Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Is gender segregation the new wedge issue in UK?

by Salman Hameed

The organization of Turkish creationist, Harun Yahya, is apt at creating controversies in Europe. Be it ads on buses, anti-evolution lectures on campuses, or the mailing of an 800 page creationist tome to public schools in France, Switzerland, etc. The reaction in the media is also predictable: Muslims in Europe are considered backwards and a problem for the broader education system, and Harun Yahya is labeled as the leading proponent of Islamic creationism. This is a win-win situation for Harun Yahya and for those who want to paint Muslims as a problem for Europe as both validate each other's extreme viewpoints.

Now we have Hamza Tzortzis - and his organization Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA). The purpose of the organization is proselytization. Up until a few months ago, I had not even heard of Tzortzis. But then first I heard of the controversy surrounding his "debate" with Pervez Hoodbhoy in Lahore, where Pervez walked out when Tzortzis started accusing Pervez of "hating the Muslim world" (you can watch the YouTube of the whole event here. You will notice that there is not much dialogue, as Tzorzis' goal is simply to incite and provoke. Pervez walks out towards end after Tzortzis' incendiary comment. You can find the incident at around 1:47:30 and after).

Then last month iERA made it in the news big time. At UCL Hamza Tzortzis debated Lawrence Krauss on the topic of "Islam or Atheism: Which makes more sense"? As you can guess from the title, propelled the event into newspapers. The organizers (iERA had rented the room at UCL) decided to have the event gender segregated (or at least divide it in three groups: men, women, and coed) - and that propelled Krauss to initially walkout from the event and Richard Dawkins to weigh in, "Isn't it really about time we decent, nice, liberal people stopped being so pusillanimously terrified of being thought 'Islamophobic' and stood up for decent, nice, liberal values?", and called the segregation as "sexual apartheid".  Now, I'm not a fan of gender segregation either, but this is going a bit too far (there is a series of recent articles on the Islamophobia of the New Atheists, and I will be posting on it in the next day or so. In the mean time, you can read Glenn Greenwald's article here: Sam Harris, the New Atheists, and anti-Muslim animus). The UCL ended up banning iERA from hosting events on campus because of their forced gender segregation policies.
the point of these debates is to rile up the base on both sides. But then, a controversy

But now University of Leicester is also investigating an event for gender segregation. The rest of the story is a bit murky for me. The event happened on February 20th (though some reports say that this was related to an event in March) but has been brought to attention by an article in the Guardian just yesterday. It is now covered all over the internet. This is what the article said:

The University of Leicester has launched an investigation into gender segregation at a public lecture held by its student Islamic society. 
The talk, entitled Does God Exist?, featured a guest speaker Hamza Tzortzis as part of an Islamic Awareness week. Seating at the event was segregated, with different entrances into the lecture theatre for men and women. 
It follows news that a London university, UCL, has banned an Islamic organisation from campus after concluding that it attempted to impose segregation at a debate which also featured Tzortzis. 
In Leicester, more than 100 students attended the segregated event, which took place last month. A photograph passed to the Guardian shows signs put up in a university building, directing the segregation. 
A message on the group's website says: "In all our events, [the society] operate a strict policy of segregated seating between males and females." The statement was removed after the Guardian contacted the society. 
A spokesman for Leicester said: "The University of Leicester does not permit enforced segregation at public events. The university will investigate whether entrances to the hall for this event were segregated by the society and will ensure there is no recurrence of this.
"The University will not interfere with people's right to choose where to sit. If some people choose to sit in a segregated manner because of their religious convictions then they are free to do so. By the same token, if people attending do not wish to sit in a segregated manner, they are free to do so." 
He added: "To our knowledge, no-one was forced to sit in any particular seat. If there is evidence of enforced segregation, that would be a matter the university and students' union would investigate." 
But a Leicester student told the Guardian he believed segregation was common practice at the society's events to avoid offending those with strong religious beliefs.
So reading all this, there a couple of things that come to my mind. Just from this news item, we don't even know if the event violated the university policy or not. But it has already become a big news and commentaries have already implicated Islam - and not even just some Muslims (here is Jerry Coyne's post on this: "Okay, Peter Hitchens, Glenn Greenwald, et al.: do you really think that Islam is no more pernicious than other faiths?"). Some of it reminds me of the way the rejection of evolution by some Muslims (and even that was an anecdotal side-remark by biologist, Steve Jones) became a major story (see an earlier post on this here). But on the flip side, I can also see a group like iERA imposing gender segregation at their events. This matter can serve as a clear boundary against the dominant culture. When the media and the blogs conflate this position with Islam's, the iERA cam then become a default spokesperson. The cycle is then complete. In many ways, this is how Harun Yahya came to represent the Islamic position on evolution - at least in media coverage in Europe.

But I hope that the voices that that drive these debates are those that are between the likes of Hamza Tzortzis and the New Atheists.


Anonymous said...
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Asad M said...

Salman, can’t agree more with your closing line that moderates voices need to represent both sides. As for the recent spats b/w militant neo-atheists Sam Harris & Dawkins and those in media accusing them of Islamophobia, I’m yet to read the full articles or Harris’ detailed response on his website but Harris & Dawkins are not moderates that’s for sure, even Peter Higgs called Dawkins “almost fundamentalist” to which Dawkins didn’t reply.

Wonder how Harris has defended himself after saying "There is no such thing as “Islamophobia.” and “This is a term of propaganda designed to protect Islam from the forces of secularism by conflating all criticism of it with racism and xenophobia. And it is doing its job, because people like you have been taken in by it." and his support for Iraq war on the pretext of saving the world from Islam which he thinks is synonymous with Islamism.

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