She is energetic and outspoken. Her creativity on resistance against repressive regimes has attracted many communities around the globe. Maryam Namazie is an Iranian-born writer and activist based in London. She is the Spokesperson for Fitnah – Movement for Women’s Liberation, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. She hosts a weekly television program in Persian and English called Bread and Roses. No doubt because of her activities for protecting and promoting human freedom, she is a top enemy of the country where she born.
Maryam was born in Tehran, but she left Iran with her family in 1980 after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. She then lived in India, the UK and then settled in the US where she began her university studies at the age of 17. After graduating, Maryam went to Sudan to work with Ethiopian refugees. Halfway through her stay, an Islamic government took power. She was threatened by the government for establishing a clandestine human rights organisation and had to be evacuated by her employer for her own safety.
Back in the United States, Maryam worked for various refugee and human rights organisations. She established the Committee for Humanitarian Assistance to Iranian Refugees in 1991. In 1994, she went to Turkey and produced a video documentary on the situation of Iranian refugees there.
The Islamic regime of Iran’s media outlets has called Maryam ‘immoral and corrupt’ and did an ‘exposé’ on her entitled ‘Meet this anti-religion woman’. In 2019, the Islamic regime’s intelligence service did a TV program where Maryam was featured as “anti-God”.
“No religion promotes an inclusive society. Religion is an exclusive club that sees its set of beliefs as superior to other sets of beliefs,” she said. “Inequality is a pillar of Sharia courts but this is not just the case for Sharia courts,” she added.
In this interview I have communicated with her on life in Iran, consequences of Sharia and religious courts, Easter Sunday’s bombings in Sri Lanka, and her readings on terrorism and radicalisation.
Following are excerpts from the interview:
By Nilantha Ilangamuwa
Q: Thank you for joining us Maryam! Tell us what is One Law for All initiative all about? And why is it important to have such an initiative?
One Law for All was established to oppose Sharia and religious courts because they are inhuman and abuse human rights. This is the case whether the courts are in Iran and Saudi Arabia or in Britain. One’s religion or belief is a basic right and a private matter.
Religious courts, however, have nothing to do with the right to religion and are part of the Islamist project to control and manage women, minorities and dissenters. We know Sharia’s criminal code includes the death penalty for apostasy and blasphemy and stoning to death for gay sex or sex outside of marriage. It is unbelievably brutal.
In Britain, Sharia courts deal mainly with the family code, which some feel is trivial but the code is highly discriminatory against women and legitimises violence against women. For example, under Sharia’s family code, a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s, marital rape is not seen as a crime and child marriage and polygamy are deemed acceptable. One Law for All argues minority women from Muslim backgrounds should have the same rights in the family as other citizens.
Inequality is a pillar of Sharia courts but this is not just the case for Sharia courts. The Jewish Beth Din in the UK, for example, also puts women in limbo by refusing to grant them divorces without their husband’s permission. We know also historically about the role played by ecclesiastic courts. One Law for All argues that it is dangerous to put the rights of citizens in the hands of mullahs, priests and rabbis. Secular states, public policy and laws are the best way to ensure the rights of all citizens irrespective of background and belief.
Q: You were born in Iran and then moved to other places. Tell us about your childhood and the life in Iran till you left your motherland?
My parents are secular Muslims so I never had any religion imposed on me at home and never felt lesser for being a girl. In fact, I have always felt supported and loved even after I became an atheist.
I never really felt religion’s influence on my life until the Islamists took power in Iran.
Then things changed dramatically. There were Islamists sent to my school to separate the boys from the girls in the playground, executions on TV and the beginnings of compulsory veiling and the rest is as they say unfolding history. After living under an Islamic state, I realised very quickly though that religion in the state is heinous and why I campaign against it.
Prior to it, Iran was under the Shah’s dictatorship and for a time, the revolution gave everyone hope for real change but the Islamists took hold of it, slaughtered a generation and 40 years on, people have been living in a theocracy in the 21st century.
Q: What went wrong in Iran?
