The rise of humanism and secularism in Iran
June 2005
Maryam Namazie

a.. Iranian New Year in March is a celebration of the first day of spring. This is obviously not an Islamic holiday and one that had initially been banned by the Islamic Republic of Iran and denounced as pagan over the past years but to no avail. On the last Wednesday of every year (called Chahar Shanbeh Suri), people come onto the streets, build bonfires and jump over them - a ritual from pre-Islamic times to basically receive the warmth of the fire for the upcoming year. This year, there were reports of Korans being burnt in the bonfires!

b.. On March 8, International Women's Day, a day not recognised by the Islamic regime, which has its own Islamic women's day, men and women gathered in the streets to celebrate. There were a large number of reports of women pulling off their veils and setting them alight.

c.. In February on Ashura, the tenth day of Moharram which is a month of mourning in the Shia calendar and especially important because it was the day that imam Hussein (a grandson of Mohammed and the third imam) was killed, there are often scenes
of men and boys out on the streets, self flagellating with chains and even beating themselves with the edges of swords. It is a scene from the Middle Ages with bloodied men and even children parading through the streets. During this month, it is even illegal to wear bright clothing in Iran. But this year, young men and women came out onto the streets, blasted rock music and danced!

I want to remind you that these astonishing examples are taking place in a country where it is illegal to listen and dance to rock music, remove or even 'improperly' wear the compulsory veil, and mix with the opposite sex, let alone to speak, organise, associate, etc. freely. In all the examples I gave, there were also clear expressions of opposition to the government. For example on International Women's Day, the slogan of 'neither veil nor submission' was heard across the country - the same slogan used in mass protests in Iran when the government initially imposed compulsory veiling over two decades ago.

What's most interesting is that these examples are not isolated incidents but are fast becoming a norm. People, particularly the youth, are using every opportunity - from one of the 'holiest' days of mourning to a football match win on June 9 to the upcoming so-called presidential election in Iran to express their human desire to live in the 21st century free from religion and superstition.

I can imagine that for some these examples may sound extreme and shocking in its opposition to the current state of affairs. If it happened here in Britain, it would immediately be labelled 'racist' and 'Islamophobic' [though a critique of religion or any belief has nothing to do with racism], and even 'incitement to religious hatred' - allegations often flung at those of us in exile who speak out against Islam and political Islam. But in Iran, a deep-seated hatred of Islam and its government is a reality, and even an inevitable necessity.

This reminds me of a recent discussion that has
taken place in the Guardian about the 21st century
atheist where Dylan Evans has criticised Jonathan
Miller and Richard Dawkins for being 'virulently
anti-religion', saying they are old atheists and
that new ones should value religion. Salman Rushdie
appropriately responds by saying that in some parts
religion is not a 'polite set of rituals' or a dead
religion like Greek mythology where one can enjoy
reading it and gives examples of where this is not
the case.

In Iran, too, Islam is a state power, which has
executed over 100,000 people in two decades,
slaughtered an entire generation, and actually
stones people to death for sex outside of marriage
with the law even specifying the size of the stone
to be used. In the 21st century, it hangs people
from cranes in city centres, and won't even allow
choices in dress and music. In Iran, we're talking
about a situation where Islam and its state have
been imposed by sheer brute force and violence. It
is, therefore, natural and rational to respond to
the situation with an anti-Islamic backlash. As the
late and eminent Marxist and humanist, Mansoor
Hekmat has said: '.when you come face to face with
movements, which threaten freethinkers like Taslima
Nasrin with death, you are obliged to once again
refer to the Koran and say that this reaction is
feeding from a well, which exactly formulates all
this backwardness. The Koran could have been a
historical book like many other historical books;
people could look at it and not show much
sensitivity but when a movement makes it the banner
of a contemporary political struggle, then people
are forced to take its banner from it, review it,
look at it .and discredit it.'

The backlash and opposition in Iran is at its
essence strongly humanist, secularist and modern.
You can see it clearly in the examples I have given
but also in a much more deep-seated way - in
rational, popular, and spontaneous acts and the
establishment of hundreds of organisations outside
government structures and restrictions that are
non-religious and purely for the defence of the
human being via reliance on human will. For example,
there are children's organisations in many major
cities in Iran calling for a secular education, an
end to corporal punishment, child abuse and
punishment, differentiation between parental and
children's rights and even exerting pressure on the
Islamic regime to announce an end to the execution
of minors. In practice, when 15 year old Zhila Izadi
was arrested and flogged for allegedly having sex
with her brother, for example, a committee was
formed in her defence; people visited her, supported
her and intervened on her behalf with her family.

In all of these, there is an immense sense of
solidarity and daily acts of intervention on behalf
of humanity - whether it be to rescue someone being
arrested for 'improper' veiling from the clutches of
the pasdaran or revolutionary guards or collecting
support for the victims of the Bam earthquake with
the stated purpose of helping especially because the
government was not.

Again, don't forget we are talking about a country
that has been under Islamic rule for 25 years; a
country that has been labelled Islamic by the media
and western states day in and day out; a country
where half the population are between 14 and 24 and
were born under Islamic rule! And still - not only
have they not been Islamicised as government
officials often complain - but are actually going on
an anti-Islamic offensive.

In countries like Iran I think you can often see the
real state of affairs by statements made by people
affiliated with the government or those who were in
the inner sanctum and now want to save their hides.
Mohsen Sazegara, for example, a member of Khomeini's
inner sanctum, who helped write the regime's
constitution and set up the notorious pasdaran -
revolutionary guards - is now speaking of secularism
in this issue's New Humanist magazine! Aghajari
speaks of 'Islamic humanism'. If you read their
statements carefully you see how they attempt to
co-opt people's language and desires but in fact
only to save Islam and they say as much.

But it is to no avail. If I can quote Mansoor Hekmat
again: '.mullahs would at one time come and get paid
to read religious sermons and go. They had a role in
society. But when they come to the fore, organise
society based on their views, turn their internal
moralities into external laws for all to observe and
we see all of their filth everywhere, then it's not
possible just to permit them to go back into their
previous hole. When the wave sets off and people's