Y is there a more fundamental freedom than the freedom of conscience, that of believing or not believing, of changing religion or philosophical conviction? This almost intimate freedom is exercised in the solitude of oneself, without any need to display it at every moment of the day or night like a banner or to brandish it like a political leaflet always with more vehemence and a touch of exaltation. It suffices to grasp its deep breath to irrigate one’s being and nourish it with a thousand complementary or contradictory thoughts.
Nevertheless, this freedom without which no other freedom is possible is thwarted in one way or another in a majority of countries. When not outright fought. In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed August 22 as the International Day of Commemoration of Persons Victims of Violence Because of their Religion or Belief.
The Responsibility of the “Great Satan”
The title may seem long. This day is, in fact, the culmination of a compromise. The discussions between States were lively and bitter. From the outset, the United States accused China of interning more than 1 million Uighur and Kazakh Muslims and other religious minorities in forced labor camps; in turn, Muslim countries blamed the “Great Satan” for the rise of “Islamophobia” in the world. The Iranian representative let loose by vociferating that “it is more and more difficult to practice the Muslim religion and to dress like a Muslim”.
On the other hand, neither the long, deaf moans of the Yazidi women and children, nor the cries of agony of the Christians of the East, nor the tears of the unfortunate little girls kidnapped by Boko Haram have wrung from the representatives of the Muslim States the slightest sigh. or any desolation however shy it may be. For some, life is just a fool’s bargain. The bigger the lie, the more it passes.
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However, in these countries where Islam is the state religion, leaving Islam on the road can turn into a nightmare. Belief and disbelief are matters of State whose consequences are too serious to be left to simple individuals. The individual is incorporated into “his” community, constantly summoned to deny himself in order to preserve his “uniqueness”. His overflow of freedom could give him wings and lead him to break with the whole, that is to say cause the fitna (sedition).
Atheism in the sights
Cutting off the heads that stick out becomes the imperative of a system that does not support the plurality of religious, philosophical and political postures. Moreover, it is not rare to be condemned to death for apostasy or atheism. According to a report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, atheists face the death penalty in 12 countries (Mauritania, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Maldives and Malaysia ) and in 22 countries, atheism is criminalized.
Transposed to the political field, this violence is a roundabout way of silencing protesters. You become an “apostate” simply by raising a sign or daring to raise your head in the face of injustice. Religious persecution is the most formidable weapon to crush political dissent.
Contemporary Islam has never seriously reflected on otherness and plurality. Where it dominates, minorities are reduced to the bare minimum. Where it is in the minority, it claims its right to be different, under the impulse of the Islamists, to behave as if it were in the majority, ignoring the whole. Two issues then overlap and force us to reflect on the links between religion and politics: the status of Islam in the West in a secularized environment and the transformation of Islam into a hegemonic and conquering Islam.
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How to apprehend it? The Rushdie affair clearly shows that we can no longer avoid such a debate. The killing of the novelist also raises the question of the freedom of conscience of people born into a Muslim family and living in Europe. What regime should they follow? Do Muslims who leave their religion of their own free will become de facto persons liable to death, including in the West? The idea according to which filiation (the “blood”) is the basis of the system of law to which a Muslim must submit remains very strong. In other words, a Muslim is first a religious subject belonging to a community of believers before being a citizen.
In fact, is Rushdie English? Indian ? Muslim ? Atheist? All this at once? Who owns it? Literature or Islam? “To mankind! respond ex-Muslims gathered in Cologne last weekend under the aegis of the Anglo-Iranian Maryam Namazie, founder of the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, and the famous biologist and author Richard Dawkins. To show solidarity with the novelist, they marched around town with portraits of Rushdie to celebrate freedom and the right to dissent. Without which literature could in no way claim to be universal. Without which humanity would only be a herd of yes-men.
* Political scientist and writer, Djemila Benhabib works in Brussels at the Center for Secular Action (CAL). She was born in Kharkiv (Ukraine) and grew up in Algeria, a country she had to leave in 1994 after a death sentence from the Islamic Front of Armed Jihad. She took refuge with her family first in France, then lived in Quebec, where she campaigned for a law on the secularism of the state. Author of several essays, including My life against Quran, she has received numerous international awards. His latest work: Islamophobia, my eye! was published by Kennes editions in 2022.