By Georgia Davies
The Durham Union Society held its second debate of the term on Friday 16th October, considering the motion: “This House Believes Islam Is Incompatible with Western Liberal Democracy.”
The Union was previously criticised for its presentation of Islam, with pictures of ISIS members used to advertise the event on Facebook.
The evening opened with Arif Ahmed speaking in favour of the proposition.
Mr Ahmed, a Senior Lecturer in the Cambridge Faculty of Philosophy, sought to define the nature of a “Western Liberal Democracy”, sourcing inspiration from the work of John Stuart Mill.
Mr Ahmed observed the topic from a largely theological perspective, noting apparent disparities between Islam and Western religious differences.
Following this view, Mr Ahmed stated that “Muslims have very intolerant views.”
This was in direct disagreement with the views of the following opposition speaker, Farmida Bi.
Ms Bi, who has been described as “one of the five most powerful Muslim women in the United Kingdom”, presented a starkly contrasting view to that of Mr Ahmed.
Ms Bi argued that Islam cannot be seen in isolation, and she quoted the example of the Arab Spring to explain the role of religious adaption in Islam today.
She spoke at length on the idea that “most religions in the world are compatible with Western Democracy”, particularly in regards to the use of religious language in state and legal ceremonies.
The second proposition speaker Con Coughlin, defence editor for The Telegraph, caused a little more controversy with his speech.
Mr Coughlin discussed anecdotal experience concerning his time in the Middle East to support the opinion that Islam was “still in the Dark Ages” and unable to function with Western Liberal Democracies.
Mr Coughlin drew some criticism for his focus on the Middle East alone, with Ben Eastwood questioning why Indonesia, a Muslim majority nation and the fourth most-populous globally, was not mentioned.
Mr Coughlin was followed by the Right Reverend Tim Stevens, the former Bishop of Leicester and a former spokesperson for the Church of England on constitutional issues.
Reverend Stevens, like Mr Coughlin, drew on personal experience working in interfaith communities, stating that “Islam can only be understood in the behaviour of its adherents”.
The example of Turkey was also presented – a state, which Reverend Stevens argues, is fully assimilated into western democracy.
This was followed by Peter Cave, the chairman of The Humanist Philosophers of Great Britain, who advocated upon his own position that extremism was “not” a perversion of Islam; but rather, a natural facet of the religion itself.
He further argued that Islam was only compatible with western democracy in theory, not in practice. The final speaker Stefan Kotz, a third year engineering student, discussed the “proud tradition of Iranian Feminism” and called upon members not to be seduced by the idea that extremism applied to all of Islam.
Mr Kotz, a committed atheist, also spoke from the vantage point of non-religion, which did diversify the debate in some respects.
Some disagreement arose with Mr Coughlin – who heckled Mr Kotz on his position – arguing that he was not taking the view of western defence seriously.
The debate concluded with closing speeches from Mr Ahmed and Ms Bi.
Mr Ahmed further reiterated his opinion that the theological structure of Islam, as well as its political ramifications, could not exist within a western liberal democracy.
Ms Bi, on the other hand, ended the debate with the idea that Islam was not in itself an ideology or a political tool but a religion of sensibilities, much like Christianity.
The debate was won, overwhelmingly, by the opposition.
David Nehaul, a first year Union Member, commented that although both sides gave “commendable arguments” he was “glad that Durham students came out emphatically against the motion.”
Photograph: Peter Bonnett via Flickr