When I first sit down to interview Maryam Namazie, I notice how calm she seems. It’s her bodyguards who seem nervous; they barrel back and forth through the building’s doors. When Namazie goes to the bathroom, one bodyguard waits five minutes before rushing after her, his colleague pacing across the lobby. Iranian-born Namazie is, after all, a human rights activist who has received death threats; who has faced sharp criticism for her recent #ExMuslimBecause campaign, and who The University of Warwick’s student union attempted to ban from speaking on campus. For someone who seems so tranquil, and whose soft voice barely picks up on my audiotape, Namazie is an inciting figure.
Born in 1966 in Tehran, Iran, Namazie describes herself as a ‘militant atheist’ and secularist. She’s spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and is a Central Committee member of the Worker-communist Party of Iran. Namazie campaigns against Islamism, which is separate from Islam. Islamism means advocating a political movement that favours reordering government and society, in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.
‘People conflate Muslims and Islam and Islamists, and they’re very different things,’ Namazie explains. ‘Islam is a belief and I can be critical of it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think that a vast majority of Muslims are pro-rights. Islamism is like the EDL or Britain First, but of course with a lot more power.’
It’s a nuanced distinction that Namazie feels that many political commentators miss.
“Islamism is like the EDL or Britain First”
I ask Namazie whether the public’s blurring of Islamism and Islam was part of the reason Warwick University’s student union tried to ban her from speaking in September. ‘Definitely,’ she responds. ‘They said that if I came on campus I would incite hatred against Muslim students. What a low opinion they have of Muslim students. I have a much higher opinion of Muslims than they do, because I’m pretty sure people like my father can tolerate me saying things about Islam without resorting to violence.’ She explains that the union’s decision was an example of identity politics. ‘[We] don’t see politics anymore, just identities. So everyone’s Muslim and if you’re a Muslim that means you’re a regressive, you want Sharia Law, you want the burqa, and you can’t have the same freedom of expression as everyone else because you’ll get offended and you’re too sensitive to handle it.’ She believes that today’s society coddles Muslims, but allows criticism of others.
Warwick student union was forced to recant its decision to bar Namazie, following national coverage and an online petition. ‘Student unions are progressive,’ Namzie says, ‘they want equal rights for themselves, they want gay rights, LGBT rights, they want to be able to criticise Christianity and make fun of the Pope… But when it comes to us [ex-Muslim dissenters], we’re suddenly not allowed to have the same sort of freedoms. We’re only allowed to criticise and live within the confines of Islam’. Namazie pauses. ‘They have one sort of politics for themselves, and another for the rest of us. And the point is that we have just as much right to dissent and demand freedom of rights and equality as a liberal white student at Warwick does.’
‘You mentioned there that your father is a Muslim,’ I say. ‘What does he think of your work?’
‘He tells me my grandfather is turning in my grave every time I speak; my grandfather was an Islamic scholar,’ Namazie replies. ‘My last name actually means ‘prayer’, someone who prays, so I’m messing it up on many levels.’ ‘There’s some irony there,’ I say. ‘Such irony,’ Namazie laughs. ‘But he [my father] is very proud of me, he’s very supportive.’ She continues: ‘If you touch on human values, beyond belief, if you see people as more than their religious or ethnic identities, you will open up a groundswell of support.’
“he [my father] is very proud of me, he’s very supportive
I mention The Sun’s recent ‘One in Five Muslims’ Sympathy for Jihadis’ frontpage, Namazie flips the ‘unreliable’ paper’s claim on its head. ‘Even if it was true, that means four out of five are not. Even The Sun are proving my point, that a vast majority of Muslims are not Islamists, that they oppose it.’
Namazie goes on to say that her campaign against Sharia Law Courts in Britain has gained support from various Muslim women’s groups. ‘It’s called One Law For All, and on 10 December we’re going to hand in the statement. People can still sign the letter on our website.’ Sharia Law Courts are private courts that practise Islamic law, catering to Muslim communities. Namazie believes that the courts are ‘a form of terrorism against people’. Under Sharia Civil Code, a woman’s testimony is worth half of a man’s, and she has limited rights concerning divorce and child custody. ‘The government says, ‘well, women can always go to a regular Civil Court if they’re not happy’,’ says Namazie, ‘but that doesn’t take into account the amount of pressure and isolation that these women face, so that they can’t take that step.’ When I ask Namazie whether she thinks religion ever plays a positive societal role, it’s women’s rights she focuses on. ‘Human society has moved on [from religion]. We now abhor violence against women. Even in places like Iran, where violence against women is part of the law, there are vast liberation movements against it. People deserve to live better than the frameworks religion give.’
I mention an article by The Guardian’s David Shariamadari, which seems to claim that Namazie believes that it’s impossible to have a Muslim feminist. Namazie denies this, blaming Shariamadari’s claim on, again, society’s conflation of Muslims with Islamism.
‘Having said that, I don’t there is something called ‘Islamic feminism’, or ‘Christian feminism’. I don’t think religion can be pro-women, or can be feminist. I think it’s actually inhuman and misogynist. But I think people who subscribe to religious beliefs can be feminist.’ When I turn our talk towards the Paris attacks, Namazie stresses that both the horror she felt hearing of the atrocities, but also how ISIS is ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of Islamism. ‘There is Paris everyday in Afghanistan and Iran and Mali and Nigeria,’ she states. ‘You have Islamic states that are legally killing people. Killing apostates, killing free thinkers. Legally, and in broad daylight. Saudi Arabia, for example, has just sentenced a poet to death for apostasy this past week. So it’s [Islamism] a killing machine on a vast scale.’
She continues: ‘It’s not just the number of people who’ve died in terrorist attacks; it’s all of these people who’ve been sentenced to prison, who’ve been buried in mass graves.’
ISIS is ‘the tip of the iceberg’ of Islamism
Namazie becomes passionate when speaking about everyday atrocities. ‘In Iran we have a cemetery which the regime has called ‘The Cemetry of the Damned’. It’s a place where they’ve buried the apostates and blasphemers. Every year people go and bring flowers, roses; they don’t even know where their loved ones are buried.’ In her talk on Exeter campus, organised by Exeter’s Atheist, Humanist and Secular society, Namazie refers to controversial artwork by Mimsy, showing Sylvanian toy families being threatened by ISIS, to highlight the everyday, pervasive threat of Islamism.
In our interview, Namazie stresses the atrocities that the British public don’t see. ‘You’ve heard that Kurdish forces pushed ISIS out of Sinjar… They’ve found three mass graves of over 80 women in each. The women were all over 50 so they [ISIS] couldn’t sell them as sex slaves.’ When I ask Namazie how she thinks we should tackle ISIS, she says that ‘it’s important to support’ the Kurdish forces, in particular women fighters. ‘The ISIS fighters are very afraid of being killed by women fighters because they won’t go to heaven if they are, according to their beliefs,’ Namazie explains. ‘So, as one of my friends says, it’s great because you’re denying them a virgin here on earth as well as the 72 virgins that they’re supposed to get in heaven.’ Breaking her veneer of calmness, Namazie allows herself one small, sly grin.
It’s an intense interview; even as I try to tease out Namazie’s beliefs, I’m still wrapping my head around them. Her comments on Islam and Islamism are bound to enrage commentators on both the left and right of the political spectrum. However, if Namazie is right in her assertion that ‘I believe in free speech but…’ is the modern order of the day, perhaps this is a good thing.