My reflections after the Celebrating Dissent festival in Amsterdam, Aug 30 to Sep 1, 2019 – by Magnus Timmerby, Humanists Sweden.
”Heretics, infidels, renegades… welcome to Amsterdam!”
These opening words from city mayor Femke Halsema (video) sparked immediate cheers and applause. She continued with a reflection on the city’s proud history as a safe haven for freethinkers since Spinoza. ”Without dissent and protest, change and progress are not possible.”
Cheering, and possibly a bit of confusion for a few in the mixed crowd, including some guests from very repressive societies, perhaps not fully knowing what to expect at an event like this.
- Maryam Namazie, event organiser and well-known secular activist, was received almost as a rockstar by the audience.
- Inna Shevchenko, leader of radical movement FEMEN: ”As a feminist, as a woman, I will be in conflict with religions as long as those religions will continue favouring men and degrading women.”
- Taslima Nasrin, with multiple fatwas calling for her death and exiled since 25 years, gave a talk and read her poem “You go girl!” Although a soft-spoken person, her powerful words drew massive cheers.
Thus started the three-day festival, combining theatre, talks, poetry, film, stand-up comedy and performance art.
From the programme description: ”Women, non-believers and LGBT+ are often the victims of the strictest cultural and religious dogmas. The festival Celebrating Dissent honours their freedom. Freedom to think differently, freedom not to believe, and freedom to be yourself. A shout-out to everyone who fights for universal rights and freedom of speech.”
Among the numerous other speakers and performers were writer Kenan Malik, performance artist Victoria Gugenheim, lawyer Saif Ul Malook (who risked his life to defend Asia Bibi), and representatives from many secular and ex-muslim organisations, from Sri Lanka to USA.
The persecuted find common ground
The festival offered a dozen events where secularists, feminists and LGBT+ persons contributed, verbally and through art.
How can such a diverse crowd, some more radical than others, instantly find common ground? Well, their oppressors are the same: the usual combination of patriarchy, religion and violent intolerance.
Around 30 ex-muslims (a world record?) participated on stage to tell their stories. So much pain, and so much courage. These people are hunted, threatened with death, ostracised, their children taken from them. And for what? Because they say ”no thanks” to religion. One guest, Zineb El Rhazoui, former journalist for Charlie Hebdo, was denied entry into the country due to security concerns.
A quote that says it all, from Saudi refugee Rana Ahmed, when asked what she appreciates most with living in a free society: ”To be able to walk in the street.”
Or in the words of Maryam Namazie: ”All we want is to live.”
Several participants targeted religion with fierce criticism. Notably, this criticism extended to those who, under a misguided banner of anti-racism, allow religious demands to tear down fundamental democratic principles and human rights.
This movement will not have it. They are fed up, they are claiming their right, and they are organising. They do not intend to compromise or temper their message. They won’t waste time responding to distractions. ”We’re busy fighting for our own lives,” said Namazie.
Betrayed and abandoned
Many expressed feelings of betrayal and abandonment by the left, which they see as no longer distinctly secular, rather nowadays often obliging to islamist demands.
Some criticism was also aimed at the Humanist movement, long-standing defender of non-believers globally, for sometimes missing the point. As Jimmy Bangash recalled from a recent conference in the UK: after he had presented statistics on percentages of muslims who are friendly versus hostile to LGBT+ persons, two humanists gave him a ”not all muslims” rebuke.
”As oppressed ex-muslims, it’s not our responsibility to defend our oppressors,” said Muhammad Syed, founder of Ex-Muslims of North-America. Sadia Hameed (Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain) agreed: ”When women suffer domestic abuse, nobody asks them to defend men in general. But we are expected to defend our oppressors against far-right attacks.”
Emotions ran high
A strong expression of solidarity came towards the end from event host De Balie’s director Yoeri Albrecht, who revealed that his organisation committed a significant amount of money to Dutch migration authorities as security for two guests that were deemed high-risk. Noting the absurd contradiction in a policy that denies people entry to a free country due to risk of persecution, Albrecht told the audience that he would not hold it against these persons if they would decide to stay in the country. Some burst into tears. Emotions ran high, hugs were exchanged, many friends were made.
As Taslima Nasrin told the audience (similar to my memory from her speech at the World Humanist Congress in 2014): I can never return to my country or my family. So what is my nation? What is my family? The closest thing I have is you.
Magnus Timmerby, Humanists Sweden
A Swedish version of this text will be published in Humanisten, magazine for Humanists Sweden
Most of the following photos by Jenny Wenhammar. A few by De Balie and a couple by Magnus Timmerby.
”Harrassment, prison time and travel bans are expected consequences. But sacrifices must be made. Freedom doesn’t come for free.”Mohammed Hisham, persecuted after appearing as an atheist on Egyptian TV
”What I appreciate most with living in a democracy? To be able to walk in the street.”Rana Ahmed, ex-muslim from Saudi Arabia
”With pride I wear the badge ex-muslim, apostate, heretic”Halima Salat
”Even our bodies are invaded. The only home we can have, is not safe.”Inna Shevchenko, FEMEN
”I tell muslims: better offended than discriminated against.”Armin Navabi, founder Atheist Republic