By Yahya Birt
Today saw the Parliamentary launch of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB) which is being backed by the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS), headed by the British-Iranian feminist and human rights campaigner, Maryam Namazie. It is the sixth such chapter to have been set up in Europe, the previous five having been established in Germany, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
It may well be premature to raise a glass of (non-alcoholic) champagne to the fledging body — with twenty five founding members — or for “outraged” believers to make too much of a fuss. But it might not be too soon to say that this may prove to be a one-hit wonder. According to one eyewitness, the launch was a small affair, with some forty-odd participants: including twelve panelists, three camera crews, members of the national press and A. C. Grayling, alongside some other stalwarts. The initiative seems strongly connected to the Iranian expatriate left in the United Kingdom and in mainland Europe. Namazie entertained journalists with the normal Islam-bashing, and allegedly Inayat Bunglawala came in for a deal of lampooning. But above and beyond its particulars, the launch raises some interesting questions.
It confirms, yet again, that the public identity “Muslim” has arrived in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. Being an ordinary common-garden atheist won’t do: one has to declare one’s former Islam in order to get some attention, in a context where some American and European intellectuals, tiring or unsure of the Muslim Luthers (e.g. Tariq Ramadan), are now more keen to have a punt on the Muslim Voltaires (e.g. Ayaan Hirsi Ali) to raise the Islam-West Kulturkampf to the desired level. The “democratic constellation” (Tariq Modood’s phrase) is protean and indiscriminate in that it may throw up any configuration of public “Muslim” identities, and, yet, discriminate in the manner by which certain identities are promoted and lauded or excluded and demeaned. The sheer fact of such a constellation is not in dispute here, for it is more desirable than the attempt to commandeer and thereby mask or reduce them all into one tight frame, a charge one could level at both the ex-Muslims and the radical Islamists, and indeed many European governments and cultural elites. After all, it’s the demand for totalising public identities that cause all the political friction in the first place.
The question being asked is: if ex-Muslims are now calling for a more laic Europe (i.e. taking up the French model of secularism), then who are the Muslim believers to object? Yet the conflation of atheism with secularism implicit here forgets the entangled relationship the European Enlightenment had with religion. It was less about the triumph of secular ideology over religion, than that of true religion over superstition, whose reformers, in the words of Bruce Lincoln, dreamt of “a spiritual republic based on moral foundations” (which sounds very similar to democratic currents within Islamism!). Many of these reformers were Christians or deists. Some like Spinoza and Vico advocated a positive role for “public religion” in the new republic that upheld a non-sectarian vision of the common good (res publica) and worked to build “bridging capital”, to use the current horrid policy jargon for social glue. (Oddly Rousseau’s vision of “public religion” was rather more authoritarian.) These were and still are arguments against a rigid secularism, ones that today’s beleaguered believers might wish to recall.
After all the only pertinent question in Britain is what form of secularism would one wish to champion? And thus what future prospect is there for Britain’s tradition of moderate secularism which endorses a form of weak established religion, headed by an Anglican church with a track record of ecumenical and interfaith inclusivity that sits alongside a largely tolerant and secular political culture?
Similarly one would have thought it possible to champion universal human rights and reason without abjuring one’s faith, but the CEMB seems resolutely deaf to such a possibility. On the important issue of apostasy, the CEMB could find a growing body of religious authorities within Islam who take the position that it is not a matter for the state but of private conscience. A growing list of these scholars, many from the United States and some from Britain, like Abdal Hakim Murad, who uphold freedom of religion can be found here.
Another intriguing question is: what kind of ex-Muslim? After all, historically and today, one could define a cultural Muslim identity outside of religious faith, creatively engaged, at least, with history and culture. As with forms of secular Zionism, it could even work for Muslim political empowerment. The ex-Muslim with a sense of attachment to his or her history and culture, attentive to the political dreams and aspirations of Muslim peoples, who works to better their lot could or can express and encapsulate a desirable political project. Part of its desirability would include a commitment to treat all citizens equally — regardless of ethnicity, creed, gender, disability and sexual orientation — and not to endorse a chauvinist project.
Yet the other form of ex-Muslim public identity more likely to gain patronage and endorsement from Europe’s political and cultural elite is one that would only see such “secular Islamism” as communalism, and so the possibility of political progress and emancipation is thus delimited to the horizon of universalising European liberalism as a result. This more strident form of public Muslim atheism has anti-multiculturalist instincts, and is often, but not always, silent about the “war on terror” and the curtailment of civil liberties. To that extent, it is certainly experienced (whether so explicitly intended or not) as part of the cultural wing of a more general crusade that is anti-Muslim and more generally anti-religion.
The final question returns to the thorny issue of Muslim collective representation, much debated of late in Britain and elsewhere. CEMB’s press statement claims certainty in representing “a majority in Europe and a vast secular and humanist protest movement in [Muslim] countries like Iran”. What kind of representational legitimacy is being invoked here? I speak in your name in order to repudiate who you are? Is this the final endpoint of “integration” , a cultural and religious striptease, underlined by the proposition that “the only good Muslim is an ex-Muslim”? If nothing else it proves that “representational politics” can sometimes have few limits of coherence or credibility.