The Muslim Debate Initiative (MDI) invited Tommy Robinson, head of the English Defence League (EDL) to a public debate on whether Islam or Islamophobia is a threat to Britain, at the Conway Hall on 4th October 2012.
The primary aim of this debate, and one of the primary goals of MDI, is to demonstrate that Islam welcomes debate, intellectual criticism and robust discussion. To that end, MDI has held debates in Mosques, Churches and Community Centres globally, on a variety of theological and political topics, including controversial issues.
MDI believes that the best way to counter allegations that Muslims wish to censor their critics, is by a thorough demonstration of the contrary. Therefore MDI has hosted many debates throughout its 3 year history, each conducted in a respectful but frank and robust manner. MDI has consistently invited critics of Islam (some of them quite fierce), and given them a platform so that the public may hear their argument – and the Muslim counter-argument, in a fair and civil setting.
It is interesting to note, that at the time of writing this article, far-right websites commenting on MDI’s invitation to the EDL to public debate, have chosen to selectively ignore the fact that Muslim Debate Initiative is plainly a organisation based upon Islamic principles – and more importantly, are the ones giving a platform to Tommy Robinson when many non-Islamic organisations haven’t. The mere existence of an Islamic organisation giving a platform to Tommy Robinson, runs contrary to popular Islamophobic propaganda against Islam, namely, that Islam censors criticism and silences its critics.
MDI hopes that the readers of these far-right websites will take note of this fact and the fact that their websites and reportage have conspicuously omitted comment on this glaring observation.
The response of Unite Against Fascism
In opposition to the debate with the EDL, the UAF along side other groups, mounted a pressure campaign against the venue, to cancel the event. On the UAF website, they state: ‘UAF and other antifascist activists, including Searchlight magazine, Camden Trades Council, local MP Frank Dobson and the LSE UAF society, had called on Conway Hall to cancel the booking and ensure there was no platform for the leader of a fascist organisation to promote racism and hatred’.
The event was unfortunately cancelled by the venue, stating it was due to security concerns over ‘risk to public disorder…taking into account the fact that both the EDL and the UAF would be present at the event’, and MDI had to release a Press release last week informing our guests of the postponement of the debate.
The UAF state on their website that they are an anti-fascist movement, who advocate a “no platform” policy to fascists, while also stating that they “…defend freedom of speech for the majority of humanity that fascism threatens.”
The stated reason the UAF opposed MDI’s debate was, as they claimed, because they oppose the giving of a platform to the EDL. However, in the process, they have denied Muslims the chance to defend their beliefs and speak out against the demonization of their community by anti-Muslim propaganda spouted by far-right demagogues. Anti-Muslim propaganda I might add, which is widely propagated and socially accepted as mainstream discourse.
The 2008 Report published by Human Rights First states:
‘…anti-Muslim rhetoric has also in many countries become embedded in mainstream political debate, its rise to prominence illustrated by the influence of extremist political figures, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and Jörg Haider in Austria. Radical political leaders have sought to legitimize xenophobia and have contributed to the growth of popular anti-Muslim sentiment and intolerance across Europe’.
The UAF also state the following reason for their opposition of the planned debate between members of MDI and EDL:
‘If given a platform the EDL will use this platform to gain publicity, credibility and legitimacy to build support for its campaign of hate, at a time when support for its mobilisations is actually decreasing’
Unfortunately, these words would only carry weight if the media had not already provided EDL with a platform. Evidently, the EDL already has a platform for hate speech and rhetoric on many newspapers; mainstream UK and international TV channels, as well as being able to address the European Parliament. If the UAF are hoping to deny groups like the EDL a respectable platform – that ship has sailed long ago.
In an ideal world, reasonable limitations on speech would serve to protect society as a whole from the ignorance or hate speech that ultimately leads to hate-related crimes, and in extreme cases, genocides.
However, we do not live in that ideal world. Muslims are – in practice – not protected against hate speech that incites hatred against a community defined by their faith.
