As the UN Security Council tackles the entity claiming to be “Islamic State,” and President Barack Obama invokes global Muslim responsibility, many ask whether people of Muslim heritage do enough to counter extremism.
The fact is, away from the media spotlight, thousands wage daily battles in their own countries against what President Obama called a “network of death.”
Unfortunately, jihadists make headlines while those who wage the anti-jihad rarely do. After all, everyone has heard of Osama bin Laden, but few know of those standing up to would-be bin Ladens across the globe.
There is a long, untold history of brave individuals of Muslim heritage who have challenged extremists.
In the 1990s, the women’s group known as the Algerian Rally of Democratic Women or RAFD (Refuse) dared to do just that during a “dark decade” of jihadist atrocities committed by the Armed Islamic Group battling the Algerian state. That violence claimed as many as 200,000 lives.
The demonstrations organized by the women of RAFD drew thousands of protesters, despite the danger. In October 1993, as the violence began to accelerate, they wore symbolic cloth targets in front of the President’s office to decry the threats to women and secularists. The entire roster of RAFD’s leaders ended up on a fundamentalist death list, but still they would not be cowed.
The day after a deadly 1995 bombing on a crowded street in Algiers, RAFD protested at the bomb crater itself. The police told them it was too dangerous, but activists gathered anyway and filled the crater with flowers.
Then, in 1995, the women’s organization held a mock trial of the Islamic Salvation Front’s leaders in Algiers. Some 900 attended despite posted threats to kill anyone who did.
Through acts like these, activists helped galvanize and display the population’s burgeoning rejection of an Islamic State project in Algeria. Nevertheless, RAFD’s work received little attention internationally.
Even worse, it sometimes elicited criticism from the Western intelligentsia and press suggesting that its members were inauthentic and Westernized.
Why were they labeled this way? One reason is that the Western media often frames the conflict as one between Muslim extremists and the West, rather than as a fight for human rights within Muslim majority societies. In this narrative, opposition to extremism is deemed Western. This is entirely mistaken.
When the West frames the conflict in this way, it can come across as a “clash of civilizations.” But this is not the case. There is a clash of ideologies—not civilizations—and it is taking place within each and every country affected by extremism.
The public relations battle of the ‘anti-jihadists’ is a critical part of the struggle against groups like ISIS—just as important as the military campaign. That is why the international community must do a better job to support those who are today’s version of RAFD, and to recognize that they represent a legitimate voice from within their societies.
And there are many like them.
Inside the danger zone, the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq (OWFI) publicly denounces ISIS for its genocidal campaign against minorities, for raping women, imposing strict female dress codes and operating a “concubine market” that reportedly sells women and girls into sexual slavery. OWFI runs emergency phone lines and even a safe house for women fleeing ISIS persecution.
The Iraqi architect Yanar Mohammed, an opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, founded the group in 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Her goal was to promote women’s rights by advocating a secular, non-sectarian Iraq. Like the women of RAFD before them, OWFI faced threats– in this case from both Sunni and Shiite extremists. The founder once received an email with the subject heading, “Killing Yanar.”
Despite her bravery, Yanar once told me that she had limited access to Western media. This echoes what RAFD spokeswoman Zazi Sadou recently told me about the international response to their efforts: “No one wanted to hear us.” Even today, the West is still not listening to the voices of Iraqis who are standing up to the extremists. This must change.
If the international community wants more individuals to fight back, it must offer them support. While Qatari coffers have nourished jihadists across the region, secular groups who fight Islamists scrounge for funds.
If all this is not addressed then there is a real risk that Muslim fundamentalists–armed with money, weapons, foreign fighters and emotive religious rhetoric– will win both propaganda and military battles.
PHOTO: A human rights activist holds a placard during an “anti-Talibanisation” protest in Lahore April 19, 2007. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza
By Marieme Hélie-Lucas and Maryam Namazie
Karima Bennoune: Can you explain your own journey to secularism?
Marieme Hélie-Lucas: I have been a secularist throughout my life, someone who believes a democratic state should not take orders from religions. My mother was a mystic, but also a secularist, and was strongly aware of the anti-women stance in all religions. Her feminist teaching on religions always remained within me, especially when I was confronted with the rise of Muslim fundamentalism in Algeria.
Maryam Namazie: I became a secularist after Islamists expropriated and suppressed the 1979 Iranian revolution and established an Islamic state. I knew instinctively that there was something very wrong with religion in power, as do many people living under the boot of Islamism or the religious right – even if they do not call themselves secularists. My father was raised a strict Muslim (by my grandfather who was an Islamic scholar) but he never made me feel different because I was a girl. I never had to be veiled or felt unequal, until an Islamic state came into being.
Bennoune: Why did you decide to organize the International Conference on the Religious Right, Secularism and Civil Rights now?
Namazie: Our era is marked by the rise of the religious right, and in particular Islamism, with its unspeakable brutality. There has been many a slaughtered generation from Iran to Algeria. For every shocking and tragic beheading of a journalist and aid worker by ISIS that makes headlines, there are countless unreported others beheaded, crucified, flogged, segregated and “disappeared” via the veil…
In the fight against these movements, secularism is key, including for many believers. No one better understands the need for the separation of religion and state than those who have lived under the religious right. Secularism may not be the only challenge, but it is certainly a minimum precondition for freedom in any given society.
