This is a shortened version of my speech for a public meeting organised by the NE Humanists on 19 March 2015.

Dissent and criticism of religion has always been a crucial aspect of free expression. Such criticism has been key for human progress and is needed more than ever in the age of ISIS. For many of us, therefore, standing with Charlie, honours our own dissenters.

Those who condemn the massacre in Paris but blame Charlie for “offending Muslim sensibilities” have bought into the Islamist narrative that “Muslims” are Islamists who are more offended by cartoons than mass murder. This erroneous conflation between Muslims and Islamists is often promoted in the media by Guardian types and the pathetic excuse of a Left – and I say this coming from the Left myself – to justify its cosy alliances with and appeasement of “our” fascists against “their own”.

The far-Right also makes this conflation so as to promote its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim agenda.  And of course the Islamists use it to deflect any criticism as racism and an attack on a community or people. It is useful for the British government too in “managing” its “minorities” on the cheap by handing them over to parasitical imams and self-appointed “community leaders”.

This conflation is validated by multiculturalism (not as a wonderful lived experience but as a social policy) and multi-faithism, which segregates and divides people into homogenised religious and cultural “communities” and sees people as one and the same as the religious-Right.

“Muslims” in Britain are outsourced to Islamist groups to do as they wish with “their communities” – Sharia courts, forced marriages, child marriages, the burqa, Islamic schools, segregated university meetings… The “other” is different so doesn’t deserve the same rights and freedoms.

But clearly no “community” or society is homogeneous. There is dissent; there is class politics at play. There are social and political movements contesting and challenging the Islamists, Sharia law and Islam day in and day out.

Amongst those “Muslims”, which Islamists feign to represent, there are atheists, socialists, secularists, women’s rights campaigners like me… And also many believing Muslims – who call themselves Muslims – but who are opposed to Islamism, the veil, and Sharia and do not murder even when they are “offended” by cartoons.

Conflating Muslim with Islamist does a disservice to the many dissenters. It places collective blame. It implies that the “authentic” Muslim is a terrorist and fascist.

And it’s wrong to equate the two. It’s like conflating the BNP with the British, the English with the English Defence League and Sharia Watch, Americans with the Tea Party or the Christian-Right and Indians with the Hindu-Right.

You can see the distinction between Muslims and Islamists– if you want to. After the attack on Charlie, many  “Muslims” or those labelled as such sided with Charlie.

What is packaged as “offence” is really Islamism’s imposition of blasphemy laws and theocracy under the pretext of respect for “Muslim sensibilities”.  Only in Europe does this far-Right fascist movement use “offence” or Islamophobia to silence and censor. In countries where they have state power, there is no need for such niceties. In Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq and Syria, the “offenders” are called what they are – apostates, blasphemers, enemies against god, the corrupt of the earth, heretics – and legally murdered in broad daylight in the same way Charlie Hebdo’s journalists were “executed”.

Terrorism and indiscriminate violence, including via Sharia laws, have been pillars of Islamist rule for decades, aiding in creating a climate of fear and as a warning to those who refuse to submit.

Raising the question of “offence” absurdly implies that civility and manners are all that are needed to stop abductions and the slaughter of generations from Nigeria, Iran to Algeria.  But “offence” is a smokescreen. It serves to legitimise Islamist terror and blame the victims. It’s no different from blaming a woman who was raped for the rape – if only she had been better dressed. If only she had not had so much to drink. If only she had stayed home like good girls do instead of wandering the streets at night. If only…

These “explanations” are not meant to clarify the context but to condemn the woman who has been raped. The same is true of those who explain the terrorists’ mindset – they were angry at the depiction of Mohammad, they were not integrated, they faced racism… the aim of such justifications is to put the blame on Charlie, on the murdered, on the innocents slaughtered by Islamism.

Blaming Islamist terrorism in Paris on Charlie’s cartoons is like blaming Avijit’s book for his being hacked to death or Raif’s website for his lashes. What did Malala Yousefzai do to warrant being shot in the head on a school bus? She shouldn’t have “offended” the Taliban by going to school? What did the abducted girls in Nigeria or the 54 killed in one day in separate suicide attacks including on a busy marketplace in Nigeria do? Were the Islamists who killed dissenters like Avijit or Salwa  – including via the state apparatus – “not integrated enough”, had they faced racism in their societies; were they abused by the security services? And what about the many who have been abused by the Islamists or US militarism, who have faced racism, who have been disenfranchised and marginalised and have instead joined protest movements, unions and progressive actions that defend human beings and their rights and lives and not beheadings.

