Maryam Namazie is a powerful voice against political Islam, and a major campaigner against sharia courts in Britain, but she is a lapsed Muslim and Westernized. Is she disqualified from the debate and are her warnings relevant to the West?
Born into a religious Muslim family, Namazie left Iran aged 13, at the time of the revolution. During a recent interview in Australia, she recalled the Islamic guards they called "Hezbollahs," who descended on her school to enforce segregation of the sexes and compulsory veiling for girls from the age of 9.
Namazie also champions Muslim women's reform. Both secular and religious women advocate changes in discriminatory laws but the latter believe reform can only be accomplished from within Islam. As a former Muslim, Namazie is a target for intimidation and threats. She is also denigrated for lacking Islamic scholarship. Such censure, she says, "is just an argument to exclude people from the debate and stifle criticism."
Her concerns extend beyond women's rights to the ideology of political Islam, or Islamism, which she describes as a far right, totalitarian, homophobic, misogynist movement with imperialist designs. Adherents of this heretical strain of the religion aim for state conquest and rule by sharia.
Critics of Islamism, she says, are vitally important to the well being of the West and the vast majority of Muslims. In her case, a clear message is matched with activism as spokesperson for the One Law for All Campaign against sharia in Britain, the International Committee against Stoning and other human rights organizations.
She points to sharia as the most widely used religious law in the world, its growth associated with the rise of Islamism. However, Western powers, in particular the United States, have misconstrued Islamist ideology. This was evident in their shortsighted appraisal of revolutionary Iran during the Guadeloupe conference in 1979, and use of the mujahedeen against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Islamism was also strengthened by the failed project of modernization in the Middle East and North Africa and the economic ascendance of Saudi Arabia, with its extremist, Wahhabi form of Islam. In continuing the policy of building Islamic courts in Afghanistan, Namazie believes the United States is still misguided about the intentions of Islamism and the risks of appeasing Islamists.
Perhaps the greatest current boost to political Islam in the West, she says, derives from cultural relativism that has advanced notions of moral equivalence, tolerance of extremism, and also silenced opinion makers fearful of being labeled racist.
In the process, the dangers of political Islam inherent in the Iranian revolution were largely ignored. Originally left-leaning and female led, the revolution was hijacked by Islamists, and although brutally suppressed, revolutionary fervor was never destroyed. Seventy percent of the population in Iran is under the age of 30, well educated and committed to the Internet. This new generation is now attempting to complete the revolution that was started three decades ago.
Namazie believes political Islam in the West is linked to the forces unleashed at the time of the revolution, but unlike Muslim communities in the West, Iran is currently in the grip of an anti-Islamic backlash and secular protest movement. Jokes that would be considered Islamophobic in Western countries are common currency, and some Iranian women are resisting authorities that have stepped up arrests for improper veiling.
It is very difficult for Muslims to reform Islam, as the religion has turned into a political movement, and she compares the situation to the Christian Inquisition, when any criticism against those in power was considered dangerous. Eventually, the Inquisition was reined in. If Islamism were also curbed, she believes reform would follow, and Islam would be relegated to a personal, rather than a state matter.
Muslim women, particularly in Iran, are in the forefront of the reform of discriminatory laws because they have the most to gain, but they need grassroots solidarity in the West, similar to the support networks that were established during the battle against racial apartheid in South Africa. In the struggle for reform, secular women have a special role, as their path clears the way for others. Homa Arjomand, a secular reformer on the left, started the campaign against sharia courts in Canada, and as the movement developed, more traditional Muslim women, who previously felt intimidated, joined the organization.
Although the "Arab Spring" is a new opportunity for the development of freedom in the region, Namazie is concerned that well-organized Islamist groups could seize control unless the West strongly supports the secular vanguard and resists appeasement of Islamists. Past history indicates her warnings deserve to be heeded.