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« Blasphemer ! » The right to be atheist in Palestine

Book review

Saturday 7 March 2015, by siawi3

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Book review
Blasphémateur !’,
by Waleed al-Husseini
Grasset, Paris
EAN : 9782246854616

marieme helie lucas

January 10, 2015

On January 14, 2015, a book, by Waleed al Husseini, titled: ‘Blasphemer !’, will be released in Paris. The date that was set in advance, but it so happened that Charlie Hebdo’s cartoonists were slaughtered just a few days before the book launch.

This highlights two facts that many prefer to ignore : on the one hand, the first victims of armed fundamentalist non-state actors and/or of fundamentalist states live in so-called Muslim countries; on the other hand, it is not just in France or in the West that people free themselves from religious beliefs, many agnostics and atheists live in hiding in our countries, or pay the high price for declaring themselves non believers.

Under this flamboyant title ‘Blasphemer !’, the young Palestinian author – age 25 – describes an experience which is shared by more and more youth in North Africa and in the Middle East. Like everywhere else in the world, young people come of age, suffocating and oppressed by religiosity in their family and in their neighbouhood; they refuse to renounce their craving for freedom, the discovery of sexuality, and freely mixing with the world’s youth. They end up rejecting religion, ‘loosing faith’ - if at all they ever had one of their own. Few of them take the pain – as Waleed did - to seriously explore their reasons not to believe in god.

Being rejected by their family is painful, a split of the heart from beloved ones that one goes on loving, often for lack of belonging perspectives elsewhere, as there are no atheist communities that could welcome them, with whom they could share their ideas. They face emotional and intellectual isolation.
And they face fear too. For, increasingly during the last two decades in many Muslim-majority countries, young libertarians’ rejection of religion is met – not just with moral sanction from family and neighbours -, but with state legal repression.

This is the experience Waleed al Husseini describes and ‘blasphemer’ is not just a flamboyant title for a book : it is indeed the accusation made against him when he was only 20 years old, that brought him into Palestinian jails where he experienced torture for being an unbeliever.

He is far from being the only one facing such a dreadful fate : young and not-so-young people (the eldest is probably Kassim Ahmed, age 82, a Muslim erudite, accused of ‘insulting islam’, who will be tried by the Sharia Court on the decision of the High Court in Malaysia) are regularly jailed ( like the egyptian journalist Bishoy Boulous Armia, age 32, sentenced to 5 years in jail on allegations of causing ‘sectarian rif’ and ‘insulting Islam’ for testifying on persecution of Christians in Egypt); or they are sentenced to torture ( like Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia, due to be flogged a thousand times - 1000 ! - for ‘insult to Islam’) ; or they are sentenced to death penalty ( like Mohamed Cheikh Ould Mkhaitirin in Mauretania, age 28, journalist and anti-slavery activist, sentenced to death on December 25, 2014 for ‘insulting the Prophet’ – he obviously disturbed some big slave trafficking and the religious argument was used to silence him for good) ; and they are even executed for ‘insulting Islam’ or for ‘blasphemy’ (Mohsen Amir-Aslani, age 27, declared guitly of insulting Prophet Jonah and of ‘introducing innovations in religion’ by his interpretations of the Qur’an, was hanged in Iran in September 2014) *

In secular France, - how long will it remain secular ? – one can still be a declared atheist or agnostic without running risk : a recent enough and serious piece of research** shows that the percentage of unbelievers is pretty similar in the French ‘Christian’ population and in the French ‘Muslim’ one : both show around 25% of declared atheists. Practicing believers are as few in one and the other religious denominations (about 5%), and the rest of the population limits its practice to celebrating Christmas or Eid.

This is likely to shatter prejudice. It certainly explains why Waleed al-Husseini, when he finally got out of the Palestinian jail and came to France as a refugee, was outraged at being branded ‘Muslim’ once more, as is the case of so many migrants or French citizens of migrant Muslim descent. He felt the need to set up an organization that represents him : the Council of ex-Muslims in France.

Similar organizations mushroomed in many places in Europe : the first one was set up in Germany by an Iranian woman, Mina Ahadi; it was quickly followed by a second one in the UK led by another Iranian, the formidable and tireless Maryam Namazie ; then it started in Scotland, in France, etc...

However, it would be erroneous to believe that ex-Muslims come out in Europe only: Imad Iddine Habib is the founder of the Council of ex-Muslims in Morocco; persecuted by the regime, he finally had to come out of his country. In Algeria, the « un-fasters » ( a playing on words – de-jeûneurs-, since ‘breaking the fast’ and ‘having lunch’ sound alike in French) organize public picnics during Ramdan, at great risk for themselves, in order to stand for their right not to be forced to be Muslims; interestingly, declared believers - who are fasting - join them and protect them, openly telling the media that they are opposed to government’s enforcement of Ramdan and to denial of freedom of conscience.

