Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Secular cowardice in the face of name-calling.

Since taking part in International Day to Defend Amina earlier this month I've come in for heavy criticism for being "Islamophobic", "culturally imperialist", even plain racist for opposing the human rights violations that stem from Islam.  You may or may not agree with these labels; I don't myself, but as the days went by I heard the same accusations repeated so many times I did start to wonder if I might be missing something.  I also reflected that even IF the criticisms were in themselves unjustified it was still possible for the misperception to be so widespread as to render my actions counterproductive, even on mistaken grounds.

With this in mind, I emailed one of the administrators at the Council of Ex-Muslims Forum to ask his advice on how people like me - who have never been Muslims -  can best support ex-Muslims and other victims of the more vicious doctrines of Islam, and oppose threats arising from Islam to secular values.

He wrote back to me very swiftly, and acknowledged the difficulty that can arise both from supporting ex-Muslims and from criticising Islam:

(I hope my distaste for organisations like the EDL goes without saying, but just in case; no, I absolutely do not want to ally myself with such groups.)

Having acknowledged the delicate balancing act, however, my correspondent went on to say the following, which I think is crucial:

On first reading my response to this was to think "I don't even have to be public and outspoken?  What can that possibly achieve?"

But I've thought about it a little more since I received the email, and actually I think a very valid point is made.  So often I say to religious people - most often to Catholics, but the principle can be generalised - that their personal acceptance of the fact that (for example) the use of condoms is beneficial in preventing the spread of HIV is meaningless if they continue to lend tacit support to the power base of the Catholic church.  The Vatican is able to campaign against condom use in Africa and other places plagued by HIV because it is able to bring to bear the political weight of over a billion Catholics - if a significant number of those people stood up to oppose this monstrous policy (or, better yet, left the church - although I accept that this is not easily done), it could not continue.

The point is that numbers do matter.

I've written before on the duty I think atheists have to speak out against the evils of religion, and I don't think there's any excuse to shirk this duty when it comes to Islam - we must oppose such atrocities as "honour" killings, FGM, forced marriage, the oppression of women.  We who have never been Muslims are in some senses better positioned to argue against Islam than those who have been because - generally speaking - the risks we take in doing so are less than those taken by former Muslims.  Islam punishes apostasy harshly; the consequences of being known to have abandoned the faith range from ostracism and abuse to death.  The worst I can reasonably expect to get for denouncing Islam as one of the greatest evils we face in this century is name-calling - mostly from others who have never been Muslims.

Well, I can live with being called an Islamophobe and I can even live with being called racist - if the alternative is to sit back and allow people who face far greater threats to stand alone.  It's fairly clear why the accusations of bigotry flow so freely when Islam is criticised - they work.  But ask yourself; when a Christian accuses you of being a bigot, of "persecuting" them when you oppose their (assumed) right to stop gay people marrying, do you accept the criticism and shut up?  Does their accusation of bigotry prevent you from arguing against Christianity, or do you explain why you're not a bigot and keep arguing?

Why, then, does being called an Islamophobe shut you up?  Why do you adopt the term and throw it at people like me?  Would you call me a bigot, or culturally insensitive, when I tell Christians their religion doesn't give them the right to stop people getting married?

People who oppose Islam do so in the face of great adversity and even danger; to refuse to lend them your support out of fear of being called a nasty name is simply cowardice.

So visit the CEMB Forum, follow them on Twitter, lend the weight of your numbers even if you don't want to take a more active role in helping their work.  Every person who supports those who fight Islam makes their task a little easier.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The importance of arguing about things that don't matter

It occurred to me today, in the course of trying to explain to a friend my occasional reluctance to describe myself as a feminist, that the life of an atheist concerned with social issues is spent largely in arguing about things that don't matter.

The most obvious example of this is the whole "God" issue itself.  Gods do not exist, meaning they are in themselves almost axiomatically irrelevant... yet I, like millions of atheists all over the world, find myself talking about them all the bleeding time.  How many times have you been taunted about the time and energy you devote to arguing about God X, or to trying to prove it doesn't exist?  Why do we do it?  Because other people believe gods matter.  And because the rest of us have been too damn complacent for too long about letting them justify nastinesses on that supremely nonsensical basis.

But it's not only gods.  The life of a liberal is FULL of arguments about things that don't matter.