While it may be politically incorrect for Liberals to condone the preaching of discrimination against minorities, it is considered equally politically incorrect for Liberals to defend religions with law systems that pre-date Liberalism. Because of this, Hate mongers are regularly appearing in the media making uncontested fallacious statements about Islam and Islamic law. You’ll seldom hear a Liberal defence of either. When Nick Griffin (BNP) stated on BBC’s Question Time, that Islam is ‘wicked and vicious’ – no one challenged him on that, despite the fact that his fellow panellists challenged him incessantly on every other of his views.
Instead of providing a refutation to the fallacious attacks against Islam, mainstream politicians and Liberal thinkers will generally respond that they have faith that like the Catholics and Jews who immigrated to the UK before them, the majority of Muslims will also eventually cease being ‘strict’ followers of their faith, and will adopt Western values. This argument is dubious and dangerous, for it implies that the anti-Muslim groups actually have a legitimate intolerance, but that their only fault is rather their impatience, or lack of faith in the expected ‘inevitability’ of Muslim assimilation and adoption mind, body and soul, of Western values. The assimulation and forced adoption of arbitrary values, is not an appealing prospect for many Muslims. Muslims justifiably do not see it as fair and just that they should have to change their beliefs in order to be tolerated. A society need only demand obedience to the law from its citizens. A society which demands more than the rule of law upon its minorities, upto the point where they are required to change their beliefs, or face threat of discrimination, and potentially, even outright persecution, is not a fair or just society.
MDI seeks to defend the position that few actually dare to defend – namely, that Islam in its unadulterated form is not a threat to Western civilisation, nor is it barbaric, nor a threat to the British public or ‘non-Muslims’ in general. Rather, Islam can be a great force for social good, promoting community values, morality, ethics and good neighbourliness in the conduct of Muslims living in the West. Islam also possesses equal (if not more) revulsion at the backward cultural traditions so maliciously connected with Islam, that have accrued onto the tradtions of Muslims coming from various backgrounds.
In pursuit of the goal to refute ignorant misconceptions of Islam, MDI seeks to bring those it considers purveyors of such misconceptions, onto a fair and open platform to substantiate their claims against Islam, and bring their claims to public account.
The UAF states that many EDL demonstrations have led to the ‘EDL running riot’,and that ‘thugs’ should not be debated.While this is true that many EDL demonstrations have ended up in violence, we’ll leave it to the British Police to deal with law and order. MDI’s choice to debate the EDL was not because they are violent, but because they represent one facet of anti-Muslim sentiment pervading the UK.
MDI members have attended Islamophobia conferences, and held many lectures explaining the nuances and reality behind Islam. However these lectures and conferences can be dismissed by Islamophobes, as merely one-sided and biased discussions. The reason for debate is clear, to demonstrate, in the presence of an opposing view, that Islam is completely different to the Islamophobic presentation of it. The debate is conducted fairly and frankly, so that the results of that debate will be more likely to be accepted by the objective observer i.e. the general public.
Secondly, the UAF’s approach to counter-demonstrate against the EDL on the streets, should not be the only way we engage the far-right. In February 2012, Eleanor Davidson of the Leicester Council of Faiths forum had the following to say about the EDL:
‘We all have to try to work out ways of engaging with these people to help them tackle their prejudice without recourse to anger and violence’.
In outlining the objectives of A Study Of The English Defence League, H.S. Lane states the following:
‘The EDL needs to be understood in the social and political context of today, not through simplistic comparisons with past organisations. It is a mistake simply to dismiss its members as being unhinged and violent, for to successfully confront and defeat something one must first understand the threat one is facing; as Paulo Freire queried: ‘How can I enter into a dialogue if I always project ignorance onto others and never perceive my own?’
The UAF need to allow other avenues of engagement with the far-right. By acting as an obstacle, they have effectively imposed their own view on others, and helped block Muslims from using new channels of communication, and presenting their own case against EDL`s rhetoric against Islam.
