Thursday 12 April 2012

Islamophobia - Questions and challenges for a liberal society, and for a Skeptics in the Pub.

To those that don’t know any better they might think that Skeptics in the Pub is just about mediums and homeopathy. It’s more than that though; it’s about looking at difficult questions and claims and trying to discern the evidence. Not all subjects are black and white and nor should they be. Last night we were fortunate to have a great talk by Dr Chris Allen, “Islamophobia, Questions and Challenges for a Liberal Society”. This was Chris’s first visit to a SitP and I’m always a bit nervous and excited when we have a debut speaker as you are never sure what is going to be said or how it will go down.

The room was full; there were many of the usual regulars and a good scattering of new faces that a different kind of subject usually attracts. Chris spoke without PowerPoint in an entertaining and impassioned way about a subject that he clearly feels strongly about.

The talk made me question many of my own assumptions. Chris presented evidence from his research about the changing nature of depictions and perceptions of Islam and Muslims over the last decade or so. He charted the dramatic increase of negative images and media stories that play out in our press and the rise in unprovoked hostility and aggression to members of the Muslim community. He made no conclusive connections between the two but inferred a shift in the societal mind-set that, if not exactly condoning Islamophobia would classify it as less serious than other forms of discrimination and prejudice.

Don’t for one instance think that Chris is an apologist for Islam or for the kind of implementation of that religion by some that many of us find repulsive, but it isn’t all so simple. He explicitly acknowledges that there are aspects of Islam that for many are abhorrent and contribute to the culture of fear and suspicion that then goes on to feed the rise in intolerance. This part of the talk was the most thought provoking for me as I think he verbalised my own discomfort in this field perfectly by clarifying the paradox that had been floating at the edge of my mind.

As a woolly liberal I believe in freedom of speech and protecting people against discrimination and prejudice. There are clear examples where Islam is used to suppress freedom of expression, individual rights and choice. Think to the issues around the cartoon fiasco at UCL recently, attitudes to interfaith marriage, homosexuality and so on. Therefore by supporting the freedom of expression and rights of Muslims to practice their religion as they want to am I contributing to the wider suppression of those liberal values in society? Aaargh!

There are always those that hate and need no excuse to express that hatred. Society is by no means a prejudice free idyll but acts of aggression to minority groups are usually greeted by a justified outpouring of disgust from the liberal section of society. Are we at a point, or getting to a point, where this group is becoming more tolerant to different forms of intolerance because of the perceived illiberal values of the targets? Chris didn’t try to give us answers, it’s not that easy, but there are questions to be asked and answered on all sides.

I’ll leave the review of the talk there; it was fascinating and thought provoking. Chris at no point last night mentioned that he has a book about this and when I suggested that we should tell people he downplayed the idea. So I will mention it on his behalf to give you the chance of looking further into this fascinating subject.

I’ll move on now to talk about the Q&A session which for us was a very unusual one. There were sections in the audience that had I think, already decided what Chris was going to say and also what they thought should be the focus of his research and study. There were points where the questioning bordered on the aggressive and rude. As the person nominally in charge I was a bit conflicted as to what to do. I did think about stepping in but I know that if a speaker handles this kind of thing well it turns from a negative to a positive. In his time Chris has managed to antagonise and face sections of both the radical Muslim community and the far right political movement, what's more he is a Millwall fan! I was therefore confident that he could handle a couple of rude people in the crowd and he did so brilliantly.

I was more concerned about people that were coming along for the first time. We advertise ourselves as a constructive and entertaining space for asking questions and having discussions. That wasn’t what this minority were about and I hope that if it was your first time you will come back. As our regulars will tell you that was not the norm. I know that this kind of thing is to be expected occasionally at this type of forum but to be honest I was angry and disappointed by these people. A lot of work goes into the events by the organisers and by the speakers and I felt there was the chance of it being derailed, but fortunately it wasn’t and it was still a great night.

