IslamExpo in London - Building bridges?

IslamExpo: building bridges or burning them down?
Josef Litobarski;, 24 - 07 - 2008

IslamExpo, Europe's biggest Muslim cultural event, was first held in London in 2006 on the first anniversary of the 7/7 bombings. The timing might seem slightly confrontational, but it was an unfortunate coincidence rather than a political statement; the deposit for the venue having been paid before the bombings. This year's IslamExpo, attended by some 40,000 people, was held at London's Olympia from July 12-14. The event was organised to build bridges and promote understanding and to celebrate the culture and history of Islam. Critics, however, have compared the event to a BNP rally and allege that shady links exist between the organisers and groups such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The controversy surrounding the event became such that, hours before he was due to speak at the opening ceremony, Shahid Malik, the UK international development minister, was forced to pull out due to pressure from the government. A spokesperson from the department of communities revealed that the government had "reservations about the organisers of the event." And Malik wasn't the only speaker to cancel his appearance: Stephen Timms, minister of state for employment, mysteriously disappeared from the list of speakers; the Tory Muslim peer Lord Sheikh pulled out, citing a bad back; and Douglas Murray and Martin Bright both refused to attend when they learned that the blog Harry's Place was being threatened with litigation by the organisers of IslamExpo for claiming that British Muslim Initiative president Mohammed Sawalha had used the phrase "evil Jew."

The talk about the Iraq war (entitled "Five Years On: Stability or Chaos?") was hit particularly hard by this blight of vanishing speakers. Salah El-Sheikhy, Andrew Murray and former Iraqi interim prime minister Ayad Allawi all pulled out, leaving the panel looking more than a little thin, with only Respect MP George Galloway and Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele remaining. The chair, Anas Altikriti, was forced to shuffle over and become a panellist. The Iraq debate ended up being decidedly one-sided, with all the speakers in total agreement with one another (although Jonathan Steele seemed more than a little wary of Galloway's assertion that al-Qaida is really a CIA puppet).

Despite the paucity of panelists, the IslamExpo appeared very well attended by a young, mostly Muslim audience, split fairly evenly between the sexes and with a great many children playing and running around, jumping onto the balloons strewn across the hall (sometimes punctuating a heated question and answer session about suicide-bombing with a startling bang). But to describe it as a "mostly Muslim" audience suggests a homogeneity which it didn't possess: there were Muslims from Europe attending, Muslims from India, from Pakistan, from Nigeria and Somalia, from Malaysia and Indonesia, and from many places in between. And there was a sizeable minority of non-Muslims in attendance as well: from Anglican priests in dog-collars to Hasidic Jews in shtreimel.

The first floor was taken up by the main lecture hall, and by the stalls, crowded with interested attendees; stall-holders selling middle-eastern and south-Asian foodstuffs, books and DVDs and t-shirts, and handing out a small rainforest worth of brochures and magazines. There was also a "fun zone" for children to play in, a five-a-side football pitch, a café, a garden-style area, a stage for performances, examples of Muslim street art, and a giant fabric-domed mosque. On the second floor of the hall were a collection of displays: a timeline of the history of Islam; ancient and contemporary Muslim art, including a series of striking political cartoons on Guantanamo bay and the war on terror (and a rendering of Abu-Ghraib in lego); and displays of Islamic science and invention. Also on the second floor were the workshops: calligraphy, henna, Islamic geometry, North African drumming and more.

Of course, the henna and calligraphy workshops were unlikely to be a source of controversy. It was rather the range of political views on offer at IslamExpo that had critics chomping at the bit. Especially interesting was witnessing Godwin's Law applied in the real world. Earlier in July, when Shahid Malik had said that British Muslims felt like the "Jews of Europe," he had been very careful to stress he was not making a comparison with the Holocaust. Unfortunately, some of the audience members who got up to ask questions at the IslamExpo lectures failed to make the distinction. One man said, to loud applause, that the "treatment of Muslims in the UK is starting to become very close to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany."

Conspiracy theories also abounded (not helped by George Galloway's mysterious pronouncement that even al-Qaida didn't know who they were really working for) - one woman in the audience stood up and screamed into the microphone that nobody would ever be able to convince her that Iraqis were actually the ones killing Iraqis, because all sectarian killings in Iraq were actually being carried out by American contractors. She was swiftly denounced by another woman, who said she had lost family in Iraq, most definitely killed by other Iraqis, and that she found these conspiracy theories offensive. The audience applauded her. One of the speakers, Robert Leiken, author of "Europe's Angry Muslims," said he felt extremely depressed by some of the questions. "If people heard these questions," he said, "they would feel they were correct [in their preconceptions of Islam]." On the other hand, the more moderate views put forward got plenty of applause as well.

Perhaps most controversial of all, however, was a talk given by Dr. Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought. Dr. Tamimi certainly caused a stir in 2004 when he said in a BBC interview that he would go to Palestine and sacrifice himself if he was able to. His speech on Saturday began quietly, steadily increasing in fervour until by the end he was shouting into the microphone. As Dr. Tamimi argued passionately that Hamas was a national liberation movement, some members of the audience got carried away and there were one or two yells of "allāhu akbar." Dr. Tamimi ended his speech calling for "Christian, Jew and Muslim [to] live in peace," yet refused to answer a question from the audience about whether he condoned suicide bombing. Sitting beside Dr. Tamimi was Dr. Nur Masalha, who told the audience that he considered suicide-bombing to be counter-productive to the efforts of the people of Palestine, a sentiment which received applause.

In the end, whatever IslamExpo resembled it was nothing like a BNP rally. It had too many different strands, too many different competing narratives playing out at the same time. Yes, there was an ugliness which occasionally reared its head during discussions on contentious topics. But in fact the worst "hate speech" I came across in relation to IslamExpo was on a billboard in London advertising the event, where someone had painted a swastika with a spray-can. With one or two exceptions, there was genuine debate going on at IslamExpo. The talk about women in Islam was especially interesting in this respect - and it was encouraging to see that more than half of the audience members there were women.

It remains to be seen whether IslamExpo really has built any bridges between the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Britain. The event did not draw a great deal of non-Muslims, nor an enormous amount of attention from the mainstream media. Critics may also be right when they say that many of the debates were politically-biased. IslamExpo should not, however, be dismissed out of hand. The lack of balance was made far worse, for example, by the decision taken by almost all the speakers critical of IslamExpo to pull out at the last minute, not leaving the organisers enough time to find suitable replacements. From what I could see, the speakers would not have been badly received, booed or heckled if they had presented arguments which challenged the views of the audience. One hopes that the convention's critics won't shy away from the show next year.


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