This week, Queen Mary University is due to re-host an event which should never have been cancelled.
Anne-Marie Waters, of the One Law for All campaign, had originally been due to speak on ‘Sharia and Human Rights’ on 16 January.
As the event was about to start, a man entered the lecture theatre, raced up to the front and started filming the audience.
After threatening audience members with some predictable “I know where you live” diatribes, he added that if the speakers said anything negative about the Prophet Mohammed, he would “track them down.” Rushing back out of the building with the same intensity he had entered, this youth ended up being flanked by a large group of his peers outside.
Police were called and the event was cancelled, much to the chagrin of everyone involved.
It is commendable of the university to re-schedule this talk, but a more profound question lingers: what is the best long-term strategy when it comes to addressing such aggression and intimidation?
As director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (an organisation which tackles both Islamophobia and other forms extremism), I know how crucial it is to challenge ALL sectarian attitudes in public, regardless of where they may emanate.
A fringe within a fringe will bray that it is “Islamophobic” to criticise such statements. Such crude accusations should be exposed for what they are: erroneous, and an insult to those of us who are doing crucial work in politically complex environments. Further, they do no favours to genuine victims of Islamophobia.
Firstly, it will improve the level of discourse on issues such as intra-faith relations in the UK.
Secondly, it will help Muslims fulfil our Islamic obligations vis-a-vis social justice.
Thirdly, it will send out a strong message to non-Muslims, that we are good at setting out what kind of behaviour is acceptable (and, by extension, what is not).
Of course, many Muslims are deterred from taking this sort of action because they fear threats and intimidation. However, despite the example at Queen Mary in January, the situation is gradually improving.
A coalition of religious and non-religious groups – including mine – organised a protest against the extremist Muslims Against Crusades’ poppy-burners on Remembrance Day 2011. While the group were banned the night before the protest, our planned counter-protest sent out a clear message: that people from a diverse range of backgrounds will not put up with such antics.
My top tip for protesting against groups like these is to deploy humour and satire. In one video on the BMSD website, an “angry young Muslim” begins ominously: “I have a message for those who insult Islam,” before adding: “Let’s agree to disagree.”
This video was used to promote BMSD’s counter-protest against MAC (then known as Islam4UK) in October 2009. It received 10,000 hits on YouTube in four days, and shows what can be achieved with a small budget, yet copious amounts of passion and determination.