Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A joyous evening with the Muslims of Sheffield

It's fair to say I was rather looking forward to the "Islam vs Liberalism" debate due to be held by the Sheffield Hallam Islam Society. I don't know a huge amount about Islam and it's often hard to establish what the truth is beyond the polarised media. I have often seen interviews with moderate Muslims who have argued that Islam is a religion of love, peace and tolerance, which had led me to believe that mainstream Islam may well be in line with liberal, secular Britain much in the way moderate Christianity is.

My hopes were dashed fairly early on. When we were waiting to go in I observed that men and women appeared to be standing separately, but didn't really think anything of it. This became more obvious when the women were admitted to the lecture theatre first by one door, and the men by another afterwards. My jaw dropped yet further upon entering the theatre, when I saw that the women were at the very back of the lecture theatre and the mean at the front with maybe 20 empty intervening rows. I am aware of the somewhat sexist nature of Islam, but had not expected to see it so obviously and explicitly in the UK, at a University, and for them to ask the female members of the atheist contingent to sit at the back too. When people in the UK talk about sexism, they mean that women are under-represented in government or on the boards of FTSE 100 companies, or that previsions for maternity are lacking. What I observed here was so far beyond that. The open segregation of men and women was akin to apartheid. I felt like a white person at the front of the bus. I have sometimes wondered if it's possible to feel genuine, pure, blood boiling anger about something that is offensive to someone other than yourself. I discovered it was as my face was red with fury even as I said down. From that moment there was nothing that could be said to convince me that Islam is a tolerant, non-sexist religion.

When questioned on this issue, the Muslim speaker Hamza Tzortzis (whose hate speech is available on YouTube) claimed that women choose to be separate. I wonder how many of the women in there felt they could possibly consider sitting amongst the men? I wonder what would have happened if they had. I'm fairly certain that, particularly if there were no outsiders there, they would probably have been told they weren't allowed, and risk ostracism. Hamza argued that if an observer came in and saw the women at the back (in a tiered lecture theatre) they would assume they were more important as a result of being higher up. This misses the issue with segregation. Irregardless of who is higher up, segregation is still occurring. And his claim that they were more important than men was severely damaged by the fact that during the Q&A only a single woman from the back of the room asked a question, and others submitted them in written form, presumably either as a result of feeling they couldn't speak in a room full of men, or because being at that back of the room meant that no-one at the "unimportant" front, where the debate was actually happening, would be able to hear them.

Hamza was questioned further on women's rights around the issue of rape. In Islam there are various rules relating to the punishment of rape victims which he was challenged on. To claim that Islam respects women, Hamza's defence was that the punishment for a rapist is crucifixion. I think that even most supporters of the death penalty would argue that crucifixion is a step too far, and that he actually cited this as his defence opened up a whole other can of worms. To add to this, he said that the punishment for falsely claiming that a woman has been raped is 40 lashings and the removal of a hand and a foot. Again, this is rather an appalling defence by the standards of most sane people.

Fortunately the issue of homosexuality was not raised until the very end, at which point it is no exaggeration to say things almost came to blows. The issue was coincidentally raised by both a Muslim and atheist questioner in close succession, albeit from extremely different viewpoints. The answer Hamza gave to the issue was a regurgitation of Christianity's popular "love the sinner hate the sin" excuse for an argument. People are permitted, he maintained, to have homosexual tendencies (he himself knows "people with homosexual tendencies who call themselves Muslims"), as long as they don't act upon them. So far so predictable. Furthermore, the necessary conditions for punishment involve four witnesses, who are not allowed to be spying in people's private property, so the offence must, essentially, take place in public. Where the problem lay was that after further questioning, Hamza used the old "if we're going to allow this, why not allow paedophilia" argument. I was too incensed with rage to be able to remember specific elements of this exchange in order report it in any detail. Needless to say the comparison drew vocal outcry from the attending atheists, who were heckled by a Muslim gentleman sat a few rows in front to "show respect". There were several more vocal and angry exchanges on the topic at which point the debate was ended.

I am frequently amazed by the determination of religious people whose religions are full of sexism, intolerance and homophobia, who are determined to package it in the language of love and peace. Hamza was, to his credit, a fantastic speaker, although his petty descent into name calling, in spite of being in front of a generally sympathetic audience was remarkable, as well as his disingenuous misdirection and lying. His speaking skills can be seen in the video at the bottom of this page.

