It was an emotional Maryam Namazie, an Iranian Marxist in exile, who stepped onto the stage to read out a message in support of Syrian Kurds: "We are all Kobanians".
In collaboration with the Algerian Marieme Helie Lucas and others she had organized a conference which took place in London this weekend which brought together prominent men and women on the frontlines of the resistance against fundamentalism. A hall filled with heroes and heroines whom you never, or hardly ever, hear of. Because they have never beheaded nor killed. And yet they are fighting against the totalitarianism of this century, often paying with their lives. Freethinkers, not all atheists, from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Poland Afghanistan, Syria, India, USA, Morocco, Tunisia and of course Iran and Algeria.
They had all believed that by seeking refuge in Britain, India or Europe, they had finished with fundamentalism. But they all spoke of how this evil had caught up with them in the very heart of these places of refuge, poisoned by racist confusion and tolerance towards fundamentalism in the name of multiculturalism.
Confusion in the name of multiculturalism
This is particularly true in Britain where the link between the State and the Anglican Church has never been severed and where some politicians try to make up for this advantage given to the Anglican Church by distributing special rights to other religious communities. Such as the right for Sharia courts to render decisions in family disputes. A Muslim woman unfamiliar with her rights may have to depend on a fundamentalist imam in order to divorce or how to proceed in a case of domestic violence. And it was to oppose this segregation in the name of religion that British secularists, very often of Iranian origin, formed the association "One law for all". Others are leading the opposition against the reasonable accommodations with common law in Canada. Homa Arjomand, present at the conference, prevented the legal recognition of Sharia Courts in Ontario, one of the victories in the fight against the acceptance of fundamentalism in the name of an exotic vision of cultures and identities.
Against all forms of fundamentalism
The conference was not limited to Muslim fundamentalism. It also discussed Jewish and Christian fundamentalism. We heard the heartbreaking story of Sue Cox who founded an association aimed at allowing the voices of victims of paedophile rapes perpetrated by priests to be heard. The testimony of a sociologist highly critical of the role of Jewish fundamentalism in the escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But also a hilarious presentation by a professor of philosophy at Oxford, AC Grayling, on certain beliefs and superstitions inherited from monotheism. The conference proceedings took place under tight security. In Europe, in 2014, it is dangerous to poke fun at religion, defend women's rights, the right to be blasphemous or atheist. And even if many speakers were right to stress that secularism is not atheism but the right to believe or not to believe, this breath of fresh air reminded us just how stifling and terrorized the world has become through fear of being disrespectful towards religion. In face of this fear, many of these resistants from all continents condemned all forms of xenophobia, while urging the need to breathe and live in a more secular world.
A secular ideal without borders
It is often said that the secular model cannot be exported (it would not be pertinent to discuss Pakistan or Iran), but it is not a question of importing or exporting any kind of model, but of sharing an ideal.
Those who believe that an ideal has borders should have attended this two days of conference. Dozens of presentations, each and every one of them converging towards the same desire to live in a society where the State is separate from religion. A vital, visceral, pleading conclusion arrived at by all those who have had to live under the tyranny of theocratic regimes which they were forced to flee. When they are not at this very moment fighting against the unravelling of secularism, like the brilliant Turkish deputy Safak Pavey.
The conference closed with a Manifesto for Secularism, signed by these resistants from across the world, demanding complete separation of religion from the State, freedom of religion and atheism, freedom to criticise religions, equality between women and men, wherever people are striving for dignity and freedom, i.e. on every continent, in all religions. With all due respect to believers in exoticism and separate rights for different cultures.
A highly political fundamentalist contagion
One must hear these resistants to realise how rapidly a society which was originally fairly secular can become rigid and fundamentalist.
Algerian freedom fighters had imagined a secular constitution before the NLF autocrats monopolised the State for their own benefit and began playing with the fire of state religion in order to consolidate their power.
In Cairo when Nasser was in power women wore short sleeves and were free to come and go. The very idea of forcing them to wear the veil, as demanded by the guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, was met with howls of laughter. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-DZUnh8-Ro
In Iran Khomeini had sworn that he would never impose the veil, before changing his mind as soon as he came to power, thanks to an anti-imperialist alliance of religious and leftists against the Shah. We should take another look at those crowds of free women, their heads uncovered, who came out to protest against the veil when he imposed it. These striking images have been erased from our memories and replaced by today's images: the streets of Tehran flooded with black veils. A documentary by Lila Ghobady -- « Forbidden Sun Dance » https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RPrDhJEBZc parts of which were shown at the conference -- allowed us to rediscover them. Recently she had to flee Iran herself because of this film about dancing (which is forbidden), in which dancers and choreographers spoke of their experiences, some of whom had participated in the 1979 revolution before losing their positions as dance teachers shortly afterwards on the basis of "incitement to commit adultery".
Fanaticism can take hold quickly, faster than we think.
The case of Bangladesh is a perfect example. Here we have a country which wrested its independence from Pakistan in 1971, on the basis of a language, Bengali. At first, the Bengali independence fighters wanted a secular state. Indeed, it was guaranteed by the constitution. Then the army seized power, imposed an authoritarian regime and brought in religious leaders to legitimize their takeover. It was from this moment that the country descended into fundamentalism. A few years later religious fanatics took it upon themselves, with total impunity, to persecute freethinkers like the writer Taslima Nasreen, a speaker at this conference, simply because she dared to defend Hindu religious minorities or criticise Islam.
The 'martyrs' of secularism
These two days were also a remind of one basic and simple truth: secularism provides the best protection for religious minorities.
Pervez Hoodboy, a Pakistani scientist, reminded us of this. He recalled the murder of his neighbour, a teacher belonging to the Ahmadi religion, a Muslim minority persecuted by the Sunnis in Pakistan. He and his daughter were found outside their apartment building. He died on his way to hospital. Although his colleagues were all eminent intellectuals not one of them attended his funeral. Simply because he was an Ahmadi.
Kamira Bennoune, an American law professor of Algerian origin, showed us faces of those we had forgotten, shot by fanatics on the streets of Algiers, Cairo, or more recently Iraq. Simply because, in the minds of these fanatics, they were artists, atheists, member of a minority, or badly dressed. She asked the media to speak about them as well, and not just about their assassins. The conference paid homage to Raad al Azzawi, the Iraqi journalist, murdered because he refused to collaborate with Daesh... And who will never be as well known than Ben Laden.
For once, it is to these resistants and not to their killers that this commentary is dedicated.