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Mar 11 2013

Guest post on the “debate” at UCL

Guest post by Abishek N. Phadnis

The Missionary Position

Six weeks ago, Student Rights published its findings on the infestation of rabble-rousing Islamic preachers in British universities over the past year. Topping the charts was trash-talking noisemaker Hamza Tzortzis, with his hit single “we as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom”. That he has alchemised this rather exotic view into a career as a self-styled ‘intellectual activist’ is the least of his many contradictions.

Mr. Tzortzis is an alumnus of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a global Sunni extremist movement against the evils of homosexuality, Jewishness, women, democracy, freedom and probably happiness itself. He is a champion of such worthy causes as the criminalisation of homosexuality , the dragging of Britain into the Islamic Caliphate and the amputation of limbs for minor crimes. His brand of rabble-rousing, however, eschews violent radicalisation for a more insidious form of reactionary preaching that sexes up a dark and twisted interpretation of Islam as the ideal.

It is almost received wisdom now that intellectual honesty isn’t one of Mr. Tzortzis’s strongest suits. During his invasion of Sheffield Hallam University last month, his acolytes in the Islamic Society secured him a debate with the Atheist Society who, until the very eve, were given the impression that the opponent would be an Islamic Society student. This afforded Mr. Tzortzis the opportunity to alternate his gormless pseudo-profundity with some self-indulgent whingeing about the reluctance of high-profile unbelievers to debate him.

This bag of squalid tricks resurfaced in the run-up to Mr. Tzortzis’s debate with the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss at University College London. The London heathen audience’s preparations for the debate, focused largely on devising rude puns of Mr. Tzortzis’s name, were thrown into disarray when it emerged that the organiser, Big Debates, was a front for the missionary Islamic Education and Research Academy , which counts among its ‘Permanent Staff’ one Hamza Tzortzis.

Intrigued by this subterfuge, they dug further and discovered that an iERA functionary was to moderate the event, that questions had to be submitted in advance and had to include a mention of the questioner’s religious belief, that the organisers’ insistence on knowing the religious inclination of each ticket-holder at the time of registration was ostensibly to guide the allocation of tickets and that, in the heart of Bloomsbury, a supposedly serious debate was to be conducted before a gender-segregated audience. Meanwhile, a number of closeted ex-Muslims were distraught to discover that they had been hoodwinked into handing over their personal details to an Islamic organisation.

A spirited volley of e-mails ensued, as the agitated atheists petitioned UCL to reassert first principles of equality. Britain’s original mixed-gender university issued a swift, firm and decisive statement the same afternoon affirming that no gender-segregated seating arrangement would be permitted.

By then, the LSE atheists had discovered the typical iERA debate to be a raucously self-congratulatory affair with an audience ten parts Muslim to one part unbeliever, where every mention of He-Who-Must-not-be-Named is prefaced with a chorus of superstitious Arabic gobbledygook, every mention of homosexuality is greeted by sneering catcalls and crowing videos spring up not long afterwards, with titles like like LOL Brother Muslim speaker CRUSHES/DESTROYS/OWNS atheist opponent.

It became amply clear that iERA had pulled a textbook bait-and-switch on Professor Krauss and his supporters, who, resigned to an evening with Mr. Tzortzis, would now be subjected to the further indignity of doing so amidst an audience so unashamedly stacked against Professor Krauss, he might as well have saved himself the airfare and delivered his address to a cactus in his native Arizona.

In the event, UCL’s assurance wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, as its Equality and Diversity Policy was roundly trashed in a brazen display of religious chauvinism that will rankle long in the memory of those who attended. The evening turned sour right at the outset, as attendees were herded through segregated entrances into ‘Ladies’ and ‘Gentlemen’ sections. Five minutes of remonstration yielded a slender two-row mixed section for the debauched, with the remaining twenty devoted to good old-fashioned chastity. The five rows with the worst views comprised the Ladies’ Area.

Matters came to a head when two male attendees were forced out of a section of the auditorium which turned out to be part of the Ladies’ Area. Incensed, they raised the matter with the organisers but were staggered to see the organisers set the guards on them instead, this time with the express intention of evicting them from the auditorium itself for “unruly behaviour”. Verily this behaviour cited consisted of little more than the temerity to occupy a vacant seat in a public auditorium and to protest one’s unjust eviction, without recourse to raised voices or physical contact.

