I have chosen “Modern and Progressive Social and Cultural Norms” as the topic of my speech as I think these phenomena have become an area of importance and have become a battlefield across the world. This can be viewed as two antagonistic poles confronting each other: One being progressive and supporting modern secular advancements in society; and the other being reactionary and focusing on preserving backward standards and beliefs.
Since millions of people are affected by the influences of these opposite poles, it is imperative that we pay more attention to them and examine them from social, cultural and political perspectives. That would facilitate the building of a strong and effective force which would not only defend current norms that generations fought for, but would lay the foundation for the realization and protection of the widest individual and civil rights.
I feel that I need to give some very short explanations: Our current social and cultural norms are the result of the ongoing struggle by vast social and political movements that have swept out all kinds of barriers on their way to improving the social and economic conditions of all individuals.
When I talk about social norms I mean the values and principles that are recognized by the general public, or by that part of our society that plays an important role in creating progressive improvements, especially in the areas of political, civil and welfare rights.
Today these norms are under attack, and unless we forcefully oppose that attack, I have no doubt that soon the ancient discarded values will replace our current norms.
All of you are aware of the rise of political Islam in the Middle East and in North Africa due to the help of Western governments during the “Cold War”. Most of you probably heard the term “Fundamentalism” instead of “Political Islam”. “Fundamentalism” is the term given by parties of power in the West and Its main stream media to a section of political Islam in order to not eliminate the total existence of political Islam.
I am sure you are aware of this section's aggression in the West. When I talk about its aggression, I don't just mean the terrorist attack on September 11, or Madrid, Chechnya or even the murder of the Swedish film maker van Gogh. Terrorism is only one of the main pillars of the Islamists' strategy. What I meant is its aggression towards the social and cultural norms and standards that people in the west have achieved since the Renaissance.
Long before September 11, mass scale terror and intimidation was enforced by Islamists resulting in a Middle East that was transformed into an immense human tragedy. In Iran, during Rafsanjani's presidency, thousands of political prisoners were executed in 1988. And the West kept quite. During his recent shameful election campaign, the West did its best to provide him with good publicity, even though he was wanted in Germany as a provoker of terrorism. This is one example of the ongoing intimidation which occurs outside North America without the awareness of global citizens.
You all know by now that the Islamic movement begins its campaigns by attacking all progressive and modern values. Its hostility towards women's rights, political freedom and children's rights has become distinguishing characteristic. This movement is intolerant of other religions. Its virulent attacks of Bahai, Jews and Christians are known to all.
You have also noticed by now that this movement started its activities in the West under the pretext of culture. In France Islamists chant for freedom of dress code in order to be able to cover even young girls from head to toe; in Canada they demand a Sharia court; almost everywhere and at all times this movement is forceful in its attack of social norms and modern standards.
The progress of the Islamists' movement is only one side of the coin. The other side is the attack by right wings nationalist and religious movements on all social achievements. Recently in our neighboring country the USA, its president won a second term in office by exploiting his religious beliefs, thus gaining popularity by the promotion of his conservative Christian ideals of opposing gay marriage, opposing abortion and defending capital punishment.
Once more laws and regulations are being affected by religiously inspired notions. Religion is penetrating our justice and education systems. There are attempts to replace the teaching of evolution with non scientific and untested religious interpretations of the world. Two months ago, the Agha Khan, the leader of a religious sect, received 30 million dollars from Prime Minister Paul Martin to promote religion and backward culture. In election campaigns, candidates appeal to religious leaders for votes instead of to citizens. Given the above, how can anyone still wonder why terrorism is growing?
Today, society has lost its classic meaning. Today, in order to be a member of civilized humanity's club, one needs to have an ethnic, racial, national or religious affiliation. Today, one needs a label. The notion that all residents of a country have equal rights and that it is the duty of the state to ensure those rights is being eroded.
In the name of “respect for multiculturalism” and the shameful ideas of cultural relativism which leaves people at the mercy of their own culture, the states has left the doors wide open for religions and adherents of old traditions to promote: religious schools and centers; to legalize arranged and forced marriages; to segregate boys and girls at a very young age in school, on school busses and in playgrounds; to prevent girls from obtaining equal opportunities in all aspects of their lives; to see but to ignore honor killings, and so on and so on… All these inhuman practices happen in the West too.
In Africa, Yugoslavia, and in some parts of Russia, humanity witnessed millions of innocent people being slaughtered in genocidal wars. These are all part of norms that are rising from the “middle ages” and which can indeed change the ideological equilibrium. For example, in Iraq an inhumane government is overthrown only to bring to power a regime of religious nationalists that are producing bloody confrontations.
If we look at the world as a field of battle, at first glance it looks like a partisan battle being fought trench by trench between the dark forces and the defenders of human rights. But if you pay closer attention you would realize that this is a classic war, where, on one side there exists the force of secularism trying to obtain all progressive values for everyone, and on the other side is a force that belongs to ancient times and is against civilization and freedom.
The question is: What are our duties?
We, as people who will have no benefit from oppressing people, who gain no benefits from imposing low standards of living on others, who see the happiness and well being of others as ours, must always be aware and alert about the policy and actions of the political parties.
We must always respect the values that pay attention to humanity irrespective of nationality, race, gender or religion. We must actively oppose any aggression against universal human and civil rights. Any compromise with religion or with reactionary religious rule, which is to the detriment of human rights, must be condemned. Any aggression against any person in any part of the world must be considered as an act of aggression against all of our rights.
We must make sure that all nationalist, religious, racial and chauvinist movements are isolated and that they are prevented from further oppressing people. We must carry the flag of the separation of religion from the state, and from the justice and education systems. We must defend freedom of religion while ensuring that religion remains a private matter for individuals. We must actively defend secularism. We must ensure that all governments respect and protect all universal human rights under all conditions with no exceptions. We must cherish humanity and put it in the center of the universe.
Finally, I would like to emphasize the fact that we are not alone in this fight. The vast masses of people who are altruistic, peace loving, egalitarian and progressive are with us.
Homa Arjomand is the Coordinator of the International Campaign Against Sharia Court in Canada. See WWW.nosharia.com.