Founder Of Council Of Ex-Muslims Seeks To 'Break Taboo'April 20, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Mina Ahadi, an Iranian-born activist living in Germany, has founded a council of former Muslims who have renounced their faith. Members of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims are immigrants from predominantly Islamic countries. Ahadi, who is now under police protection, spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Golnaz Esfandiari.
RFE/RL: Why did you decide to create the Council of Ex-Muslims?
Mina Ahadi: It's been 11 years now that I've lived in Germany, and the friends and I who founded the council have been critical regarding some events in this country. On the one hand, when there is talk about people who have come to Germany from countries such as Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Turkey, they're all being labeled Muslims; then all of these 3 1/2 million people are put in the same bag, and Islamist organizations are being presented as being in charge of them.
People like myself, we sought asylum in Germany and we came to live here because we [opposed] political Islam and such organizations. Many of the problems here -- such as honor killings or imposing the Islamic hejab on children, or building a number of mosques here -- create divisions among people. All of these are explained to society based on the argument that Muslims have a different culture or Muslims have different ideas. All of these prompted those of us who are critical and who oppose such things to create a body that will have different policies regarding such issues.
RFE/RL: What policies are you following and what is the aim of your group?
Ahadi: We are humans, and that's our most important identity. All of the people, men and women, who have come [to Germany] from [Islamic] countries are humans. They've come to this country because of a better life, because of freedom, and because of better conditions. And they want to live with the people of this country, with Germans. They don't want to have a parallel society. They don't want again for young girls not to have the right to have a boyfriend or not have the right to participate in swimming class because their families are Muslims.
We represent a secular policy, a human policy. And we want to stand up against political Islam and against Western governments' policy of cultural relativism
RFE/RL: How many members does your group have?
Ahadi: We started with 40 people, but currently we have 400 members. For now, we want our members to be from Germany. We have received membership requests from other countries -- for example, from Egypt, Morocco, Iran, [and] Scandinavian countries. But we have not accepted foreign members yet. All our members are living in Germany, and our only principle is that those who become our members [must] be atheists and not believe in God or any religion.
RFE/RL: You've said in interviews that you aim to give a voice to Muslims who do not want to be Muslims anymore and give a different image of people from Islamic countries who live in Europe. Could you explain?
Ahadi: We want to change the existing picture that all people who have come from Islamic countries are fanatics, religious, or backwards and that their culture is very different from others. In my view, this is not an accurate portrait. People who come from these countries, regardless of whether they're Muslims or not, they're not different from other people, and they want to have a [normal] life. And we are defending their rights.
RFE/RL: As you know, renouncing Islam is considered a grave offense among some Muslims, and in some Islamic countries, including Iran, apostasy is punishable by death. Don't you think that your move and the creation of the Central Council of Ex-Muslims could create tension and provoke some Muslims?
Ahadi: I'm aware that a person who says, 'I'm not a Muslim anymore,' faces the danger of death. That's why I'm now under police protection. But I don't think it causes tensions. It is possible that some groups or organizations might issue fatwas against people who have [renounced Islam].
But I think one should not be afraid, and this taboo should be broken. Our goal is to break the taboo -- people who don't believe should have the right to say it [publicly], and no one should [be able to] harm them for that. But in some countries where Islamists are in power, this is a taboo; and we want to break this taboo.
I actually think that our movement will motivate people to express themselves and live according to their beliefs. If this movement expands and grows worldwide -- which is our goal -- then it could create a global front against political Islam and force [proponents of political Islam] to retreat. In Germany, there have been no official fatwas against us, and I see it as a retreat that we have imposed on Islamic organizations and also on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
RFE/RL: You said there have not been any fatwas against you or the other members of your group. But have you received death threats?
Ahadi: Right after we launched our campaign, quotations from my interviews were published on some websites, and it was said that "this woman should get her response," or they said that "she should be murdered." So there have been death threats against me on [some] websites and also through letters we have received. But there has been no official fatwa by mullahs or by the Islamic establishment of Iran.
