City Circle: Islam and liberalism

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Last night, as previously mentioned, City Circle held a debate between Alice Kneen of Magdalen College, Cambridge, proposing the motion that Islam was incompatible with liberalism, and Dr Richard Stone of the Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia, opposing. I got there about 15 minutes late, which was probably more than halfway through Ms Kneen’s speech. She was predictably naming all the things about Islam which in her view made Islam incompatible with liberalism (the execution of apostates, etc.). (More: Towards God …[1], [2].)

After that, Richard Stone was introduced. He described himself as a “half-full, half-empty” sort of person, meaning that he preferred to call a glass half-full rather than half-empty. He described an incident he had witnessed some years ago, in which he had attended a meeting involving black and white churches, in which a woman from the Carribean got sick of what she saw as platitudes about respecting and understanding other religions, particularly Judaism, and “snapped”, getting up and telling those present that it was the duty of Christians to preach to everyone, including Jews. The others, Dr Stone said, were very hostile to what she had said.

Stone is Jewish himself, and in his mid-60s, and told us that when he was young the Jewish community wanted to be more English than the English, discouraging anyone from wearing Jewish skull-caps for example, and as the years wore on the community became more confident in asserting its identity. He also said that in recent years, in the wake of the Second Intifada, being Jewish had become rather less fun, but that he was always made to feel very welcome when he went to visit mosques.

Asim Siddiqi, the City Circle’s chairman, gave his own speech, in which he attempted to “defend Islam” by advancing his version of it, with much talk of ijtihad. He also at one point mentioned scholars who thought there should be some sort of moratorium on the hudood laws which some believe are out of step with the values of the time. Fairly standard modernist stuff.

After the three of them had finished, they opened the floor up to questions, which they decided for some reason had to be done in rounds of three - that is, three people asking questions to the panel which were to be answered together, before another three were posed. I got to ask one in the first round, which was - a point Dr Stone failed to make in his speech - what the rulings in Islam that liberals find objectionable have to do with the situation in this country? The question was not directly answered because the panellists deemed that it had been adequately answered in answers to the two other questions, which I didn’t think it had.

The point was that such matters are invariably raised as veiled threats to the community: why should you have the same civil rights as everyone else in this country when you would deny them to non-Muslims under Islamic rule? Later on, Dr Stone did partly address this, noting that followers of no other religion are currently required to justify aspects of their religion the way Muslims have been.

Ms Kneen was asked to define what liberalism meant, and she offered the usual definition of coming out of the Enlightenment, of belief in freedom, progress and “uncertainty”. One Muslim brother asked if the codes upon which liberalism is based, such as the European Convention on Human Rights, were immutable, suggesting a similarity between the respect the religious show to their scriptures and the respect liberals show their codes and conventions. She replied that this particular convention is a more recent development, based on values which had existed for much longer. (In fact, I pointed out to the brother that he should have cited the UN convention, that being a more universally-applied code than the European Convention which, as its name implies, applies only in Europe.) Later on, she opined that liberalism was based on Judeo-Christian values, which certainly raised a lot of eyebrows at the back of the hall where I was sitting.

Most of the questions aimed to flesh out what Kneen meant by liberalism and how exactly Islam was incompatible with it; the situation of, for example, what would happen if Muslims were to gain control of Parliament was discussed (as one questioner mentioned, the prospect of a Catholic takeover was cited as a reason for denying Catholics civil rights well into the 19th century). Dr Stone suggested that if this happened, they would most likely be as liberal or as conservative as others. Another suggested that Ms Kneen had based her judgements about Muslims on the behaviour of “rude boys” she had met in her research in the north - young men with a very strong Muslim group identity, but not exactly religious; she replied that she had spoken to many different types of Muslims and not just “rude boys”. Another rebutted the suggestion that Tariq Ramadan and Zia Sardar, linked to the “hudood moratorium” idea, were scholars, and said that in deriving rulings from the Qur’an and the hadeeth, it was necessary to study the tafseer, or the meanings of the verses.

I noticed that a fair proportion of the audience consisted of middle-class, “modern” Muslims (if the number of Asian-looking women without hijabs and modern shalwar-kameez-like clothing on is anything to go by). I’m not sure how popular Asim Siddiqi’s suggestion that Islamic values consisted of justice and a few other things which did not include tawheed (monotheism) was among the City Circle regulars, though; one of the panellists seemed to think that the audience might not be too familiar with how Muslims up north think and act, as if none of them were drawn from the working-class Muslim communities in places like east London.

The evening failed to address what I consider the biggest issue arising out of any “compatibility” debate: what do you mean by compatibility? Do you mean that large numbers of the two groups involved cannot live together? Or that members of one group should not be in alliance with the other? To repeat my earlier point, the issue of compatibility between Muslims and “westerners” is usually raised by those hostile to Muslims as well as to Islam itself, as a means of rebuffing Muslims’ demands that their sensibilities be respected, or for Muslim schools, hijab rights and the like. “You don’t accommodate us in your countries; why should we accommodate you?” If that is not what the suggestion of incompatibility is about, why bring it up at all?

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