The University of York Christian Union (CU) have been forced to apologise for holding a talk entitled “From Darkness to Light: My Conversion from Islam to Christianity” after complaints from the Islamic Society.
Islamic Society Chair Ogtay Huseyni complained that the ‘Hot Potato’ talk held on June 8 coincided with Friday prayers, preventing Islamic students from attending. Huseyni said he was “very disappointed” with the CU’s handling of the situation, continuing that he had emailed the CU earlier in the week asking them to reschedule the talk for a different time but received no response.
“I would have loved to have gone and listened and had a proper discussion,” Huseyni said. “But in order to have a proper discussion, you need two view points. If you have just one view point, it’s useless – it’s just another propaganda exercise. It’s not really a ‘Hot Potato’ open discussion, it’s a hot stuffing-down-your-throat discussion.”
In an email to Islamic Society, the Christian Union Committee admitted that “our communication with your society was poor and our promotion of the event was insensitive.” The email said, “We are sorry that the event prevented some who may have wished to attend from being there. We also apologise for any offence caused by the way in which we advertised the event.”
CU Female President Maria Leach said the lack of response to Huseyni’s email had not been intentional and was the result of “bad communication between the different levels of organisation within the CU, and this ended up with bad communication between the CU and Islamic Soc. In the end, no one replied, but this was not the intention.”
Leach said she regretted the CU did not give more thought to cancelling or rearranging the talk. “Because the talk was all already booked, they just decided to go ahead with it anyway, which I think may not have been the wisest decision,” she said. “Maybe we should have seriously thought of rearranging.”
The title of the talk, advertised on hundreds of flyers around campus, was a particular point of controversy. CU Evangelical Secretary Dan Gladwell said, “I think that all of us would happily concede that if we had thought more about the title and what it communicates, especially in the current cultural situation and the tensions there have been around how people perceive Islam, we would have given it a different title. We do regret the title that came up.” ‘Hot Potato’ organiser Stephen Bentley said the title of the talk was suggested by the speaker. He said: “It was a personal talk and the title was personal to him. He felt like he did go from darkness to light.”
However, he admitted the CU had made the final decision on what to call it.
The talk was given by an outside speaker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of persecution in his native Morocco. He said his father was an imam and that his brother had also converted from Islam. He discussed his own conversion to Christianity and the differences he perceived between it and Islam.
Huseyni, who listened to a recording of the talk, said, “I don’t think he’s very knowledgable about Islam. You can be an imam’s son, but that doesn’t give you any necessary legitimacy or knowledge.”
Huseyni took issue with a number of points made by the speaker. “He tried to make out that Muslims hate Christianity, hate the Bible and are generally full of hate. I thought that was very degrading that he would generalise for over one billion Muslims with a few stereotypes.
“At one point, the speaker said the relationship between God and man in Islam was comparable to a ‘master-slave relationship’. It’s not a master-slave relationship with God, that’s a complete lie. If you have looked deeply at Islam, you will know that the relationship is a personal one.”
Huseyni said that he accepted the apology from the CU as “a positive and tentative step towards recognising how inappropriate in terms of timing the talk was. It was good that they contacted us and expressed regrets over some aspects of it.”
Both societies said they hoped that they incident would not affect inter-faith relations on campus in the future. In the email of apology sent to the Islamic Society, the CU Committee said, “We hope that these things will not be a deterrent for future dialogue between our societies.”