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Debating Islam ( 17 Nov 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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The great debate over Islam

By Irfan Husain

Although I get my share of spam in my inbox, I often receive very interesting and useful links as well. One took me to a recent debate at New York University. Organised by Intelligence Squared, the topic was ‘Islam is a religion of peace’.

IQ2 has become an increasingly important forum for debate and discussion, and is based in London. Recently, it had invited Pervez Musharraf to hold forth, and I must say this was not the organisation’s finest moment because as I noted in this space while covering the event, the interviewer let the ex-dictator get away with far too much.

Defending the proposition were Maajid Nawaz of the anti-terrorist think-tank, the Qulliam Foundation, and Zeba Khan, a young Indian-American who set up a volunteer group, Muslims for Obama. Opposing it was Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the famous Somali dissident who first migrated to Holland, and now lives in the United States. Sharing the panel with her was Douglas Murray, the director of London’s Centre for Social Cohesion.

The format of IQ2 debates is very interesting: the audience vote for the proposition before and after the debate, and the question and answer session that follows. The side that changes the most minds through their arguments is declared the winner.

As so may Muslims are prone to do, Khan and Nawaz declared that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful, and blamed a small minority of ‘hijacking Islam’ for political ends. Hirsi Ali and Murray, opposing the motion, insisted that there were many sections of the Islamic texts that urged followers to commit violent acts. All four debaters argued persuasively, but the proposition was defeated in the final vote. Interestingly, more people thought that Islam was indeed a religion of peace before the debate than afterwards.

Perhaps the turning point came when Douglas Murray declared that despite IQ2’s best efforts, no Islamic scholar accepted their invitation to debate the motion. Another point that might have swayed the audience was Hirsi Ali’s assertion that she had to leave Holland as her life was under danger from extremists when she renounced her former religion. Murray made the further point that Islam did not permit dissent in the way other religions did.

This event was a microcosm of the larger debate going on in the West about Islam. In country after country in Europe, Muslims are viewed with suspicion and fear, and Islam is increasingly seen as a political, militant ideology rather than a spiritual, peaceful faith. In the IQ2 debate, Faisal Shahzad was quoted telling the court: “Brace yourselves: the war with Muslims has just begun.” This is a man who is far removed from the West’s perception of Islamic terrorists: educated, seemingly Westernised and successful, he was the antithesis of the angry, bearded faces Americans have come to associate with Islam. So if he could become radicalised, the argument goes, surely all Muslims are vulnerable to extremist ideology.

In Holland, Austria, Germany and Belgium, radical rightwing parties have climbed on the Islamophobic bandwagon, and have increased their votes in recent elections. Britain, while it remains a bastion of liberalism and tolerance, is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the crime and violence rampant in its Muslim communities. Although around 2.8 per cent of Britain’s population is Muslim, currently 12pc of the jail population profess Islam as their faith. And of course, Muslims are increasing at a far faster rate than any other group. According to an article by Richard Kerbaj in the Sunday Times last year, the number of Muslims in the UK rose by 500,000 between 2004 and 2008.Understandably, such statistics cause disquiet among the majority who fear they are being swamped by foreigners who largely refuse to accept the culture and the values of the host country. Even liberal Brits are beginning to question an immigration policy that has produced the tensions that are now surfacing.

Above all, the perception that somehow, Islam sanctions and promotes acts of violence is creating a backlash in the West. The truth is that in the 21st century, there are very few sacred cows left in the West. When the Pope visited Britain recently, he was attacked mercilessly in the media. The Queen is often lampooned. Steve Bell, the irreverent Guardian cartoonist, regularly portrays the Prime Minister as a condom. Nobody is spared, and nobody is off-limits.

Against this backdrop, Westerners just cannot understand why Muslims should expect special treatment for them and their faith. The point many commentators make is that if they have decided to move to the West of their own free will, Muslims should get used to the unfettered right to comment and criticise that is taken for granted here. Thus, if some nutty preacher in Florida decides to burn the Muslim Holy Book, or some obscure Danish newspaper runs cartoons of the Holy Prophet [PBUH], Muslims should ignore such provocations.

Rather than blend into the mainstream, many Muslims in the West have chosen to make a defiant statement about their identity. More and more young women are wearing the headscarf or the burqa when their mothers never did. Similarly, young men sport ragged beards and high shalwars to announce their faith. This, of course, is their choice. But it does set them apart, and signals that they have nothing in common with their Western hosts.

This deliberate distancing from the West, while living within its boundaries, gives rise to an understandable degree of hostility. Many Islamic websites and imams advise Muslims not to have anything to do with non-Muslims. Often, this results in misunderstandings when some Muslims refuse to even extend the common courtesy of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.

In the IQ2 debate, Zeba Khan cited a Gallop poll that showed that some 93pc of all Muslims were peaceful and against acts of violence. What her opponents did not immediately pounce on was the logical implication of these statistics: 7pc of Muslims are not peaceful. And 7pc of 1.5 billion comes to 105 million violent Muslims out there. For me, that’s 105 million too many.

Source: Dawn, Pakistan