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.