Promoting Secularism in the Age of ISIS

Jun 7, 2015

by Maryam Namazie

This is my speech at the 5th Imagine No Religion conference in Vancouver, Canada during 5-7 June 2015.

The global rise of Islamism in particular and the religious-Right in general has turned the demand for secularism into an urgent task and necessity.

There are those in academia who theorise about a ‘post-secular’ world and insist that secularism lacks relevance, particularly for ‘non-Westerners.’  In the age of ISIS, though, you don’t have to look far to see that secularism is not only still relevant but that it’s a matter of life and death for countless people across the globe. In fact, no-one understands the need for secularism better than ‘non-westerners’ living under the boot of the religious-Right.

The post-secularists tell us that the rise of Islamism and the religious Right is linked to a religious revival. But this is not true. Of course with its rise, there are political pressures to keep up religious appearances, homogenise religious identity, and define religion as the only characteristic of entire societies, communities and people but this is very often enforced by violence.

‘Any classification and labelling has a purpose behind it,’ says the late Iranian Marxist Mansoor Hekmat. ‘Islam has been around in Iran for one thousand four hundred years and has obviously left its mark on certain things. But this is only one element in portraying this society – the same way that oppression, monarchy, police state, industrial backwardness, ethnicity, language, script, political history, pre-Islamic way of life, people’s physical characteristics, international relations, geography and weather, diet, size of country, population concentration, economic relations, level of urbanisation, architecture, etc. are. All of these express real characteristics of the society. Now if out of the hundreds of factors that create differences between Iran and Pakistan, France and Japan, someone insists on pointing to the presence of Islam in some aspects of life in this society and brands all of us with this label – from anti-religious individuals like Dashty, Hedayat and you and I to the great majority who do not see themselves as believers and are not concerned about Islam and the clergy – then they must have a specific agenda. Iran is not an Islamic society; the government is Islamic. Islam is an imposed phenomenon in Iran, not only today but also during the monarchy, and has remained in power by oppression and murder.’

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42 comments on “Promoting Secularism in the Age of ISIS

  • Excellent article. Something that might help “moderate” Muslims and Christians who are trapped by their religion and who cannot cope with the social pressures of openly giving it up, would be to mobilise for a modern version of their religious texts. Muslims are indoctrinated into Islam as are Catholics into Catholicism from birth using the Koran and Bible as their guides to life. These guides contain imperatives that are totally unacceptabe in the modern world …death for apostacy etc. While moderates choose to ignore the brutal imperatives, those who want to use them for their own reasons, do so with impunity. Removal of these from texts now would help for the future of civilisation.

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  • Richard01:

    I agree, of the three monotheistic religions Isalm is the only one not to have undergone a reformation, which allows them to ligitimately argue that their actions are truly Islamic.

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  • While humans have imagination, religion will exist in one form or another. I don’t think it would matter if people were religious as long as their religion was benign and conformed to modern human rights and decency. What needs to be eliminated one and for all is religious text that contains blatantly anti social imperatives. It is not ok to have a text like the Koran, that is used as a guide to life by Moslems, who are indoctrinated with its contents from birth, and that contains the most incredibly brutal and inhumane (by the standards of today) instructions. It should be a crime against humanity to use such documents in schools and for teaching children as it cannot be left to individual discretion whether the brutality advocated should be interpreted literally or not.

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  • As my 4 year old grandson so eloquently put it last night when we could not find his action figure and we had almost given up …
    “there’s always hope” (of the slow death of religion)
    The times they are a-changing and traditional skygod religion is slowly getting shoved aside in favour of a sense of the sacred found in the natural world, the source of life.
    Reformation is coming across the board, not just in individual mad sects.

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  • Obzen took them out of mine too, Stafford. I chose my web name for good reason – I hoped that I wouldn’t be taken too seriously. Even so I’m not very convinced that there are many grounds, or much time for hope to succeed…still I suppose that self delusion is better than despair.

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  • 9
    Miserablegit says:

    Yes of course it would be wonderful to imagine a world without religion, but as it has been around poisoning the world for millennia there is no doubt despite recent secular successes it will continue to cling on like shit to a blanket (and just as annoying )

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  • Imagining a World without religion is cute.

    As others have already posted, but it seems to need to be repeated, an end to religion is going to be a slow process – and may prove to be impossible.

    Is Maryam correct to say that those of us seeking secular societies need to think of our opposition as the religious-Right?

