Islam has no problem with honest debate

March 30, 2007

Andrey Rosowsky says Leeds's ban of a controversial lecture is based on lazy thinking

Working within the academy as a Muslim carries with it a cluster of intellectual tensions, the occasional theoretical compromise and, inevitably, some emotional discomfort. For those of us who ply our trade in a discipline concerned only indirectly with the Islamic world of thought and ideas, there are moments when, willy-nilly, we are called on to be the representative or spokesperson for this or that issue, or the touchstone for friends and colleagues.

The decision by Leeds University to cancel a scheduled talk by Matthias Kuntzel on anti-Semitism in the Middle East is one such moment.

This incident, like so many others, will not be allowed to find its own significance and gravity within the firmament of intellectual controversy but will be locked into that discourse that is only conveniently termed the "clash of civilisations". As an undergraduate in the 1970s, I attended a talk by a Palestinian sympathiser and was made to feel rather uncomfortable by the presence of members of the university's Jewish Society interrupting and scattering leaflets. But how much solidarity did Jewish academics feel towards those young firebrands? Likewise, did every left-leaning professor feel personally affronted by equally fiery members of the Spartacus Society?

The intellectual and theoretical distance that is afforded others is often denied the Muslim when events put Islam in the news or, more often, in the dock. The guilty party here would appear to be Leeds University, whose authorities seem either (a) to consider the threat from Muslim organisations and their members so real as to think that security issues are always at stake on such occasions, or (b) to hold such a bizarre view of what might offend Muslims that they go to any length not to exacerbate it.

The former is an example of "casual or careless conflation". Since 9/11 and 7/7, a discourse has sprung up that conflates those acts of murder with a range of other social issues that never allows those involved in the latter to extricate themselves from the tarring brush of the former. More than once, a recent Home Secretary was able to associate the so-called War on Terror with issues around mother-tongue use in British Muslim households.

This was despite the evidence that, linguistically speaking, radical Islam in the UK was emanating not from non-English-speaking community settings, but from English-speaking movements outside traditional religious organisations and networks.

The second interpretation is best described as "intellectually lazy linkage", whereby those who should know better make theoretical assumptions that position individuals in ways of their own choosing. It goes like this:

"Some Muslims might be offended by the points Kuntzel is raising, and, therefore, all Muslims are insecure and under-intellectualising and need protecting, because 'they wouldn't understand or might get violent'.''

Campus Watch draws its own conclusion: "The Kuntzel case shows that Muslims do not even need to resort to the threat of violence in order to close down academic debate on subjects they dislike." Lazy linkage? I think so. The writer makes it clear that campus Islamic groups have objected to the title of the lecture and someone else has complained to The Times about its racist undertones. And that is all. Leeds cancels the lecture - but it is impossible to escape the inference that it is really the fault of those threatening Muslims. Any Muslim opposition, it would seem, to any social, political or academic event has the authorities running to the rulebook to avoid the violent rage so sure to ensue.

Traditional Islamic scholarship has no problems with intellectual debate and freedom. The cultural anthropologist Katherine Pratt Ewing, who understands tradition as dynamic and evolving over time, accounts for prevailing concepts of tradition to be a result of the architects of colonisation establishing the coloniser's hegemony over the colonised.

Giants of intellectual debate from the Classical Period, such as Al-Ghazzali and Ibn Khaldun (and they have their modern equivalents in sufi sheikhs such as Nazim Qubrusi and Hisham Kabbani), were never so fazed by intellectual opposition that they might respond immoderately or insensitively.

This is in sharp contrast to those who might be cast as "extremist" or "radical" where response is invariably paranoid and unmeasured, betraying a lack of security and confidence of self that almost implies a sense of unbelief rather than the serenity that is true faith.

Yeats still says it best: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Andrey Rosowsky is a lecturer in education at Sheffield University.

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