The problem, I think, is not an issue with "all Muslims" in the way people like to generalise. What I saw was a room full of, presumably reasonably intelligent people, who could sit in a room and, ignoring the terrible metaphysical and historical arguments, listen to someone who believes homosexuality is akin to paedophilia, and who believes that crucifixion is ever an acceptable punishment, and not only remain silent (as no-one from the atheist society felt able to do), but applaud, and, in some cases, cheer and think "this is a religion I want to be a part of". This terrifies me slightly, as these people are not crackpots like the Westboro Baptist Church that are known for their crazy views, these are people whose religious beliefs are respected solely as a result of being religious beliefs, when actually views like this are more objectionable than those of the BNP, who receive a significantly higher amount of attention from the media and politicians. Admittedly, the fact that Islam comes from a foreign culture makes it slightly less palatable to the secular Brit. When a brief prayer is said at the beginning of a Christian Union even (although it rarely is) it's relatively unremarkable to people who likely went to a Christian school and have probably been to church services in their lives. To see someone with a long beard chanting in a foreign language wrongly creates an impression of "other" which is unfair to use in claiming that Islam is more cult-like than mainstream Christianity. But if we stick to the facts, the views expressed were beyond anything I've heard before, and the segregation of men and women is an inexcusable custom. What was most disturbing about it was that the women there appeared to be convinced that by sitting at the back with their heads covered, and not being expected to speak, they weren't inferior they were just "different". This is something that can only come about as a result of brainwashing, particularly when they can see men and women harmlessly interacting with each other all around.

It's also possible to see how extremism comes about. In any group of similarly-minded people it's easy to get carried away by the fact that you all agree, and that your views are not challenged. In the atheist society, things are sometimes said or accepted without challenge that are perhaps objectionable as a result of being amongst the like-minded and the fact that nobody wants to be the sole objector. But when a group of people has already accepted that they can't sit with their equals of the opposite sex, and when lashings for someone who has told a lie is accepted as a reasonable punishment, this is extremism. And when that group believes they have a god on their side, and that they are going to receive eternal bliss in service of this god, it's not a huge leap to get violence and terrorism. This is not, of course, to say that "all Muslims are terrorists" but that any insular organisation that goes unchallenged, when they believe they have divine authority, is bound to become a breeding ground for extremism, particularly when their views are extreme to begin with. But in stead of facing up to this all we hear is denial. Whenever Hamza was questioned on the state of Muslim countries around the world, he replied that those people were not Muslims, or that they were Muslims under a dictator they didn't want. I am not about to claim that repressed people want a dictator, but the only way of not having a dictator in some form is to have democracy, a liberal principle which was not strongly touched upon in the debate, but its acceptance would entail an acceptance of a core liberal principle which would not have helped his cause. In Egypt, where a dictator was recently overthrown, the first elections has rendered an Islamists the victors. We have yet to see how this will turn out. Iran is a theocracy, under the control of Islam and its interpreters, and Saudi Arabia a country whose legal system is based on Sharia law. To deny these countries and their repugnant practices are connected to Islam is akin to putting fingers in your ears and going "la la la". Similarly, it is dangerous to argue that violent Muslim extremism is nothing to do with the Muslim community. If views like the ones expressed at this event are acceptable to even a small portion of Muslims, there is an obvious problem with extremism and potential for violence.

It's difficult to say how mainstream the views we heard were. Apologists will always try and argue that most Muslims don't have views like this. From Christian events I have been too it has become apparent that, while some of the more objectionable views are more common than a liberal such as myself assumes, a vast number of people who call themselves Christian apply this to only a small or non-existent extent in their lives, and even those who attend church regularly often have little in common with the slavery-supporting fundamentalists I have encountered. However, my impression of the debate was that the views expressed were more common than we might assume. I estimate there to have been 150 Muslims there (it was rather obvious who they were as almost everyone there was a Muslim or an atheist and there was an obvious racial difference, as well as bearded men and headscarved women), which must be a reasonably significant proportion of Sheffield Hallam's Muslim population. Furthermore, this was not a fringe group like Synergy, a Christian group at the University of Sheffield, it was Sheffield Hallam Islam Society, which I assume encompasses the mainstream of Muslim thought. Of course it's not possible to know what every Muslim thinks, but this experience, coupled with a survey that was done a short while ago in which no statistically recognisable proportion of Muslims could be identified who agreed that homosexuality is acceptable, suggests that the problem of Islam is one that's greater than many moderate secular people, who are keen not to appear in a league with the racist EDL and BNP, are prepared to recognise.

I welcome your comments.

But don't feel obliged.