By then, Professor Krauss had been informed of this scandal, and hurried upstairs to intercede on our behalf. He insisted that the two seemed dignified and restrained, and did not appear to pose the slightest threat to the peace of the gathering. Undeterred, the guards piled falsehood upon falsehood, levelling slanderous allegations of harassment and intimidation, though it eluded many why any man without a Dementor fetish would choose such a gathering for sexual mischief. That the objectors were outnumbered seven to one by the guards indicates how laughable this allegation was. Professor Krauss, unable to unable to bear this pious farce any longer, issued a terse ultimatum – he would leave in protest unless the evictees were returned, unscathed, to the auditorium.

This nuclear option concentrated the organisers’ minds and they sought refuge in one last petty trick, emptying out a row of the Ladies’ Section for the pair by scattering its previous inhabitants to upper reaches of that section.

It is difficult to express fully how disillusioning it was to see UCL’s staff openly siding with scripture-sodden prudes bent on simulating the social mores of 7th-century Arabia. A Dr. Rehman, reportedly of the UCL Chemistry Department, staunchly defended the His ‘n’ Hers farce as being endorsed by UCL. The UCL guards refused to intercede on the pair’s behalf, claiming that their brief was to follow the organisers’ instructions.

To complete the infamy, only one of the ten or so questioners in the Q&A session at the end of the debate was a ‘sister’. Her pathetic contribution was to exhume the carcass of the seating issue. Professor Krauss shot back that women so viscerally offended by unthreatening male company in a public space would do well to stay home and spare others their sanctimonious conservatism.

Organisations like iERA find visceral joy in the blood-sport of bringing down a giant of the opposition, like Lilliputians downing Gulliver, in the rigged travesty of a format they call a debate. One finds increasingly that this lack of scruple is visited upon dissenting members of the audience too. To the extent that Mr. Tzortzis is currently on an Islamic Awareness Tour, we’re delighted he’s raising awareness of the sinister strain of Islam that’s peddled on Britain’s university campuses, a spiteful and bigoted thing that appeals to the base instincts of the hot-headed and the impetuous. That the unapologetic crookedness of his cabal caught us unawares suggests we could all do with a little more awareness.

30 comments

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  1. 1
    gwen

    Wow. Just wow….. Were I Dr Krauss, in the face of such blatant dishonesty, I would have walked out on them.

  2. 2
    evilDoug

    Perhaps I have just missed the mention, but I am still unclear as to how this event was brought to the university. Was there a “recognized” on-campus organization (a chapter of iERA? [the lower case i really amuses me - in an effort to be "catchy", Islam gets an i from the easy-reach box] ) that invited it in, or was this entirely orchestrated by external forces (like the Good News clubs in US schools)?

    I cannot greatly fault “the university” with “allowing” the segregation to occur. University administrative staff aren’t too heavily into the role of policing things outside of academic issues. Probably the only staff working at the time of the event were general-purpose security personnel, cleaning staff, and miscellaneous faculty members. I could easily believe there are now several people in administration and on the board of governors thinking “Oh, crap! More distracting shit we have to have formal policy to deal with” (though obviously there is pro-equality policy in place, this specific sort of thing is probably new – especially the aspect of being flagrantly lied to).

  3. 3
    Rey Fox

    He is a champion of such worthy causes as the criminalisation of homosexuality , the dragging of Britain into the Islamic Caliphate and the amputation of limbs for minor crimes.

    Jeez. I trust there are plenty of Muslims in Britain who speak out against this guy? Surely they don’t want a walking Daily Mail caricature around.

  4. 4
    sonofrojblake

    I trust there are plenty of Muslims in Britain who speak out against this guy?

    Not a single one this reader of a daily broadsheet newspaper has ever heard of. But then, “Muslim behaves moderately” is right up there with “Dog bites man”.

  5. 5
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh, bullshit. Never heard of the Quilliam Foundation then? Or Dr Taj Hargey?