We want people to care about the topics and the talks that we present. We don’t expect or ask anybody to agree with our speakers. Questions can be as challenging as you like. The rule though is that you treat the speaker with respect and courtesy. Chris took no money for presenting a talk that lasted over two hours in the end and he only stopped because I thought we were at a good point to do so. He then stayed on until the very end answering further questions and talking. All of this on the eve of having to head off early to a conference in another part of the country for the next morning. He by far deserves more respect than the rude people that came and shouted out their comments and the reaction of the people that I spoke to, that tweeted and emailed afterwards showed that he got it.

Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub. This blog post reflects his views.


Tony Ryan said...

"Therefore by supporting the freedom of expression and rights of Muslims to practice their religion as they want to am I contributing to the wider suppression of those liberal values in society?"

Being a bit controversial, I will say 'yes' to your question.

Freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of the right to think anything, are all important civil liberties which should be fought for, and are essentially the aim of secularists like myself. However, freedom to "practice" beliefs which are very oppressive/mysoginistic goes against fairness, equality, and liberalism.

Do Muslims deserve being treated with contempt, disgust, violence, or suchlike? No. Absolutely not. These people are human and free, as we should all be. The beliefs of individuals are not the main problem. The actions of individuals because of certain beliefs are. But, there's a balance to be found between respecting freedom, and protecting it. Giving any form of privilege to any religion or ideology which allows it precedence and power over another is simply wrong, and should be fought against through education, legislation, and legitimate debate.

@paddyrex said...

I think you summed up the some of the problems well there Tony. Where does the balance lie? These are big questions and it's good to think about them.

raetsel said...

I think the part of the problem in dealing with this is that the fallback defence of any illiberal actions from religious communities is "the sacred word" . Homeopaths have "tenets of belief" if you will but they can be challenged empirically. How do you challenge "because this book says so" ?

As for the "unruly" comments I think perhaps we suffered a little from the Pub part of Skeptics in the Pub. I suspect the affluence of incohol played a part.

Not me I should add. I was on the coke. ( The soft drink that is not the hard drug).

Chris Allen said...

Thanks for the review Patrick, I think you capture the presentation - the whole evening in fact - very well !!! I'm glad that it stimulated debate and discussion and like yourself, I've had some people get in touch who have offered nothing but complimentary feedback !!!

On a personal level, thanks also for the very kind words...


notjarvis said...

It is a fascinating subject.

One interesting thing Chris Allen said that people often forget, is that there is huge diversity within the Muslim community (like any other).

This was brought home to me today when I saw the story of the two gay French Muslims getting married. - something many people (including me) thought was pretty much impossible in an Islamic temple. Your views and assumptions on this sort of thing should always be challenged.

Peter said...

It seems I am quite likely to be one of the people whose behaviour you have identified as "bordering on the aggressive and rude" during the Q&A session. I asked the first question concerning the impact of the Sharia court system and the speaker's take on Maryam Namazie's One Law for All Campaign. Maryam Namazie has described Sharia as "a human rights scandal and catastrophe". I believe she is well known to many muslims and assumed that the speaker would at least be aware of her existence and her opinions, given the nature of his work and interests. Expecting this of the speaker can hardly be described as having "already decided what Chris was going to say and also what .. should be the focus of his research and study". I had already listened with interest to what Chris had said during his talk, and so did not need to decide "what he was going to say". If my expression of disbelief of Chris's lack of awareness on this point came across as rude and aggressive, then I can only apologise, but my reaction, was I am afraid, just too spontaneous to avoid the giving of offence.

A subsequent, unrelated question asked by someone I know, and who was sitting in front of me, could hardly be described as rude or aggressive in any way, but ths speaker's response was to imply that our two questions were somehow related in a conspiracy to trip him up with trick questions to which he could not possibly know the answer. Consequently my friend's question went completely unexplored and unaddressed.

I enjoyed the evening immensely, but found myself getting frustrated that although, as you stated in your review "there are aspects of Islam that for many are abhorrent and contribute to the culture of fear and suspicion that then goes on to feed the rise in intolerance", the speaker did not devote any part of his rather lengthy talk to exploring these aspects of Islam.

