Historic conference in London brings together committed secularists
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
Since co-founding the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1976 with my mother Anne Nicol Gaylor, I've never faltered from my conviction that freethought and secular government are each necessary for both human progress and survival.
Had I ever doubted the necessity of working for freedom from religion, those doubts would have evaporated after attending July's historic conference of the single largest gathering of ex-Muslims in the world. The life and death experiences faced by global freethinkers working for secularism vividly brought home how vitally important our work is. I was buoyed, despite the staggering opposition to freethought on our planet, after meeting such brave, personable and committed secularists.
FFRF was proudly cosponsor of the historic International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century in London July 22-24. The gathering was the idea of Iranian-born Maryam Namazie, a powerhouse activist with the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and One Law for All. Maryam will receive FFRF's Henry Zumach Freedom From Fundamentalist Religion Award, by the way, at our upcoming convention.
Maryam told us: "It's really important for us to defend the right to leave and criticize Islam, especially when you can be killed for it. In 13 countries under Islamic rule, atheism is a crime punishable by death. Freedom of conscience also includes the right to freedom from religion . . . without fear, without threat and without intimidation."
The conference's compelling hashtag — #IWant2BFree — was the message of more than 220 individuals from more than 30 nations, including countries where it's a crime to leave Islam or be an atheist. A variety of secular activists from other countries, including Dan Barker and myself, participated. The conference-goers were especially touched by the participation and presence of Britain's atheist intellectual stars, Richard Dawkins and A.C. Grayling. Ironically, Dawkins had just got word, right before this conference on free expression, that a supposedly progressive radio station in Berkeley was de-platforming him due to his measured criticism of Islam. The conference issued a formal condemnation of radio KPFA's action.
Demographically, it was exciting to see that the conference and its speakers were overwhelmingly young, and many activists and organizers female and feminist.
Unfortunately, a number of speakers were unable to get permission to travel to the event.
As a cofounder of FFRF, I was thrilled to meet so many others around the globe who have also founded freethought or secular organizations, but often in nations where such work is truly fraught with peril, where colleagues have even been murdered. In the case of Bonya Ahmed, a Bangladeshi-American, she survived, with grievous wounds, the machete-wielding militant Islamists who murdered her husband Avijit in cold blood in plain sight on the streets of Dhaka two years ago. The conference opened with the debut of a new film, "Islam's Nonbelievers," including chilling photos of that attack. Bonya was the first inspiring speaker on the program.
Other cofounders of secular groups in attendance included:
Zehra Pala, president of Atheism Association of Turkey, a nation where almost daily secular rights are being frighteningly curtailed. The slogan of the association, which is the first legally recognized atheist group in the country, is: "No atheists will be alone anymore."
Mohammed Alkhadra, founder of Jordanian Atheists Group, in a nation were apostasy is illegal. Mohammad had the crowd on its feet with his first remarks in public. Mohammed was toying with radical Islam when he read one of those pirated Arabic translations of The God Delusion.
Armin Navabi, the Iranian-born founder of The Atheist Republic, which has one million fans and followers, and is dedicated to offering a safe forum for freethinkers to share ideas. He now lives in Canada.
Inna Shevchenko, Femen leader, who was kidnapped and threatened by the Belarus KGB in 2011 and given political asylum in France. Inna was speaking at a conference in Copenhagen when militant Islamists opened fire. After surviving the attack, Inna famously said: "Liberal voices should be louder than Kalashnikovs." Inna stated at the conference: "Religion is not compatible with feminism."
Fauzia Ilyas, a brave young woman who founded Atheist and Agnostic Alliance Pakistan, where apostasy can be punished by death.
Representing the United States at the conference as heads of ex-Muslim groups were Sarah Haider, co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America, and Egyptian-American Noura Embabi, young president of Muslim-ish, whom we've interviewed recently for Freethought Radio. "The cost of silence for ex-Muslims is too high," Noura counseled.
We also heard from Zineb el Rhazoui, the Moroccan-born French journalist and former Charlie Hebdo columnist who happened to be out of the office on Jan. 7, 2015, when terrorists burst in and murdered her colleagues ("Nothing is forgiven," says Zineb): "I believe there is no way to get rid of dictatorships if we do not get rid of superstition and religious dictatorship," she told us.
There were panels on Secularism as a Human Right, Women's Resistance, the Veil and Religious Morality, "Out, Loud and Proud," Religion in the Law and State, on blasphemy and a particularly fascinating panel on Art as Resistance. Entertainment included Australian singer Shelly Segal and Shabana Rehman, a Pakistani-Norwegian known as the "mullah-lifter." (She explained that label during her act.)
Blasphemy is a victimless crime but blasphemy laws create all too many victims, first among them freedom of speech and freedom of thought. Bertrand Russell noted: "Every great idea starts out as blasphemy." But in today's world, there are still many countries with blasphemy laws, including not just Islamist nations.
The message of this conference is the message of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The only way to safeguard liberty is to keep religion out of government.
To learn more about the conference, listen to the Aug. 10 broadcast of Freethought Radio (ffrf.org/radio) or watch the Aug. 9 "Ask an Atheist" on blasphemy (FFRF's YouTube channel).
See all videos at secularconference.com.