The International Conference of Freedom of Conscience & Expression saw leading freethinkers issue a clarion call for secularism and human rights.
Last weekend Conatus News Editor-in-Chief Benjamin David spoke at the “Glastonbury of freethinkers” where he and several others raised concerns about the validity of the term “Islamophobia”. David stated, “We will recognise the absurd concept of ‘Islam-o-phobia’ when they recognise the equally absurd term, atheistophobia”. Maryam Namazie and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain hosted the International Conference of Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century in central London, UK. The gathering, praised as “the largest gathering of ex-Muslims in history, which brought together of some of the world’s leading freethinkers, surpassed expectations and was a clarion call for those who live in the relative safety of the West to use the immense privilege they have to speak out against political Islam and its narratives.
A Duty to Offend
Those who risk death for their criticisms of Islam urged their Western peers to use their precious liberty to criticise Islamic intolerance. This is an important way that non-Muslims can create a climate in which Muslim secularists, atheists, feminists, and LGBT persons can “come out” and dissent from religious dogma and “community” values. Many conference delegates have been rejected by their families, while others have faced defamation, imprisonment or threats of violence from theocratic governments or Islamist extremists abroad.
The Conference provided a valuable opportunity to take stock of the current state of play in theo-politics, to formulate some important questions about how to tackle rising attacks on freedom of speech, conscience and religion, and to raise some internal issues about best practice.
Highlights and Talking Points:
Colonialism & Imperialism
In an atmosphere of obsessive Western self-loathing over colonialism and imperialism, Swedish-Bangladeshi journalist Tasneem Khalil reminded the audience that religion is a ‘gift’ of colonialism. In a similar vein, Kenan Malik reminded us that the Haitian revolutionary struggle of the 1790’s was partly a struggle against identity politics:
“The French Revolution of 1789 provided both the material and the moral grounds for the Haitian Revolution. It upset the delicate balance between the classes that had held colonial society together. And in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, it provided the intellectual argument for revolutionary change in Haiti.”
Moroccan-French journalist Zineb Al Rhazoui also urged delegates to bear in mind that Islam is itself imperialist. Islam divides the world into two territorial entities: Dar al-Harb (the House of War) and Dar al-Islam (the House of Islam). Etymologically Islam means ‘submission’ and all those who do not submit to Islamic Law are relegated to the territory of war and jihad. This is not Al Rhazoui’s subjective interpretation but the content of the Quranic text itself.
One of the key panels addressed Religion in Law and the State. Yemeni-born author and human rights campaigner Elham Manea pointed out that “democracy contains the seeds of destruction”, a point that was later reiterated by ex-Charlie Hebdo journalist Zineb El Rhazoui when she spoke about ochlocracy, or mob rule. Both activists alluded to what political philosophers have sometimes called a “tyranny of the majority” or pure democracy, i.e. democracy unconstrained by constitutional protections or civil rights for individuals. They also noted that Islamists have begun to use the rhetoric and the mechanisms (universal suffrage) of pure democracy to dismantle the reciprocal and equal protections of the secular liberal state. Civil rights for individuals have traditionally been enshrined in the legal frameworks of constitutional democracies. Built-in checks and balances on state power have been upheld by means of a Constitution, Bill of rights and/or the separation of powers. These internal ‘checks’ are supposed to ensure that the state does not itself become more threatening to citizens than the dangers from which it was established to protect them.
Liberals have always harboured a dread fear of both the overly-powerful state and a tyranny of the majority in society. In the first Chapter of On Liberty (1859), the architect of political liberalism, John Stuart Mill, was at pains to expand the protection of the individual beyond protection from the state to a full protection from oppression by “the will of the most numerous or most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority.” Mill argued that the abuse of power by a tyrannous majority is as dangerous as any other abuse of power. The tyranny of the majority can become an even more formidable social oppressor than the state because it is more insidious and “leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life.”
This is an important point given how Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used democratic elections to bring Islamist ideologues to power in Turkey and has used liberal rhetoric in a recent panegyric about democracy in The Guardian, despite his notoriety for arresting critical journalists and suspicions of an internally orchestrated coup d’etat that may have provided a pretext for him to go on the offensive against judges, prosecutors, and members of the military disloyal to the establishment. This highlights that while democracy is not a problem per se, mass immigration has changed Europe’s demographics considerably and, as Douglas Murray has observed, this will certainly be accompanied by cultural and legal changes.
