I spoke at Winchester Skeptics / Hampshire Skeptics society the other night in Winchester on the subject of Islam and violence. Given the sensitive nature of the subject, and one that can get people very heated on both sides, it ended up being one of the best-received talks I have done. Without being conceited, and given that I deliver about six different talks, I have never had a bad experience, much of which I put down to my teaching experience. Often you go and see speakers who happen to be experts in their given fields, but who simply struggle to engage the audience because they do not have the requisite rhetorical skills. Personally, public speaking is part humour, part stimulating content, and part interaction with the audience. For this reason, I always invite the audience to question me throughout the talks I give, in order to clarify their understanding when it is most relevant, but also to challenge me where it is most necessary. I do not give talks, I facilitate talks. This means there is constant interaction, fending off any potential boredom and keeping it free-flowing.
I was amazed to have been told variously that it was “the best talk I have ever seen” and “you are the best orator I have ever seen” and similar, and by so many people. Nice.
But enough self-congratulatory nonsense. What I wanted to mention was my case and the Muslim who came down from the audience to challenge me. My position is pretty similar to Sam Harris. I claim (being a philosopher and someone who has read the Qu’ran) that Islam is inherently violent. It is not what my fellow liberals want to hear, and I have had vociferous debates with them (but the people in question have unanimously not read the Qu’ran). The idea seems to be that Muslims are often oppressed minorities and this means liberals should defend their rights and religious predilections. Indeed, papers in the UK like the Daily Mail and the Daily Express vilify Muslims with outright Islamaphobic and xenophobic rhetoric, enraging liberals. (Yes, I hate those papers.)
However, I claim that the role model-ship of Muhammad, and the Qu’ran, followed by the Hadith if necessary (which are much worse and violent still) are inherently intolerant, dehumanising and violent. The nice stuff is abrogated by the violent stuff (chronologically so, with the technique of naskh: when there are contradictions in these words of God, the later revealed ones trump the earlier ones). With Muhammad, the later in his life, the more powerful and militaristic he was, and so he moves from preaching peace to preaching more violence and intolerance to match his own political machinations.
Add the Qu’ran to the historical beheadings, killings, beatings and tribe-conquering of Muhammad, and its diktats directly from God that Muslims shouldn’t be friends with non-Muslims, and all sorts of really problematic claims, I state that whilst there might not be a “True Islam” (you would need Platonic Realism for that), there is a rationally defensible truer idea of Islam given what Muhammad left us.
My claims are that there are four “pillars” of Islam: Muhammad, The Qu’ran, the Hadith and believers (past and present). Three of these are really problematic, leading to the fourth being more likely to have issue (than, say, with secular humanism and -ists).Liberals don’t like this, but it is vital to see a difference between Islam and Muslims (who are fellow humans). I am attacking Islam not Muslims, in this sense.
At the Q and A, someone who was a listening Muslim asked to come down and take the hand mic to take my claims to task. I was worried, to be honest. I am not an Islamic scholar and could well be wrong in so many of my claims (something I announce at the start of the talk).
He started by saying he respected me and my talk but not my interpretation of Islam. I actually thought I was about to be schooled by someone seemed to be a liberal Islamic intellect. It turns out he runs an Islamic radio station (he was clean-shaven bar a small moustache, and dressed “normally” to give you the totality of my knowledge about him). He had a prepared set of notes he had made, and wouldn’t really let me reply point by point, but wanted to finish his piece because he had to get a bus.
But my worries were misplaced. There was not a thing he said that properly contested my position. He attacked me for not understanding what Islam is, and having an incorrect insistence that it was largely about Muhammad – yes, he is important, but what was more important are the five pillars of Islam, he claimed. I wonder if he thought my use of four pillars was random and I didn’t know what I was talking about. He stated the five pillars were what Islam and Muslims are about.
Well, of course. However, as I countered, do you think you would have the Hajj and the call to prayer if you did not have Muhammad and the Qu’ran. Crikey, without these two entities, the five pillars are meaningless – they wouldn’t exist.
There was nothing this guy had in his armoury to counter my position with any substantive effect. I rebutted all his claims with consummate ease, I would claim.
And that’s sad.
This is the problem: what I am doing, then, is providing intellectual ammunition for people like the Daily Mail. I argue that, as long as Muhammad and the Qu’ran are a part of Islam, you will have a violence integrated within the belief system. And they’ll never be dropped because they are Islam, in large part. Without the revelation itself, what have you got?
These are the sorts of questions that I ask the audience, as a result of this:
- Can there be a reformation (given the revelation was the direct, immutable word of God)?
- Is it right I even do this talk? Does it harm social cohesion?
- In this way, is it morally better to bury this kind of truth to herald liberal and moderate Muslims (given I argue they have a less accurate interpretation of their religion)?
As of yet, after my half dozen outings for this talk, there have been no really clear-cut answers to these questions. As I say, I think this problem is unsolvable.