    In the sense that the various organised religions are indistinguishable from political pressure groups – until they become full time politicians – it would seem so. In addition they have common policies, such as those designed to protect their political privileges, their unelected political power, from criticism such as blasphemy law. Sorry, how very old fashioned of me; Hate Speech Laws.

    Once in power, and even when only shouting the odds, do these many groups have the same policies?

    Hmmm. That angle is trickier.

    Do the various religions team up against secularism? They certainly seem to when they feel that secularism, or worse (from their point of view) agnosticism, appear to be the norm.

    Are they a single opposition, or is there in-fighting. Clearly this point is merely rhetorical.

    Maryam is undoubtedly right to set the bar lower than no religion. We have too many urgent problems to solve, we need to pace ourselves. Secular society, in which less-than-fundamentalist religious people are encouraged to work in a bigger tent that includes the non-religious, is a good goal to have.

    Is Maryam right to suggest that we should work with the oppressed less-than-fundamentalists (LTF)? My own experience of the wide varieties of faith leads me to at least entertain that possibility, because it’s true that there are religious secularists.

    Whether Maryam is right: That there are oppressed less-than-fundamentalists (LTF) living in theocracies who can change the countries in which they live … is beyond my ken.

    As someone, somewhere, once said: “True change comes from within”.

    What we really need is a way to arm the LTF with anything except guns. Maryam’s speech is long on rhetoric, short on practicalities.


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  • We will never rid the world of religion. I think there is good evidence that it is a by product of our brain’s evolution. We invent explanations for events, that are not based on rational evidence. We’ve been doing it, probably for millions of years. Certainly since we became intellectually aware enough to ponder the meaning of a rainbow. So I don’t think we will ever get rid of religion, because it is an invention of the very mind that allows me to think these thoughts and type these worlds. In short, the propensity to create religions is hardwired into our primitive brains.

    If I was advising the secular movement, I would suggest that it is not religion that is the problem, but the results of decisions made on the basis of the myriad religions. Those decisions are without supporting evidence, and certainly in the past, have resulted in great catastrophe for humanity. Religion is more lethal than Ebola, SARS, HIV and the Influenza virus combined.

    The secular movement should aim to nudge religion out of positions of decision making. This will take a long time. De-religion governments, courts, education, science and economics. Let the obvious rational and evidence based decision making take centre stage. I say it often, but I think this should be the goal of the secular movement.

    Religion should be practiced by consenting adults in private.

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  • Religion is not the problem. Allowing religion power is the problem. True secularism is removal of religion from any decisions whilst still allowing people to worship their private gods in their own private churches.

    Love your last comment, I’ve long thought religion should be treated like porn. For consenting adults to engage in private by choice only. Children to be protected from it until then are old enough to cope with it emotionally, educated that it isn’t real life and therefore should not impact too much on real life decisions and warned that in its moderate forms it’s absolutely fine even fun but the extreme and nasty, violent stuff should be the most private of all, and never enacted in real life.

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  • I’m in a bit of a rush this morning, but maybe we could have a thought of the week that asks ‘In what ways is religion like porn?’

    Off the top of my head, people in charge make lots of money while those at the bottom get screwed, or more worryingly, ‘in my experience both seem to involve nuns.’

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  • Who are these so called academics and liberal left do gooders that supposedly support IS and the murder of Farkhunda? Truth is most of the so called liberal left that I’ve seen are the ones saying much the same as Namazie – that extremism isn’t representative of any group, be it Muslims or Christians, but is representative of a small section of them!

    This would be a really good piece from Namazie if she’d left out all those strangely disingenuous, unsupported comments. After all one ‘liberal left do gooder’ (unnamed) is not representative.

    It’d be far better if she acknowledged that her views are ACTUALLY those of many, many people! Those of us who have Muslim and Christian friends, who know refugees from some of the countries taken over and who have learnt that most people do not adhere rigidly to any ideology and rarely fit their stereotypes.

    I agree with a lot of this article, which is rare for from something from the pen of Namzie, but I could do without the claims that you’re either anti every Muslim cos they supposedly live by the Koran or you’re a pro every human rights abuse going cos you’re left of centre and think its a religious right. Not true in any way, shape or form!

    It’d also be useful to point out how many of these religious hell holes were on a path to secularism and democracy until their elected Govts were removed by the west.

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  • Everyone gets screwed is the short answer. And the pleasures you see are fake?

    Mainly it’s just that what’s fine even fun for adults is not for children! You need a level of maturity to deal with both. They should be only accessed by choice? Thinking with your soul or genitals leads to poor decisions? Who knows.

