children in particular, and guarantee unconditional equal citizenship rights for all.”
In addition to these two formal resolutions, Keith Porteous Wood called for a vote opposing faith schools. This too was carried nem con
The meeting ended in goodwill, and with a general feeling of solidarity with those Ex-Muslims brave enough to stand up and announce their apostasy.
At the drinks afterwards, I was approached by a young woman, probably about 20, whom I shall not name. She told me she is on the run from her Muslim family who, she believes, want to ‘honour’ kill her because of her apostasy. She is living in an institution that caters to such women, and is feeling rather lost and lonely because she no longer has the support structure of family and friends. She has had to give up her university place because the university is the first place her father would come looking for her, and she is hoping to find a place in another university.
I suggested that, if she feels threatened, she should go to the police. I should have known better. She had tried that. The law does not allow the police to take any action until the would-be victim has actually been physically molested — by which time it is likely to be too late. At a loss to know how to help her, I introduced her to a woman who, I felt, might be well placed to help her (again, I shall not name her, in case it helps the girl’s father to track her down). I left them together, the girl close to tears (the kindness of strangers often moves me to tears too). Before saying goodbye, I gave her my email address, and encouraged her to write in to this website, assuring her that she would find many friendly people of goodwill here, so I hope she does. If she does, please treat her extra specially well. She is vulnerable, and extremely courageous to have defied her odious father over the matter of religion. She told me how he had the habit of beating his children if they failed to memorise the Koran accurately.
I think Reza plans to release his film of the whole conference, and I’ll talk to Josh about getting a link to it on our site. Meanwhile, if you know any Ex-Muslims, or Muslims on the brink of the brave step of apostasy, please offer them support and friendship and encouragement to renounce and denounce that vile and despicable religion.