  6. 6
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @sonofrojblake

    But then, “Muslim behaves moderately” is right up there with “Dog bites man”

    I’m confused. Dogs bite people all the time, which would imply that Muslims behaving moderately is common… but the paper often has stories of dog bites, which in the context of your post (re. broadsheets) seems to suggest that you should have read about it in the paper, but haven’t, and therefore they aren’t moderate. In short, what on earth are you talking about?

  7. 7
    Teh kiloGraeme

    @Ophelia & thumper 1990

    I think that’s his point. Dog bites man is British short hand for a story that wouldn’t be published due to lack of interest. The papers (and the people) aren’t interested in moderates.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh, ok – I misunderstood. Apologies, sonof.

  9. 9
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    Professor Krauss shot back that women so viscerally offended by unthreatening male company in a public space would do well to stay home and spare others their sanctimonious conservatism.

    Really? A GTFO response? If so, I’m disappointed. There are much better ways to respond to such a question.

  10. 10
    Tyrant of Skepsis

    Yeah, that response really is not what one would have hoped for (since it is very close to victim blaming), but then again I don’t know what smart response I would have come up with in the same situation…

  11. 11
    deepak shetty

    , though it eluded many why any man without a Dementor fetish would choose such a gathering for sexual mischief.
    bwah ha ha ha.

  12. 12
    Maureen Brian

    Thank you, Abishek N. Phadnis. An excellent and well-written piece.

    —————

    Nonsense, evilDoug. Universities are already full of equalities specialists, anti-discrimination specialists, human resources specialists and deans of this, that and the other. Are you really suggesting we should keep it so that not a single one of them has enough nous actually to do the job?

    ________

    Ophelia, Quilliam is interesting though I’ve not been involved enough to see how effective they are against the cartoon villains. The story of the person after whom it is named is cool, too – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abdullah_Quilliam

  13. 13
    Crissa

    If you want special treatment – reserved seating, a special sandwich, etc; is it really up to the event to make sure there are no peanuts on the bar for you? It’s a tough question, but this isn’t like accidentally swapping the cashews for peanuts in the recipe. This is about forcing others to your own seating segregation.

  14. 14
    pjabardo

    Tyrant, the woman clearly didn’t feel like a victim. While people might be victims without realizing, in general I prefer to take people by their words. Krauss’ response was appropriate and very well put.

  15. 15
    Ibis3, Let's burn some bridges

    @pjabardo

    That response (presumably paraphrased by Phadnis) could just as easily have been unleashed at any of the atheist women calling for anti-harassment policies. It does nothing to address the woman’s question (not that we are told exactly what the question was) and treats her with disrespect.

  16. 16
    =8)-DX

    I’d be interested in the verbatim of Krauss’ response.

  17. 17
    georgelocke

    Commendations to Phadnis for a very well written piece. Srsly. Write more! I want to read your stuff.

  18. 18
    Kristin Nelson

    It is a shame that at least two women were forcibly segregated in the back of a lecture hall at the public university in the UK.

    1. (Dana S.) https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151324574843231
    2. (Halima) http://www.secularism.org.uk/news/2013/03/sexual-segregation-at-a-ucl-event-a-scandal-say-students

    In the US, these women would have excellent civil rights cases because they were clearly victims of discrimination. Does UK law protect women in public buildings from such discriminatory treatment?

  19. 19
    Ophelia Benson

    I don’t know, but UCL policy does. The Equality Advisor told Chris Moos that gender segregation would be in violation of their policy. That’s in writing. It’s official.

  20. 20
    Kristin Nelson

    What good is UCL policy if they take no real measures to insure that their policies are followed? UCL was warned that there was a potential problem before the event. Apparently, all they did was speak to some represenative for iERA, and that person lied to them. They just blindly believed the organizers–these organizers?

    UCL representatives said before the event that security guards would make sure there was no forced segregation. But the security guards stated on the night of the event that they were instructred to follow the instructions of the organizers. Assuming this is true, it means that the security guards were not trained in generall to implement UCL policy nor specifically warned about potential problems that night, or even given the name of someone to call in case there was even a potential problem. UCL apparently did not even send any special coordinator to make sure the organizers followed the policies.

    What exactly did UCL do to insure that their policies would be followed? What did they do to make sure Dr. Krauss was treated in a way commenserate with an appearance at a University in a liberal democracy? It would appear that they did nothing. Many people were then treated in a discriminatory way in their building. UCL allowed the iERA to use their name in order to trick Dr. Krauss into thinking he was speaking at a Univeristy where the event would be handled in a reasonable, non-discriminatory manner.

