Is Islam a threat to the West?

Report on a Cambridge University Panel Discussion

by Andy Bannister

On Thursday 23rd January 2003 the Cambridge Union (Cambridge University, England) was packed with several hundred students for a controversial event entitled "Is Islam a Threat to the West?" Originally intended to be a debate, the line up of guests had been planned to include the somewhat notorious Sheikh Abu Hamza (Finsbury Park Mosque); Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad (leader of the fundamentalist Al-Muhajirun Party); and a representative of the extreme right wing British National Party. However, pressure had been placed on the Cambridge Union and the extremists were removed from the line up. The re-organized event was then pitched as a panel discussion featuring Mr. Jay Smith (Hyde Park Christian Fellowship), Dr. Azzam Tamimi (Islamic Institute of Political Thought) and Dr. Tim Winter (Lecturer in Divinity, Cambridge University, and a Western convert to Islam).

From the start it was evident that the two Muslims on the panel were there to represent a moderate, laid back Islam (in Dr. Winter's case, so laid back, he was almost horizontal), whereas Mr. Smith's role was effectively to represent not only his only views but to attempt to put forward the viewpoint of radical Islam, in the absence of Abu Hamza and Omar Bakri Muhammad (who the other two Muslims had refused to share a platform with). At a similar event held at the Oxford Union, last year, the students had more or less unanimously sided with the moderates: being a largely secular audience, they did not really want to believe that Islam contained a hard, radical aspect. Secular liberalism continually labours under the misconception that everybody else is just a secular liberalist underneath. In the light of this, the Cambridge audience was interested to see how the event would go.

The debate begins

Once the three panelists had made their opening statements, discussion was thrown open to the floor and for two hours the questions came thick and fast, fired more or less equally at each member of the panel. The topics covered were fairly broad — how does one define "Islam"; the issue of terrorism; Islam and women; human rights; immigration etc. What became clear as the evening went on was that the two Muslims on the panel were far from united.

Dr. Winter was, perhaps, as liberal and moderate a Muslim as it is possible to be. For him, Islam was more or less whatever you wanted it to be. He continually tried to stress the pluriform nature of Islam — for any given verse in the Qur'an you could find a thousand different interpretations. In so doing, he effectively attempted to subvert the question "Is Islam a threat to the West?" by turning "Islam" into such a slippery term that it was indefinable. Interestingly, however, his position became a little inconsistent when it came to the radicals. Mr. Smith consistently pointed out that the radicals were backing up their extremist views with scripture — the Qur'an and the Hadith. They were going back to their paradigm, drawing from the life of Muhammad to validate their teachings and actions. Mr. Smith challenged both Dr. Winter and Dr. Tamimi to show how one could exegete the sword verses in a way that was "peaceful", a challenge they failed to rise to. It was puzzling to observe Dr. Winter's repeated attempts to write off the radicals and all they stood for as, effectively, un-Islamic. Here, I believe, the audience quickly began to see the inconsistency in his position: if any reading of the Qur'an is valid, if there are indeed myriad interpretations of any verse, then presumably the radical's reading of the Qur'an is as valid as that of a moderate. Dr. Winter at no point offered any real criteria for how one decides whose exegesis is right or wrong — he was trapped on the horns of a postmodern dilemma.

Dr. Tamimi on the other hand, started out with all the appearances of a moderate, applying a moderate revisionist hermeneutic to his interpretation of Islamic history. He tried to paint a picture of early Islam as a form of "liberation theology", freeing people from the oppression of e.g. the Byzantines, as it spread from Mecca across North Africa. He spoke of the harmonious relations that Muhammad had with the Jews and described the Treaty of Medina as a wonderful piece of community relations. Mr. Smith strongly rebutted him on this point, raising not least the example of the treatment of the three Jewish tribes in Medina under Muhammad (two were expelled and of the third the adult males were all executed, and the women and children sold into slavery. See this link for more information.) Although this unsettled Dr. Tamimi, there was a danger that at times the discussion was getting too technical for the audience. Whilst those who had done any Islamic studies could easily see that Dr. Tamimi was attempting to give a glorious sheen to some decidedly tarnished aspects of Islamic history, the rest of the audience did not always follow.

However, things quickly picked up when, just as he had done with Dr. Winter, Mr. Smith raised the issue of the "Sword verses" with Dr. Tamimi and asked him what he would do with, for example, Sura 9:5: "... fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) ..." Dr. Tamimi's response was, effectively: "Why does this verse worry you? It is talking about pagans. So Christians, Jews etc. don't need to worry." Mr. Smith quickly asked "What about Hindus who worship idols, or many of those people sitting here who claim no religious affiliation?" which rather stumped Dr. Tamimi. The audience began at this point to perk up: this Muslim was not as moderate as perhaps he had made out. Slaying pagans was, apparently, all right. Given that the majority of the audience probably was technically, pagan, Dr. Tamimi had certainly committed something of a faux pas.

