Hundreds of students from Oxford University every Thursday pack the debating chamber of the Oxford Union Society to listen and participate in a debate on an issue of current interest and importance. On 23 May the motion under discussion was “That this House agrees that Islam is a religion for peace”. After a two-hour intensive debate participants voted 284 in favour and 186 against, and the motion was passed.
OXGAPS Mehdi Badali was in the debating chamber following the proceedings:
Last week’s debate at the Oxford Union was preceded by the unfortunate attack that resulted in the death of British soldier Lee Rigby at the hands of two men who saw the killing as revenge for all Muslim deaths caused by the British Forces. It also did much to attract attention to the debate, taking place the next day, as a packed debating chamber watched events unfold.
The opening of the proposition posited that the victims of a terrorist attack are not only those who are physically affected by it – it encompasses all those who feel insecure or under threat as a result of it. As such, Islam was in effect taking a double-hit – not only was it being misappropriated by people with otherwise criminal intentions, but its real followers were also being put under duress as a consequence of the actions of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale,
The notion of Islam as a religion of justice was a topic that featured heavily in the proposition’s argument. Adam Deen, founder of the Deen Institute, spoke of how Islam warns against an enthusiasm for war, but that an aversion to action must not be identified as moral cowardice. Rather than encouraging devastation, Mr. Deen argued that Islam has a clearly defined jus in bello – underlining the importance proportionality of attack and fighting only those who fight.
Al-Jazeera presenter and writer for the Huffington Post Mehdi Hasan followed on from this, saying that qualities such as kindness, empathy and compassion were emphasised in Islam. Furthermore, he attempted to extricate the religious element to terrorism by stating that terrorists had a secular aim in forcing the hand of democracy in regaining land considered their own.
Anne-Marie Waters, Labour MP hopeful, spoke to the audience from the viscera as she repudiated the argument that Islam was misappropriated by extremists, putting forth that Islam’s mainstream brand lacks such Western ideals as freedom of speech and allows for the ready marginalisation of women. Daniel Johnson, founder and editor of the magazine Standpoint, picked up on Ms. Waters’ reference to apostasy. The execution of Mahmoud Taha for postulating that Islam in its original form accorded all people equal rights, he argued, was a sign of the religion’s inherent belligerent conservatism. He did, however, attract calls from the crowd after urging the crowd to keep ‘our’ university free of apparently anti-Western characteristics.
Peter Atkins brought the opposition to a close with his speech that highlighted Islam’s need for cultural advancement. Unconvinced that acts of kindness and compassion assuaged the force felt by barbaric punishments, Mr Atkins held that an Islamic enlightenment would embrace humanity and free thought.
The result of this debate was looked forward to with marked excitement. In the end, after the usual mix of high emotions and interesting floor speeches (one in particular stressing Islam’s apparent ambiguity towards violence), the proposition prevailed in what proved to be a fair comprehensive victory.
What is the Oxford Union?
The “Union”, as it is affectionately known by generations of students, is steeped in history. It was founded in 1823 as a forum for discussion and debate, at a time when the free exchange of ideas was a notion foreign to the restrictive University authorities. It soon became the only place for students to discuss political topics whilst at Oxford. W.E. Gladstone, later to become one of the greatest British Prime Minsiters, was one of the leading figures of the Union’s early years. Gladstone was President of the Union in 1830, shortly before entering the House of Commons. Many others have followed him into politics, and the Union can boast dozens of former members who have been active in its affairs whilst at Oxford and then gone to become both nationally and internationally prominent figures.
The Oxford Union has been at the centre of controversial debate throughout its history. As the most prominent debating platform outside Westminster it is no surprise debates have been unrivalled in their quality and impact. One of the most famous motions, “This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country”, was passed in 1933 by 275 votes to 153. The result sparked off a national outcry in the press, and Winston Churchill denounced it as “that abject, squalid, shameless avowal” and “this ever shameful motion”; some say that the result encouraged Hitler in his decision to invade Europe. In 1975, days before the referendum on EEC membership, the motion “This House would say ‘Yes’ to Europe” was carried by 493 votes to 92. This debate was arguably a considerable influence on the referendum result.
In the words of Michael Heseltine, the Union has “managed to absorb the greatest diversity, the wildest firebrands, the most outspoken and non-conformist people.” Diversity and outspokeness, central to the Union’s foundation, remain its guiding principles to this day.
For more information on the Oxford Union Society visit www.oxford-union.org.