Cage Prisoners, a “human rights organisation” (which Amnesty International was working with despite criticism from Gita Sahgal, their head of gender unit and supported by the likes of the Socialist Workers Party and John Rees) recently described Mohammad Emwazi or Jihadi John as a “beautiful young man” and blamed the beheadings he had carried out on his being beaten and threatened by the security services.

But I have been badly beaten by NYPD (when protesting against the 1991 Gulf war parade) and have been threatened with beheading by Islamists. I have faced racism. I am also outraged at US intervention in Iran. I am particularly incensed at how the powers that be decided at the Guadaloupe Conference that they preferred an Islamic state to the left-leaning revolution in Iran during the Cold War and still I do not, would not, behead for anything.

Imagine all the people in Iran or Saudi Arabia languishing in prison or the many who have lost their loved ones to this killing machine? If they all resorted to beheadings – no one would be left.

An unequivocal condemnation of terrorism and a defence of the terrorised – no ifs and buts are the only principled and human response. But it’s not enough. It’s also important to stand firm against Islamism and its “political wing” that has permeated British society – what Southall Black Sisters’ Director Pragna Patel calls Shariafication-by-stealth, which includes the rise of Sharia courts, the burqa and gender segregation at universities (which is an attack on women) as well as Islamic schools, which deny children rights because they were born into Muslim families. This is where even more get it wrong, including the British Humanist Association. (This in no way implicates all humanists and secularists – after all some of our greatest supporters have been local humanist groups and well known humanists.)

In a debate with me a few years ago, the then Head of Public Affairs Naomi Phillips (now a BHA trustee) called Sharia courts “people’s right to religion”. Andrew Copson, its Chief Executive, has stated on Facebook on 8 December 2014 that he had visited a Beth Din and the Islamic Sharia Council with three of his fellow commissioners on the Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life and was “left without a single secularist reason to say that they should not be allowed to operate as they do”.

Copson Sharia courts

In the Law Society debacle where the Society had endorsed discriminatory practices by issuing Sharia-compliant guidance on wills, the current BHA Head of Public Affairs, Pavan Dhaliwal, wrote: “The issue has been totally blown out of proportion… It’s just advice so that solicitors can provide a service to (Sunni) Muslim clients who want a will that fits with their beliefs. It does not claim to do any more than that.”

Many women’s rights groups, including Southall Black Sisters, Centre for Secular Space, Nari Diganta, Iranian Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation and One Law for All disagreed and campaigned against the guidance, which was eventually withdrawn. The Law Society made a very public apology for endorsing discrimination.

Those who defend Sharia courts or Sharia-compliant wills as people’s “right to religion” don’t see or don’t want to see that Sharia law is one of the pillars of Islamist rule as is terrorism. It is in fact a form of terrorism against the population at large. This point of view will rightly condemn the hacking to death of Avijit Roy or Raif Badawi’s flogging but will tell those wearing Jesus and Mo cartoons or loudly proclaiming their apostasy that they are “out to offend”, implying that it is the way we criticise or mock Islam that brings on the threats. They also often conflate a criticism with Islam with an attack on Muslims, thereby implying that our the manner of our criticism feeds into racism and “Islamophobia”.

Alom Shaha, a trustee of the BHA, said in a debate on Islam at the 2014 World Humanist Congress: “You can express whatever views you like but as people have pointed out the expression of your views has consequences, and if one of the consequences of your views, the expression of your views, is that there is hatred and intolerance of other human beings, I’m just simply suggesting that you consider how you express your views. I think the term Islamophobia is indeed problematic; perhaps I should have used the term anti-Muslim bigotry…”

Whilst groups like the BHA rightly condemn the Sharia court sentence of stoning to death for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in Iran, they cannot find “a single secularist reason to say that they should not be allowed to operate as they do” when it comes to Britain.

But the two are linked.

