Islam debate at UWS

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.

6 thoughts on “Islam debate at UWS

  1. Well, we ought to have our arguments in place; everything that James here connects to Islam is exactly the doctrines of Catholicism up to at least Vatican II. For most of the 20th century the church didn’t believe error had rights, did believe that God wanted all parts of the world to be ruled by catholic monarchs and wasn’t too picky about how that happened, and did believe that Jews should live in ghettos (when the Allies liberated Rome in ’44 a Vatican representative dropped into the Americans to suggest the reinstitution of the ghetto as a useful measure to promote public morality).

    We waited them out, and we can do the same with Moslems.

  2. Al Bakara 6 (Quran). “Those who disbelieve, it is the same to them wheter you warn them or do not warn them, They will not believe”.
    Al Bakara 7 : “Allah has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing (they are closed from accepting Allah’s guidance) and on their eyes there is a covering”

    Quran’s Allah puts seal on people’s hearts,eyes and hearings, so they would not believe. Then, He burns them in the hell, because they do not believe.

    An-Najm 8 :” Then he(gabriel) aproached and came closer”
    An-Najm 9 : ” And was at a distance of two bows’ length or nearer”

    God is not sure if the distance “two bows or nearer”

    Al Maidah 38 : ” and for the male thief and femail thief cut off (from wrist joint) their (right) hands as a recompense for that which they committed. a panishment by way of example from Allah”
    Al Maidah 33 : ” recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only they shell be killed or curcified or their hands and their feet be cut off from opposite side….”
    If God gets angry, some of your organs may disappear.

    An-Nisa 11 : “Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females. But if there are [only] daughters, two or more, for them is two thirds of one’s estate. And if there is only one, for her is half. And for one’s parents, to each one of them is a sixth of his estate if he left children. But if he had no children and the parents [alone] inherit from him, then for his mother is one third. And if he had brothers [or sisters], for his mother is a sixth, after any bequest he [may have] made or debt. Your parents or your children – you know not which of them are nearest to you in benefit. [These shares are] an obligation [imposed] by Allah . Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise.”
    An Nisa 12: “In that which your wives leave, your share is a half if they have no child; but if they leave a child, you get a fourth of that which they leave after payment of legacies that they may have bequeathed or debts. In that which you leave, their (your wives) share is a fourth if you leave no child; but if you leave a child, they get an eighth of that which you leave after payment of legacies that you may have bequeathed or debts. If the man or woman whose inheritance is in question has left neither ascendants nor descendants, but has left a brother or a sister, each one of the two gets a sixth; but if more than two, they share in a third; after payment of lagacies he (or she) may have bequeathed or debts, so that no loss is caused (to anyone). This is a Commandment from Allah; and Allah is Ever All-Knowing, Most-Forbearing. ”

    Assume 1 guy died and he had 3 doughter, 1 wife, 1 mother and 1 father.
    According to sura heritage distribution should be :For the doughters 2/3, for wife 1/8, for mother 1/6 and for Father 1/6.
    Total {(2/3)+(1/8)+(1/6)+(1/6)}=27/24.

    Another example: Assume guy died and he had mother, 2 sisters and a wife.
    According to sura distribution should be : for mother 1/3, for sisters 2/3 and for wife 1/4.
    Total : { (1/3)+(2/3)+(1/4)} = 15/12

    I think Quran’s God needs to come to earth to study mathematics.

  3. [1]

    I attended the debate. As James notes, the topic was poorly framed. ‘Should God have a place in the 21st Century?’ is ambiguous to say the least. ‘The 21st Century’ is a big place.

    If were an ‘atheist vs theist’ debate, then this would imply a question about whether God exists. If God does exist, then the next step is what God’s relationship with the world is. And then you can get to God’s ‘place’.

    If were a ‘secular vs theocratic’ debate, then the term ‘God’ would be a place-holder for ‘religious law and political theory’ – God’s existence being something of a side-issue.

