The La Trobe University Islamic Society Debate
Islam or Secular Liberalism: which is the way forward?
Tuesday 12th April, 5pm-7.30pm, Agora Theatre, La Trobe University
Presentation by John Perkins

I would first like to thank the Islamic Society for the invitation to this debate. These debates are not very common, so I welcome the opportunity.  This is Islam awareness week. I think that we all should be more aware about Islam, its origins and its history.

I think the subject of this debate is a good one: Islam or Secular Liberalism. Which is the way forward? I will outline why Islam is definitely not the way forward. I will then explain why secular liberalism is in fact the only way forward. Finally I would like talk about the nature of religious identity and suggest how these opposing views may be reconciled.

I will be saying some things that the Muslim audience will not want to hear. I do not mean to cause offence. But to find the way forward, some things need to be said.

I am not against freedom of religion. I am against religious that seek to impose their views on others. I am not against Islam in particular. I am sympathetic to the Palestinians, whose land has been taken because of the religious beliefs of the Jews. What I am against is beliefs that cause good people to do bad things.

Islamic awareness

You may be aware that so far this year, there have been two political assassinations in Pakistan. The Punjab Governor, Salmaan Taseer, was shot in January. Then in March, Pakistan’s Minister for Minority Affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti was killed. Why? Because they voiced their opposition to Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws. They were shot down just for expressing their opinion. Not only that, but Taseer’s murderer became a popular hero and was praised for his crime.

This, unfortunately, is the Islam that people are becoming aware about.

Blasphemy laws should be condemned. People have the right to freedom of speech. People do not have the right not to be offended. Speaking the truth should never be a crime.

The poster for this debate proclaims “Islam: the Solution”. But I haven’t started yet. Have you made up your minds already?

I should mention that non-Muslims might think this a bit presumptuous and arrogant. Also, they might think that they are already aware enough of the demands that Muslims seem to be making on them. They may prefer if religions were kept as an essentially private matter, the way they used to be.

But this is not the situation so let us indeed have a debate.
 

Islam or Secular Liberalism

The way the topic of this debate is framed, it suggests that there is a dichotomy, that the two are opposed. Can we have both, or are they incompatible? Can Islam and Secular liberalism even coexist?

There are many secular Muslims who are happy to live in liberal secular societies. Australia is at least a relatively secular and liberal society, which is why many Muslim immigrants wish to come here. I welcome them. In doing so however, I do not wish to see Australia become any less secular or liberal.

I do have this concern, and so do many others and it is not unjustified. The reason is this.  I believe that as ideologies, Islam and Secular Liberalism are not in fact compatible. It is, in fact very difficult for the two to coexist.

So, the topic of this debate,  “Islam or Secular Liberalism: which is the way forward?” is therefore a serious issue. It is an important question, not just for La Trobe University. It is not just important for Australia. It is important for the world.

Secularism refers to the absence of the control of religion over the political and social affairs. Islam seems not to allow this. I think that many, on both sides of this debate who agree with this. Islam and secular liberalism are not compatible. According to Islam, the Muslim god is supreme, and all should submit to his will, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The rules laid down in the Koran form what is known as sharia law. Where it operates, this law dominates civil law, and all, including elected leaders should be subservient to this law. This is the opposite of secularism. There is little room for democracy in this view.

Muslims think that their solution should dominate the world. Non-Muslims think that their secular liberal way of life is threatened by these claims. We are caught between a rock and very hard place. Hence it is very important that we take notice of this debate.

Islam is not the way forward

It is a mark of all human progress that we use objective criteria to establish facts and use this knowledge to develop civilisation, increase human welfare and advance the human condition. Through history, the extent to which this has occurred can be measured. If we compare this to the corresponding role of religion through history, a pattern emerges. The greater the power of religion, the slower the rate of human progress.

The reasons for this are clear. Progress requires investigation, experimentation, the exploration of doubt, the resolving of contradictions. Humans benefit when this knowledge is put into practice through technical innovation. The greatest period of human progress began in the Enlightenment in Europe, when the Dark Ages ended, and the power of the churches was diminished.

From this it is clear that secular liberalism is the only way forward. Religions, by their nature, suppress inquiry, suppress investigation and suppress doubt. They inhibit innovation and inhibit human progress: socially, politically and economically. No religion does this more in the world today than Islam.

Islam is not the way forward, it is the way back. Islam is not the solution. Islam is the problem. As an ideology, Islam is a failure: socially, economically and politically. We can see this through history, and we can see it today. Islam is a humanitarian disaster and the biggest victims are Muslims themselves, especially women.

An example from history

When Christianity took over the Roman empire, the Greek schools of learning were closed down, plunging Europe into the Dark Ages. Fortunately the Greek knowledge was retained in the Arab world, which did enable scholars there to lead the world in philosophy and science at that time.  Unfortunately, when scholars began to question too closely the tenets of Islam, in the 12th century they too were closed down. Thus began the long decline of the Arab world relative to Europe. This was typified by the fact that the introduction of the printing press into the Muslim world was delayed by over 300 years.

This relative decline persists to this day. Some are inclined to try and blame this situation on colonialism. This is in an excuse that is long past its expiry date. The United Nations Arab Human Development Reports provided a comprehensive investigation into the social and economic conditions in Arab countries.

These Reports identified "three deficits" compared with other regions. The deficits were in freedom, women's empowerment and knowledge. They refer in detail to the effects of this. They refer in detail to the deficiencies in Arab societies, according to all sorts of measures of human welfare. One example they cite is that the number of books that are translated into Spanish each year is one thousand times the number that are translated into Arabic.

