Recently, during a debate about the protests in Iran, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock argued that it has nothing “to do with religion or culture” when a young woman is murdered for not wearing her headscarf correctly. In doing so, she fails to recognize the difference between a political system in which there is free exercise of religion and a dictatorship such as that in Iran, in which state and society are built on the basis of a fundamentalist understanding of religion.
The protests in Europe against the actions of the Iranian regime have moved many people, there have been large demonstrations in all major cities. The otherwise sleepy French city of Strasbourg witnessed the largest demonstration in its history when the European Parliament tried to put the Revolutionary Guards on the EU’s terror list.
The actual revolution in Iran did not take place in 1979, but from 1905 to 1911. It was the so-called constitutional revolution, a liberal, democratic revolution in which women already played an important role. The rulers were forced to introduce a constitutional monarchy. At that time, a counter-movement formed under the leadership of a cleric who was hanged in 1909 as a counter-revolutionary. He argued that democracy and Islam are incompatible because believers and non-believers, men and women can never have equal rights. Seen in this way, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 saw a belated victory for Sharia supporters against the democratic revolution of 1905.
It should be noted that the natural state of Iranian society is of course not a religious theocracy. Rather, it is the result of a paradoxical historical movement. To this day, however, there is a tendency in European foreign policy towards Iran to support the Islamic reformers. “Reformer” is now a dirty word in Iran because it is precisely those who want to preserve the system.
The current protests in the mullahs’ state may have diminished over the past few weeks, but now the movement has come back powerfully with several large demonstrations. The revolution of consciousness is irreversible. As a visible sign, the headscarf is pushed back in everyday life. Many women go unveiled in public. The current uprising of Iranians had its initial movement in the protests of 2017 and 2019. Corona came with an interruption, but not an end. Now, for over three and a half months, there have been numerous large demonstrations, with a continuity not even seen in 1979.
The starting point for the protests in modern Iran was the headscarf requirement. In Iran, taking off the headscarf is a rebellious act. In Europe, it is often argued that wearing a headscarf should not be restricted. It’s all about individual freedom of choice. Is that convincing? For example, when the revolutionary events in Iran were discussed for the first time in the German parliament, the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, said literally that it had “nothing, absolutely nothing to do with religion or culture” when a young woman was murdered because she didn’t wear her headscarf correctly. That is absurd.
The option of wearing a headscarf or not wearing a headscarf voluntarily in western democracies has to do with freedom of religion. And Muslims in the West are freer – also in their religion – than in many Islamic countries, for example, think of the Shiites in Saudi Arabia or the Alevis in Türkiye. This is not the result of a peaceful dialogue between religions, but the result of the more or less consistent emancipation of European societies from religion.
When religion rules there can be no freedom of religion, at best something like tolerance. There is a direct connection between the headscarf abolition in Iran and the headscarf debates in Europe. Don’t pretend these things are happening in two different universes. The important thing is not to confuse religious freedom with freedom of religion from criticism. Freud calls religion a “collective neurosis”. You can’t forbid someone’s neurosis, but you have to criticize them – and that must be possible.
For years there has been a discourse in Europe that wants to banish criticism of religion from the debate. It is even claimed that it is racist to criticize Islam. That is absurd. It is not racist to criticize or oppose any religion. The new-right discourse about people from Islamic countries is actually racist because it regards Islam as a kind of “natural characteristic” of people. The left criticism of the new right, however, often adopts this basic assumption and then begins to defend Islam instead of criticizing this false, because fixed, connection between origin and religion. In France, where secularism is historically stronger, we can already observe such peculiar phenomena as “Islamogauchism”, an alliance between leftists and Islamists.
Such phenomena are an expression of a crisis in secular and laicist thinking against the background of socio-economic changes in western societies and the crisis of the left. If, starting from the Enlightenment and criticism of religion, you end up with the idea that all religions are valuable and should be respected, something has gone wrong. This is already logically impossible because religions often do not respect each other.
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