I do hope that we will be able to watch the video that was made, or at least listen to a podcast, including the Q&A session.

@paddyrex said...

Hi Peter, when you expressed your disbelief in his not knowing Maryam Namazie as "What is it you do for a living?" you managed to change the tone of the evening. The event is a chance for many people to learn including the speakers and although she may not have passed into his sphere before I bet he will find out about her and will be more aware for it. I had the privilege of chatting to her recently, for just a small time, and she came across as a very dignified and intelligent woman. I can't believe for one moment that she would condone the tone of your comment.

It will be interesting to play back the video. At this point I have no idea if it will be released as the main camera ran out of memory and we will have to see if we can splice the content together from other sources. I would think that if I was the speaker and early on I had what I would think of as an antagonistic questioning such as yours that it might throw me for a while. Chris isn't a robot, he's a human being who VOLUNTARILY came to share his work with us at Birmingham SitP.

Chris didn't purport to have the answers to the questions that he was raising, nor did he excuse Islam. His lack of total denunciation of the religion may fall short for some but he was posing us questions to discuss. I think that some of the questions that were pointed back to him missed the point of what he had said in his talk.

We welcome all at Birmingham SitP and we value freedom of expression but perhaps there are some necessary limits to that. The limits being that we acknowledge the efforts of the speakers and respect that not everybody has the same views or preoccupations that we as individuals have, and will try to conduct ourselves in a respectful manner.

I'm glad that you enjoyed yourself and I will pass that on to Chris.

notjarvis said...

I just wanted to comment as I've only been to a couple of these things and the tone was a little different this week.
I enjoyed the evening immensely, but found myself getting frustrated that although, as you stated in your review "there are aspects of Islam that for many are abhorrent and contribute to the culture of fear and suspicion that then goes on to feed the rise in intolerance", the speaker did not devote any part of his rather lengthy talk to exploring these aspects of Islam.

Peter - he openly said - right at the start of his talk that it wasn't his intention to talk about Islam religion and/or culture itself and what it does, (i.e. Sharia etc.) as he tries to keep himself independent of such debates and work on fact of how various bits fit into society etc.

A more polite response (than implying he was somehow incompetent) from my point of view would have been to fill everyone in on who Namazie was, and what her campaigns about as I've never heard of it personally, and I'm sure a few other people hadn't. All of us learning would have been an improvement

Challenging him and pushing him about a campaign he clearly hadn't seen, which is directly about Sharia Law, where he's deliberately tried to keep his independence from debates of this kind, and openly said that more than once, seemed just a little impolite to me.

Richard Crane said...

I too was a little concerned that Chris Allen was challenged in quite such a way, but also surprised that he had not heard of the 'One Law for All' campaign. On the night that I heard Maryam Namazie speak at Birmingham University, a Security Officer was posted outside because she had been attacked by some Muslim young men when she had spoken previously in London, and for the same reason her talk, which included a reference to F.G.M. (which I later learned is perpetrated on 90% of women in Egypt) had been given an uncontroversial title - so uncontroversial that I can't remember it!
I thoroughly enjoyed Chris Allen's talk and did gain a new perspective on the subject, but for me the key to the evening was the question by someone who pointed out that a phobia is "an unreasonable fear of something" be it spiders, going out of the house, homosexuals etc. It was pointed out that it is not unreasonable to fear Islam when some of its followers burn books, threaten to kill its author, murder someone who draws a cartoon, mass murder innocent people on public transport, perpetrate the attrocity of 9/11 and so on.
To me, the difference between the terrorism of those who murder in the name of Islam and others such as the Irish terrorists is the suicide element. That would be my answer to Chris Allen's question "what has changed?"
It seems to me therefore that 'Islamaphobia' would be the extention to all Muslims unreasonably, the reasonable fear of the acts of some Islamic extremists.

Chris Allen said...

I've been really interested following the comments and discussions relating to the post - I think it's good that it sparked interest and clearly people are continuing to engage with some of the ideas and themes.

