In a timely debate, held just 24 hours after the religiously motivated incident in Woolwich, the Union considered the question of the nature of Islam.
Proposition speaker Matthew Handley started the debate by grounding it in recent events, deploring the previous day’s “reprehensible act in Woolwich”, a sentiment that he was sure would be shared by Muslims around the world.
Handley continued by separating the religion of Islam from the individuals who “violently hijack faith for violent and maniacal ends” and maintained that the Qur’an has an “overwhelmingly peaceful character.”
In the light of the “decade long surge of violence and aggression” against Islam since 9/11, he summarised the debate as a choice between “love and hate and rejection, peace and conflict” and concluded: “I hope you make the right choice.”
Speaker Anne-Marie Waters, council member of the National Secular Society, began the case for the opposition by denying that she and her fellow opposition speakers cause fear of Islam and blamed instead “the actions of Islam itself”.
She listed “9/11, 7/7, Mali, Somalia, gender discrimination, forced marriages, polygamy, amputation”, and many more. To the opposition’s claim that these acts belong to an “extreme fringe” which has misunderstood the words of the Qur’an, she described the executions for blasphemy and apostasy in Saudi Arabia, and asked “has there ever been a more spectacular misunderstanding?”
Waters concluded by arguing that it is the moderate Muslims who must “dance around meanings” and “stretch interpretations” when confronted with the fundamentally violent ideology of the Qur’an.
Adam Deen, a prominent Muslim intellectual and founder and director of the Deen Institute, countered this by arguing that “if we approach Islamic teaching fairly and objectively, there is a golden thread that runs through whole Qur’an,” an ideal of “justice” and “positive peace”.
He argued that in fact the whole of Islam is compatible with “just war theory”, in which “the virtue of avoiding violence is superseded by the virtue of justice.” He then quoted from the Qur’an which states: “Fight in God’s cause but do not overstep the limits. God does not love those who overstep the limits.”
Daniel Johnston, journalist and editor of what he called the “not very right-wing” magazine Standpoint, called Islam “the most direct threat to Western civilization in the world today”.
Johnston deplored the lack of “freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, equal rights, and separation between church and state” in Islamic countries, emphasizing that “all these ideals emerged in the West.”
Johnston claimed that a university like Oxford, with its tradition of free academic inquiry, could not exist under the conditions of an Islamic state and that “there is no university in this sense in the Islamic world”.
Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan, political editor of the Huffington Post, warned Anne-Marie Waters that her “astonishing claims” might endanger her future as a Labour Party candidate, but assured her “don’t worry, the BNP will take you”.
Hasan asked why, if Islam is “responsible for killing,” such a tiny percentage of believers actually participate in violence. He asked the audience if they really believe that 1.6 billion people are all “followers, promoters and believers in a religion of violence”.
Hasan urged them not to “fuel the arguments of the phobes and bigots and legitimise hate”, but to “trust the Muslims that you know and that you hear.”
Opposition speaker Peter Atkins, former Professor of Chemistry at Oxford, concluded the debate by describing Islam along with all other religions as a “supermarket of ideas and instructions” from which good and bad men can select what they want “according to their taste.”
However, he claimed that Islam “does in practice inspire more violence than the other Abrahamic religions”.
Taking on Adam Deen’s metaphor of a ‘golden thread’, he argued that “the opposite of peace is woven into the fabric of the Qur’an.”
Atkins declared that “all the seas incarnadine cannot wash the blood from a religion’s hands”, because “when evils destroy a human life, as they did yesterday, that life cannot be restored”. He called on the audience to oppose the motion “for the sake of humanity.”