The rise of Islamist fundamentalism in Britain and worldwide, and attempts to impose elements of Sharia law in the UK and many other nations, has reinvigorated support for secularism - the separation of the State and religion.
This was the focus of last Saturday's conference in London on "Sharia law, apostasy and secularism," which bought together Muslims, ex-Muslims and people of other faiths and no faith. Half the participants and speakers were women; many of them women of Muslim heritage - a reflection of the victimisation that they have suffered at the hands of Islamist extremists, either in the UK or in their countries of origin.
Although Sharia law is not the law of the UK, there have been repeated and on-going attempts by Islamists to apply Sharia principles in law and education, in a bid to make these public institutions Sharia-accommodating. This is a direct threat to human rights; most notably to the human rights of UK Muslims.
Examples include the Law Society's guidance on drawing up Sharia wills that facilitated discrimination against women, children and non-Muslims. It was only withdrawn after months of protests. Some UK universities have allowed compulsory gender segregation in on-campus Islamic Society meetings and even today most have no guidelines to prevent such discrimination. There are Islamic faith schools that restrict music and dance lessons and limit the participation of girls in sports. They force the wearing of the hijab, don't teach evolution and fail to provide HIV, sex and relationship education to safeguard the health and welfare of pupils. Their main focus is Islamic religious education, to the relative neglect of other subjects.
Speaker after speaker last Saturday warned of an Islamist agenda of stealthy, creeping, subtle Sharification. This involves sustained attempts by Islamists to pressure public institutions, in the name of religious freedom and multiculturalism, to make special allowances for their reactionary sectarian clerical values.
Indeed, they've successfully persuaded sections of the British Establishment and media to support their right to 'not be offended.' Funny that. Their faith fanaticism causes offence to many people, yet any attempt to curb their offensiveness is greeted with howls of indignation and protest. Double standards!
In a free and democratic society, Islamists have right to express their point of view, however misguided and backward it may be, providing they don't incite violence. Unless they harm others, they are entitled to live their lives according to their holy dogmas. But they do not have the right to expect the rest of society to accept or facilitate their fundamentalist principles, which echo the Christian authoritarianism of the Dark Ages.
As I argued at the conference, secularism is not the same as anti-clericalism. It is not against religion per se. It merely seeks to end religious privileges, ensure State neutrality in matters of faith and create a level legal status for all faiths and none; for both believers and non-believers.
Islamism is different from Islam. Islam is a religion; whereas Islamism is a political religious movement that seeks to impose Sharia law and create a theocratic dictatorship, as in Iran, Saudi Arabia and, in the particularly extreme form of ISIS, in Iraq and Syria.
Opposing Islamism is therefore not the same as opposing Islam or Muslim people's right to hold their faith. Secularists defend freedom of belief, whether religious or non-religious. We also make a distinction between Islam (an ideology) and Muslims (people). Like all ideas, Islam should be open to scrutiny, criticism and satire. Like all people, Muslims should be accorded respect and protected against violations of human rights. That is why secularists are in the forefront of defending the many Muslims in the UK and worldwide who have suffered Islamist victimisation.
The conference organiser Maryam Namazie made an impassioned plea:
"Islamism is an international far-right movement that has murdered innumerable Charlie Hebdos over several decades across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia, including many Muslims who have dared to...live twenty-first century lives (that are) prohibited by the Islamists. Being a woman, a freethinker, being gay, being unveiled, improperly veiled, an atheist, going to school, driving a car, having sex, falling in love, laughing out loud, dancing....'offends' them. Calling for civility, censorship, silence or 'respect' for the 'offended' is merely heeding the Islamist demand for submission (to clerical authority) at the expense of dissenters - whether (they) be Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia or Roya Nobakht in Iran."
Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters, saluted those who continue to "bravely challenge deadly religious far-right movements whose end game is to shut down secular democratic spaces and to terrorise us into silence. The time has come to....reject the politics of hatred, whether emanating from the racist far-right or the religious far-right."
Another conference speaker, Marieme Helie Lucas, founder of Secularism is a Women's Issue, warned against:
"A growing restriction on our freedoms and civil rights in the name of religious tolerance; an endless abandonment of secular values....(and of) equal rights to all citizens - agnostics, atheists and believers alike. We are heading towards unequal rights and different laws for different categories of citizens - all condoned by 'democratic' states. The right to practice according to one's own belief should not supersede universal rights."
Last weekend's event was a follow up to the October 2014 international conference on "The Religious-Right, Secularism and Civil Rights," which launched the Manifesto for Secularism.
This manifesto urged:
"Our era is marked by the rise of the religious-Right - not because of a 'religious revival' but rather due to the rise of far-Right political movements and states using religion for political supremacy. This rise is a direct consequence of neo-conservatism and neo-liberalism and the social policies of communalism and cultural relativism. Universalism, secularism and citizenship rights have been abandoned and segregation of societies and 'communities' based on ethnicity, religion and culture have become the norm....
"For many decades now, people in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia and the Diaspora have been the first victims but also on the frontlines of resistance against the religious-Right (whether religious states, organisations and movements) and in defence of secularism and universal rights, often at great risk to their lives.
We call on people everywhere to stand with us to establish an international front against the religious-Right and for secularism. We demand:
1. Complete separation of religion from the state. Secularism is a fundamental right.
2. Separation of religion from public policy, including the educational system, health care and scientific research.
3. Abolition of religious laws in the family, civil and criminal codes. An end to discrimination against, and persecution of, LGBT people, religious minorities, women, freethinkers, ex-Muslims and others.
4. Freedom of religion and atheism and freedom to criticise religions. Belief as a private affair.
5. Equality between women and men and citizenship rights for all."
These secular ideals are basic democratic, humanitarian values. Yet those of us who espouse secularism are subjected to a constant barrage of abuse, threats and accusations of racism, Eurocentrism, imperialism and Islamophobia - not only from Islamists but also from their far left apologists and fellow travellers.
For these people, secularism and universal human rights are western constructs which, like all things western, must be repudiated. Instead, they promote cultural relativism and support reactionary Islamist anti-western regimes, including Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. By so doing, the people they betray the most are Muslims living under Islamist rule. And here's a horrifying thought: they'd do the same to Muslims in the UK if they could.
For more information about the Peter Tatchell Foundation's human rights work, to receive our email bulletins or to make a donation: PeterTatchellFoundation.orgSuggest a correction