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  • 16
    Elliott says:

    Have you ever read a history of the Reformation, quarecuss? The ensuing wars killed about a third of the German population, Luther’s work “On the Jews and their Lies” went on to inspire the Shoah and a resulting series of witch trials left two German towns with only a single surviving woman each. ISIS IS Islam’s Reformation.

    You can tell by the fundamentalism.

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  • 17
    Elliott says:

    The problem is that Iraq and Syria, for instance, already had secularism, in the form of the Ba’ath’s secular pan-Arabism. Iraq once had a Catholic foreign minister, women in the national assembly and in its universities. That didn’t save the country from 25 years of bombing and sanctions and a thorough economic collapse. It didn’t save it from the removal by foreign aggressors of that very secular government. It didn’t save it from fundamentalism. People who have lived through that might not necessarily see more secularism as as solution. In fact I think it very likely that many will see fundamentalism as a solution, when they see the Americans driven out and Assad’s torture chambers overrun by Daesh.

    Hoping to see secularism return to the region in our lifetimes may be hopelessly optimistic.

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  • 18
    Elliott says:

    Islam is an imposed phenomenon in Iran, not only today but also during
    the monarchy, and has remained in power by oppression and murder.’

    How about during the time of Avicenna? How far does one have to go back and find the same culture before one deems it to be indigenous rather than imposed? You said that Islam has been in Iran for 1400 years – and it has. Zoroastrianism and Judaism rather longer. But that is already more than four centuries longer than the influence of the Normans and their Conquest of Britain’s South, and Norman influence can today only be discerned from the native Celtish by experts. And if the country had instead been a vassal of the Byzantines would that be any less imposed? Would Jewish or Zoroastrian rule?

    All governance must ultimately be imposed. Look at the Ba’ath model of secularism if you think this purely a religious confection. Iran is already moderately democratic by the standards of the region. More secularism must come with more democracy if it is not to represent a sideways step into a different form of autocracy.

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  • Perhaps there is a parallel with what has happened with smoking in many parts of the world. There has been a relatively quick swing from smoking being regarded as fairly normal and common behaviour to it being regarded as abnormal and antisocial. Smokers now seem to be embarrassed by their addiction.
    Hopefully religion will switch from being a default belief system which was socially very acceptable to being one where it is regarded as ignorant/stupid/superstitious and which makes theists somewhat embarrassed to expose their religiosity. I have noticed a trend on CV’s etc to play down religion rather than use it as a credibility booster especially in more technical jobs where being religious contradicts the scientific or technical expertise people are trying to display. To deny modern scientific knowledge in favour of religious mumbo jumbo is simply ignorant and stupid and I think people will increasingly hide their religiosity to avoid being thought to be foolish even if they do not change their underlying beliefs.

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  • 20
    Elliott says:

    Working in IT, I’d have to endorse that perception. We mostly just don’t talk about it at work, but those developers with whom I have discussed it tend overwhelmingly to be atheist and/or agnostic. I just don’t think religiosity attracts much respect in this demographic!

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  • I’ve just heard more horror stories about ISIS on the news; such insane behaviour that I wonder if the reports can be true.

    I’m put in mind of petulant children who’ve totally lost control of themselves; if ever there was a case of religion causing infantilization this is it.

    But what better way is there to control people than to forcefully discourage them from thinking for themselves from the earliest age?

    Now, when they discover what others have achieved by means of enquiry, endeavour, creativeness and a sense of wonder and beauty, instead of envy generating energy in them to attempt to reach their own and similar goals, they become jealous and destructive.

    They are totally wasting what’s left of their lives before they’re prematurely deprived of them by force; because that is the only way they can be stopped; ISIS must really be a death cult.

    Only blind faith can bring this kind of mayhem about, be it in religion or politics.

    Oh well, that’s my rant for the day; I’ve worn meself out!

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  • Ireland seems to have achieved a rapid swing from being completely dominated by the RCC to being able to act in a secular manner by voting to allow same-sex marriage, something I’m sure must have been denounced from every pulpit in the land (I’m guessing, don’t know first-hand).

    So, Ireland is no longer the obediently subservient catholic nation it was 50 years ago. I find that inspires hope in me.

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  • The difference between Nazism and Isis is that Nazism had the peerless Wehrmacht, Panzer divisions, and Luftwaffe to crush their European rivals while ISIS has Toyota pick-up trucks loaded with bearded men firing small arms and reeking of b.o. (Okay, Isis did capture some second-hand mechanized stuff and pop-gun artillery) The best they can do is cannibalize heretics they round up in the dusty armpit towns they “capture.” It’s not so much genocide as fratricide, bro Sunni versus bro Shia.

