Archive for March 2014
A day like this; mid-March, a light breeze, discussions of weekend barbecues, and we daring to suggest to ourselves that the onset of Summer has begun.
It was just this sort of day that I arrived with anticipation to collect someone who I envisioned to be staunch and hard-nosed. A trained legal professional, an ex-politician who resigned for political reasons, an activist with a reputation among activists of being a force not to be underestimated. In preparations I had read stories about connections with the EDL, accusations of racism and aggressive demonisation by minorities and majorities alike. Was this propaganda? Was it all true? For a fleeting moment it crossed my mind that this was the first time I’d been a chauffeur to a high-profile political activist who had received legitimate death threats. Whatever the case, the evidence suggested that the night would at the very least be lively.
And it was.
The discussion included several topics, opening auto-biographically with some talk about the work of the NSS was a nice introduction but things were only getting started. The topic of multiculturalism rapidly ballooned as the subject of Secularism and Citizenship got under way. It was argued with both passion and verbal elegance that multiculturalism is not only having a negative impact but the resulting moral and cultural relativism is positively dangerous to civil liberties. While the subjects of disestablishment and the power (or lack thereof) of the Vatican were covered most members of the audience remained in agreement. When the multicultural argument came to the subject of Islam however, the stakes were raised and the debate caught alight – as a debate should.
A critical point argued virulently by both sides was the idea of interfering in other people’s lives, in other people’s affairs and even in the running of other people’s countries. Opposing this sort of intervention is not a difficult task and on the surface it may sound like a good argument to the uninitiated. Put simply, if a Muslim wishes to follow the holy scripture that he so faithfully believes then who the hell are you to tell him he can’t? You don’t have to respect a religious person’s beliefs but you can’t start telling people what they can and can’t do.
To most reasonable people, the idea of telling another that they can’t pray at a certain time or they can’t eat a certain food or wear certain clothes seems preposterous and almost fascistic. And while one may initially assume that this was the speaker’s proposal, one would not be forgiven for maintaining this view for very long. It misses the point.
The speaker eloquently brought to the fore that in fact I, you, we all, have a right to interfere in other people’s lives and cultures when those things lead to the harm of another human being. When a belief leads a man to beat his wife or when a culture finds it acceptable to cut the genitals of young girls then the time for respecting that belief or culture is at an end. The very idea of relativising such acts is to most people, when read on paper, presumably abhorrent. The actions of the Vatican have not gone unnoticed, the public voice to bring to justice the Catholic priests who raped (and rape) young children is a very vocal one. People are not afraid to offend the Catholic church, it was argued; but people are afraid to offend Islam, and this fear coupled with the ruse of political correctness and multiculturalism has stopped people saying about Islam what they would easily and publicly say about Catholicism.
It is worth noting that the distinction was clearly and carefully made several times between Islam and Muslims. There is a very obvious argument that many millions of Muslims are peace-loving and go about their daily lives without causing any harm to anyone. They care deeply for their children and don’t beat their wives. However, the speaker argues, these Muslims have chosen not to follow the Qur’an and Hadith literally, some have in fact chosen to completely ignore entire sections, and some even ignore the entire Hadith. It was too admitted that the Qur’an includes beautiful and moving verses. But this very point highlights the difference between Muslim’s and Islam. A Muslim can be a person of deep peace and spirituality, can be a campaigner for equality and free speech or can be a jihadist and can hold views supporting the advancement of Sharia. The speaker has argued on many occasions, not least at the notorious Oxford debate, that the Qur’an and Hadith taken literally are unambiguous, the commandments are written clearly and without room for interpretation. Individuals and communities of Muslims may choose not to follow these parts of the texts but according to scripture they are still a part of Islam.
Incidentally, at the end of the evening all members were invited to not believe a word that was spoken and go do the research themselves – a worthy message and with so much to think about I hope many do.
