Last night I went to see The City Circle debate 'Islam is incompatible with liberalism'. It was good to see that the room was packed, mainly with young Muslim students and professionals. The format was quite simple: the speakers were given around 10 minutes to argue their case, and then the debate was open to questions or comments from the floor. First I present a precis of the arguments and then my own views.
The argument for the motion that Islam is incompatible with liberalism
Alice Kneen, a PhD candidate in her final year and graduate of Magdalene College, Cambridge, started off by presenting her case for why she believes Islam is not compatible with liberalism. Most of her arguments were based on the data she'd gathered during her research with Muslims living in Oldham (she lives and works in the Greater Manchester area herself). Her basic arguments were that "as value systems", liberalism and Islam cannot be reconciled; there are fundamental points over which the two disagree that makes them incompatible. As examples she cited liberty and freedom of belief promoted by liberalism as against the lack of such freedoms in Islam; the Muslim belief in the Qur'an as God's Word as opposed to the humanism of liberalism; and the notion of equality between men and women defended by liberalism and opposed in Islam. She said that she had noticed a difference in views between generations. Older, first generation, Muslim Oldhamites had different views to some of their children; the younger Muslims were more 'strict in their Islam'. She said that the belief that Islam was a superior religion than other beliefs was at odds with how liberalism sees people of different beliefs and views. Kneen also heavily criticised Tariq Ramadan and Ziauddin Sardar. Her claim was that they were 'liberals first and Muslims second', because they espouse 'liberal values' and she couldn't see how they could make 'Islam compatible with liberalism', whilst at the same time 'believing in the Qur'an as God's Word'. Lastly, she said that social cohesion had started to break down (giving us the Home Office definition of social cohesion), and cited the race riots in Oldham as an example of why Islam was not compatible with liberalism. In her own words, it was 'impossible to measure social cohesion', but was 'easy to measure where it was breaking down'.
The argument against the motion that Islam is incompatible with liberalism
Dr. Richard Stone, was chairman of the old Commission on British Muslims and Islamophobia and holds a number of key positions in numerous organisations, was opposing the motion presented by Kneen. Essentially, Stone's argument against the motion was firstly about about how one should approach minority groups (and gave us numerous parallels to his time as a young Jew living in Britain). Secondly, that his own experiences were at odds with Kneen's pessimistic views, although he conceeded that her fieldwork was far more rigorous than his own perceptions. According to Stone, the approach to Muslim communities ought to be, in the first instance, asking them what they need in order to better integrate with 'mainstream' society (like access to better healthcare, jobs, education and housing). He said he found that Muslim communities he'd visited, also in the north of England (he gave Beeston as an example, from where two of the London bombers came from), were happy to integrate; they disliked the isolation they experienced and wanted to meet and interact not only Muslims from across Britain, but also non-Muslims. He said that what was needed was dialogue and interaction between Muslims and others to marginalise the 'literalist' and 'extremist' voices.
The panel also included a chair (a South African Muslima, whose name escapes me) and one of the co-founders of The City Circle, Asim Siddiqui. The role of Siddiqui was to question the assumptions of Kneen. His basic argument focused on the point that Kneen had, unfairly he felt, given due prominence to one particular 'interpretation of Islam' and of calling this True Islam as opposed to other (weaker?) forms of Islam as lived and thought of by, say, the Muslims in the audience or Tariq Ramadan. In addition he said that taking the 'core values of Islam and the aims of the the shari'ah' that there was there needn't be too big a clash between Islam and liberalism.
My thoughts on the debate and views from the audience
While I thought the topic of the debate was an interesting one, overall the debate was poorly organised and poorly argued by both sides.