The Muslim Debate Initiative is not “misguided” as the UAF claim, we have been consistent in standing by the objectives as outlined on the MDI website as follows:
‘MDI is here to support, encourage and promote debate that contrasts Islam against other intellectual and political discourses for the purpose of the pursuit of truth, intellectual scrutiny with respect, and the clarifying of an accurate understanding of other worldviews amongst people of different cultures, beliefs and political persuasions’
MDI takes guidance from the example provided by the noble Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him): this certainly does not involve covering the eyes, ears, and mouth when confronted by opposing views or opinions. The noble Prophet (pbuh) did not turn his back on the ignorant without dialogue or debate. One famous case was Muhammed’s debate with the Christian delegation of Najran.
Debate is one of the tools by which people can lay their ideas on the ground, and have them examined, for the pursuit of truth – it is not conducted for sport, or point scoring. MDI understands that a debate that does not address the concerns of the people who watch it, will not effect any change whatsoever. Debate is a medium by which a market place of ideas conducts its transactions.
The history of MDI’s work with the far-right
Some of the objectors from anti-fascist groups and others, have attempted to imply that the MDI hosted the event with Tommy Robinson is nothing but a vain attempt to attract publicity to MDI, and represents a departure from MDI’s ‘usual’ Muslim-Christian debates. However, this claim is plainly ignorant of of MDI’s 3 year history and some of our biggest events and most well known published videos. Not only has MDI conducted many debates and lectures on the topics of Atheism, Secularism and other topical issues; but MDI has had a history of continuous engagement with the far-right stemming back from the first year of its establishment.
In 2009, MDI held a debate at Conway Hall and invited a member of the BNP to discuss the topic ‘Islamification of Britian: myth or reality’. Despite the UAF protest outside, the event was a great success, and concluded with all the panellists actually agreeing that Islamification was not happening in Britain. The event received coverage from Press TV and BBC Arabic (but was not covered by mainstream UK-directed media).
In 2010, an MDI member, debated a (now-former) member of the EDL, Bill Baker on a sky TV programme. The youtube video received 100,000 hits, and led to the EDL publically disowning Bill because he “made a complete fool of himself” (despite the fact that Bill’s position in the debate is not as radical as the current EDL rhetoric).
In October 2010, an associate of MDI caught on video, the american pro-EDL Rabbi Nachum Shifren at speakers corner, and questioned him until he exposed his views on his belief in the legitimacy of killing ‘fags’ and ‘apostates’ from Judaism. The video was uploaded onto MDI’s youtube channel, and a number of other channels. Again, the media were mostly silent on it.
In November 2010, a member of MDI faced down Stephen Gash, former co-founder of ‘Stop the Islamification of England’ [SIOE], in a public debate at the Cambridge Union entitled ‘This House believes Islam is a Threat to the West’. Notably, the debate was won by the opposition to this motion, and Stephen Gash left the event mid-debate in anger. The youtube video attracted over 30,000 hits.
Lastly, in 2011, MDI issued a public invitation to Tommy Robinson to engage in public debate on his contentions about Islam. The invitation was rejected with the line ‘thanks but no thanks’ issued by the official EDL Facebook page.
The debate was mooted until in May 2012, when a chance invitation was offered to MDI to appear with Tommy Robinson and other panellists for a TV debate on ‘Is Islam synonymous with Terrorism’. The subsequent youtube video attracted over 33,000 hits (and counting). On the programme, the MDI member Abdullah al Andalusi, was able to issue the public challenge to Tommy again, to engage in a formal public debate. This led to the arrangements to be made for the debate that was to be held in October 2012.
As can be seen, MDI has extensively engaged with the far-right, and with Islamophobes in general. MDI is committed to continuing this engagement, and continuing its work to initiate debate between the Muslim community and other communities, including the most ardent detractors of Islam – for the pursuit of truth, education, dispelling of misunderstanding, and improving community relations.
In line with these goals, MDI will be re-scheduling the debate with Tommy Robinson for later on in the year.
The MDI Team
3rd October 2012