    UCL was at the very least negligent in how they handled this situation and certainly need to reexamine how they handle major events on their property. “They lied to us!” is a pretty lame response, however. In the US they would be reasonably subject to civil liability, as would the iERA if they violated contractual obligations to UCL.

    Civil Rights are too important to only protect with poorly-enforced University policy.

  21. 21
    Ophelia Benson

    I quite agree. I meant it’s in writing so they can’t pretend they didn’t know their own policy would be violated if they didn’t do something. I definitely didn’t mean it’s in writing so that’s all they needed to do.

  22. 22
    Kristin Nelson

    I am just incredulous that a University would be warned about the possibility that a group might encourage sex segregation on University property and then effectively do nothing but issue meaningless assurances to the student body. I guess they did warn the iERA that if there was sex segregation, that the event would be shut down, but that is a mere bluff when there is no apparent attempt to enforce that threat. I can’t fathom the thinking–”oh, we can trust that the iERA will do what we tell them, so our job is done.”

    The iERA may indeed be bad actors, but UCL is culpable as well. They have a greater responsibility than to just assume that outside groups will act in good faith, especially when warned in advance.

  23. 23
    Ophelia Benson

    Indeed. I think they are as it were on the hot seat; I hope something good will result, like much better practices in future.

  24. 24
    Siverly

    Exactly, Kristin. You’re spot on.
    And what of Dr. Aisha Rahman of the Chemistry Dept? Is there nothing in her employment contract that obliges her to adhere to said policies?

  25. 25
    DanDare

    UCL has banned the group from further appearances. All well and good after the fact. Has anyone got any follow up with UCL about the booking, instructions given to security, oversight, anything?

  26. 26
    DanDare

    PS They get away with this time and again. We had a similar debate here in Australia at University of Queensland. The same thing happened but we couldn’t get any response from authorities about it.

  27. 27
    Rupert T J

    Not at all as you make it out to be. I was there when Chris (the pervert in question) was sitting in his seat. For some strange reason, he made an issue of sitting between some girls a few rows behind him. Then security were called (just as Krauss was entering the hall) and he started making a scene. I think he had this planned all along.
    I’m not in favour of forced seating arrangements, but i’m also not in favour of sexual harassment.

  28. 28
    Ophelia Benson

    Uh huh. We’ve heard from other people who were there, and that’s not how they describe it.

    And “pervert”?

    Go away.

  29. 29
    Michael Pandazis

    Some people will go to great lengths to justify the unjustifiable. Just look at the comments on this page.

    http://www.ahsstudents.org.uk/news/2013/3/11/gender-segregation-at-ucl-event/

  30. 30
    Noor

    iERA’s latest press release

    http://us1.campaign-archive1.com/?u=ebb500c4922ec74a0f5b35a48&id=6b19409946

  1. 31
    Hamza Tzortzis’s reputation goes before him » Pharyngula

    [...] is hosting a wonderfully entertaing guest post on Hamza Tzortzis and the UCL segregation debacle. I know that guy; Tzortzis seems to show up somewhere every time I’m in Europe to peddle his [...]

  2. 32
    University Diaries » Sanctimony Watch

    [...] Professor Krauss shot back that women so viscerally offended by unthreatening male company in a public space would do well to stay home and spare others their sanctimonious conservatism. [...]

  3. 33
    Islamic group banned from UCL following gender segregation row | Secular News Daily

    [...] Also see:Sexual segregation at a UCL event a scandal, say studentsHomo economicus’ Weblog: Take a seat: UCL Islamic V Atheist debateAnd this guest post on the UCL debate from Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies & Wheels blog: The Missionary Position [...]

  4. 34
    National Secular Society - Islamic group banned from UCL following gender segregation row | Mobile AtheistMobile Atheist

    [...] Also see:Sexual segregation at a UCL event a scandal, say studentsHomo economicus’ Weblog: Take a seat: UCL Islamic V Atheist debateAnd this guest post on the UCL debate from Ophelia Benson’s Butterflies & Wheels blog: The Missionary Position [...]

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