I don't think Stone presented a very good case against Kneen's points. Perhaps a polemical debate isn't his cup of tea? Given his history as a founder of Alif-Aleph UK and the Jewish Council for Racial Equality, I think he is more at home in reconciliatory discussions, rather than a heated debate where giving complex, philosophical, points rhetorical force is important. From his ten minutes I could not see why Kneen's thesis was faulty, other than knowing that some Muslims he'd met were friendly towards him (he was also complimentary to Muslims who showed outward expressions of their faith, saying this had allowed more observant Jews to wear symbols of their religion); and that some Muslims wanted better access to facilities. The fact that, once his ten minutes was up, Stone contributed little merely underlines my point.
Kneen's arguments were flawed on several points too, although I don't think her basic belief was wrong, per se (for reasons I'll come onto). It was fair of her to ask the question and to make the case. She is, afterall, only propogating her views (as she admitted when she said that the one thing liberals like her could learn from Islam was the concept of da'wah). However, her arguments were marked by sloppiness. For a start, for a research student in the final year of her PhD (and a graduate of such a prestigious university) to make such a basic error regarding the supposed Qur'anic verse on stoning (there is none!) is quite poor. This doesn't dismantle her arguments, but it's just a little sloppy and factually incorrect.
At first she made little attempt to define both liberalism and Islam; questions from the floor made this point too. In response she said that liberalism was best defined as being 'progressive', accepting of 'uncertainty', and of utilising 'rational methods of inquiry'. Although the very idea of Progress in human history is questionable, her strongest point on showing that Islam was incompatible with liberalism would have been a case for moral progress as described by liberal theories. This idea would be contradictory to many widely held Islamic beliefs; although, for some reason, she didn't drive this point home. However, uncertainty and the use of rational methods of inquiry are not unique to liberalism and not even anathema to Muslims (just read al-Ghazali). Would she have argued for the uncertainty of reason, through which she grasps the world? She certainly wasn't arguing for a postmodernist view, given that she asked for liberalism not to be conflated with moral relativism (notwithstanding the point that liberalism is itself a contested tradition). And how can one reconcile social cohesion, which must require some element of certainty in thought and practice, whilst stressing the role of uncertainty in liberalism? It appears her own uncertainty was itself limited by more pressing needs (the need for moral certainty and a cohesive national identity). What's more, Kneen didn't actually present any data which showed the audience that her description of liberalism was held by most Britons!
I found her usage of the race riots in Oldham to prove that 'Islam was incompatible with liberalism' quite strange to say the least. Was the Brixton riot the 1980s -- and the numerous race riots across Britain involving predominantly black Britons -- proof that Afro-Caribbean identities and beliefs were incompatible with liberalism? No; in fact, after those race riots different questions were asked of policing and social deprivation. Why ignore these questions in relation to the riots in northern England involving South Asian (nominally Muslim) youths?
Her definition of Islam was no less problematic. Her fieldwork had given her access to a wealth of data amongst Muslims in Oldham and their views. It was wrong for Muslims who disagreed with her to argue against this data (as some tried to do). But how far can should the views of her sample be privileged over other views? On what basis can her problem (that Muslims she met professed that their beliefs were not compatible with liberalism) be 'Islamised'? What about factors such as income, education, ethnicity? Islamic thought and practice, afterall, does not exist in a vaccum as is assumed by some Muslims and their critics. She could, of course, make a scriptural argument, and this she did tried to do. But again, how far do you extract a religious text away from how the religious tradition is living, especially if you're not a believer in that text? We interpret everything we read. There is nothing to say a literal reading holds first sway other than convention; one needs to make such an argument. The difference between Islam and Muslims, between what is claimed to be in a text and between what element is living, is not always an easy question to answer; it would be unfair to assume Kneen could answer that question. But she should at least have recognised this point on her part, and maybe even try to explain it away. One early questioner asked on what basis her arguments were raised considering that Muslims were in a minority in Britain and implementation of some facets of Islamic law (like the penal code) would simply never occur; she had tried to anticipate this question by raising a hypothetical situation where Britain became an Islamic state, although that is too complex a situation to ever answer (consider that if such a situation did occur, Islam would have developed quite differently to, say, Islam in the Gulf).