The Law Society practice note quoted extensively from an Islamist who defends death by stoning. You have Sharia court “judges” in Britain defending stoning. Suhaib Hassan, a judge with the Islamic Sharia Council, says:

“If Sharia law is implemented, then you can turn this country into a haven of peace because once a thief’s hand is cut off nobody is going to steal.

“Once, just only once, if an adulterer is stoned nobody is going to commit this crime at all.

“We want to offer it to the British society. If they accept it, it is for their good and if they don’t accept it they’ll need more and more prisons.”

Haitham Haddad, another Sharia judge teaches that “fornication” and “adultery” should be punished by death and specifically by stoning.

Another judge of the Islamic Sharia Council, Sheikh Maulana Abu Sayeed, is a war criminal wanted in Bangladesh. He has said “there cannot be any rape within the marriage.”

So it’s clear you can’t have it both ways.

You can’t condemn stoning to death if it happens in Iran and defend those who promote stoning and want Sharia courts  here in Britain.

You can’t oppose blasphemy laws in Saudi Arabia but tell me and people like me not to “offend gratuitously”.

Don’t tell me I take it too far by renouncing Islam publicly or going nude. As long as people are killed for leaving Islam, I will renounce it publicly and organise others to do so. As long Islamists want to erase women’s bodies, I will use mine as an act of public protest in support of women’s rights.

I am not the one “taking it too far”; the Islamists are with their murder and mayhem.

Moreover, don’t tell me that our criticism leads to racism. Criticising an idea has nothing to do with racism against people. Perpetrating that helps the Islamists who use anti-racist and human rights language to deny rights.

I know of course that no one is being stoned to death in Britain – but that is because Hudud laws are only implemented under an Islamic state. Here in Britain, it is Sharia’s civil code that is being implemented. And as Gita Sahgal says, “there is active support for Sharia laws precisely because it is limited to denying women rights in the family. No hands are being cut off, so there can’t be a problem …”

Under Sharia’s civil code, a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s. A man can divorce his wife by repudiation, whereas a woman must give justifications, some of which are difficult to prove. Child custody reverts to the father at a preset age; women who remarry lose custody of their children even before then; and sons inherit twice the share of daughters. Domestic violence is seen to be the prerogative of the husband. And there is no such thing as marital rape. In Islington alone in 2010, there were at least three 11-year-old girls and two nine-year-olds who had been forced into marriage with older men. The oldest girls involved were 16.

The fight against Sharia’s civil code is one of the main areas of fight-back in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. A song by the campaign “20 years is enough” shows Algerian women and men signing:

“I am telling you a story
Of what the powerful have done
Of rules, a code of despair
A code obsessed with women…
This law must be undone…!”

But here in Britain – it is “people’s right to religion” – promoted by apologists like Maleiha Malik and Aina Khan with Andrew Copson not finding a “single secularist reason to say they should not be allowed to operate”!

There is a racism behind this point of view. This culturally relativist perspective implies that secularism, rights, freedoms are only for those who are ”white” and ”western” (and that too in the limited UKIP sense); the rest of us are only allowed “freedom” within the cultural and religious confines of Islam. Thanks but no thanks.

The same holds true with regards the veil and burqa. “Feminists” robustly defend the burqa as women’s “right” to dress. Their position is like saying women have a “right” and “choice” to FGM or suttee or foot binding. How very nice that women have the “right” to “dress” in body bags and straightjackets imposed by religion and the religious-Right. Not to be seen or heard and to know their “place”.

Defending the burqa is defending Islamism’s right to oppress women. It is their flag. It is the first thing they do when they gain access and influence. Likewise, defending Sharia courts is defending Islamism’s right to restrict and control.

There is no right to oppress, to restrict, to discriminate against.

Rights are for people not for fascist political movements to do as they like.

