I am writing to register my anger and disappointment with a lecture given recently by an Islamic cleric entitled "What is sharia law?" as part of the University of Southampton Islamic Society's Islamic Awareness Week 2008. In light of the public hysteria surrounding the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams's recent comments regarding the place of sharia in UK society, I attended this event in the hope that it might provide an informative introduction to the principles and practices of sharia - not, I would suggest, an unreasonable expectation, given the title of the lecture and the week's agenda of "awareness".
Instead, I encountered an aggressive, self-righteous and intolerant speaker who, far from providing an accessible insight into sharia, proceeded to argue for the introduction of aspects of sharia into the British legal framework. Of course, aside from presenting a misleading title, there is nothing at all wrong in putting the case for this; yet when the cleric proceeded to cite "statistics" concerning the relationship between female sexual promiscuity and ethnic origin, his oration descended into little more than a racist attack on the moral integrity of different peoples. After a while, I walked out of the room in absolute disgust.
My anger was short-lived, but disappointment and despondency remain. Here is a cleric who had been invited on to our campus as an authority on Islam. How I wish I could state that the views he expressed are not representative of those held by the moderate majority of Muslims and that his was an "isolated voice". How I would love to say that. Unfortunately, I can't; not because I don't believe it to be so, but because - to my occasional embarrassment - I don't actually know many Muslims (and despite the protestations of some other white middle-class liberals, I doubt I am alone).
The importance of awareness-raising events such as this, therefore, is surely all the more acute in environments where the vast majority of "encounters" with Islam arrive courtesy of the popular press. I would urge the organisers of IAW '09, however, to be aware that "raising awareness" cannot be conceived of only as a one-way "road to enlightenment" for those of us unfamiliar with Islam - it can also, if insufficiently managed, offer a perverted representation. Failure to recognise this can, at best, serve to alienate potential sympathisers and, at worst, fuel the fires of Islamophobia. The event was a missed opportunity for engaging and respectful debate.
James Macmillen, Senior research assistant, University of Southampton.