'Clash Within A Civilization'
Controversial Islam scholar Tariq Ramadan argues that Europe and European Muslims will "win together or lose together." more
Bridging Two Cultures
Moderate Bosnian Muslim leader Reisu-UI-ulema Mustafa Ceric tells RFE/RL that European Muslims can play a role bridging the gulf between East and West. more
EU: Ministers Strike Compromise On Combatting Hate Crime
The April 19 agreement was welcomed by officials as an important step. But some have expressed disappointment that the rules have been watered-down, in an effort to win everyone's agreement.
Germany, because of its history, was one of the countries that had pushed for tough EU-wide rules to ban Holocaust denial and other forms of hate speech. Such rules already exist in Germany and many Central European countries.
Other countries, like Britain and the EU's Scandinavian members, were ready to accept penalties for racially motivated violence -- but not for mere speech. Some countries wanted specific mention of the Holocaust in the new rules. Others, like the Baltic states, wanted Stalin-era crimes to be mentioned.
Compromise Focused On Actions
The compromise that was struck aims to satisfy all sides, as EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini told journalists.
"With this proposal, I think we strike the right balance between fully respecting freedom of expression, on one hand, and punishing any criminal actions -- not ideas," Frattini said.
The rules -- which must now be ratified into law by the individual EU states -- make it a crime to incite hatred or violence against a group or an individual based on color, race, or national or ethnic origin.
They also make it a crime to deny or condone genocide or crimes against humanity with the aim of inciting to violence. The recommended penalties are up to three years in prison.
Specific genocides are not mentioned in the text, which refers to genocides recognized under the statutes of the International Criminal Court. But in practical terms, this means only the Nazi Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide in 1994.
Frattini underscored the symbolic importance of having rules that will apply across the EU.
"It's an important result because [it means there will be] no safe havens in Europe for racist violence, for anti-Semitism, for people concretely inciting to xenophobic hatred," Frattini said.
But many rights groups point out that the rules may have little practical effect. The European Network Against Racism (ENAR) says it's clear the new regulation will be too weak.
"We are happy that the negotiations have come forward and that it has actually led to a decision," ENAR spokeswoman Georgina Siklossy tells RFE/RL. "But we are very much disappointed that it has been weakened in its scope. So, I would say it's better than nothing, but we're not completely satisfied."
Siklossy says that for instance, provisions for mutual assistance between member states have been removed, depriving them of help in cases where racism is a cross-border phenomenon.
Also, the rules fail to set minimum jail terms for offenses, thereby opening the way for trivial punishments in cases where the charges are not taken seriously enough.
The issue of free speech and hate speech has taken on great significance in Europe recently, especially in the wake of the furor over the publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. That row echoed around the Muslim world.
But it's debatable whether such an event would be prevented from recurring by the new rules, since they are meant to cover actions -- not just words -- as Commissioner Frattini made clear.
Iraqi Immigrant's NGO Reaches Women Who Suffer War's Toll
Salbi is the daughter of one of Saddam Hussein's private pilots, and her family lived in a fearful, silent environment where she was taught that the "wrong kind of thought" could lead to death or prison.
When she arrived in the United States at 23, it was through an arranged marriage that quickly turned abusive, but it was the first time she was able to read a newspaper and find out what was going on in the rest of the world.
It was 1993, and the news out of Bosnia-Herzegovina told of concentration camps and mass rapes of women prisoners. The accounts of atrocities triggered deep memories of her own wartime experience during the Iran-Iraq war.
A New Life
It was then that Salbi decided to start her life again. She divorced her abusive husband and began searching for a group to support her desire to help Balkan women affected by war.
Her search took her to a Washington D.C. church, where she worked in the basement with a stack of envelopes and a few donations. She began by sending a group of 32 women in Bosnia and Croatia a letter and $27 each month. She says she simply wanted them to know they were not alone.
Fourteen years later, her nonprofit group, Women For Women International, has distributed $30 million in aid and microcredit loans and has taught 93,000 women their rights and how to earn a living wage.
Through the group's sponsorship program, Salbi has connected thousands of women around the world with each other and, as she says, has enabled "them to take control of their resources and their voices and reach out to each other in this era of war."
Today, sitting in her sunny Washington office, surrounded by photos of joyful-looking women who have graduated from Women For Women trainings in eight war-ravaged countries in Africa and Europe, Salbi refuses to take credit and speaks of the need to address "the other side of war" -- the side that doesn't receive nearly as much attention as the bullets and bombs do.