As Women Living Under Muslim Laws says: “Fundamentalist terror is by no means a tool of the poor against the rich, of the Third World against the West, of people against capitalism. It is not a legitimate response that can be supported by the progressive forces of the world. Its main target is the internal democratic opposition to their theocratic project and to their project of controlling all aspects of society in the name of religion, including education, the legal system, youth services, etc. When fundamentalists come to power, they silence the people, they physically eliminate dissidents, writers, journalists, poets, musicians, painters – like fascists do. Like fascists, they physically eliminate the ‘untermensch’ – the subhumans -, among them ‘inferior races’, gays, mentally or physically disabled people. And they lock women ‘in their place’, which as we know from experience ends up being a straight jacket…”

On a final point, Muslims are often erroneously conflated with Islam. Muslims are people like all others. If anything is to be deemed sacred, it should be the human being – not religions and beliefs.  Islam is a belief and like all others must be open to criticism and mockery. Equating the criticism of Islam with bigotry against people is another Islamist tool to silence dissent. Of course bigotry exists and we must stand up to it but racism is not combated by limiting free expression or by excusing Islamism and its Sharia courts. In my opinion, Islamophobia is a political term used to scaremonger people into silence. Charges of Islamophobia have been coined not because anti-Muslim bigotry is the main concern of these apologists but in order to protect Islam and Islamism. If they were so concerned about Muslims or those labelled as such, though, they would oppose not support Sharia and Islamism and stop justifying Islamic terrorism which kills more “Muslims” than anyone else.

US suffragette and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton once said “The Bible and the Church have been the greatest stumbling blocks in the way of woman’s emancipation”. This is true in particular with regards Islam and Islamism today.

Of course when speaking of Islam or any religion, I am not referring to religion as a personal belief. Everyone has a right to religion and atheism but Islam today is not a personal matter; it’s the banner of a political movement, an industry, a mafia, a killing machine. Marx called religion the opium of the masses; today we must call it their genocidaire.

When it comes to religion in the state and law and educational system, it becomes a matter of political power and control not people’s right to religion. Islam in the state or with political power is the end of freethought and the end of free expression. It is the end of democratic politics. It is the end of women’s rights and gay rights and the rights of minorities. It is the end of the “right to religion and belief” and everything worthy of a 21 century life. It is a return to the dark ages.

The humanist response must be to stand up unequivocally against Islamism, Sharia law and the burqa not just over there (and only when it’s suitable) but right here.

This is not about “people’s right to religion”. It is about stopping Islamism’s right to kill and slaughter and discriminate against.

A humanist response must stand for unequivocal free expression, including the right to offend, and equality (of people – not religions and beliefs), universal rights, and for secularism and the complete separation of religion from the state.

This is not about a clash of civilisations. It’s a clash between the theocrats and fascists versus the rest of us – Muslim, atheist, ex-Muslim, non-Muslim…

As the late Marxist Mansoor Hekmat said: “In Islam … the individual has no rights or dignity. In Islam, the woman is a slave. In Islam, the child is on par with animals. In Islam, freethinking is a sin deserving of punishment. Music is corrupt. Sex without permission and religious certification, is the greatest of sins. This is the religion of death. In reality, all religions are such but most religions have been restrained by freethinking and freedom-loving humanity over hundreds of years. This one was never restrained or controlled.”

Restraining it – controlling it – in this day and age – that is our task.



  1. The reason I am a Freethinker , Atheist secularlist , non believer but never a humanist is the disgraceful ambigous attitude of the BHA on what is a simple Issue Human Rights Issue.

    Sharia courts council private arbratration it does not matter what you call it are there for the sole purpose of imposing a backward system of “law” on the Muslim “community” the “voluntary nature of accepting them rather than going through the civil courts is to put it mildly open to question , the idea that a women cannot be devorced because she had undergone a religious rather than civil marriage the law should not recognise a religious only marriage and the hear of the law should be the protection of Women and Childen from religious tyranny. It offend against the BHAs belief in special rights for religious freedom, to outlaw religious courts and non civil marriage .

    The Church of England is established in England but the Church Of Wales is not Established in Wales and the Church of Scotland is not part of the anglican church so its diffiult to say that “Britain ” is not secular, its a strange mixture, like the church of england is a mixture of protestant and catholic , I would say that civil society in England is secular, and in spite of the faith schools we are not very religious, its only the establishment that wants to impose this
    “we are a christian country ” mantra this being the case we should out law all religious law, and its not just here that there is a problem but in Europe as well

  2. Maryam –

    [For some reason the website offers me no option of replying direct to your comment, so that I have to I have had to start a new ‘thread’.]