    Ms. Namazie is right to recommend supporting and working with secularists and moderate Muslims but any “infidel” nation that permits Muslims to immigrate better do a damn good background check first. When circumstances demand the west should also be prepared to arm democratic insurgents and carry out surgical drone/airstrikes either in support of pro-western allies or against identified terrorist leadership and jihadis.

    Apart from these tactics, I suspect the strategy will remain one of containment while clubbing the most rabid specimens. Islam is like a bad case of acne. It will blister and scar the face it attacks but will burn itself out with the onset of maturity. Authoritarian Islamic governments dish out heinous punishment to their own subjects. The ordinary person like the ordinary person anywhere will soon tire of burkas, lashes and beheadings and turn to the alternative on offer in the form of western standards of living, lifestyle and liberty.

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  • If no one is there to perceive them perhaps these monsters will cease to be.
    Sorry, Melvin, I couldn’t resist making that joke.—But I really shouldn’t make light of this – or my own ideas for that matter.
    (If anyone is bewildered by my comment, it is an allusion to a discussion I have been having with Melvin about perception.)
    As for the topic, I couldn’t get through the article. I found it boring, frankly. She also said something incorrect about fascism. Fascism is the worst thing in the world, but it is not racist by definition. Many fascists are racists, but not all of them. Fascism is a political liturgy, has very specific and bizarre characteristics. Rituals and symbols play an important role. I wish I could remember the name of the author who wrote one of the great studies of fascism, but I can’t.
    “Post secular.” I’m getting sick of some of these academic theorists. Post this, neo that … Who’s coming up with this stuff? And why are we all buying it?

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  • Meanwhile, religions still have bodily hang-ups and silly superstitions given undue respect!
    Four Western tourists accused of being part of a group who posed nude at the top of Mount Kinabalu have appeared in court in Malaysia’s Sabah state.

    Authorities said the two Canadians, a Briton and a Dutchman may be charged with causing public nuisance.

    Mt Kinabalu was hit by a magnitude 6.0 earthquake last Friday which left 18 people dead, including children.

    A senior minister last week said the tourists had angered the spirits of the mountain, which is considered sacred.

    The group of 10 foreigners had allegedly stripped naked and posed for pictures on 30 May. They were also said to have urinated on the mountain.

    The majority Muslim country is socially conservative, and Mount Kinabalu is also considered sacred by Sabah’s Kadazan Dusun tribe.

    Last weekend, Sabah’s deputy chief minister, Joseph Pairin Kitingan, had linked the earthquake to the tourists’ act. He said the tragedy was a “confirmation” that they had showed “disrespect” to the mountain.

    Sabah’s tourism minister, Masidi Manjun, said later that this idea was “misconstrued”, but added that the tourists’ actions “were against the people of the largest tribe in Sabah”.

    Pictures posted on social media angered many in Malaysia, but public sentiment intensified after the quake.

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  • Religion has never appeared on CVs over here! I can’t think of single person, including the most devout, who would think it relevant even in the hobbies and interests section.

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  • Last I heard Melvin IS had £1.2 billion and that buys a lot of weaponry. Especially when your pals are our pals in Saudi and Yemen. It is the worlds richest terrorist organisation not some two bit Taliban! Oil revenue, extortion, ransoms, selling archeological artefacts from the world heritage sites they’ve thrashed to prevent worship of false idol and of course donations from extremists.

    All predicted by Western intelligence services two years ago.

    The ordinary person has long since tired if the brutality of their leaders. But it’s a tad difficult to rise up against bullies with guns who rule by terror! Plus they might just be getting a bit weary with the task cos every time they get rid of one brutal abuser of human rights another pops up in its place. ISIS did come in to the war against torturing b@@@@@d Assad after all.

    You forget that a hell of a lot of the people IS are brutalising are Muslims! You forget they’re burning Shia Mosques. This isn’t Islam, this is barbarity. This should scare us all because this is what happens when civilisation breaks down. It’s not new and it’s not exclusive to any ideology.

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  • To be honest if you’re naked in a public place in the UK you’ll get arrested. Likewise if you’re caught urinating. Sounds to me like they were causing a public nuisance!

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  • Alice
    Jun 10, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    T>o be honest if you’re naked in a public place in the UK you’ll get arrested. Likewise if you’re caught urinating. Sounds to me like they were causing a public nuisance!

    I think the point was that they were alone when photographed and nobody knew or cared until the picture went on-line.
    Urinating in private in the countryside is not usually a crime.
    Most mountaineers nip behind a rock at some point on a long walk or a long climb.