Hélie-Lucas: In a way the public acknowledgement of the war crimes of ISIS creates a favorable climate for more openly demanding secular states as a protection from these extreme right political forces. We have a better chance now to be heard by progressive forces than in the past.
Bennoune: What are the goals of the conference?
Hélie-Lucas: We want to bring secularists from the regions and the diasporas together to develop networking, and common strategies and analysis; to find ways to support each other. In particular, we want to promote secular initiatives. Most of all, we want to let the world know that we exist.
Namazie: This conference is our show of strength. Islamism is an international movement - so are we. The conference will also reiterate the human alternative to the far right that does not involve US-led militarism, behind the scenes wheeling and dealing with “good” Islamists or racism. The demand for secularism, citizenship rights and universality is our response to the religious right.
Bennoune: Why do you use the term “religious right” rather than “fundamentalism” in the conference title?
Hélie-Lucas: By using “religious right,” we make it clear that this phenomenon is not religious, but political. Fundamentalist organizations work under the cover of religions. They claim that one is intolerant vis-à-vis religion itself when one criticizes their political actions. In many instances, governments now tend to deal with social and political problems by calling on so-called ‘religious leaders’ - in a very undemocratic way, as though one elected these supposedly community representatives. We need to force governments to look at fundamentalist movements in political terms as extreme right forces. In Algeria, we have been calling them “the green fascists”.
Bennoune: Speaking of fascists, how will current events like the terrible crimes of ISIS be addressed in your meeting?
Namazie: You cannot have a conference today on the religious right and not begin and end with ISIS. The fight against ISIS is not about western versus eastern values, but a fight between secularists and theocrats. ISIS is the result of the retreat of universality, secularism and the Iraq-isation or division of the world and societies into everything from religion to ethnicity, rather than seeing them as human beings and citizens first and foremost. We have the historical task of raising those ideals and demands.
Bennoune: What is the role of feminism in this meeting?
Namazie: You cannot speak about the religious right without speaking about women’s rights. Women are the first targets of the Islamists and religious right. The submission and “disappearance” of women are the first things one notices when they come to power. The burka is one such symbol of Islamism’s war on women. “Sharia” law courts are another. Ironically, despite all their efforts, it is women who are often most vocal in the fight against the religious right and for secularism.
Hélie-Lucas: We stand up first of all as women whose rights are being undermined by the fundamentalists. We protest the hierarchy of rights put forward in which women’s rights come last after minority rights, religious rights and cultural rights.
Bennoune: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the global struggle against fundamentalism now?
Hélie-Lucas: On the one hand, we have all these religious militias who impose their beliefs on everyone. We have the Hindu right imposing a Hindu identity on all citizens of India and considering Muslims as non-citizens. The Buddhist right implements ethno-religious cleansing in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. We have the Christian right gaining ground in Europe as far as reproductive rights are concerned and teaching creationism in the USA.
But on the other hand - and maybe because of the crimes committed by the religious right all over the planet - there are more and more initiatives by young people against them. The demands for secularism have been increasing in all countries marked by the threatening presence of fundamentalists: there is a lively Forum For Secularism in Pakistan which holds public events; there are “dé-jeuneurs” (non-fasters) groups who organize public picnics during Ramadan in North Africa; there are ex-Muslims organisations.
Namazie: The idea that Islamism and the religious right are people’s demand is one of the myths of cultural relativism. How can anyone freely “choose” to live in a society where they can be stoned to death for love or executed for freethinking? If Islamism was truly “the people’s” demand, then Islamists would not need to kill, threaten and unleash their “morality police” to ensure submission.
In fact, there are innumerable individuals across the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia… who have refused and resisted, often at great risk. In another sense, then, our era is also marked by this incredible human resistance and a demand to live lives worthy of the 21 century. A number of these wonderful people will be speaking at the conference.
Bennoune: Why should people make sure to attend this conference in this particular political moment?
Namazie: We must create a strong international front of secularists and the mechanisms to work together more closely. And we also want to raise the profile of secularists from the “South” who have been fighting this fight for a very long time. We have come to a turning point where people are more open to hearing our message. People are seeing through the racist concept of cultural relativism and understanding the distinctions between believers and the religious right. Now we must link them with secularists internationally and organize our movement further to push back the religious right.
Bennoune: Why should progressives prioritize fighting against the religious right and for secularism in 2014?
Namazie: Secularism and the rehabilitation of the concept of the human being who is a citizen irrespective of religion or culture are some of the big issues of our century. This is a fight we need more people to join. One message we hope to send to secularists in the west is: It is not racist to defend equality or secularism. In fact, it is racist to deny people the same rights and freedoms because they are deemed “different”. Also, secularism is not a western concept but a universal one. It is a demand of people everywhere. Nor is it “progressive” to support Islamism vis-à-vis imperialism. Islamism is our far right. Any progressive person or group must oppose all forms of fascism, including the religious right. And they must support and show solidarity with those who have survived and are resisting. This is a fight we need more people to join.
Register for the Secular Conference 2014 here.
Karima Bennoune's book Your Fatwa Does Not Apply Here: Untold Stories from the Fight Against Muslim Fundamentalism, won the 2014 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.