    You ask if I am speaking for the BHA. Certainly not: my comments are personal, though they are probably roughly aligned with the BHA’s.

  3. What I would like to know is, if my name is Amina, then for civil disputes, with say one named Ahmed, will have to be addressed by a Sharia court? Or for that matter in disputes with my spouse, say Abdul, has to be settled in sharia court? What about my disputes with Suresh or Johnathan? Or my choice of Sharia courts for disputes voluntary from case bay case basis? I am appalled by the machinations of these Sharia courts, without a shadow of a doubt. However, if both parties to the dispute voluntarily agree to settle under sharia, my objections, although do not vanish, become less viable I think. Can someone shed more light in this regard, I would greatly appreciate it.. I am not a resident of UK, so I am not conversant with all this.

    1. Noone is under any legal obligation in the UK to go to a sharia council (“court”) on any matter. That said, community pressure and indeed religious commitment mean that many people will refer (mainly) matrimonial disputes to them. One study of Birmingham’s sharia council showed, indeed, that women sometimes found the councils a useful recourse and that they indulged in extensive “tribunal shopping” – i.e., choosing an imam/council that was likely to be friendly (even on occasion being referred in terms of “I can’t give you what you want but I think Imam so-and-so down the road may be more favourable” – see

    2. Sharia courts, as I understand it, only have the powers that the parties involved agree to grant them at the time. Except, of course, that if a couple have been married under Sharia law, then whatever the later preferences of the individuals involved it is only a Sharia court that can dissolve the religious (as opposed to the civil) marriage, and it may well impose its own maintenance and custody rules (which would horrify you) as a condition of doing so.

  4. Excellent post and as a humanist myself I find it disturbing that other humanists and secularists can’t see Sharia courts for what they are. Thank you for providing a voice!

  5. As I understand it, Sharia courts when arbitrating are not required to follow the general rules applying to arbitration in the UK. they should be. And they are allowed to perform marriages and divorces without parallel civil processes. They should not be. And outside bodies have no business assisting with the implementation of Sharia law, as London’s Law Society did until shamed by you and others into reversing.

    I see no way we can (or should?) stop anyone from consulting an Imam when drawing up a will, or inviting a Sharia court to settle a property dispute. But that is an individual matter; what is pernicious is the institutionalisation of Sharia.

    You are, I am sure,familiar with Kenan Malik’s Pandaemonium blog, where he makes the same point as you do about the betrayal of the individual Muslim (or Jew, or Sikh…) by a multiculturalism that caters to their group’s institutions and power brokers, not to its members.

    1. Paul Braterman says: “Sharia courts when arbitrating are not required to follow the general rules applying to arbitration in the UK” – Any body that is ‘arbitrating’ (like the Muslim Arbitration Tribunal) has to follow the Arbitration Act – otherwise its rulings have no force in law. But that is the position with [almost?] all other sharia ‘courts’ – they are not arbitrating but making religious judgements. So long as they confine themselves to religious matters, they operate under the banner of freedom of religion or belief.

      Sharia courts do not perform marriages: Muslim clergy can perform religious marriages but for a marriage to be legally recognised it must be done in one of the [minority, I think, of] mosques that are registered for solemnisation of marriages.

      Sharia courts provide religious divorces only, not civil. In this they function is virtually the same way as the Jewish Beth Din and similar tribunals inn the Roman Catholic Church. (And remember that Church of England courts are fully recognised in English law.)

      Interference with freedom of religion and belief is highly undesirable and to be entertained only in extreme cases. It always carries the risk of unintended consequences, promoting alienation and radicalisation.

      That said, there are of course very serious concerns about the effect of sharia courts and sharia (religious) law in the UK. But the proper response is one of patient education, with legal interference limited to requiring information to be passed on to all who have a religious-only marriage or who use sharia ‘courts’.

      1. I am no expert in arbitration law. I have read that Sharia courts do not follow the requirements of the Arbitration Act (Maryam?), but if people agree in advance to use them anyway and are true to their word, the lack of force in law is irrelevant.

        As I fear it is for Sharia marriages and divorces; the people involved will consider themselves, and be considered by the community with which they identify, married or divorced without access to the protection of the law of the land. This could have very serious consequences for child custody, in addition to issues of maintenance, hence my suggestion.