Waleed al Husseini is fully aware of the numerous issues that are in stock for him after the publication of his book.

The first danger of course comes from our green-fascists, a minority indeed but a vocal and determined one, who takes it as a religious duty to physically eliminate ‘kofr’ – i.e. anyone who does not pander to their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
But not just them.

There are the well-meaning Lefties who - till such time an end is put to Israel’s control over Palestine, deem it inappropriate to raise any concern with whatever is taking place in Palestine – even torture and arbitrary detention for exercising one’s freedom of conscience, - a clear indicator of Islamist ideology’s progress within the Palestinian state. (Regarding the critic of the theory of priorities and the ‘main enemy’, please see Daniel Bensaïd’s comment, and the little poem he quotes ‘ I was shot down by my secondary enemy’.***)

And there is the large ‘respectful’ Left whose above-all concern is to avoid being accused of racism; they were instrumental in disseminating all over the world the concept of ‘Islamophobia’ that was created and propagated by Muslim fundamentalists. As if it were an idea that was slaughtered, as if it were ‘Islam’ that was facing pogroms, rather than hapless humans hunted down by racist crowds which certainly do not check on their religion before hitting their brown skins. Just ask Syrian Christians how they feel about it when they come to Europe. And, alas, it is too late to ask the too-dark-skined Brasilian who was the only one murdered after the London bombing.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, the international English-speaking media gave us the best possible exemple of cowardly response to Muslim fundamentalism –no other brand of fundamentalism ever deserves this cautious treatment but the Muslim one; of course no one dared dispense of condemning violence, but right after having paid lip service to it, they started with caveat : yes, it is terrible but Charlie was ‘provocative’ regarding religion ; yes but Charlie had been well warned to stop it ; yes but Charlie, actually, was ‘Islamophobic’, etc…

There are also, of course, the traditional, racist and anti-Muslim right and far-right which will attempt to misuse his book, thrilled that a ‘Muslim’ may attack ‘Islam’. But Waleed al-Husseini is very clear about the différence between racism and the fundamentalist concept ‘islamophobia’. In his book, he mentions an incident: when 5 members of a far-right organization using a ‘secularist’ label as camouflage disturbed the launch of the Council of ex-Muslims of France. They had come in the hope of participating in some Muslims-bashing, but they were rebuffed by all the speakers one after the other, who firmy told them they only defended their right to be atheists.

To publicly resist, all in one go, to the traditional racist far-right, to the Muslim fundamentalist far-right, and to the coward Left in France – this is the task for Waleed al-Husseini.
We wish him a lot of courage and of political clarity to continue his struggle without falling into any trap. He already showed he did not lack courage when he faced Palestinian jails; and he also proved he did not lack political clarity by not letting any one use him politically.

May this straight forward and very thruthful book encourage Waleed al-Husseini’s new fellow-citizens – the French people – to support the vibrant popular forces wich, everywhere in our so-called Muslim countries, fight fundamentalism in isolation, feeling abandonned by the rest of the world.

Notes :

*Maryam Namazie : A defence of Charlie Hebdo must also turn into defence of other blasphemers and apostates

** Patrick Simon, Paris, INED, quoted in : Marieme Helie Lucas, A South-North transfer of political competence : women of migrant Muslim descent in France, p 46, in Marieme Helie Lucas ed. :The struggle for secularism in Europe and North America :Women from migrant descent facing the rise of fundamentalism, September 29 2014, Amazon, paperback, ISBN-10 : 1907024220 ISBN-13 : 978-1907024221

*** idem p IV: ‘The control of capital over bodies, its strong will to reveal their market value, does not at all reduce their control by religious law and the theological will to make them disappear…The poor dialectic of main and secondary contradictions, forever revolving, already played too many bad tricks. And the ‘secondary enemy’, too often underestimated, because the fight against the main enemy was claimed to be apriority, sometimes has been deadly’. Daniel Bensaïd.
Bensaïd goes on quoting Erich Fried’s poem: ‘Totally caught into my struggle against the main enemy/ I was shot by my secondary enemy/ Not from the back, treacherously, as his main enemies claim/ But directly, from the position it has long been occupying/And in keeping with his declared intentions that I did not bother about, thinking they were insignificant’.

**** Statement : After the Charlie Hebdo’s massacre, Support those who fight the religious-right, January 7, 2015