What the UN reports did not and could not say was that the underlying cause of these deficits was Islam. The effects of the ideology are pervasive.

In schools, even in relatively secular Arab countries such as Egypt, around ten percent of class time, primary and secondary, is spent on Islam. This proportion does not include study of the Arabic language, which is taught by studying the texts of the Koran. All this is taught, as if it were fact, without any critical appraisal.

The recent spate of revolutions in the Arab world, including Egypt, are a welcome development. In the past, it was suggested that authoritarian regimes were necessary to keep Islamist elements at bay. This proposition will now again be tested.

It is clear that the current Arab revolutions are motivated by a desire for freedom that is far closer to the ideals of Secular Liberalism than to Islamic fundamentalism.

Unfortunately it far from clear that the secular nature of these revolutions will be maintained. This is because it is extremely difficult, in any Muslim country, to voice any opinion that is critical or questioning of the tenets and truth claims of Islamic teachings.

The Koran may be interpreted, which usually selective quotation, but not contradicted or rejected. Hence when some activity is either mandated or prohibited by the Koran, it is difficult for the secular voice to argue against it. As Islamic history, and recent experience in Pakistan shows, the consequences can be death.

What is the way forward?

This intimidation must be resisted. Secular Liberalism is the only way forward. All the benefits of modern society in health, education, welfare and prosperity derive from the application of secular liberal values in research, investigation and scientific method.

Secular values did not lead to, or cause, the crimes committed by communist or totalitarian regimes. All knowledge and power can be misused. But people do not go to war over science. They do go to war over religion.

The only way forward is to overcome fear, guilt, intimidation and peer group pressure and ask basic questions. Why do I believe? Do I believe out of loyalty to my culture or do I believe because it is true?

Have I even thought about whether my religion is true? I think most people just believe for emotional and cultural reasons without ever seriously evaluating any truth criteria. We have to recognise how easy it is for the human mind to be deceived.

In fact we know that Islam, like other religions, is not true. This is a different question to the whether we can prove the existence of a god or gods. As statements of historical record, religions are not true, including Islam. Note that to prove something false, we need to find only one contradiction.  Religions are full of contradictions.

When we look at all religions, including Islam, we see that they are based on ancient legends and creation myths that have been thoroughly discounted by modern science. I will cite an important legend.

Islam claims the heritage of both Judaism and Christianity, and claims the earlier Prophets as part of their own. These three religions are known as Abrahamic religions, as they all hold Abraham, or Ibrahim and he is known in Islam to be the first Prophet.

What does the archaeological evidence tell us about the Prophet Abraham or Ibrahim? The evidence tells us that there was no historical Abraham. The early legends of the Bible are all mythical. (I refer to the book by Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts).

The Prophet Ibrahim did not exist. According to biblical legend he should have lived 4000 years ago. But the Israelites did not emerge as a group distinct from other Canaanites until 3000 years ago.  And they were polytheistic. They were not monotheistic until about 2500 years ago. As always happens when new religions emerge, ancient myths are incorporated to bolster their credibility.

Islam is no different. In the Koran it is claimed that Abraham built the Kaaba in Mecca.  This did not happen. Like all religious texts, the Koran has some historical references, but also incorporates elements that were believed at the time it was written, but which we now know have no historical credibility.

It is a similar situation, of course, with the creation stories in both the Bible and the Koran. We know that evolution is true and creationism is false.

The way forward is to question our beliefs, to seek the truth wherever it may lead, without fear or favour. Reason and evidence should be our guide. We should base our values on universal principles of compassion, honesty freedom and justice. Only then will we be on a path to a better world. Secular Liberalism is the only solution.

Notes used in rebuttal time, after rebuttal
The Prophet Muhammad

Why does Islam in particular seem to be associated with violence and terrorism?
I would like to mention another aspect of Islam that we should be aware of.

The Prophet Muhammad is lauded in Islam as a paragon of virtue. He is revered and idolised as if beyond reproach. He is regarded as a perfect human being and an example to be followed.

Muhammad was a revolutionary political leader. He was the leader of a military rebellion. We know this from Islamic historical sources. Muhammad was sometimes benevolent, but often ruthless and brutal. (I refer to Richard Gabriel’s book, Muhammad: Ialam’s First Great General)

The prophet Muhammad was a military leader and a brilliant military strategist. His military campaign began as an insurgency. His unprovoked attacks on the Meccan caravans in 623, launched an unprecedented guerrilla war. This was the first national insurgency in history, and arguably the most successful. By instilling religious fervour, Muhammad was able to unite warriors from different tribes in his cause.

Without his early success, Islam may never have been established as a great religion. Many of his revelations are proclamations issued during his military campaigns. This legacy remains an important part of the character of Islam today.

Women

In Islam, women are inferior to men, Quran (4:34). The Quran says that “Men have authority over women because God has made one superior to the other” (4:34, Dawood translation). It goes on to say “As for those for whom you fear disobedience, admonish them, forsake them in beds apart, and beat them.”

Muslim women can try to find alternative quotes, and interpretations but they cannot overturn this.

The Koran requires Muslim women to be veiled as protection against molestation, (Quran 33:59).

“Prophet, enjoin your wives, your daughters, and the wives of true believers to draw their veils close around them. That is more proper, so that they may be recognised and not be molested.”

The women of Medina were in danger from Muslim men at night. At the time of this injunction, all the non-Muslims in Medina had been banished or killed. This hardly seems a sensible or relevant justification for wearing a veil today. Can we nit aspire to something better?