In the end I think a lack of clarity undid her arguments, although as I said earlier she was not wrong to make her basic point. She framed her question in an incorrect manner. When she says 'Islam' is incompatible with 'liberalism' she needs to be clearer as to the scope of incompatibility she is talking about and what she means by Islam -- at points some of her reponses to questions from the floor merely sounded like the Our Way of Life trope used by so many ardent right-wing nationlists, by insinuating that Muslims did not fit in with the 'British way of life' (she didn't say this explicitly, but that was a conclusion one could draw). What some Muslims tried to do, including Siddiqui (perhaps his best contribution all night), was to ask Kneen if she would reconsider her views given that there may be some common ground between some Islamic values and some liberal values she was outlining (for example, social welfare). I wasn't quite sure of her answer on this point; when pressed again about what she meant by liberalism and the possibiliy that Muslims and liberals shared some common goals she first resorted to calling upon the Englightenment basis of liberalism to distinguish it from Islam, then switched and said that 'basically, liberalism comes from a Judeo-Christian ethic'! (Although one could make an argument that some founders of the Enlightenment were not necessarily opposed to God or even religion, but attacked the hypocrisy, greed and prejudice of the political and religious authorities. She, however, didn't make that argument and conceeded that it wasn't only Islam in her eyes that was at odds with liberalism after some in the audience pointed out other beliefs like Evangelism, orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism as well as the existence of the Bible.)
I wanted to ask her a question towards the end but wasn't given the chance: what was her solution? Now that there are close to two million Muslims in the UK, how should the problem she had identified be solved? Perhaps I'll have to wait for her Radio 4 show later this summer.
Throughout the night Siddiqui, as well as some members of the audience, stressed the point on the possibility of reinterpreation of source texts and of pluralism in Islamic history. A couple of members of the audience pointed out the advancement of arts and science in Andalucia; so free inquiry and toleration for other beliefs did not pose any problem for Islam in theory. Siddiqui cited the use of ijtihad (in matters outside ibadat), as many liberal Muslims do (I use liberal here in the strictest sense to mean thinking outside defined authoritative paradigms), as a way out of some of the more 'literalist' interpretations. However, ijtihad is a technical term in Islamic legal literature and I think many progressive and liberal Muslims would do well to remember that (this means they need to engage with the Islamic legal tradition, rather than try and ignore it and simply shout ijtihad at every uncomfortable issue). This sort of invocation of ijtihad by some Muslims is lazy thinking and verges on intellectual dishonesty. I think it would be equally dishonest of Muslims, including liberals, to say that every point of liberalisms (plural) are in total agreement with either historical Islamic values or Islamic values that could be drawn from a combination of reason, text and heart. If Muslim liberals want to fight a case, their strongest ground is on trying to point out common views and values that are shared by both liberals and Muslims -- but for this to work, those with the power outside of the Muslim communities will have to be accomodating of difference. Siddiqui also made a fundamental error when he described a variety of Islamic values and beliefs that were not necessarily antithetical to Kneen's liberalism, but failed to mention the most fundamental one: tawhid (unicity of God) which is a distinctly Islamic belief (if I'm being very generous I'd say he was thinking of practical matters rather than doctrinal ones). Not surprisingly Stone, as a religious liberal, was in full agreement with Siddiqui urging liberals like Kneen not to exclude progressive and liberal voices amongst Muslims by attack the entirity of Islam.
Ultimately I am not sure I learnt anything new, albeit the evening wasn't totally wasted. I already knew that there are liberals who are hostile to religion, and to Islam in particular. I already knew that there are Muslims who are equally hostile to any sort of liberal thought and of Muslims who are calling for ijtihad without giving it too much thought. What was needed last night was, perhaps, a scholarly Muslim perspective, whether from an orthodox angle or a progressive one.
Update (04/06): Yusuf Smith was also at the debate. See his review.