I would like to - once again - clarify my position (I feel like Muslim organisations that are repeatedly asked to apologise for atrocities committed by others for whom they have no connection with whatsoever except that they subscribe to the same religion in name but not neccesarily the same interpretations !!!).

I am not an Islamic theologian. Neither am I an apologist for Islam, Muslims, religion or indeed anything else (except maybe Millwall fans !!!).

Also, dealing with Islamophobia - a discriminatory phenomenon - cannot be conflated with the illiberal or abhorrent practices that are justified by some - and it is only some - Muslims. the two are completely separate. Indeed I would suggest that those who continue to distinguish between the two are merely obscured by their own misunderstandings and agendas rather more so than anything else.

A useful analogy would be to suggest that had I offered a talk on racism, how much credence would have been given to someone asking a question who suggested that racism should not be considered or tackled until the sexist and misogynist 'gangsta' cultre of some black communities is eradicated and condemned. The two are, in my mind at least, completely separate issues.

And finally, I have since taken the time to investigate Maryam Namazie. Whilst interesting it became apparent that our positioning in relation to different issues clearly attributes greater credence to some individuals and groups than others. For me, Maryam would not be seen to be 'academic' and from her biography, has written one article with the word Islamophobia in the title which would seem to have been published online only. As such, she would not be someone that - in my opinion - would feature in any thinking around the concept or policies relating to tackling discrimination.

I have also investigated the 'One Law for All' campaign and again, whilst intersting, I wouldn't give it that much credence in terms of academic rigour.

I hope that helps to clarify (and probably anger also !!!).


Chris Allen said...

In my previous post I meant to say 'fail to distinguish between the two'.



Peter said...

Hello Chris and thanks for your response. I will take this opportunity to once again apologise for my ill-considered remark. My question, as phrased when I wrote it down beforehand, contained no such element, and it was only my surprise that led me to unthinkingly blurt out what I said, which was unjustified. I never said, and my question could not have implied, that Islamophobia should not be considered until other questions had been addressed. I am sorry if I lowered the tone of the evening, but most people, including myself, seemed to continue to enjoy it nevertheless, judging by the applause you received during the Q&A and the fact that you and the audience were still going strong when I left at 10 o'clock.

I will say that I was disappointed by your answer to my question about Sharia, because I happen to think that it discriminates badly against women and other minorities, and that if it were allowed to, would result in the same abhorrent practices in this country that we are familiar with elsewhere. I also do think that I have a right to express such moral judgements.

On a more general note, there were several people who shouted out remarks during the talk and during the Q&A, but they haven't come onto this site to discuss there own behaviour, for which I am not responsible. I don't think I shouted anything out, although I think I replied audibly to one or two questions that you may have intended rhetorically.

Peter said...

Finally, although you may consider me Islamophic, it would be more accurate to say that I am Religiophobic. I fear and dislike religions to the extent to which they excercise power and control.

rufus4000 said...

I thoroughly enjoyed both the presentation and the Q&A afterwards. The impact upon me was re-questioning my perception of Muslims and even my larger word view really. People often dislike what they fear - and fear what they do not understand - and become ignorant about what they do not accept. Prejudice is always going to be with us and Muslims are the new bogey men. I personally feel sorry for women and children in the whole Islam process and how fear based indoctrination and Islamic upbringing is. I do hold stereotypical views - yes - but they are borne out a refusal to accommodate oppression, brutality and unfairness.

Chris, you are, I feel, tackling a subject that is worthy of discussion and study and we should be grateful that you were there to present it to us. Thank you and well done!!

I did want to ask a question during the evening but didn't get the opportunity (the other corner of the room was getting undeserved attention). My question would have been - Are you aware of any Muslim organisation that acknowledges Anti-Semitism as an oppressive viewpoint or aware of any Muslim community or nation that practices or acknowledges the equivalent christianophobia or Jew-phobia as a unjust practice?

LibertyPhile said...

“Chris didn’t try to give us answers, it’s not that easy, but there are questions to be asked and answered on all sides.”

