When the Islamists in Iraq took over the government through the elections in 2005, it was a wakeup call to me and all those who believe in human rights, freedom and humanism. In addition to the Islamist control of the government as well as the destruction of the civil society by radical Islamic militias, some of the totalitarian characteristics of the previous dictatorship still remained.
From my travels and observations of the world, I have deduced that totalitarianism is not only a form of government, but also a mentality. As a global phenomenon, totalitarianism takes many forms, and the degree to which totalitarian governments restrict individual freedom and abuse human rights varies greatly from one country to another.
When I first started the Global Secular Humanist Movement, I was inspired by the writings of Christopher Hitchens, Carl Sagan, Paul Kurtz, Richard Dawkins, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson as well the great women’s rights activists in the Middle East and abroad such as Maryam Namazie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I was inspired to create a global society guided by knowledge and reason and motivated by compassion and our common humanity.
At that time, I could not have imagined that I would eventually reach a quarter of a million followers from 150 countries. I could not have predicted that one day, I would work alongside extraordinary thinkers such as Richard Dawkins, Sean Faircloth and Greg Epstein of the Harvard Humanist Community, as well as other influential secular thinkers around the planet such as my dear friend Alishba Zarmeen who is the founder of ex-Muslim women’s network from Pakistan. Never could I have guessed that I would connect with such an unlikely coalition of secular humanists from the Middle East where I come from, who valiantly share their beliefs despite the religious tyranny and oppression of the region.
And I certainly didn’t imagine that one day I would be speaking at venues as diverse as prestigious universities, humanist conferences, and small gatherings, attended by nervous participants scared to death of coming out as “non-believers”.
The reason I didn’t envision these things was not because I lacked a vision or ambition; I simply did not possess the resources, and could never assume I would be able to continue what I am doing the next day.
Despite these obstacles, my determination to never stop being a secular activist and the model I envisioned, strategized and implemented in the past couple of years to achieve this goal has proven successful, and I would like to share it here.
In my first essay for Big Think years ago, I mentioned that one of my favorite things about secular humanism is that it is leaderless. Founded upon principles of self-empowerment, critical thinking, reason, curiosity and doing good for the sake of the other, humanism requires no authoritarian figures such as Yahweh or Saddam Hussein to control our thinking or motivate our actions.
The model I have created resembles a semi-constitution, which enables those who participate to actively engage within the community. It is my understanding that religion has been a powerful force in the world because it gives people a sense of contributing to something larger than themselves. However, the difference here is the shift from supporting a deity to supporting ourselves, based on our own common humanity. The model is as follows:
God does not exist: human beings do.
If we contribute to what actually exists, all of us will benefit.
Helping others will allow others to help each other.
Humanism is a self-preservation system as well as a system that moves us forward.
Finding common ground between different secular and non-theistic organizations is one of my main goals as an activist. There will always be differences of opinion, and I consider this to be healthy, as long as we do not look down on other groups and try to prevent them from achieving their goals.
I used to be critical of what I call “religion-friendly” humanists like Chris Stedman. Even after taking the time to research and understand his work, I remain certain that the members of Al Qaeda who beheaded an eight year-old girl in front of my eyes in Baghdad for not covering her hair will never listen to him. But I do believe that not all religious people and their religions are the same, and therefore his approach may definitely work with liberal and moderate 21st century Christians and Jews. The same thing can be said for the need for in-your-face secular activism. Working in public relations has taught me that two activists may share similar ideas and goals, but word choice and approaches can make all the difference in how their message are received.
Now, let’s talk about labels.
From my personal experience, it is more likely that Jesus will be resurrected than that non-theists will globally agree on a label to identify themselves. Even though I identify as a secular humanist and work as hard as possible to popularize the term among non-believers, I am aware that not every atheist is also a secular humanist. In order to transcend these boundaries, I have found it is more important to focus on what unifies us than what divides us. Examples of topics that bring us together include:
- Do you support the separation of mosque/church and state?
- Are you against sharia law or any religious bias in government?
- Do you consider women’s rights and LGBT rights to be human rights?
- Do you think the human rights transcend cultural or religious rights?
If you answered yes to these questions, then join the club! Label yourself as you see fit, and let’s move things forward.
The last thing I would like to focus on in this essay is technology. Have you ever wondered how this guy Faisal, from an oppressive Muslim country in the midst of a civil war, was able to discover humanist and scientific literature? The answer is technology. I truly believe that what makes the 21st century so beautiful is the ability to access infinite worlds of knowledge from our smartphones and laptops.
There is an indisputable relationship between knowledge and secular humanism. As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times mentioned in Next New World conference that I attended last year in San Francisco, the internet and the hyper-connected world make it so easy to access available knowledge, and the huge amount of data available on the internet encourages people to develop critical thinking skills, which enable them to differentiate between real and false knowledge, real science and junk science, etc. This is why I continue to invest in modern technology, and strive to utilize it to make the world a better place, and I encourage all humanist and secular organizations to do the same.
Let’s make the 21st century a century of secular humanism!