The Age of Secularism
The rise of humanism and secularism in Iran
June 15, 2005
Speech given at the British Humanist
Association conference held during June 10-12, 2005.
Year in March is a celebration of the first day of spring. This
is obviously not an Islamic holiday and one that had
initially been banned by the Islamic Republic of Iran and denounced
as pagan over the past years but to no avail. On the last Wednesday
of every year (called Chahar Shanbeh Suri), people come onto
build bonfires and jump over them -- a ritual from pre-Islamic
times to basically receive the warmth of the fire for the upcoming
year. This year, there were reports of Korans being burnt in
On March 8, International Women's Day, a day not
recognised by the Islamic regime, which has its own Islamic women's
day, men and women gathered in the streets to celebrate. There
were a large number of reports of women pulling off their veils
and setting them alight.
In February on Ashura, the tenth day of Moharram
which is a month of mourning in the Shia calendar and especially
it was the day that imam Hussein (a grandson of Mohammed and the
third imam) was killed, there are often scenes of men and boys
out on the streets, self flagellating with chains and even beating
themselves with the edges of swords. It is a scene from the Middle
Ages with bloodied men and even children parading through the streets.
During this month, it is even illegal to wear bright clothing in
Iran. But this year, young men and women came out onto the streets,
blasted rock music and danced!
I want to remind you that these astonishing examples are taking
place in a country where it is illegal to listen and dance to rock
music, remove or even 'improperly' wear the compulsory
veil, and mix with the opposite sex, let alone to speak, organise,
associate, etc. freely. In all the examples I gave, there were
also clear expressions of opposition to the government. For example
on International Women's Day, the slogan of 'neither
veil nor submission' was heard across the country -- the
same slogan used in mass protests in Iran when the government initially
imposed compulsory veiling over two decades ago.
What's most interesting is that these examples are not isolated
incidents but are fast becoming a norm. People, particularly the
youth, are using every opportunity -- from one of the 'holiest' days
of mourning to a football match win on June 9 to the upcoming so-called
presidential election in Iran to express their human desire to
live in the 21st century free from religion and superstition.
I can imagine that for some these examples may sound extreme and
shocking in its opposition to the current state of affairs. If
it happened here in Britain, it would immediately be labelled 'racist'
and 'Islamophobic' [though a critique of religion or any belief
has nothing to do with racism],
and even 'incitement to religious hatred' -- allegations
often flung at those of us in exile who speak out against Islam
and political Islam. But in Iran, a deep-seated hatred of Islam
and its government is a reality, and even an inevitable necessity.
This reminds me of a recent discussion that has taken place in
the Guardian about the 21st century atheist where Dylan Evans has
criticised Jonathan Miller and Richard Dawkins for being 'virulently
anti-religion', saying they are old atheists and that new
ones should value religion. Salman Rushdie appropriately responds
by saying that in some parts religion is not a 'polite set
of rituals' or a dead religion like Greek mythology where
one can enjoy reading it and gives examples of where this is not
In Iran, too, Islam is a state power, which has executed over 100,000
people in two decades, slaughtered an entire generation, and actually
stones people to death for sex outside of marriage with the law
even specifying the size of the stone to be used. In the 21st century,
it hangs people from cranes in city centres, and won't even
allow choices in dress and music. In Iran, we're talking
about a situation where Islam and its state have been imposed by
sheer brute force and violence. It is, therefore, natural and rational
to respond to the situation with an anti-Islamic backlash.
late and eminent Marxist and humanist, Mansoor Hekmat has said:
'... when you come face to face with movements, which threaten
like Taslima Nasrin with death, you are obliged to once again refer
to the Koran and say that this reaction is feeding from a well,
which exactly formulates all this backwardness. The Koran could
have been a historical book like many other historical books; people
could look at it and not show much sensitivity but when a movement
makes it the banner of a contemporary political struggle, then
people are forced to take its banner from it, review it, look at
it ... and discredit it.'