    Their “crime”, was “causing an earthquake by upsetting the mountain gods”!

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  • But there it is part of an admissions criteria and only really relevant where the school is oversubscribed. And a school is only ever oversubscribed if it’s good academically. Meaning religion in that case is more an indication of how concerned you are with your child’s education than any meaningful faith.

    And, as every head teacher knows, concerned parents make good schools.

    On your knees avoid the fees.

    But I’ve still never seen it on anyone’s CV.

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  • My reply to you was removed. But I’d say I’m not a fan of Maryam Namazir either and an confused as to why anyone bothers with her.

    But that may be removed as well.

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  • They still sound like a bunch of idiots. If you’re going to do something deemed offensive or illegal in a country wait until you’ve left before posting pictures.

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  • ISIS is a monstrous development – but we (the United States) helped create it. “Where was it twenty years ago? We hit a vulnerable society [Iraq] with a sledge hammer, tore it to shreds, imposed sectarian divisions that barely existed before then. An extremist fringe of this has now emerged.” -Noam Chomsky

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  • Foreign powers have quite often removed elected governments and replaced them with their own puppets. People tend to get on far better in democracies than dictatorships where whatever the dictator happens to be will oppress the minorities.

    The West created the situations where countries weren’t able to mature as democracies. We got rid of elected governments we didn’t like and put in place hated dictators. When they got too mad we got rd of them without a thought as to what would replace them.

    Trace IS back through history and you’ll get to the Taliban in the 80s. A small easily defeated group that the USA funded and armed into a major player.

    Go further back to the British Raj and you have a largely Hindu country with a smaller but significant Sikh minority. Very few Muslims until the British encouraged folk to convert as division is the best way to conquer. Come independence you have warring factions that eventually leads to the creation of Pakistan.

    IS are our creation.

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  • […] “If you take a look at Baghdad before the invasion, Sunni and Shia lived intermingled—same neighborhoods, they intermarried. Sometimes they say that they didn’t even know if their neighbor was a Sunni or a Shia. It was like knowing what Protestant sect your neighbor belongs to. There was pretty close—it wasn’t—I’m not claiming it was—it wasn’t utopia. There were conflicts. But there was no serious conflict, so much so that Iraqis at the time predicted there would never be a conflict. Well, within a couple of years, it had turned into a violent, brutal conflict. You look at Baghdad today, it’s segregated. What’s left of the Sunni communities are isolated. The people can’t talk to their neighbors. There’s war going on all over. The ISIS is murderous and brutal. The same is true of the Shia militias which confront it. And this is now spread all over the region. There’s now a major Sunni-Shia conflict rending the region apart, tearing it to shreds. Now, this cannot be dealt with by bombs. This is much more serious than that. It’s got to be dealt with by steps towards recovering, remedying the massive damage that was initiated by the sledgehammer smashing Iraq and has now spread.” […] – Chomsky (again)

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  • Trace IS back through history and you’ll get to the Taliban in the 80s.

    Can you provide some details of how you did that? I heard recently that these two groups have announced a Jihad against each other.

    A small easily defeated group that the USA funded and armed into a major player.

    The Taliban was a creation of the Pakistani security services.

    Human Rights Watch wrote in 2000:

    ” Of all the foreign powers involved in efforts to sustain and manipulate the ongoing fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan is distinguished both by the sweep of its objectives and the scale of its efforts, which include soliciting funding for the Taliban, bankrolling Taliban operations, providing diplomatic support as the Taliban’s virtual emissaries abroad, arranging training for Taliban fighters, recruiting skilled and unskilled manpower to serve in Taliban armies, planning and directing offensives, providing and facilitating shipments of ammunition and fuel, and … directly providing combat support. ”

    It suited the US to help fund and arm them as part of their program of supporting the Mujahideen against the soviets. And it also suited Saudi Arabia and other Muslim countries to fund them. But my post was to point out that sectarian divisions existed long before US meddling, not to deny that meddling.

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  • Hi, Marktony,

    I know those questions were for another member. I just want to say that I am no expert on this complex issue. I am quite certain, however, that the US has played a very destructive role in all of this, and has a long history of deceiving the public, and amoral self interest vis a vis its foreign policy.

    Here is a twenty-one minute video which was never aired anywhere (too truthful) but made its way to YouTube. Two of America’s leading critics of American foreign intervention discussing the first war with Iraq (Chomsky and the late Gore Vidal). Fascinating stuff. I hope you (and others) will watch it. (There are some technical problems but they’re not too bad.)

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