This year’s Freedom Festival, hosted by De Balie in Amsterdam, brought together a courageous group of men and women from all over the world. Writers and activists, comedians and journalists came together to discuss all manner of issues – some of them taboo, even illegal in parts of the world. At times one felt one was attending a rally rather than a festival, so enthusiastically were participants applauded and encouraged by their audiences. Many of these speakers have dedicated and risked their lives to the cause of genuine freedom and equality for all – no matter where, no matter who.
Veteran secularist and human rights campaigner, Maryam Namazie assisted in bringing many of the participants together for the festival and appeared as a mother figure for many of the younger members of this small but determined group. Born in Iran, into a Muslim family, she has spoken out strongly against Sharia law and the erosion of women’s rights under Islamic regimes. A long-time British resident, she has also criticized the undermining of human rights and equality under the guise of cultural differences. Many of the women and men speaking at this event have been severely persecuted for choosing to be secularists and/or atheists. It is not perhaps surprising then that religion as a force of repression and inequality, particularly against women and children, came under heavy fire at the Freedom Festival. Islam was at the forefront of this offensive as many of the speakers are ex-Muslims whose own countries and cultures have rejected them because of their decision to dissent.
We heard from Bangladeshi writer, poet and activist, Taslima Nasrin, who has lived in exile now for 25 years. As a popular writer and columnist, she spoke out against Islam through her stories and other writing, calling for a secularist state and complete equality between men and women. The result: she was charged with blasphemy in Bangladesh and became the target of a number of fatwas (a legal pronouncement in Islam). Forced to into hiding rather than stand trial in a country where groups of 10 000 people were calling for her death by poisonous snakes, she managed to flee. International human rights organisations and her own government’s desire to get her out of the country, helped make this possible. Today she lives in India but has faced persecution there too and lives on a series of 3 month visas.
Norwegian Pakistani stand-up comedian, Shabana Rehman entertained us with anecdotes about her now widely known mullah lifting and provocative bottom-baring antics. While Canadian writers and journalists, Ali Rizvi and Armin Navabi told us why they decided to create their podcast, Secular Jihadists for a Muslim Enlightenment. All use humour to question and dismantle the oppressive power of religion, specifically Islam. While Dutch Turkish actress, Nazmiye Oral’s play, No Longer Without You explored the difficulty many ex-Muslims face as their links with family and friends are severed once they renounce their religion. The play takes the form of a conversation between Nazmiye and her own mother, Havva, in which both share some of the thoughts and feelings that they never got to say to one another. French Tunisian filmmaker, Nadia El Fani , discussed her film, Neither Allah, Nor Master with us, following a showing of it. Upon its initial release in 2011 it created an uproar amongst Islamists in Tunisia as it calls for the secularisation of the country.
The law – both Shariah and Western, also came under scrutiny in this celebration of dissent. We heard from Pakistani lawyer, Saif-Ul-Malook, who became famous for his defence of Pakistani Christian woman, Asia Bibi. Accused of blasphemy, which carries a death penalty in Pakistan, Bibi was held in prison for 10 years pending a ruling. In November 2018, he fled the country because of death threats from Islamists after Pakistan’s Supreme Court decided to acquit Bibi from all accusations of blasphemy. Saif-Ul-Malook has been nominated by the European Parliament for the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award. Even more shocking, was the story of Afsana Lachaux, a British national who has been fighting for the right to see her son for 9 years. Married to a Frenchman in London, they went to live in Dubai where they had a son together. Not long after the relationship broke down and Afsana suddenly found herself divorced and in prison, accused of being an unfit mother. Pressure from the international press and wider community helped her repatriation to Britain but according to Shariah law, the father has all rights regarding a child and so began her 8 year legal battle in France, Britain and the UAE to gain custody of her son.
The Freedom Festival was a truly eye-opening, sometimes deeply depressing experience. The issue of identity politics and its links with religious intolerance were also highlighted as a growing source of concern in both Eastern and Western societies. Activists from Poland spoke out against diminishing freedom of press and growing intolerance for LGBT rights in that country. However the unstinting commitment of all participants to equality and freedom, in the face of incredible odds, made it a truly inspirational experience, which is not easily forgotten. It was my privilege to talk with some of these brave men and women and hear their incredible stories. Souwie Buis 2nd September 2019
You can also read Souwie’s extended article on Shabana Rehman’s appearance at the Festival
Listen to ArtTalk Radio’s exclusive interviews with British body-painting artist VICTORIA GUGENHEIM and exiled Bangladeshi activist TASLIMA NASRIN