"It ended up not being about one person, but about hundreds of thousands of people literally from all over the world who are joining in this effort and saying: 'Enough is enough. I'm going to reach out and help one woman stabilize her life,'" Salbi says. "Because if war is about two sides of the same coin, we only discuss one side of the coin, and that is the frontline discussion. And that's what men lead in the discussion -- the fighting and the troops and the bullets and all of that. And what we don't discuss in war is the 'backline' discussion, and that is what women [experience in] war, which is the impact on education and on health and on food and on all of these realities of life."
That's what Salbi says Women For Women International does: build peace by stabilizing women's lives. Her work is guided by the belief that strong women make strong societies.
"We teach them about women's rights and their role in the economy, and society, politics, and health, and we teach them vocational-skills training so they can actually get jobs, and they can earn a living and stand on their feet" she says. "And that's how we believe we can help women move from victims to survivors to active citizens."
All of the training staff is hired locally, because Salbi says she believes in the value of local knowledge. In Afghanistan, Women For Women has hired 60 local employees; in Kosovo and Iraq, about 50.
Before they decide to establish a training program, staff members introduce themselves to the leaders of a community -- the chief, mayor, or cleric -- to tell them what they're planning, explain the logic behind it, and obtain their cooperation.
Then they assess the needs of the community -- what are the biggest concerns. Clean water? Safe schools? Domestic violence? And what services are needed? Beauty salons? Shoemakers? Tailors?
House-to-house visits follow to choose 20 women at a time who will receive a year of sponsorship and training. Each woman is matched with a "sister" in the West -- usually Britain or the United States -- who makes a monthly financial contribution toward a stipend for the woman -- usually around $15. The women also exchange letters and photos, and Salbi says that the emotional support is as important as the training course.
At the end of the year, the women graduate and can receive microcredit loans to start their own business or, alternatively, receive help finding employment or selling their products internationally -- whatever it takes to help them improve their lives.
"We're saying this is not only for women's sake," Salbi says. "Usually, women are the majority of the population in post-conflict [areas]. So it's also for societal sake. Because we really believe that there is no way that we can talk about building strong economies, strong democracies, strong societies without the full inclusion of strong women. And I really believe that strong women lead to strong nations. So the reason we're investing in women is for pragmatic reasons, as well as ideological reasons."
No End In Sight
Salbi points out that there have been 250 major wars since the end of World War II, producing 23 million casualties, 90 percent of whom are civilians. Three-quarters of those are women and children and the elderly. Peace, she believes, is as much about clean water, electricity, and medical clinics as it is about cease-fires and treaties.
"When we talk about peace, it can't be limited only to the frontline discussion," Salbi says. "Peace is not only the signing of a peace agreement. It needs also to mean the stabilization of people's lives and the improvement of people's lives."
Salbi makes frequent visits to the countries where Women For Women operates programs. She remembers a woman in Rwanda whose seven children were massacred and left to die on top of her -- she herself survived after being left for dead. When Salbi met her, the woman had adopted five orphans, given birth to a baby conceived from a rape, and was successfully farming a plot of land that enabled her to send her adopted children to school.
Another woman Salbi says she can't forget was an internally displaced person in Bosnia whose husband was handicapped from years of torture in a concentration camp. When Women For Women found her, she was sleeping on a piece cardboard. After going through a training course, she started a small dairy and had earned enough to buy a home, send her son to school, and care for her husband.
"I really believe war is like a flashlight on humanity," Salbi says. "It shows us the worst of it, and it shows us the best of it. And part of the success for me comes from the best of humanity. Because every time I go and visit women in Bosnia or in Iraq or in Afghanistan or the Congo or other countries, I am in awe of the strength of these women, and the strength of humanity, and the beauty of humanity -- as much as I am in awe of its ugliness."
As much as Salbi loves her work, she says she would love to see a day when there is no more work for her to do.
"I always say the day we run out of "business" would be a very good day," she says. "We only work with women survivors of wars. There are 39 wars going on at the moment, and I can't wait to live in a world that doesn't have wars."