        The problem of “dangling marriages”, where religious and civil status do not match, is notorious. In Catholic canon law, of course, normal divorce is not recognised (ask Henry VIII). In Rabbinical law, divorce needs to be initiated by the man, and I believe that English civil courts will now no longer grant a decree absolute to a Jewish marriage unless the man divorces his wife in a civil court. I wish the Beth Din insisted on marriages including a get al t’nai (conditional divorce), a religious marriage contract set up in the first place so that a civil court would automatically dissolve the religious marriage at the same time as the civil marriage, and I would like to see something similar for Sharia marriage so that women had an escape route from a bad one.

        These are matters for trained drafters of legislation, but to suggest that such matters could be resolved simply by “patient education” (of whom? by whom?) is utopian. The first step in solving a problem is to acknowledge that it exists.

        1. Paul –

          I have already said that sharia councils/courts (like other religious tribunals) pose very serious problems, so there is no disagreement between us there. Recognising the problems is, as you say, the first step – but you have yet to say what you would do beyond education and information – some provision of which I have already said could be mandated by law.

          Your implied suggestions (have I got you right?) that religious marriage be forbidden unless accompanied by civil marriage and that the civil courts be empowered to grant religious divorces are totally unrealistic (if as a devout believer you consider yourself religiously married, you will never accept a civil court’s ruling that you are not!) – as well as breaching the first principle of secularism, separation of religion and state!

          As voluntary bodies (all except the Church of England ones, that is), these various religious courts are subject to the law of the land in matters including child protection and the criminal law. They need to be watched in case they step over the mark – but if they do, the law already provides the remedy.

          We should defend human rights and freedoms for everyone, including those whose views we totally reject and who in our own judgement misuse them: that is what freedom is about., Legal intervention should be confined to the minimum necessary to correct clearly identified wrongs – both as a matter of principle and as a matter of pragmatism, since to go further will create justified complaints, anger, alienation and worse.

          1. ” (if as a devout believer you consider yourself religiously married, you will never accept a civil court’s ruling that you are not!)” Precisely, and even if she did her community and family might not accept it. That is why I do not think a religious ceremony should be allowed in the first place, without a parallel civil ceremony to protect her rights.

            Divorce is trickier, and of course a civil court cannot command a religious court to issue a religious divorce. But if a woman were at least married according to the law of the land, she would be in a far stronger position to use that law to obtain maintenance, and to have custody decided on the basis of children’s best interests, rather than a code that ossified a thousand years ago. And she would have this much protection against an inequitable religious divorce; that it would not leave the husband free to enter into another religious marriage.

            I would maintain that this proposal is in accord with secularist principles, since it restricts the power of religious bodies to impose constraints on individuals that run completely contrary to the spirit of the law of the land. As things stand, there is nothing to stop a child being put through a religious marriage ceremony, and as you say, that child will consider herself bound by it.

            Of course, the UK (England especially) is not a secular society in any way, with the sovereign head of the church, bishops in the House of Lords, publicly funded faith schools, and unelected religious appointees as full voting members of Local Authority Education Committees. But these are separate issues.

          2. This is a brief reply to Paul B’s March 24 12.53 comment – some technical snag is now allowing me to comment on it direct.

            It would be a serious breach of freedom of religion and belief to force a civil marriage on people who only want a religious marriage – in fact,. I suspect it would be legally impossible. (Not just as a breach of the Human Rights Act but how do you define a religious marriage? What about polygamous religious marriages? and so on).

            Afraid I cannot comment any further as I’m away for a few days.

          3. What the F “It would be a serious breach of freedom of religion and belief to force a civil marriage on people who only want a religious marriage – in fact,. I suspect it would be legally impossible.” I would think it is the other way round. A civil marriage ought to be compulsory and religious one who care. If they are want it they can have it, if not they can leave it. Because the civil marriage bestows benefits, privileges, and obligations. To ensure that these are not given away willy nilly a state must have civil marriages period (or full stop)

          4. There are so many problems with your position David, I am not sure where to begin. My first question though is: are you are speaking on behalf of the BHA?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.