Book Review: Women Against Fundamentalism: stories of dissent and solidarity

A new book reminds us that free speech and human rights are universal principles and not a privilege of the enlightened west

A new book reminds us that free speech and human rights are universal principles and not a privilege of the enlightened west

As I write this in a London café I can hear the most excruciating conversation: one very well-to-do sounding gentleman to another discusses the events of 8 January in Paris.

“Of course terrorism”, he tells his friend, “could be carried out by anyone: those acts of terror could just as easily have been by a white man”.

While of course true, it doesn’t help anyone to avoid the fact that our current problem with terrorism rests almost solely with political Islam.

Does this mean Rupert Murdoch is right to say Muslims must be held responsible? Absolutely not. Should Murdoch shoulder the guilt of all deaths at the hands of Christians? No, of course he shouldn’t.

But is it case-closed just to say any person of any faith could have carried out the attacks in Paris and, for that matter, the ones in Australia recently, the beheadings of journalists and aid workers and other events of the very recent past that stick in the mind?

I came to think through these questions recently when reading a new book called Women Against Fundamentalism: Stories of Dissent and Solidarity, edited by Sukhwant Dhaliwal and Nira Yuval-Davis, about a campaign group of the same name which began in 1989 after the Rushdie Affair.

Julia Bard, a member of Women Against Fundamentalism (WAF), reminisces about the group’s inception:

“I saw the real strength of WAF as its overarching analysis of fundamentalism in all religions. Up until then, we had always been very sensitive to the pressure to focus primarily on Islam, and we hadn’t allowed it to happen”. (p.164)

The WAF was absolutely correct to distance itself from the pressure to become primarily focused on Islam, given that the experiences of women under fundamentalism are not limited to one religion alone. On first principles our target should be any overarching system or ideology that restricts our self-determination.

That said, it would be dishonest not to pay special regard to the phenomena of Islamism and Jihadism. Whatever the editorial intentions it should not surprise anyone to find that throughout this book of testimonies by members of WAF, Islam is the religion discussed the most, while the fundamentalism that is addressed most frequently is Islamic.

Another chapter in the book that caught my eye was by Jane Lane, an advocate worker for racial equality in early years. Looking back at her time as a WAF member she recalls that: “I have Muslim friends who say that the abuse of Islam is like what I would feel like if my own father was abused.” (p.275)

This speaks quite obviously to the recent attacks on the Charlie Hebdo building, for what many would consider the trivial crime of depicting the Prophet Mohammed in an illustration for the front cover of a satirical magazine.

It has been noted many times that the publication satirised all religions, it was not limited to one. But the recent events and the subsequent debate around the freedom to offend and the sensitivities of believers has been predicated on one alone. So, we might ask, why are Muslims who take offence to this sort of thing quite so slow to the joke?

It’s certainly not, as some liberals might instinctively retort, to do with a lack of religious reformation within Islam because, as Ali Etaraz has previously said, that’s already happened:

“The Muslim equivalent of nailing the 95 theses … was the desecration of a graveyard and the stoning of a woman for adultery.”

For my money, it has a lot to do with the use of Islam by hubristic politically far right jihadists and their quieter sympathisers who lack the capacity for self-critique. And what’s worse is that supposed lefties writing in the mainstream press who ‘understand’ their plight (Seamus Milne, for example, near enough said that France had it coming).

And it’s actually in consideration of this that I like Charlie Hebdo, and have done so for years. It is not simply that I support free speech, but what I enjoy about those irreverent front covers is that they are a forcible reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.

As Charlie Hebdo staff have recently said in a press conference, the attackers ‘didn’t have a sense of humour’. Neither does anyone who says ‘Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie’ – but that shouldn’t kill satire.

Similarly, coming back to the book, what is so interesting about Women Against Fundamentalism is that all testimonies relate to wanting a space outside of the religious sphere. Such a space I believe is crucial to sticking two fingers up at political Islam, and other fundamentalisms.

But this is not an anti-religious book. Like the attackers in Paris, the people who WAF were rallying against were those who wished to refuse people a space outside of their religious dogma.

Worse still, as documented particularly by Gita Sahgal in her excellent chapter, is the error made by European ‘left-wing’ politicians who have felt the need to pigeonhole people into a certain race or religion and treat them accordingly under the banner of multiculturalism, which in turn gives rise to cultural relativism and the supposition that universal values are a myth.

