Is Islam a religion of peace? Watch Daniel Johnson's speech at the Oxford Union
In May, Standpoint editor Daniel Johnson spoke against the motion "This house believes Islam is a religion of peace" at the Oxford Union. It is now available to watch here. Below is a transcript of the speech:
Ladies and gentlemen
I very nearly decided not to come here today. Yesterday a British soldier was decapitated in cold blood on the streets of London by Islamists shouting: "Allahu Akbar!" One of them told the British public: "You people will never be safe." Why should I, a married father of four, take the risk of questioning the "religion of peace" at a public debate that will be filmed and no doubt appear on the Internet? I have met Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who was forced to live in hiding and then to leave Europe after her friend Theo van Gogh suffered the same fate in Amsterdam. I have met the historian Benny Morris, who was assaulted outside the London School of Economics by Muslim students, merely because he was an Israeli. I have British friends who have been forced to move to a secure, gated refuge because of similar threats. But I have come precisely because I do not want to live in fear in a free country — my country. I do not want this great university — my university — to become a place where academics are intimidated. I do not want free speech to die in the land that gave this most precious of liberties to the rest of the world, including many of the 56 states that call themselves Islamic. I do not want Muslim women to endure domestic tyranny — the Pew survey reveals that more than 90 per cent of the world's 1.5 billion Muslims believe that wives must always obey husbands.
Earlier today I attended the funeral of a dear friend, Professor Geza Vermes — a man whose remarkable career shows what freedom means and why we must fight to preserve it here in Oxford. It was only because he (unlike his parents) survived the Holocaust in Hungary that he ever came here to found the discipline of Jewish studies. Geza was hidden from the Nazis by the Church and after the war became a Catholic priest, but later he criticised the Church's attitude to the Dead Sea Scrolls, which he insisted should be made available to the academic world, regardless of their implications for the origins of Christianity. Indeed, he became a leading expert on the scrolls and was the first to translate them into English. Later he left the priesthood to get married, and decided to revert to his Jewish roots. Here in Oxford Geza began to investigate what he called "the Jewish Jesus": not the Son of God or even the founder of Christianity, but a charismatic Jewish preacher. Geza challenged Christian orthodoxy at every point, though just before he died he also shocked Orthodox rabbis by showing in an article for Standpoint that crucifixion had been used by Jewish rulers as well as Roman ones. With a foot in both Jewish and Christian camps, but beholden to neither, Geza enlarged our knowledge of the world of Jesus more than anybody else in our time.
I have dwelt on the career of Geza Vermes for one simple reason: none of it would have been possible in any Islamic country. His change of religion would have been treated as apostasy. Despite the fact that the Koran suggests only that an apostate will suffer in the next world, under sharia law it is a capital offence and many Muslim majority countries do in fact impose the death penalty. The latest Pew survey of Muslim opinion suggests that a majority of Muslims around the world agree with this draconian punishment. Even worse, in the eyes of Islamic authority, was Geza Vermes's investigation of Jesus. If he had attempted to apply the same methods to the prophet Mohammed in an Islamic country, he would certainly have been executed for blasphemy, as a non-Muslim, or for apostasy, if he had been a Muslim. One recent example was a leading Islamic scholar in Sudan, Mahmud Taha, who was executed for apostasy merely because he presented Islam as a "religion of peace", drawing on Mohammed's more conciliatory sayings, rather than the more warlike doctrines he later adopted. Not only would an open-minded intellectual like Geza Vermes have no place in an Islamic country, but a university like Oxford, in which liberty of research into everything, including Islam, is not merely permitted but obligatory, could not exist. There are no universities in this sense in the Muslim world and the academic study of Islam, and especially of its founder, has been greatly inhibited by the suppression of free intellectual inquiry.
