The dark side of Speakers’ Corner: online bullying and abuse7 min read
*** Disclaimer: I am not a perfect Muslim nor do I think that all Salafi-Wahhabis are the same; in this article I am responding to the majority Salafi-Wahhabi narrative that I can see in Speakers’ Corner ***
Recently, I have been reluctantly attending Speakers’ Corner in London to promote Arab Millennial. Yesterday, I went once more, and was attempting to convey a very reasonable position that, as Muslims, we can only do our best to make sense of the Quran. And that our interpretations of the objective Quran are, themselves, subjective. This is highly uncontroversial and I’m sure many Orthodox Muslims would agree with my view that human beings – mere mortals – are completely fallible and can make mistakes in their interpretation of the Quran.
Surprisingly, I suddenly found myself surrounded by austere followers of a puritan form of Islam that take their guidance from the first 3 generations following Muhammad PBUH. This, itself, is not problematic. My concern with the Salafi-Wahhabi narrative is its perception that the narrative transcends all forms of political context and intellectual interpretation.
What’s more concerning is the confidence these cult members have in the perceived infallibility and objectivity of their arguments. They are always the first to ask more mainstream Muslims “what is your source of knowledge?” or to condescendingly ask for “Allah to guide and enlighten us from perpetual ignorance”. Yet, very often, you may find that Salafis with these presuppositions are more narrowly read and less qualified than those who have a tendency to question themselves and be hesitant with their own views.
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains this paradigm very well – or, in Shakespeare’s words:
The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.
This is because, just like a fish may think that its fish bowl is its entire universe, a human being with limited intellectual capacity grossly underestimates their remaining capacity for learning and additional knowledge, leading them to be overly confident about their very restricted views.
After the heckling and torrent of takfir and verbal abuse eventually ended, I was surprised to see a few Muslims in the park – a park with a tradition where Karl Marx and George Orwell once had rational & fruitful conversations – approach me and thank me for expressing what they had wanted to say for a while now. I was incredibly surprised and humbled to see this. One by one, introducing themselves and voicing concerns about the overpowering dominance and superiority complex of the dominant Salafi-Wahhabi narrative in Speakers’ Corner.
Incidentally, this narrative resembles the narrative of a counter movement that is happening in Speakers’ Corner – right-winged nationalist fascists who have a tendency to support Tommy Robinson. They decontextualise and cherrypick versus from the Quran to confirm their position that the Quran is violent in its entirety. The Salafi-Wahhabis cherrypick versus from the Quran to confirm their dar-al-Islam/dar-al-Harb narrative in its entirety.
Why on Earth would an Islamophobe decide to not cherrypick if other Muslims are not setting a standard for themselves and being more intellectually nuanced in the true tradition and spirit of Islam’s intellectual Golden Age? Of course we are going to engage a toxic response from people if we continue in this un-strategic manner.
There are trends emerging showing the link between converts to Islam in British prisons and their tendency to incorporate more austere Salafi-Wahhabi views that can lead adherents down a path of terror-related ambiguity. This doesn’t surprise me: Salafi-Wahhabism is a gang-like ideology with a gang-like code of conduct – clear cut Halal and Haram actions, and Muslim and Kafir roles, are incredibly accessible and appealing to those who have just discovered Islam and go on to hold overly confident views about their own faith.
It’s also a short cut to a new identity and family when many British Muslims can find themselves isolated by day-to-day systems of institutional racism and Eurocentrism, such as “random” police stop-checks in London.
It’s almost as if our entire history and science of Tafaseer and Isnad are wastes of time when a newly converted gangster in Hyde Park seems to have all the answers to Ibn Rushd’s endless pondering. Sure, his initial grievances that led him to his puritan ways are totally legitimate, but his method of resolving the underlying issue – which is partly one of identity crisis – is not legitimate.
Yet, like with every gang, there is a mob surrounding it that does not think freely and critically about the views of their cult leader. They clap, they troll subjects to their debates, and ultimately the Salafi-Wahhabi wins because Speakers’ Corner debates are now measured by a Youtube Clap-o-Meter of likes and abuse in the comments section. It doesn’t matter what you say and people online will not even listen to your opinion, if you are simply standing opposite Shamsi, Syed or Hamza, their online subscribers will decide that that is enough to bombard you with a torrent of potentially deeply, deeply consequential abuse:
Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts? (47:24, Sahih International, Qur’an)
On my return home, I was shocked, surprised and deeply concerned to see a flurry of rumours about me emerge – that I was a kafir, that I was “gay”, that I was unemployed and unqualified – despite my seemingly very reasonable position that we, as readers of the Quran, are totally fallible and can only try our best to be unbiased.
This left me feeling extremely isolated and fuelled my anxiety that most Muslims that surround me probably subscribe to this cult-like opinion that I am not a Muslim, and do not voice this opinion to me in person. I understand now how ex-Muslims – particularly London ex-Muslims – can find themselves pushed out of Islam when they are dealing with people who do not want to incorporate their views into their over-confident religious world view.
Thus – in vain of the deliberate and malicious rumours about me that actually constitute online bullying and harassment – not only do gangster-like Salafi-Wahhabis have a very questionable idea of masculinity that does not incorporate leadership credentials, critical thinking and situational awareness, but the mere opposite, they are also doing themselves a disservice by closing doors to those who are more analytical and want to identify as part of the Ummah.
Their gang-like persona, lack of consideration and humility in face of others’ views and brash debating nature gives them an over-compensatory facade and perception of “masculinity” that can only generally be approved by other people of a similar mindset. This was not the nature of our beloved Prophet who was both firm and soft in character.
Just like all gangs, the London dawah movement is generally very selective and has very tall walls – incidentally as tall as the walls separating Tel Aviv from the West Bank. The gang will listen to your arguments simply to counter-argue them. They will also focus on the material to generally dismiss the spiritual.
The gang might focus, for example, on your pronunciation of Arabic during the discussion to take a perception of intellectual superiority over you, whilst dismissing other subject areas where you may prevail your Salafi-Wahhabi interlocutor. They may also not consider the fact that you were not born an Arab and therefore do not have the same access to Arabic literature, but might have a wider access to historical literature. Fortunately, as an Arab, I don’t face this issue.
Nonetheless: they are generally happy to dismiss tolerance, lenience, cultural assimilation, humility through learning, dealing with family members with good intentions, incorporating charitable values into one’s daily life… all actions and behaviours that were also incorporated by our beloved Prophet Muhammed PBUH… whilst being extremely quick to classify those in or out of their gang through their implicit takfir embedded in their self-important quips and rhetorical questions.
Speakers’ Corner is over, mainstream Muslims are being overpowered by over-confident individuals, and as the Salafi-Wahhabi, self perpetuating mentality cultivates in its own self-glorifying Petri dish, I can only imagine that it is:
- Going to push out more mainstream Muslims who may win the hearts of Islamophobes from the park;
- Going to encourage more backlash from Islamophobes and Tommy Robinson sympathisers to attend their own rallies in the park;
- And going to make Speakers’ Corner even more toxic and unproductive for those seeking to listen, engage and learn from one another in the park.
This arguably goes against both our British and Islamic traditions.