    Admittedly the distinction is difficult to maintain if the second kind of debate is what is being presupposed. Nonetheless, it is a distinction worth making in order to keep things manageable. Alas, it was never maintained in the debate, and so we saw theological arguments alternating and mixed with political arguments, resulting in more ‘talking at cross-purposes’ than was really necessary.

    [2]

    I agree with James that a theological debate would probably not have had much of a roll-up, and I think so for basically the same reason as James offered. The only ‘spin’ I would add is that this might be explained by the difference in the average age of the two ‘sides’ of the audience – the atheist cohort being older than the Muslim cohort by about a generation; the former considering the matter intellectually settled, and the latter considering the matter a side-show, and both considering a serious theological discussion as boring as all-get-out.

    I for one, and I suspect the only one, would have liked to see a serious scholarly discussion – but I knew that wasn’t going to happen because both sides were clearly relative amateurs when it came to the high faluten’ intricacies of, say, the kalam argument.

    Aside: James, Usman version of the ‘first cause’ argument for God was not intended to be a variant of the Pascal’s Wager argument. It was just a simplified version of the above mentioned Kalam (or cosmological) argument. I think the impression that it had something to do with probability is due to Usman mixing it in with his arguments about knowledge in general.

    [3]

    As to the political aspect the debate, I consider both sides, for the most part, to be doing nothing but contributing to the ever-growing rhetorical mess of unexamined presuppositions, unreflective repetition of legends and clichés, and naive utopian idealism.

    The only thing I find interesting (even fascinating) is the extent to which Hizb ut-Tahrir swallows, apparently unknowingly, large chunks of what Edward Said identified as European Orientalist understandings of Muslims and Islam.

    [4]

    Regarding ‘the worrying’ bits, I’m not so worried. Context is important here. It’s worth remembering this is a little debate with some young people getting fired-up.

    First, since time immemorial young people just tend to get fired-up.

    Second, I think it is partially right that

    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.

    I say ‘partially’ because I would want to modify and restrict that to the more modest, “Some young Lebanese Muslims’ passion is primarily aroused by the hope of seeing their tribe transformed from its current marginalised and despised status into a not-marginalised and not-despised status”.

    Third, as far as I can tell, Hizb ut-Tahrir in particular is regarded as, at best, something of a curiosity among most Muslims. Although every Muslim I know is sympathetic to the idea of getting rid of nasty and corrupt tin-pot client-dictators, they don’t think this because Hizb ut-Tahrir told them so. They think this because they don’t like corruption, human rights abuses, economic inequality and impoverishment. As for the idea of a Worldwide Mega-Caliphate, well, like political realist, this is just bizarre.

    With that as context, I think it is clearer that statements

    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 … [and] … the audience member’s exhortation to [forcibly] ‘take over the world’.

    can be put pretty safely into the ‘rhetoric’ category.

    Aside: Today I was flicking through Changing Orders: Scenes of Clerical and Academic Life, Dr Paul Crittenden’s autobiography. At one point he recalls some students in the 1970s openly demonstrating against his choice of topics in his lecture, demanding that it be stopped immediately so that some genuinely radical – i.e. politically revolutionary – philosophy could be taught. He goes on to note that one of most prominent and passionate of those young revolutionary students now runs a successful international trade consultancy.

  4. Thanks for your reflections, Edward. For what it’s worth, I don’t confuse cosmological arguments with Pascal’s Wager any more than I confuse the Starship Enterprise with a packet of chocolate caramels. Perhaps if I had placed the ‘also’ in the sentence about Pascal’s Wager at the beginning of the said sentence I would have spared myself this wounding accusation.

  5. James,

    I don’t confuse cosmological arguments with Pascal’s Wager any more than I confuse the Starship Enterprise with a packet of chocolate caramels. Perhaps if I had placed the ‘also’ in the sentence about Pascal’s Wager at the beginning of the said sentence I would have spared myself this wounding accusation.

    I did think it was a very weird ‘confusion’. Incidentally, I sometimes confuse the Starship Enterprise with a packet of chocolate caramels because they are both so delicious. But not as delicious as a Battlestar Galactica.

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