But. But. But. What about interfering in the policies of other countries, how can this possibly be justified. Isn’t this colonialism? Surely this is just wrong? There have been enough examples of ‘the West’ marching into countries as they see fit and imposing their law. Again, to the uninitiated ear this may seem like a tough argument to oppose. However, it just takes a simple moment of dialectical thought to resolve. To hypothetically respond by leaving ‘those countries’ to figure it out themselves, without too much effort one could very easily imagine the continued subjugation of women, the marrying of young girls, the stonings, the beheadings, the killing of people for atheism, apostasy, homosexuality. Hoping my paraphrasing won’t do the speaker an injustice I think the poignant response was expressed so simply, “What is to happen to these people while their countries slowly come to the conclusion that torture, rape and death are wrong”? And in a more challenging tone, “How many children have to suffer before people will act on this”?
It’s a shame the event only lasted two hours, barely enough time to get started. I desperately wanted to add that in fact international law does cover the protection of human rights and this prevents governments from simply doing what they want to their people without consequences from the international community, something that many that argue for this moral relativism seem to ignore. Pragmatically however a country breaking international law isn’t quite as straightforward as calling the police to a domestic disturbance, there are usually many political angles to be considered. However, it does stand that if human rights contraventions are taking place in a country then having the international community intervene is a valid action from a legal standpoint. I would add an obligation from a moral one too.
To put forward that there are objective truths, things that are really real and some of those truths are moral ones is quite an argument to make, and yet this pertains to a subject about which so few people are in any doubt. It is not easy to find a left-wing liberal that agrees with stoning a woman for adultery. And yet the tired moral (and legal) relativism is often wheeled out by asking what makes the law of England more applicable than the law of Sharia. Why choose one over the other? It is terribly unfair not to give them equal respect.
And the speaker’s retort was, as expected, pointed and direct. Sharia condones the demotion of women to property, the marrying of a girl at the age of nine, the right of a man to beat his wife, the right of a man to keep the children after divorce, the execution of homosexuals. And without any ambiguity it was made clear that these subjects are not morally relative, these represent people who suffer pain, fear, torture and death at the hands of this oppressive legal system, to argue that this deserves equal time and respect is a mistake to say the very least.
I would argue however, that the speaker perhaps gave too much on this point. The argument that an oppressive, malevolent totalitarian system is wrong due to it’s negative rules, for me has already missed the first step. Oppressive or benevolent, tortuous or loving, it is still a totalitarian system. I’m always sorry when I don’t get the chance to quote Thomas Jefferson at an occasion such as this, but I can hopefully make up for that now
“If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”
This doesn’t mean that we should only obey the laws we agree with, but more that an objective legal system may not always correlate with justice. Disobeying an unjust law does not involve merely flouting it as an individual but demolishing it as a community. To oppose and repudiate laws and change the legal system as a society’s ideas of freedom and justice become more refined is what Jefferson was alluding to. It was a revolutionary idea at the time.
You want to know which legal system should be given more respect than the other? Begin by disagreeing with that system and attempt to change its laws in the name of justice. Picket and protest it. If you are told that the rules are fixed and will never change, benevolent or otherwise – this is not a gift it is a curse. In the case of Sharia, not only are you told the laws will not change but you risk your life by proposing that they should.
In conclusion and in the name of correcting misconceptions, Anne Marie Waters was nothing like her stereotype portrayed. The power-dressing all out aggressor I’d been led to believe I was meeting was all but absent. In her place was an unassuming, polite, well-educated and eloquent young woman. Driven by an obvious passion for human rights, equality and justice, she had the mind to formulate ideas and spoke with clarity and wit.
Her speed of response to questions complemented well her emotional involvement in the subject. Far from being a demonic racist of some religion-hating feminist agenda, she was charming, knowledgeable and an attentive conversationalist. Sure, she would not back down from probably the most serious issues we as a global society face today, and why should she? She fought her stance with honesty, virulence and a forthright dignity as a compassionate and emphatic ally of those living and suffering under barbaric rule across the world. I distinctly recall a number of members asking what they could do to help the cause as well as people wishing her well and to “keep up the good work”. I got the impression that she was used to being spoken to aggressively, hated and even threatened and while there were many disagreements throughout the evening, I do hope Anne Marie takes with her the compliments too.