Things got even more interesting when the issue of Shari'ah law came up. Dr. Winter took his typically "pluriform" approach, unhappy with the idea that Muslim jurisprudence today should be restricted to the traditional four schools. Even Dr. Tamimi spoke of the need to adapt and contextualise. Those in the audience who had studied Islam wondered if this kind of smokescreen would distract the audience from seeing the real issues — but then the most amazing thing happened. A member of the audience asked a question concerning the rights of women under Islam. Under Shari'ah, of course, they are treated as inferiors — morally, physically, spiritually and legally. She connected this issue with Surah 4:34 which speaks of the right of husbands to beat their wives, and asked the panel to discuss the implications of this. Dr. Winter went strangely quiet at this point but Dr. Tamimi gave the most incredible answer, an answer that swung the whole mood of the house in Mr. Smith's direction. Engaging in an impromptu exegesis of 4:34, Dr. Tamimi firstly said that beating was the last in a series of three steps that husbands could use to "discipline" errant wives (a ripple of concern swept the audience at this point), so to concentrate on beating alone was to miss that. But Dr. Tamimi also said that he was regularly surprised why this verse was such a concern to Westerners since he knew of many Arab women who regularly asked their husbands to beat them! At this point I thought he was going to get lynched by the women in the house.

The other issue that regularly cropped up in the discussion was of course that of terrorism, the Muslims on the panel consistently seeking to lay the blame for 9/11 and all that has followed (whilst they, of course, condemned such attacks) at the feet of America and its foreign policy. Given that Mr. Smith was an American, they were perhaps hoping that the audience might turn against him (especially as, worse still, he was an American Evangelical Christian). But Mr. Smith did an excellent job of distancing himself from the 'gung-ho' approach of the US at present, pointing out that as a 'Mennonite' in roots, he was of course a pacifist. His willingness to criticise US policy where necessary, but not give in to the insipid anti-Americanism of the other panelists, actually worked very well — it helped many of us in the audience see that of the three panel members, Mr. Smith was the only one really able to show any self-critical awareness. What was a shame, however, was that the discussion only centred on 9/11 and anti-American terrorism. It would have been interesting to see how the panelists would have explained Bali, for example, or the treatment of South Sudan by North Sudan, or the difficulties in Nigeria? As Samuel Huntingdon puts it in "Clash of Civilizations": Islam has bloody borders (p254-265).

Overall, the evening seemed to go remarkably well and, for many in the audience, enabled them to begin to see the threat of radical Islam — and, perhaps more importantly — understand what it is about the roots of this particular ideology that give flower to violence and oppression. Despite the diverse topics covered, I think the audience began to understand that:

In short, if there had been a vote on the motion, I think Mr. Smith may well have got this one. However, at the end of the day, it is not about votes, or "winning", but about presenting the truth, getting the audience to think, and about challenging the moderates on their foundations.

This was brought home during their closing statements, when each of the panelists was asked to sum up their thoughts. Mr. Smith went last and, in two minutes, managed not only to recapitulate the key points, but also to present the Christian gospel, relevant to the theme of the discussion. He spoke of the importance of paradigms — for Islam this is the Qur'an and the life of Muhammad, but for him as a Christian, it was the gospel, and the life of the Lord Jesus Christ, both of which modeled the peace desired by all of those in the room. This was why as a Christian he could condemn any violence — be it past and present Islamic terror, the Crusades in the history of Christendom, or any other kind of violent action. In short, he had a universal foundation on which to stand, versus the moderates who, in the case of Dr. Winter, seemed to have simply confused the audience, and himself, desiring peace, yet failing to back it up with any scriptural authority.

Finally, the evening showed the importance of presentation. Apart from the help given by Dr. Tamimi and his incredible 'gaffs', what made Mr. Smith's presentation and answers so relevant was the ability he displayed to adapt them to the audience; to get the audience to understand the issues. In front of a largely secular audience, saying "but the Qur'an says this, and the Hadith says that" to the moderates, can come across to the secularists as intransigent. But on Thursday I believe Mr. Smith managed to answer a key question in the mind of the audience: "why is the crucial issue that of what the Qur'an and the Hadith say?"

He was also able to make the important point that if they are not careful, Western moderate Muslims could be accused of trying to force their revisionist interpretation of Islam down the throats of the majority of the world's Muslim population who are not westernized. This is effectively cultural imperialism. Even here in the UK, on the statistics Mr. Smith quoted, the radicals number 15%-25% of the Muslim population (depending on which survey you follow). To any liberal secularist, the charge "cultural imperialism" is a severe one indeed, and it was a point well made.

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