It is quite a striking experience when, in Europe – including in France which is the historical birthplace of secularism –, one gets automatically told , for example, « Oh, you are a Hindu ! » if one says one is Indian, or « Oh, you are a Muslim ! » if one says one is Algerian.
One witnesses a forceful return of religions’ political hold, which corners our diasporas into a mix of ethnic-cultural-religious syncretic identity, and traps us, as if we were under ‘house arrest’, into our presumed religion or culture. In fact, this is an ahistorical fantasy, which denies us any access to freedom of thought and universal rights.
In these dire circumstances, we welcome the translation into French, the publication and the wide distribution of Bhagat Singh’s 1930 pamphlet « Why I am an atheist » as particuliarly timely.
As feminists, we already faced the identity sledgehammer argument in our countries of origin: ‘ feminism is Western; you are traitors to your own country, to your culture, to your origins; you have sold out to the West, to capitalism, to Western imperialism » etc… However, a research undertaken by feminist activists in the ’90s in so-called Muslim countries shows that women, since the inception of Islam, already demanded the right to education, to freedom of movement, to political representation, to financial autonomy, to celibacy or to the right to chose one’s partner after thorough agreements had been designed in order to draft a contract which was satisfactory to both parties, etc… From that time onwards, women took action to garantee all these rights (1) We had to fight hard to get back the ownership of our long lived feminist history, by challenging the Sirens’ song of reactionary identity politics – and as well, one must emphasise here, the Sirens’ song of patriarchy happily covering up in the midst of our Left forces, in our countries.
As revolutionaries as well, we had to confront the identity argument : « Marxism is a Western way of thinking, alien to our cuture; you are traitors to the nation; sold out to the West, etc… »
And now once more, we must reclaim and own back our revolutionary history, by bringing together the stories and analysis of the many agnostics, atheists and secularists in our countries. For, as Bhagat Singh says,<< all religions, faiths, theological philosophies, and religious creeds and all other such institutions in the long run become supporters of the tyrannical and exploiting institutions, men and classes. Rebellion against any king has always been a sin in every religion. >>
In order to reclaim our historical right to atheism, to ground ourselves into our long secular tradition, we must today confront on the ground the Hindutva as well as Daesh and many other – Buddhist, orthodox Jews, Opus Dei, etc.. religious extreme-rights, which, when they are in power, claim their gods granted them the right and duty to physically eliminate all the Untermensch. « Divine Repression », as Bhagat Singh would say… Be it in India, in Bangladesh, in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Nigeria, or … in Paris and Brussels, many lost their lives, including recently, for having claimed this universal right: to live as a freethinker and to mock the official representatives of established creeds.
Let us pay tribute here to the Bangladeshi and Saudi bloggers, to the Indian writers, to the Pakistani activists struggling against the blasphemy law, to the French cartoonists, etc … who fought for our freedom.
Clearly, it is an illusion to hope that the West will be spared by the rise of religious extreme-rights and that their sphere of influence will be limited to the African and Asian countries we came from. In Europe and North America, societies are increasingly dividing themselves along the lines of ethnic or religious antagonistic ‘communities’ which want to be ruled by their own religious laws («Do not say that it is His law! », exclaims Bhagat Singh) and their own customs; in the process, they get rid of democracy and universal rights, in the name of an ‘identity’ which only keeps from the past the most conservatives elements – especially regarding women’s rights.
Even in France, the very principle of secularism is now under threat – whether because it is gradually abandonned by political forces, formerly on the Left, who made secularism happen, or whether it is sidetracked by political forces, on the extreme-right.
In these troubled times, translating and publishing in the French language this book by Baghat Singh reminds all those who, right here, deny us our libertarian history – in the name of an identity they believe is necessarily grounded in religion – and who grant a growing political power to religions’ official representatives, that «The morbid alliance between religious preachers and possessors of power » constitutes a mortal danger.
- Algerian sociologist, founder and former international coordinator of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws international solidarity network (wluml.org), founder and present international coordinator of the international network Secularism Is A Women’s Issue (siawi.org) .
This article was published in French by Editions de l’Asymétrie, as a forward to Bhagat Singh’s « Why I am an atheist ».the author translated it into English for the March issue of this magazine.