Two thumbs down
Islam and human rights
June 29, 2004
June 28th interview with Bahram Soroush,
a UK-based civil rights activist, on Islamophobia. The interview
was aired on TV International
Maryam Namazie: One Islamic group has said that Islamophobia
and Arabophobia have always been part of Western culture and that
Hussein and Osama Bin Laden are only the latest in a long line
of bogeymen that have been created by Western culture". Firstly,
are Islamophobia and Arabophobia one and the same? And is it really
a result of Western culture?
Bahram Soroush: I don't really see it as a cultural or historical
issue. Aversion to Islam is not the same as aversion to a group
of people. I see it more as a growing dislike of Islam, rather
than a growing dislike of people from the Middle East. I think
this is just a cover that is being used by the Islamists and their
supporters who are under attack and trying to fend off these attacks.
They say you are attacking Arab people or people from the Middle
East. That is not the case. It is a criticism of Islam that has
grown, which is quite justified. And it is because of the atrocities
that have been committed by the Islamic movement, Islamic governments
and their supporters.
Maryam Namazie: Some Islamists would say that this is because
Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and that this
the way Western culture or Christianity is taking revenge. Would
you disagree or agree with that?
Bahram Soroush: First of all, I am not sure if
it is the fastest growing religion in the world. It is true that
it has become more
powerful during recent decades. And that is thanks to years of
support by Western governments, especially in the past two decades,
and thanks to the Islamic governments that have come to power in
Iran and Afghanistan, and the wealth and money that has been used
to back that up. In that sense it has become a stronger force,
and so we feel it more in our lives. But I don't see it growing
in the sense of becoming more popular. I don't believe the
appeal of Islam has grown amongst the general public. In fact it
is the opposite. And that is the reason for this attempt by the
Islamists to resist this criticism of Islam.
Maryam Namazie: One of the other things
Islamists say is that "Islamophobia" is on the rise because
of a historic
rivalry between Christianity and Islam. Would you agree or disagree
Bahram Soroush: I don't think so. I think the
reason people are criticising Islam and feel distaste for it has
more to do with
Islam itself and its practice. They are seeing Islam in action,
not just as a body of thought, as ideas. They are seeing it in
practice. They are seeing it in Iran, and they are reacting to
it just like the people in Iran are doing. It is very interesting
to see that opposition to Islam, Islamic rule and Islamic laws
is strongest precisely in those countries where Islam is in power
or in a powerful position. So how do they explain that? It is not
a clash of Christianity with Islam. It is a clash of civilised
humanity with Islam; a clash between human beings who are suffering
under it, and Islam. And they are challenging it and resisting
it, which is very natural. This is happening in Iran, in Afghanistan,
in Iraq, throughout the world, and in the West as well. So I don't
believe it has anything to do with a clash of Christianity and
Christian beliefs with Islam as a historical phenomenon.
Namazie: You talked about the fact that people are seeing Islam
in action. A lot of the Islamists would say that in fact
Islam is very compatible with human right. We know even Shirin
Ebadi, who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, said that. They
say that if there are violations, it is a misinterpretation of
Islam, an improper implementation of Islam. What would you say
Bahram Soroush: It is very difficult to
take that seriously, really. The record of Islam and the tenets
of Islam are so well
known or, I should say, infamous. People have seen it in their
experience. So people who say that Islam is compatible with human
rights should try to explain the stonings, honour killings and
amputation of limbs, and this oppressive nature of Islam that we
are seeing in practice, and which is against the basic rights of
people and against free thought. So there is so much evidence which
proves to the contrary what they are claiming. I don't think
it is difficult to disprove that.
Maryam Namazie: So you think it
is Islam and nothing but Islam?
Bahram Soroush: Well, take the case of the Islamic regime in Iran.
The onus is on the people who make such claims to show that Islamic
doctrine is incompatible with what is happening in Iran. The government
calls itself Islamic; the whole world recognises it as Islamic,
and what they are professing and practising is Islamic. It is not
at all contrary to what it says in the Koran, the Hadith and the
whole body of Islamic thought. So I think this is just a clumsy
attempt to say that Islam is compatible with human rights, because
the truth and the record of its practice show otherwise.
Maryam Namazie: Some would say that Islam
is clashing with universal values that are Christian and they
from that angle.
What would you say to them?
Bahram Soroush: I don't think
people are showing this dislike of Islam because they find it incompatible
with Christianity, or
because they see it as an alternative or rival to that. I think
if you ask the average critic of Islam, why are you criticising
Islam, why do you feel this hostility towards it, they would say,
"because it doesn't respect women's rights, it is abusive towards
women, it is abusive towards children, it doesn't recognise
basic rights of people, it is violent, it is intolerant and so
on. I think these are the answers you would get.
You might have
someone, who might say "I don't believe Christianity
is like that", but that is really irrelevant to the discussion
we have. The content, the way people perceive Islam, is what matters.
I think people have a very down-to-earth and common-sense judgement
on Islam. And I think they would describe it in those terms. Christianity
itself cannot make a claim to having had a very peaceful history.
It took the French revolution, the Enlightenment
and years of struggle by people, by socialists, secularists and
free-thinkers to drive
the hold of the Established Church and Christianity to the margins.
For centuries they had been the right arm of kings and despots.
Everybody knows about the inquisitions, the tortures, the witch-burnings,
the burning of heretics. This is the violent past that Christianity
has had as well.
What has happened in the West is that society,
and the progressive people in that society, have settled accounts
with it, so we have come to this stage. That has not happened with
Islam. We are just seeing the first criticisms of Islam -- not
only ideologically, but practically too, as in Iran, for example.
Namazie: Where do values come from then if not
from religion because some will say that universal values, values
that defend people's rights, are based on religion. What
would you say to that then?
Bahram Soroush: If we are talking
about universal values in terms of human rights, i.e. progressive
values that respect people's
rights and dignity as human beings, those values have been achieved
through a critique of religion. To the degree that people have
managed to free themselves from the clutches of religion, they
have succeeded in having happier lives and a better society. And
to the same degree the hold of Christianity and religion has been
undermined. These values have been achieved at the expense of Christianity.
So I don't believe there is something inherently progressive
in religion. Personally, as an atheist myself, I don't think
you have good or bad religions; all religion is bad for you.
Maryam Namazie: Some would say, all Islam
has done is to impose itself through brute force, but if you
look at Christianity
today in the Western world, it is a "better" religion
they would say; it defends human rights better, it defends universal
values more. I know we have talked about it historically, but
this is how they argue Christianity is today. What would you
Bahram Soroush: Well, something has changed. But
if you look at Christianity as a religion, you will see that
the principles are all there. That has not changed. I think what
has changed is the social and political influence of Christianity
in today's society, in our lives, in its relation with the
state. So I don't believe that Christianity in itself has
become a more humane religion. To the degree that it has become
undermined and weakened, more room has been created for people
to exercise truly humanitarian and progressive values.
Maryam Namazie: One last question for you:
Islamophobia, good or bad?
Bahram Soroush: It depends
how you want to define it. As a critique of Islam, there is nothing
wrong with it.
Maryam Namazie: It is needed, even?
Bahram Soroush: It is needed, and we are at the beginning of
the road to radically criticising Islam as an ideology and
practice. In that sense it is a good thing.
Maryam Namazie is the Executive Director
of the International Federation of Iranian Refugees and Director
the International Relations Committee of the Worker-communist
Party of Iran.