Look at sexuality.  I don't give a toss about the sex or gender of the person or people you find attractive, and if you're reading this blog you probably feel much the same about me.  Whether you're straight, gay, bi, asexual or undecided doesn't matter in the slightest to me... but I'm forced to argue about it, to blog and sign petitions and generally get angry about it because for reasons I will never understand it matters to other people.

Precisely the same can be said of arguments against sexism.  When I took part in International Day to Defend Amina earlier this month, I didn't do it because she's a woman.  In principle I don't care that she is a woman, don't consider it relevant to anything... but I care that she is abused, and the fact is that the abuse has happened because she is a woman.  In a sense, I am forced to take a stance on something I consider a complete non-issue... because too many other people, powerful people, think it matters.  If you're not up-to-date with what's happening in Amina's life after the protest, both Maryam Namazie and Ophelia Benson have blogged on the subject.

Incidentally, those who've taken an anti-FEMEN stance on this matter - who feel that we who protested Amina's treatment are (to quote one tweeter) "imposing white, Western feminism" on people against their will - might find it helps to stop thinking of Amina and others as "brown, Eastern women" and think of them instead simply as "people who are being treated really badly by other people for no good reason".

The same is true of arguments against racism, against xenophobia, against the various forms of prejudice based on the circumstances of birth, against a thousand other forms of bigotry and injustice.  It's a little strange to reflect that those of us who don't care about race, sex, social class, gender, sexuality etc. are so often the people most engaged in arguing about such matters.

And that, I suppose, is why despite being entirely in favour of equality between men and women I'm often uncomfortable with the label "feminist".  I'm not "pro-women" as the term has come (rightly or wrongly is a separate question) to suggest, in the same way I'm not "pro-gay" or "pro-transgender" or "pro-black people".  I don't defend women because they're women, I defend people who are oppressed because they are people who are oppressed.  I'm not in favour of gay people any more than I'm in favour of straight people, because I simply don't think the difference matters.  I support the rights of gay people only because others oppose them, which makes me not "pro-gay" but something like "anti-anti-gay".

I suppose "anti-arsehole" might be the best term for the general principle here, if for no other reason than that "anti-anti-black people", "anti-anti-women" etc. gets confusing quickly.

Another challenge we meet over and over again - most commonly from other non-believers in my own case - is "why can't you just live and let live?".  The truth is that I would love to stop arguing about all this stuff that is, at bottom, irrelevant to me.  But the hard fact is that the world is full of people to whom such matters are not irrelevant, and those people collectively have the power to make miserable - or even to end - the lives of others.  If those people could learn to live and let live, to stop caring about non-issues that are none of their business anyway, we would see an end to all sorts of injustices and abuses.  If we are ever persuaded to live and let live, those same injustices and abuses will go unprotested, and their victims will have even less defence against them.

So if you ever catch yourself thinking "I wish these bleeding atheists and liberals would shut up and let people get on with it"... reflect on what the consequences would be if you got your wish, and think on.

Friday, 5 April 2013

International Day to Defend Amina

Yesterday I, along with thousands of others, took part in the International Day to Defend Amina.  I was honoured to be painted by talented body artist Victoria Gugenheim (@quirkathon), who also painted herself and the extraordinary Maryam Namazie (@MaryamNamazie) - follow both if you don't already!

We each started with our individual paintings:

... and later in the day Victoria amalgamated the three into a single image:

I don't know about either Maryam or Victoria, but for me the prospect of being seen topless by potentially thousands of people was nerve-wracking.  I'll admit that when I received the photos I did consider chickening out of posting them, but reminding myself that - unlike Amina - I faced no danger in doing so was enough to make me do it.

If you're not well up on Amina's story, I recommend Maryam's blog.

Amina represents millions of women all over the world who do not share the basic freedoms I - and probably you - take for granted.  Posting these images made me nervous, but not because I imagined for a moment that anybody might lock me away, beat me or threaten to kill me - as has happened to Amina for having the temerity to treat her body as her own property.  As a woman lucky enough to live in a country where my rights are protected, I wanted to use my body both to show Islamists that their scare-tactics will not work and to remind other liberals, secularists and feminists that the fight is not over yet.

If you haven't already, please sign and share this petition to the Tunisian government to ensure Amina's safety.