Indeed there are questions, and Chris Allen unfortunately ignores a very important one. What are Muslims themselves doing about Islamophobia? Are they doing anything about “the implementation of that religion by some that many of us find repulsive”?

You can find an illuminating review of Dr Allen’s recent book (the cover of which you display above) here.

@paddyrex said...

Chris definitely said during the talk that Muslims needed to look at the issues and ways that Islam contributed to the cycle of fear and violence. I know that he engages with groups from all sides and there is a need for recognition of the problems to be able to move on.

I don't think that this is easy and in my pessimistic moments I wonder how possible it is, but from the content of his talk I don't think that it's an aspect that he has ignored.

Perhaps people are disappointed that at this stage a lot of this is about formulating the questions, but sometimes that's what you need to do so that the answers you get make sense. (42)

LibertyPhile said...

This isn’t a new subject. Dr Allen and many others have been riding the anti-Islamophobia bandwagon for some years. We should know the right questions by now!

I wasn’t at the meeting but if he is starting to ask questions about what Muslims themselves are doing to generate so much criticism, all well and good. About time is all I can say!!!

See this nonsense, for example
And this, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamophobia.

Anonymous said...

This is a page which I would like you to read from the website of the National Secular Society. It is written by a Canadian Pakistani Muslim. I believe it has some bearing on the subject we have been discussing.

LibertyPhile said...


I think there are more Muslims like the author/speaker you link to than “islamophobes” (like myself!) give credit for. But they are still a small minority, unfortunately.

Then you have modern Muslims like this one, Sadakat Kadri, author of “Heaven on Earth, A Journey Through Sharia Law”, and a Barrister no less, who seems to me very confused. See here

PhD Procrastinator said...


"I think there are more Muslims like the author/speaker you link to than “islamophobes” (like myself!) give credit for. But they are still a small minority, unfortunately."

How do you know such Muslims are in the small minority? Your statement is constructed as a fact, so I'd be interested to see some empirical data to back up your claims..:P

I have to say, I was really saddened by the reactions to Chris' talk, simply because it was a really bad advertisement for the Birmingham Humanists. Not just the comment made by Peter, but also the (cruel) analogy made at the end of the talk whereby someone alikened a Muslim woman's hijab/burka to a clown mask and suggested that we should treat a woman wearing one with ridicule. That was almost as bad as the comment made by the long haired gent ('I'm not racist but someone wearing a burka is inhuman'). I'm not sure I want to go to any of the humanists events in the future.

I'm an atheist, but I have family members who are Muslim and what Chris was encouraging (open but constructive debate about Islam) was really useful for me. Just a shame that that message was so quickly forgotten in the hostile atmosphere of the Q+A session.

raetsel said...

@PhD Procrastinator

Perhaps in the same way as we shouldn't judge all muslims by the actions of a few, the same should be done with the Birmingham Humanists.

I'd encourage you to go to a meeting and see for yourself.

In the interests of transparency I should declare I'm an ex-member and haven't been to a meeting for a couple of years but the ones I did attend were nothing like as confrontational as the Q&A.

On a broader point perhaps this thread and the Q&A at the talk all go to make Chris's point. "Things have changed" and the atmosphere in society that, for the want of a better word, is called Islamaphobia means issues relating to Muslims in the UK raise the temperature of any discussions.

As Chris pointed this also works against those of us who would raise valid criticisms of Islam as positions become polarised and areas of discussion become blurred.

PhD Procrastinator said...

I should've specified 'Birmingham humanists' events'. I have been to their events before, but I just felt very uncomfortable in the crowd that night. But you're right! I shouldn't judge the whole of Brum Humanists based on those comments.

Anonymous said...

I did not recognise any "long haired" chap at the talk as being a member of BH.

@paddyrex said...

There have been some interesting points made about the talk on this thread and it'd be a shame if that was diverted. Whether the people in question were part of Birmingham Humanists or not they were individuals responsible for their own comments. We don't really have a membership at Birmingham Skeptics but if we did I'd hate to be held accountable or judged by the behaviour of so few.