London is a lively, dynamic evolving city, vibrant, challenging and possibly the very best city in the world. It is the city of my birth, and is way out on top as the place I most want to live in. I was disappointed then, as a proud Londoner, that the city received scant attention in last night’s debate. Held by the Evening Standard it asked the question: “Is Islam good for London?”. It was a by invitation event, and the panellists were Rod Liddle, Ed Husain, Inayat Bunglawala, Joan Smith and Michael Burleigh. (It did feel like a debate entitled “Is Inayat good for London” at some points, as the discussion got quite personal.)
Instead of discussing the social, financial, civic and moral cityscape that we jointly inhabit, the debate veered sharpish into a discussion about political ideology and the issues elsewhere in the world. There was a muddled debate that conflated Muslims, Islam and Islamism. It was a free for all on subjects ranging from Qardawi’s ruling on halal meat, to the political culture of Malaysia and a short stopover in London to discuss what our daily human stories as people, ordinary people living together, might mean for us as a society. Special credit due to Guy Ker of ITN who tried effortfully but partly in vain to return to our humanity. He described how on Saturdays Muslims file neatly out of the mosque where he lives, whilst the drunken football louts exit chaotically from the stadium. The reality of life are these simple moments of shared interaction and learnings.
It was a feisty panel that the Evening Standard got together to debate “Is Islam good for London.” You can read the write up in the Standard here, which includes quotations and video clips of the debate. There is also a parallel discussion going on at Comment is Free at the Guardian where Pete Tobias kicks of an “‘Undesirables’ debate. ‘Is Islam good for London?’ was the topic of a debate last night. But suppose they had asked that question about Hinduism or Judaism” which is generating an empassioned discussion.
Rod Liddle stated very directly that he thought Islam is a “bigoted, mysogynistic, homophobic, totalitarian” religion. Rather incongruously though and I am loathe to say it as I am not a fan of Liddle by any stretch of the imagination, he came across as one of the more sympathetic characters. It was probably due to the fact that he seemed to have compassion and concern for human beings generally (yes, I was just as shocked by this). His problem, he said, was with Islam, and not Muslims. He was consistent in his likes and dislikes, and of who should and shouldn’t be banned. There was a rather comic moment where he turned to Ed Husain and told him that perhaps he hadn’t quite grown out of the HT mindset seeing as he still wanted to go around banning everything. And in an unlikely turn of events Inayat Bunglawala and Liddle seemed to agree on the principles of Freedom of Speech – if its legal, however hateful (whether to Muslims, or in Muslim literature), it should be allowed – and if it is that hateful, then it should be prosecuted.
Joan Smith’s opening point I agreed with, saying that great cities are not defined by religion. And that is why I thought this whole debate was rather strange. No-one is proposing that London is, could be or should be, a city of Islam. That very idea is simply ridiculous. However, we are de facto in a city that is aware of the religion of Islam, and is home to many many Muslims. So where does this debate get us? If we say yes, then yay! Let’s have some Muslims live here. Oh yes, they already do. If no, then what happens? Deport all of them? Lock them all up? Force them all to convert? If people are concerned, then it is legitimate to have a discussion, but one that has a human face to it, and which opens the way for something constructive.
After Smith’s opening statement there was not much that I agreed with. She proudly declared she was phobic of all religion (“I’m a woman”) and in particular that she was an Islamophobe. Michael Burleigh agreed with her. He didn’t say much else that was memorable. I was disappointed too to find that Joan Smith had so little time to engage with and give space to women who wear either the hijab or the niqab. I was invited to respond to her on a comment she made about the hijab and niqab – me being one of only three or four hijabed-up women in the audience. She glazed over as though she was thinking “Poor oppressed Muslim woman thinking she’s liberated”. I went to speak to her afterwards, and waited patiently for her to finish a previous conversation. She acknowledged me waiting, but then disappeared. I do hope she didn’t run away from talking to me.
The atmosphere in the room was certainly acid. The audience, as well as those who responded to the poll that the Standard carried out, were not representative of London’s population, but rather reflected the ‘most influential’ Londoners. Their responses are therefore in a way, far more salutory – their views have more impact on shaping our joint futures.
And that, to me, is where the entire debate fell down. It was highly abstract. It did not acknowledge where the city is today. It had little reality and no humanity. Cities are made by the people that live in them, and their shared destinies. London IS a great city, and has the potential to be even greater. Depending on your view it may become greater in spite of, or because of the Muslims that live here. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner, that I love London town… And yes, in case you were still confused, it IS possible to be both Muslim and a Londoner, the two are not mutually exclusive.
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