This is a belated report on a debate on Islam versus Atheism at my campus. It was part of Islamic Awareness Week, orgainsed by the Muslim Students’ Association.
The official question for debate was ‘Should God have a place in the 21st Century?’, and the format was pretty standard for this kind of thing: two speakers on each side, a fifteen minute opening speech, rebuttals, cross-examination, and a Q&A session to round off. The arguments were pretty standard, too, for anyone who has seen a few of these debates (there are scores on YouTube). For some fairly partisan accounts, see here and here.
Wassim Doureihi spoke first for the affirmative and got the evening off to a bad-tempered start by announcing that he had very low expectations of his opponents. This was ironic as he was easily the weakest of the four, with little to offer except the observation that without God there would be no objective morality — more wishful thinking than an argument — and some unsubstantiated hyperbole about ‘atheism’s two embarrassing children — totalitarianism and liberalism’.
Next came John Perkins for the atheist side. He calmly and cogently articulated the case for secular humanism and science, and argued that morality as a product of evolution is no less robust than one laid down by an invisible lawgiver. He asked Muslims in the audience to give consideration to the reliability of any ancient document before deciding to base their worldview on it, reminding us of the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. He listed what he regarded as some factual errors and contradictions in the Qur’an.
Usman Badar was Islam’s second advocate, also very calm and articulate. He disputed what he claimed was Perkins’ assumption that scientific evidence is the only kind of evidence. Truth is also to be gleaned from multiple independent eye-wtness accounts, and also from logical deduction of the syllogistic variety. By way of illustration, he provided a version of the ‘first cause’ argument for God. In what seemed to be a variant of the Pascal’s Wager argument, he also stressed that faith is a matter of rationally assessing probabilitiues to alternative explanations. Badar also challenged Perkins’ claims of Quaranic error and inconsistency, attributing them to ignorance of Arabic and/or failures of interpretation.
The last speaker, Hossain Salahuddin, was the least calm and most emphatic of the lot. His arguments were recognisably culled from Hitchens and Dawkins, in some instances reproduced almost verbatim. I find most of these arguments persuasive myself, but I fear that Salahuddin’s style may have detracted from his message. Perhaps one or two potential apostates might be jolted out of their complacency by hearing God compared to Kim Jong Il (‘except that at least you can f***ing escape from North Korea by dying’), but in general I suspect that the strident and emotional tone would have tended to alienate the mostly Muslim audience rather than seduce it.
In any event, the mood became angrier as the evening progressed. The rebuttals on points of theology and Quranic interpretation attracted increasingly loud cheers and applause from the majority (which, to their credit, the two speakers attempted repeatedly to quell, pointing out that the event wasn’t a football match). Meanwhile the atheists in the audience, as we learned by comparing notes afterwards, were put off when Doureihi contemptuously brushed aside a question from Salahuddin as to to why, according to the Qur’an, a woman’s testimony only counts for half of a man’s. Was it because women are only half as intelligent? Apparently, the atheists were yet again showing their ignorance by challenging individual doctrines out of context.
But in a sense this ungraceful exchange went to the heart of what the event and the debate were really about. Ninety percent of the abstract theological arguments would have been covered in a debate entitled ‘Theism vs. Atheism’ without any mention of Islam. Yet, despite this being the ostensible topic, hardly anyone in this audience would have bothered to attend a debate under that rubric — the atheists because they’ve heard it all many times before, and the young Muslims because they probably don’t care much about apologetic subtleties (if one can judge from the restlessness in the back rows).
Therefore the real proverbial pachyderm was Islam as a political force and its compatibility with Western pluralism and democracy. Many in the audience would have been aware that the two theists are both members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation that has achieved sporadic notoriety, most recently during a conference on ‘The Struggle for Islam in the West’. Doureihi and Badar were hauled in for interrogation at Lateline and ACA respectively to explain comments about Australia being a godforsaken country, the inability of Muslims to shed tears for Australian soldiers, and others of an arguably unpatriotic flavour (Doureihi’s talk on the linked page is rich with this kind of stuff).
However, the elephant didn’t fully reveal its presence until the Q&A session when one young soldier for Allah expressed great outrage over one of the atheists’ earlier references to Mohammed as an ‘insurgent’. ‘He was not an insurgent’, our ‘questioner’ railed. ‘He was a military leader. He conquered Saudi Arabia. Just as one day Islam is going to conquer the World!’ This triumphant outburst prompted wild cheering and applause from a large section of the crowd. I departed at this point, so I don’t know whether there was more in that vein.
So if the existence of supernatural beings and the afterlife were the surface ebb and flow, it was earthly power in the here-and-now that formed the undercurrent. The young Muslims’ passion is primarily aroused by the hope of seeing their tribe transformed from its current marginalised and despised status into a major force in modern society. As far as the atheists were concerned, or indeed anyone committed to pluralism and secular politics, the driver is curiosity — not to mention a degree of anxiety — as to what it’s all about.
Indeed there is a good deal on which the parties can substantially agree, even if these topics were barely touched on: the culpability of Western governments in supporting corrupt and despotic regimes in ‘the Muslim world’ (though there’s no shortage of that in the non-Muslim world either); the culpability of the Israeli state; the moral and social damage caused by consumerist culture; and perhaps the advantages of increased regulation of the financial system (even if this falls short of a complete embrace of Islamic finance.)
The idea of freeing ‘the Muslim peoples’ from kleptocratic client-states, and allowing them to govern themselves sounds promising. However if secular liberals are being asked to support the replacement of these regimes by theocracies, or a caliphate, intent on subordinating women, implementing barbaric penal codes, stoning adulterers, terrorising gays, limiting the political rights of non-Muslims, and any number of illiberal practices — obviously it’s there we part company.
But the most fertile ground for suspicion, confusion, fear and loathing is the issue of Muslims’ aspirations for political transformation in the West. The problem is that it’s hard to get a fix on what that aspiration is, exactly. On the one hand, it’s not encouraging to hear, in the same breath: that liberalism and pluralism are Western red herrings, embarrassments, and so on; and that, while it’s ‘a reality’ that Islam can’t be imposed on Western countries for the time being, any person who cares about their ideology would wish to see it embraced by the whole world. On the other hand, it’s reassuring to hear Doureihi, toward the end of the Lateline interview, affirm that his organisation is dedicated to non-violent methods in promoting its cause. I’ll take him at his word; but all the same, that audience member’s exhortation to ‘take over the world’ will ring in my ears for a while to come. My impression wasn’t that he had gentle persuasion in mind.