Great Briton

Maryam Namazie, Britain’s most notable secularist, would rather not have had to call the organisation which she co-founded, “The Council of Ex-Muslims in Britain“:

She doesn’t really like the label ex-Muslim and would prefer not to frame her identity in religious terms but, she says, it is like gays “coming out” 30 years ago: something has to become public if you are to break taboos.

I understand that analogy. In countries where gay men and lesbian women are not subject to formal or informal discrimination, denigration, persecution, or worse, there is no point in “coming out”. It takes little courage to tell an indifferent world something about which it isn’t too bothered, one way or another.

By contrast, Maryam Namazie and her band of one hundred ex-Muslims face genuine peril. Can you imagine what life must be like for an athiest, a secularist, a religious dissenter, or member of a religious minority in a theocratic state? Or for such a person in a country like ours, which can never provide complete protection from aggressive religious people who both wish and intend to harm you?

“I had never worn the veil and was at a mixed school. Suddenly a strange man appeared in the playground. He was bearded and had been sent to separate the sexes – but we ran circles round him.” She can still picture, too, the face of “the Hezbollah” who stopped her in the street because her head was uncovered. “I was 12 or 13. It was really scary.” Worse happened to others: “There were beatings and acid was thrown in women’s faces, and there were executions on television every day,” she says. Then her school was closed “for Islamicisation

It takes nerve to start an organisation for people who have rejected Islam. In Islamic law, apostasy is punishable by death. Namazie receives periodic threats, usually on her mobile phone: “One said, ‘You are going to be decapitated’…I went to the police. They were very attentive at first because they thought it might be linked to the attempted bombings in Glasgow . But when they realised it wasn’t, they never bothered contacting me again.” Doesn’t she worry about her safety? “Yes, I do, frequently. I worry about whether I will live, especially now I am a mother. If I see someone looking at me strangely, I wonder.

How incredibly fortunate I am to live in Great Britain: a country which is liberal, open, and predominantly secular. I’ve never believed in god. I don’t think I have the capacity for it. However, both the state I live in, and the religious culture in which I grew up, never made my life difficult, because of that.

As a result, I am free to enjoy the aesthetic and cultural manifestations of religion: at least, when I can be bothered to, which to be frank, isn’t particularly often. I can have religious people as close friends. Secularism enriches my life:

Namazie’s grandfather was a mullah and her father was brought up a strict Muslim. Both of her parents (now living in America) remain Muslim. When Namazie told her father about the launch of the CEMB, she remembers that he said: “Oh no, Grandpa is going to be turning in his grave.” “So I told him that what I am doing benefits Muslims, too, because if you live in a secular society, you can be a Muslim, a Sikh, a Christian or an atheist and be treated equally.”

We have secularists to thank – both those who believe in a variety of gods and those who believe in none – for creating a country in which all this is possible.

Maryam Namazie isn’t mad keen on the term “ex-Muslim”, but feels she has to identify herself in that manner. I expect that she wouldn’t like to be called a great Briton either, but she is one.

(Also, see Norm on the interesting question of group rights.)