If you have fundamentalists in power, things will deteriorate very quickly, even for believers, as a believer is not the same as a fundamentalist. This isn’t a theoretical discussion. We can see the effects of a theocracy on the lives of freethinkers, women, LGBT, religious minorities and especially young people in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia but we can also see what happens when even secular societies are run by theocrats.
Look at Modi’s India where Muslims can be killed for eating beef. Look at the situation for abortion rights, for example, in the US with the rise of the Christian-Right. Or the situation of Muslims in Myanmar and so on. In Sri Lanka, too, you have extremist Sinhala Buddhist groups like Bodu Bala Sena which have had a detrimental effect on religious and other minorities and women.
Those killed in Sri Lanka could be any of us. We could be next. We must all take an unequivocal stand against all forms of fascism and hate. We must not allow the conflation of the religious-Right with ordinary believers, victim blaming, and the dehumanisation of the ‘other’ to legitimate a politics of terror and hate
This is the problem with identity politics everywhere. It reduces masses of people to just one religious or cultural identity though people are much more complex than that and have countless characteristics that define them. Identity politics reduces 21st-century citizens into warring tribes.
Which is why after the horrendous Easter Sunday terrorist attack in Sri Lanka, ordinary Muslims going about their lives are collectively blamed and we see Muslims being run out of their homes (including some ex-Muslims I know in Sri Lanka) or Muslim shops are burnt down. Also, refugees from Pakistan who have fled to Sri Lanka because of Islamist persecution become displaced again when they are run out of their homes. How can terrorising innocent people be a solution for terrorist attacks against other innocent people?
Q: Some of the reports indicated that you are ex-Muslim. Is that true?
I am an ex-Muslim and work with ex-Muslims in Sri Lanka and elsewhere too. Of course, our atheism is our private affair, it’s a matter of conscience and belief, but when people can be killed for apostasy and blasphemy, we feel the need to say we are ex-Muslims publicly to challenge the status quo and defend the right to expression and conscience without fear of persecution or discrimination.
Q: Why are you against Sharia Law?
As I mentioned, all religious laws are discriminatory. The problem with Sharia and other religious laws is that they are coercive.
If religion is a personal belief, then why do you need laws to enforce it? For example, some Muslims in my family fast during Ramadan and others have never fasted. This is the personal choice of adults.
However, in Iran or Saudi Arabia because of Sharia law, one will be flogged or imprisoned for eating during Ramadan. Examples abound such as in the case of compulsory veiling. If an adult doesn’t want to wear the veil, why do you need morality police to beat a woman, arrest her? Or if someone doesn’t believe in Islam, well that is their freedom of conscience.
Why must the state execute someone for atheism? Religious law is fundamentally unjust as it forces people to do not what they believe but that which the mullahs and clerics in power tell them. Coercion and violence go hand in hand with Sharia courts.
Q: Sri Lanka is the latest victim of self-proclaimed Islamic State. What is your reading on the attacks in Sri Lanka?
We at Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain along with other atheist groups (including the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka) expressed our outrage at the terrorist attacks and also mourned the many killed.
In our statement, we said:
“We are outraged at the Islamist attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. Our hearts go out to the survivors and victims – hundreds killed, including at least 45 children, and more than 500 wounded. We mourn them with the people of Sri Lanka and the world.
“The terrorists claim to have killed innocent Christians and others in order to ‘avenge’ innocent Muslims killed in Christchurch; the Christchurch terrorist also feigned to kill innocent Muslim worshippers as an act of ‘vengeance’. What should by now be very clear to everyone is that these terrorist attacks have nothing to do with addressing grievances – real or imagined – and everything to do with using terror, hate, supremacy and violence as a tool to impose the ideology and dominance of the religious-Right.
“Whether Islamist or white nationalist, whether in Sri Lanka or Christchurch, these far-Right movements have no respect for human life and rights: Christian, Muslim, ex-Muslim, believer or non, white, black or brown, young or old; no amount of murder or mayhem is too heinous for their hateful cause. Always anti-those deemed ‘other’; always relying on hate, religion, violence, misogyny, homophobia, tribalism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and terrorism to sow fear and division.
