Maryam Namazie personifies the gulf between liberal apologists and those who really want equality
A week ago, at a reception in one of London’s dowdier hotels, Maryam Namazie received a cheque and a certificate stating that she was Secularist of the Year 2005. The audience from the National Secular Society cheered, but no one else noticed.
At first glance, the wider indifference wasn’t surprising. Everyone is presenting everyone else with prizes these days – even journalists get them. If coverage was given to all award winners, there would be no space left in the papers for news. On top of that, secularism is still an eccentric cause. Despite the privileges of the established churches, this is one of the most irreligious countries on Earth. The bishops have power but no influence, and the notion that you need a tough-minded movement to combat religious influence still feels quaint.
Like republicanism, secularism is an ideal which can enthuse the few while leaving the many cold.
The rise of the Christian right in the United States and the Islamic right everywhere, of faith schools and religious censorship is breaking down complacency. The 7 July bombings should have blown it to pieces. But the Ealing comedy caricature of a kind vicar, who may be a bit silly but remains intrinsically decent, is still most people’s picture of the religious in England, not least because there is truth in it. (It’s a different matter in Northern Ireland and on the west coast of Scotland, for obvious reasons.)
For all that, Maryam Namazie’s obscurity remains baffling. She ought to be a liberal poster girl. Her life has been that of a feminist militant who fights the oppression of women wherever she finds it. She was born in Tehran, but had to flee with her family when the Iranian revolution brought the mullahs to power. After graduating in America, she went to work with the poor in the Sudan. When the Islamists seized control, she established an underground human rights network. Her cover was blown and she had to run once again. She’s been a full-time campaigner for the rights of the Iranian diaspora, helping refugees across the world and banging on to anyone who will listen about the vileness of its treatment of women.
When an Iranian judge hanged a 16-year-old girl for having sex outside marriage – I mean literally hanged her; he put the noose round her neck himself – Namazie organised global protests. Her best rhetorical weapon is her description of the obsessiveness of theocracy. The law in Iran not only allows women to be stoned, she says, but it specifies the size of the stones to be used; they mustn’t be too small in case it takes too long to kill her and the mob gets bored; but mustn’t be too big either, in case she is dispatched immediately and the mob is denied the sado-sexual pleasure of seeing her suffer.
She’s media-friendly and literate, not least because she runs the London-based International TV English whose programmes have a large following in the Middle East. Yet one of the most important feminists from the developing world has never been on Woman’s Hour. I searched our huge cuttings database and could find only one mention of her in the national press over the past 10 years. Right-thinking, left-leaning people have backed away from Maryam Namazie because she is just as willing to tackle their tolerance of oppression as the oppressors themselves.
It was the decision of broad-minded politicians in Ottawa to allow Sharia courts in Canada which did it for her. They said if they were not established, the Muslim minority would be marginalised and to say otherwise was racism pure and simple.
After years of hearing this postmodern twaddle, Namazie flipped. Why was it, she asked, that supposed liberals always give ‘precedence to cultural and religious norms, however reactionary, over the human being and her rights’? Why was it that they always pretended that other cultures were sealed boxes without conflicts of their own and took ‘the most reactionary segment of that community’ as representative of the belief and culture of the whole.
In a ringing passage, which should be pinned to the noticeboards of every cultural studies faculty and Whitehall ministry, she declared that the problem with cultural relativism was that it endorsed the racism of low expectations.
‘It promotes tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings. Human beings are worthy of the highest respect, but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance. There are some who believe in fascism, white supremacy, the inferiority of women. Must they be respected?’
Richard J Evans, professor of modern history at Cambridge, pointed out in Defence of History that if you take the relativist position to its conclusion and believe there’s no such thing as truth and all cultures are equally valid, you have no weapons to fight the Holocaust denier or Ku Klux Klansmen.
Namazie is on the right side of the great intellectual struggle of our time between incompatible versions of liberalism. One follows the fine and necessary principle of tolerance, but ends up having to tolerate the oppression of women, say, or gays in foreign cultures while opposing misogyny and homophobia in its own. (Or ‘liberalism for the liberals and cannibalism for the cannibals!’ as philosopher Martin Hollis elegantly described the hypocrisy of the manoeuvre.) The alternative is to support universal human rights and believe that if the oppression of women is wrong, it is wrong everywhere.
The gulf between the two is unbridgeable. Although the argument is rarely put as baldly as I made it above, you can see it breaking out everywhere across the liberal-left. Trade union leaders stormed out of the anti-war movement when they discovered its leadership had nothing to say about the trade unionists who were demanding workers’ rights in Iraq and being tortured and murdered by the ‘insurgents’ for their presumption.
Former supporters of Ken Livingstone reacted first with bewilderment and then steady contempt when he betrayed Arab liberals and embraced the Islamic religious right. The government’s plans to ban the incitement of religious hatred have created an opposition which spans left and right and whose members have found they have more in common with each other than with people on ‘their side’.
As Namazie knows, the dispute can’t stay in the background for much longer. There’s an almighty smash-up coming and not before time.