In a panel discussion on freedom of thought, distinguished British philosopher Anthony Grayling stated, “You cannot reason people out of views that they were not reasoned into.” This is generally true and many atheists have found themselves spinning their wheels trying to persuade theists to think outside of a religious frame of reference. A glimmer of hope came, however, when Jordanian ex-Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammad AlKhadra, who had been indoctrinated with religion from childhood, publicly credited Sir Richard Dawkins (who was present) for changing his mind by penning The God Delusion.
An important area of concern was how the regressive Left have supported and apologised for Islamism, apparently confusing political Islam with Muslim people (a conflation the Islamist religious Right has sustained through its robust victim narrative). Many delegates expressed concern that the traditional critics of religious conservatism have made special exceptions vis-à-vis Islam and its representatives in the misguided belief that they are protecting a victim group. Yet the most salient victims of this silence vis-à-vis Islam are Muslims themselves.
An unnamed conference delegate was unable to pose his question due to lack of time, but when I spoke to him later he said he had wished to ask how we can expect government to be reformed when religious people are filling government offices. He said, “you cannot ask the emperor’s tailor to mend the emperor’s new clothes.” Perhaps it is worth noting that both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were unabashed religious believers and that the former appointed many deeply conservative religious people to public offices.
Key Issues and Debates:
How Much Free Speech?
Several delegates noted in various contexts the need to de-conflate criticism of religion (ideology) and racism (i.e. attacks on ethnic groups or biologically defined types of people). Chris Moos controversially argued that religious believers should not be attacked in their persons as ‘stupid’ for their religious beliefs, while other delegates defended the right to offend and ridicule believers themselves (ideologues). The latter find it difficult to separate out believers and beliefs in such a tidy way. Several speakers on the Out, Loud and Proud panel, including Jimmy Bangash and Armin Navabi argued that we concede too much when we insist on separating Islamism from Islam, and Islamists from Muslims. They urged the audience to reconsider whether denying people the right to criticise the religion itself and religious believers overlooked the inherently political aspects of religion. Navabi argued that the distinction is based on the idea that Islam can be accepted (or protected) if it is not political. But, he said, “Islam is political by nature”.
It must not be forgotten that religion is political by nature (i.e. religion is inherently ‘other-regarding’ rather than a private matter). Religion, as opposed to faith, makes sweeping claims about human nature, the relationship of humans to a divine governor, and correct or incorrect forms of behaviour. These claims allegedly apply to humans as such and not just to members of believing communities. Muslims do not take offence to (and punish) Muslim conservatives depicting Mohammed, they take offence to anyone depicting Mohammed.
Perhaps progressives can agree that members of a civil society should be free to criticise people for their beliefs and choices but not for involuntary aspects of their person, such as skin colour, sex, disability, or sexual orientation. Speech, even when it is very offensive, is generally not harmful to the ‘permanent interests of progressive beings’ (J.S. Mill’s phrase) except when the possibility to dissent is policed under threat of violence (i.e. forbidden).
The regressive Left have not yet begun to fully enforce de jure (legal) punishments for speaking back to religious believers in Europe, but they have made doing so extremely uncomfortable, as President of Goldsmiths University Atheist Society Asher Fainman remarked. He argued that there is a de facto blasphemy law that stigmatises critics of Islam, marginalising them and tarring them with the brush of an irrational “phobia”. Jordanian ex-extremist Mohammad Alkhadra, in his first public speaking engagement, explained that the application of the term ‘phobia’ (irrational fear) to critics of Islamism is completely misguided, since it is eminently rational to fear political Islam due to its sometimes violent intolerance for other un-Islamic ways of life. Cemal Knudsen Yucel, also speaking on the Out, Loud and Proud Panel, spoke of his own stigmatisation by the Islamoleft, who love select medieval Muslim scholars but reject modern values and have used racial slurs like “coconut” to describe him as “white on the inside and dark on the outside”.
The Value of Identity Politics
There was also a slight difference of opinion between Kenan Malik and Peter Tatchell about the importance or interpretation of identity politics. Both men agreed that identity politics have been used to promote moral relativism and have also been problematic in separating people into enclosed social ‘pockets’ and communities in a way that has not fostered social cohesion. Tatchell put more emphasis on the need to defend all victims of hate consistently, whether Muslims or LGBT persons, while Malik stressed the danger in group identity per se because of the fact that communities are not homogeneous and individuals who dissent from ‘community standards’ become the real victims of this ‘communitarian’ mentality.