If you have fundamentalists in power, things will deteriorate very quickly, even for believers, as a believer is not the same as a fundamentalist. This isn’t a theoretical discussion. We can see the effects of a theocracy on the lives of freethinkers, women, LGBT, religious minorities and especially young people in countries like Iran or Saudi Arabia but we can also see what happens when even secular societies are run by theocrats
“For too long and still far too many continue to excuse one side over the other depending on where they stand. Some will defend the Islamists, others will defend the Christian-Right, both sides saying there are ‘legitimate grievances’ even if they claim to abhor terrorism. Many will even go so far as to blame the victims, especially in the case of apostates and blasphemers like Charlie Hebdo or the Bangladeshi bloggers. What these apologists fail to see is that there is no legitimisation for murder.
“Those killed in Sri Lanka could be any of us. We could be next. We must all take an unequivocal stand against all forms of fascism and hate. We must not allow the conflation of the religious-Right with ordinary believers, victim blaming, and the dehumanisation of the ‘other’ to legitimate a politics of terror and hate.“Sooner than later, we must recognise that we are all in this together against the far-Right and in defence of our common humanity. Our lives and our rights are interlinked irrespective of our backgrounds and beliefs.
“It is a matter of urgency that governments stop appeasing theocracies and the religious-Right, including via faith schools and child indoctrination, religious courts and faith-based policies. This only strengthens divisions and the religious-Right.
“Defending secularism, citizenship and universal rights is the only way forward.”
IS has killed Yazidis, Kurds, Syrians, Christians, Muslims, ex-Muslims, Atheists, young and old, women and men… From IS, Taliban, the Islamic regime in Iran to Boko Haram and Al Shabaab, no one is safe. From London to Madrid to NY to Colombo and Kabul no one feels safe. The whole point of terrorism is to target innocent civilians indiscriminately to instil hate and despair and fear. That is why courage and hope and love are so important for all of us. They want to divide us; we must insist on our common humanity.
Q: What are your suggestions and recommendations to prevent the IS’ influences?
It is important that we treat everyone equally as citizens and not members of some religious or cultural ‘group’. That will help focus on terrorists and criminals rather than placing collective blame on everyone who is Muslim, for example. Islamism is a political far-Right movement like the white supremacists in the US. You cannot weed out white supremacist terrorists in the US by collectively blaming all Christians or all white people. It is a political movement; you need to target it politically and also ideologically.
Also, an insistence on secularism is key. Separation of religion from the state – any religion – is crucial to bringing about lasting change. We shouldn’t have religious schools, religious indoctrination in schools, religion in the law or public policy or in the state’s dealings with citizens.
Also, I think we need to look at rights from a universalist perspective – we all have inalienable rights no matter what our background. And most importantly, we all share a common humanity. We are in this together – Muslim, ex-Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, Christian, atheist… - against the fundamentalists and fascists of all stripes who kill with impunity and have no regard for human rights or lives.
Q: Would you say Islam does not promote an inclusive society?
No religion promotes an inclusive society. Religion is an exclusive club that sees its set of beliefs as superior to other sets of beliefs. In any religion, the apostates, heretics, witches and blasphemers within the religion are imprisoned and killed. Those who are not part of the religion are seen to be lesser.
To include citizens in a society, you must exclude religion to some extent from the public space. People, of course, have a right to religion and belief but it cannot be part of the state or law or public policy or the educational system if we want to ensure that religion has its rightful place in our societies and world – as a personal matter.
Q: What is your message to those who undermined and side-lined your basic rights when you were under repressive governments, as we as to those who joined and planning to join the terrorist outfit like Islamic State?
My message to those who join IS or other terrorist groups and repressive governments are the same: we will never bow down. There are many more of us than there are of you. Also, hate can never kill love and hope and that is our strongest weapon against the fundamentalists of all stripes.