The backlash and opposition in Iran is at its essence strongly
humanist, secularist and modern. You can see it clearly in the
examples I have given but also in a much more deep-seated way
-- in rational, popular, and spontaneous acts and the establishment
hundreds of organisations outside government structures and restrictions
that are non-religious and purely for the defence of the human
being via reliance on human will. For example, there are children's
organisations in many major cities in Iran calling for a secular
education, an end to corporal punishment, child abuse and punishment,
differentiation between parental and children's rights and
even exerting pressure on the Islamic regime to announce an end
to the execution of minors. In practice, when 15-year-old Zhila
Izadi was arrested and flogged for allegedly having sex with her
brother, for example, a committee was formed in her defence; people
visited her, supported her and intervened on her behalf with her
In all of these, there is an immense sense of solidarity and daily
acts of intervention on behalf of humanity -- whether it be
to rescue someone being arrested for 'improper' veiling
from the clutches of the pasdaran or revolutionary guards or collecting
support for the victims of the Bam earthquake with the stated purpose
of helping especially because the government was not.
Again, don't forget we are talking about a country that has
been under Islamic rule for 25 years; a country that has been labelled
Islamic by the media and western states day in and day out; a country
where half the population are between 14 and 24 and were born under
Islamic rule! And still - not only have they not been Islamicised
as government officials often complain - but are actually going
on an anti-Islamic offensive.
In countries like Iran I think you can often see the real state
of affairs by statements made by people affiliated with the government
or those who were in the inner sanctum and now want to save their
hides. Mohsen Sazegara, for example, a member of Khomeini's
inner sanctum, who helped write the regime's constitution
and set up the notorious pasdaran -- revolutionary guards --
is now speaking of secularism in this issue's New Humanist magazine!
Aghajari speaks of 'Islamic humanism'. If you read their
statements carefully you see how they attempt to co-opt people's
language and desires but in fact only to save Islam and they say
But it is to no avail. If I can quote Mansoor Hekmat again: '...
mullahs would at one time come and get paid to read religious sermons
go. They had a role in society. But when they come to the fore,
organise society based on their views, turn their internal moralities
into external laws for all to observe and we see all of their filth
everywhere, then it's not possible just to permit them to go back
into their previous hole. When the wave sets off and people's anti-Islamic
offensive begins, then Islam cannot retreat to its position and
stance of two decades ago.'
You also have diehards, such as Ayatollah Hamedani who mention
humanism and secularism but in a different context saying: 'The
spreading of prostitution and evil things... and the propagation
of crazy ideas such as secularism, liberalism and humanism are
part of our enemies' plans to sow disunity in society.' But
the enemy is society itself, completely home grown, courtesy of
the Islamic Republic of Iran; a direct result of naked, bare theocracy.
Of course you can see humanism in other countries in the Middle
East, basically because human beings are humanists at heart when
you scratch the surface but it is in Iran where it has gained momentum
and is significant and historically unprecedented.
We are watching history in the making.
Iran a place where a defeated 1979
revolution has been labelled an Islamic revolution by official
journalism; an Iran, which has
been a pillar of political Islam over the past two decades is now
today at the crossroads of a social, political and cultural upheaval
against Islam and political Islam and for humanism, secularism
Several decades ago, the Islamic Republic of Iran kick-started
contemporary political Islam and religious revival. Today, what
is taking place in Iran will kick-start a humanist, secularist
revival in Iran and across the Middle East. Its effects will be
felt across the globe and in the west -- adversely affecting
Sharia courts in Canada and Britain to the deceptive notion of
Islamophobia as racism and child veiling in Europe.
It is crucial to for people everywhere to recognise and unequivocally
defend this movement.
* To see an up close and personal interview with Maryam Namazie
that was broadcast on New Channel TV go
The interview is in Persian.
Maryam Namazie is the host of TV
International English, is a Central Council Member of the Organisation
of Women's Liberation and Director of the International Relations
Committee of the Worker-communist Party of Iran >>> Features in iranian.com