What we take away from the book in actual fact is evidence that there is no ‘clash of civilisation’: free speech and human rights are universal principles and not a privilege of the enlightened west.

The religious right are a constant thorn in the side of this view, but sadly so, too, is the political left. Has it not been the most gut-wrenching thing to see European left-wingers absolve the Jihadi Kouachi brothers of their crimes, which by the way include ruthlessly killing progressives, socialists and communists, by blaming the Paris events on French foreign policy?

The secular spaces spoken of by the Women Against Fundamentalism show us the left still has something worth fighting for.

Carl Packman is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and the author of Loansharks: The rise and rise of payday lending

8 Responses to “Book Review: Women Against Fundamentalism: stories of dissent and solidarity”

  1. Disputer

    “the fact that our current problem with terrorism rests almost solely with political Islam.”

    Does it? In the last 5 years, less than 2% of terrorist attacks in Europe have been religiously motivated: http://thebea.st/1CcU08q. And thats even before we get onto the question of whether drone attacks by the West should be regarded as “terrorism”.

  2. Just Visiting

    The link you provided is to a rather hyped-up web page.
    It contains like to some Europol police reports
    https://www.europol.europa.eu/sites/default/files/publications/europol_tsat14_web_1.pdf

    which are claimed to support this idea that religious terrorism is effectively too small to worry about.

    However, reading those Europol reports in context, shows that the truth is quite the opposite!

    From page 1 :

    > The majority of EU Member States continue to consider religiously inspired terrorism as a major threat, as evidenced by the significant increase in the number of arrests.

    More worrying, Europol suggest that some countries are under-reporting Islamic violence:

    > No attacks related to single-issue terrorism were reported in 2013. EU Member States did not report any religiously inspired terrorist attacks 2013. However, in at least two attacks, including the murder of the British soldier, the role of religious extremism appears to be evident.

    Wow – That is shocking: that Lee Rigby’s killing has been reported by the UK authorities as something other than religiously inspired terrorism.

    France’s statistics too report no religiously motivated terrorism, and yet:
    > On 25 May 2013, just three days after the aforementioned attack, a French soldier was targeted in a non-fatal knife attack in La Défense near Paris (France) by an individual who converted to Islam and radicalised in an extremely short period of time.

    —-

    Let’s looks at the evidence of the Europol report. Where does it mention religiously inspired terrorism:

    The foreword:

    – 2nd sentence:
    > groups or individuals linked to religiously inspired terrorism..

    > growing threat from EU citizens, having travelled to conflict zones to engage in terrorist activity … Syria

    Page 1 of the Report:

    > The largest proportion of terrorist attacks … were separatist groups, although the number significantly decreased in 2013. Most separatist incidents, however, were small-scale.

    > The majority of EU Member States continue to consider religiously inspired terrorism as a major threat, as evidenced by the significant increase in the number of arrests. Two attacks and several disrupted plots in 2013 illustrate this threat.

    > The numbers of EU citizens travelling to Syria in particular, including those intending to fight alongside al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, were already substantial and rising, and increased significantly in 2013. … In the wake of the Syrian conflict, the threat to the EU is likely to increase exponentially.

    —–

    I’ve leave the reader to read the full report- the overall feeling it gives is that religiously terrorism is the prime terrorism concern in Europe.

  3. TN

    Read any pile of apologist crap by far leftists like Seumas Milne or Richard Seymour and you’ll see just how low that section of the left has sunk. People like them need to be informed that Islamists wouldn’t support their causes or show any solidarity to them.

  4. Tehmina Kazi

    Thank you for writing this. I wrote a review of this book for Public Spirit…

  5. Guest

    Or your far right. You’re still an infidel to them.

  6. Guest

    Mental illness is not caused by religions, as much as you might try and smear large proportions of the British as mentally ill.

  7. Just Visiting

    My email from Disqus says this post was you Leon Wolfeson.
    I don’t know why you introduce the new theme of mental illness – it’s entirely off-topic.

  8. The Samosa » Archive » Feminist dissent, religious misogyny

    […] Dissent, published out of Warwick University, follows in the tradition of Women Against Fundamentalism, a network of writers, thinkers an activists formed in 1989 in response to Ayatollah Khomeini’s […]

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