It was all going so well; each speaker had presented their case, debate had been aroused, feelings stirred, and everyone agreed on the necessity of discussion. Then the bombshell struck. Professor Mohamed El-Gomati, Muslim Councillor for Students, stood up to give a few words of response. In the following moments, all potential for consensus was shattered as he turned to Douglas Murray, and an accusation echoed around the room: “racist”.
The three speakers were Guffah Hussein, a former member of Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, Baroness Haleh Afshar, an Iranian born professor at the University, and Murray, dubbed Britain’s “best known neoconservative”. Between them, they have an impressive depth of knowledge and expertise on a subject that is phenomenally complicated.
The allegation against Murray not only undercut the authority of all three invited speakers, but also reinforced the perception that some would have had of Muslims as intolerant and thin-skinned. While the original comments were deliberately inflammatory (“we have to put up with the most intolerable filth about Jews from the Islamic world”), they were designed to illustrate Murray’s point that free speech should include total freedom to respond to beliefs, as well as expressing them.
Had El-Gomati stood up and given a reasoned response, people would have left with the view that Muslims were capable of taking criticism and tolerating the viewpoints of those who fundamentally disagree with them. What happened was the reverse.
Whilst no-one will have warmed to Murray due to his obnoxiousness throughout, a good number may well have come away agreeing with his main argument: Freedom of speech is being closed down in the area of Islam for fear of offending Muslims, while criticism is simultaneously allowed in all other areas of life. In this sense, Murray was spot on when he said “we put up with this [intolerable filth], but only as long as we can say what we think about it.”
Fortunately the word ‘racist’ was not uttered from the mouths of the panel guests at any point during the evening, but there was certainly no willingness to concede any ground on the issues from that point on. Maybe it was naive to think that a debate on radical Islam in Britain amongst guests of such varied opinions would produce results, but we could have hoped that it would not degenerate into name calling.
When accused of racism, Murray responded: “Sir, if you said that in public I would sue you in a court of law, and I would win”. Perhaps he should consider it.