June 28th interview with Bahram Soroush, a UK-based civil rights activist, on Islamophobia. The interview was aired on TV International English.
Maryam Namazie: One Islamic group has said that Islamophobia and Arabophobia have always been part of Western culture and that “Saddam 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 is 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 with that?
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.
Maryam 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 to that?
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 oppose Islam 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.
Maryam 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 say to that?
Bahram Soroush: Well, something has changed. But if you look at Christianity as a religion, you will see that the tenets, the dogma, 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 of the International Relations Committee of the Worker-communist Party of Iran.