Perhaps common ground can be found by acknowledging that the progressive gains made in the post-War liberation struggles of the 1960’s only used group identity slogans such as “black is beautiful” or “gay is good” or “Women’s power now!” in response to group slurs that painted all black people as “barbaric” criminals, all gay people as “immoral” and all women as inferior. But positive group slogans that were made against this backdrop were not intended to retain (in the long run) the same generalising tendencies, by simply inverting them or flipping them in the opposite direction, e.g. claiming that all black people are inherently innocent or “civilised” (whatever that means), or that all gays are intrinsically morally virtuous, or that all women are superior to all men. This would have been absurd. What these ‘groups’ wanted was precisely that their individual members be released from group generalisations and stereotypes. They rejected the idea that people who share common biological attributes must also share other personality traits, goals, or preferences. They wanted to be treated primarily as individuals whose personalities could be assessed in virtue of free choices and actions, not physical attributes. Their aim was to ensure the liberal primacy of the individual, with its emphasis on moral agency and personal responsibility.
Going Forward and Taking Action:
Defending Human Rights
There was a widespread consensus among delegates that Human Rights must remain at the core of our politics. Gita Sahgal and Peter Tatchell both stressed the universalism at the core of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Tatchell noted that it is an historical fiction to think that human rights are a uniquely ‘Western’ concept and pointed out that the signatories to that document represent broad international support for basic human rights from parties all over the globe.
No Compromise on Free Expression
Most delegates agreed on the need to defend the freedom to offend religious people and their creeds, and said they were not prepared to compromise on free expression. Sara Peace chaired a panel on Art as Resistance and courageously defended the right of freedom of expression on all topics, irrespective of good taste or offence.
Rejecting Regressive Semantics
Some delegates will refuse to use the language of “Islamophobia”, insisting that the right to criticise religion does not constitute a phobia tantamount to other forms of racism or prejudice. Indeed, offensive speech can be an important remedy for religiously-based intolerance and bigotry towards minorities or individuals.
The conference issued resolutions (1) against the de-platforming of Richard Dawkins by KPFA radio station, (2) in defence of Ismail Mohamed who was prevented from leaving Egypt to speak at the conference by the Egyptian government, and (3) on CEMB’s presence in Pride in London.
KPFA is currently allowing comments to be posted on their decision to de-platform Richard Dawkins at their website. Conatus News readers may wish to post comments on the issue.
The Egyptian government apparently detained Ismail Mohamed at the airport when he attempted to travel to London to The International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression. We demand that the Egyptian government release Ismail Mohamed and desist in persecuting him and all freethinkers. If you wish to contact the Egyptian Embassy in London to voice your protest, you may write to them here.
Despite the glittering displays of official state support for PRIDE in London this year, the sad truth is that the multi-national corporations that together have taken ownership of PRIDE in London, along with the PRIDE community advisory board, are threatening to exclude the most persecuted LGBT people in London. PRIDE’s community advisory board is set to decide whether to kowtow to the East London Mosque’s complaints against the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB). The ELM paint themselves as victims, despite the fact that they have repeatedly given a platform to hate clerics who have justified the murder of gays and apostates. The privileging of ultra-conservative religious feelings over the free expression of LGBT people to speak in opposition to actual murder would be appalling given the fact that 14 Islamic states (15 if ISIS-held territories are included) punish homosexuality with the death penalty. Countless LGBT Muslims face family rejection, while others face violence and brutality here in the UK and across the continent. The CEMB is working with Peter Tatchell on drafting a declaration opposing the CEMB’s exclusion from the 2018 march. We at Conatus News wish them luck and look forward to lending our support.
Finally, the Conference drafted a ‘Declaration of Freethinkers’, which stated, inter alia, “Freethinkers stand for the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of expression and belief and freedom from fear and want. We believe in the universality and indivisibility of human rights. These rights flow from human reason and conscience. Without the free exercise of conscience and expression, all other rights are nullified.” For the full text please visit the Conference website.
 John Stuart Mill, ‘On Liberty’, Chapter 1 in Collini, Stefan, Ed., On Liberty and Other Writings, Cambridge University Press, 1989, p. 8.
 See ‘Fethullah Gülen: Turkey coup may have been ‘staged’ by Erdoğan regime’, The Guardian online edition, 16 July, 2016.
Terri (PhD) is an author, blogger, and has taught philosophy and film studies in Secondary and Adult Education for over ten years