How does this lack of free speech and inquiry bear on the question we are debating tonight? In my view, it is crucial. Islam has the potential to be a religion of peace, but it will need to evolve a great deal if it is actually to become one. Islam cannot evolve unless Muslim authorities, both religious and secular, allows the freedoms we in the West take for granted: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of conscience. Of course, these freedoms go together with other basic principles: equality before the law, civil and political rights, constitutional democracy, economic liberty, the separation of church (or mosque) and state. All of these ideas emerged in the West because the Judaeo-Christian tradition has always evolved, in classical and medieval, renaissance and enlightenment periods, and it is still evolving today. As a Catholic, I must acknowledge that it is only in my lifetime that the Church adapted its teaching on the Jews from "enemies to brothers". And in order to ensure that the 1.2 billion Catholics could see that the Church banished anti-Semitism in its practice as well as its preaching, successive popes have gone out of their way to reach out to the Jewish people.
How very different is the situation in Islam. Where Jews and Christians have allowed the reinterpretation of the Bible, Muslim scholars have insisted that the Koran, as the unmediated word of Allah, cannot be reinterpreted. Despite this rigidity, Islam nevertheless evolved in its early centuries, but since the medieval period it has undergone successive waves of fundamentalism intended to restore the faith to its original purity and to impose it, if necessary by force, on the rest of the world. We are living through such a wave today, which includes the Wahhabi and Salafist branches of Sunni Islam and Iranian-inspired Shia Islam. The overall name we give to these movements is "Islamism" or "radical Islam". Rather than emphasize the earlier, more pacific elements in Mohammed's teaching, such as his Constitution of Medina, which granted equal rights to Jews, Christians and pagans, Islamists emphasize later doctrines, such as the division of the world into the Dar ul Islam and the Sar ul Harb - the house of Islam and the house of war - or the draconian enforcement of sharia law. Not content with dawa, the attempt to convert non-Muslims, Islamists stress the obligation to carry out jihad, understood to mean holy war, including terrorism. As we saw yesterday in Woolwich, or a few weeks ago in Boston, radical Islam is not only a threat in the Muslim world, but also here in our midst. It is, in fact, the most direct threat to Western civilisation in the world today.
It is not enough for Muslim apologists to point to statements of regret after terrorist attacks. They have to acknowledge the truth about their own past and present, the discrimination and cruelty towards non-Muslims, women and slaves that have characterised Islam from its inception. Mehdi Hassan is an exception: in a brave and remarkable article in the New Statesman, he revealed "our dirty little secret" - that anti-Semitism in the Muslim community is "routine and commonplace". It was brave, because Muslims have reason to fear reprisals when they speak out; and it was remarkable, because most Muslims are in denial, encouraged by the pernicious notion of "Islamophobia". Because of that notion, the police and other authorities were in denial about the rape and exploitation of girls here in Oxford, an evil that was only exposed at their recent trial.
But what other dirty little secrets might Mehdi Hassan like to admit? Who else are Muslims, at least of the radical persuasion, inclined to denounce in private? What do they say about Christians and other non-Muslims, including atheists? What about homosexuals or women whose dress or behaviour is "un-Islamic"? We know what Islamic states do to all these and many other categories of people: they persecute and kill them. They claim the authority of Islam, of the Koran, the hadith, the sharia and their own leading scholars. I know there are other scholars who defy the Islamists. I had the honour of meeting the late Zaki Badawi, the founder of the Muslim College, who fought against the influx of Saudi-funded imams into British mosques, who fought for Muslim integration, and who denounced the fatwa against Salman Rudshdie. But Badawi lost all these battles. His leadership role has been usurped by Tariq Ramadan, who occupies a chair here in Oxford. He comes from a very different tradition - that of the Muslim Brotherhood, the vanguard of Islamism. To be blunt: Professor Ramadan is an Islamist wolf in sheep's clothing. Beware of him.
A religion of peace has to practise what it preaches. You only have to watch the news of persecution, war and terror from the Muslim world and beyond to see that Islamists neither practise nor preach peace, except at a price that is unacceptable: the price of submission. Until it is purged of the radicals who preach in its name, until we can feel safe on our streets again, Islam does not deserve to call itself a religion of peace. I urge you to oppose the motion.
Clarification: This speech has been posted on a website called Gates of Vienna. We have asked the site's editor to remove the video because we do not wish to be associated with the "counter-jihad" they promote. They have refused to do so.
The Point is Standpoint's staff blog.
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