Iranian feminist wins “secularist of the year” award in UK

On Oct. 8, Maryam Namazie of the Organization of Women’s Liberation in Iran (OWLI) , was awarded the National Secular Society‘s first Irwin Prize for “Secularist of the Year” in London . The £5,000 annual prize, sponsored by NSS member Dr. Michael Irwin, was presented by Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee at a lunch at London’s Montcalm Hotel. The event also featured cabaret from stand-up comedian Stewart Lee, who is co-author of the controversial “Jerry Springer — the Opera,” considered blasphemous by fundamentalist Christians.

In introducing Namazie, NSS director Keith Porteous Wood stated: “Maryam is an inveterate commentator and broadcaster on rights, cultural relativism, secularism, religion, political Islam and many other related topics. The present revival of Islam has heightened interest in Maryam’s work, and at last her writings are gaining a mainstream audience. She has spoken at numerous conferences and written extensively on women’s rights issues, particularly violence against women.”

In her acceptance speech, Namazie acknowledged the role of Mansoor Hekmat, founder of the Worker Communist Party of Iran, in inspiring an entire generation of secularists, and warned of the rise of political Islam and its attempts to dupe and silence opposition using the language of anti-imperialism. She went on to say: “We need an uncompromising and shamelessly aggressive demand for secularism—but again this is only a minimum if we are to ensure that human values are safeguarded and that the human being is put first and foremost. Today, more than ever, we are in need of the complete de-religionisation of society as well.” (Oct. 9 press release from

A comment on Namazie’s award by Nick Cohen of The Observer Oct. 16 noted:

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…[r]ight-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…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?’


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.

See our last post on Maryam Namazie, and on the poltics of Islamic extremism.