I recently had a discussion with a Muslim guy at a Daw’ah table in the city centre, who held some incredibly extreme views and refused to accept contradictory thought. Afterwards, a friend of mine who considers himself a liberal Muslim, advocates free expression, LGBT rights, and considers the Shari’ah to be a system between him and his God only, told me – quite emotionally – that he does not recognise the Islam that the man at the Daw’ah table was espousing. I was reminded of this fundamental – and growing – split in Muslim thinking during a Newsnight debate between Maajid Nawaz of Quilliam and headteacher Ibrahim Hewitt of Interpal on the subject of extremism in schools. Nawaz asked Hewitt if he would condemn the practice of stoning, homophobia, or amputation of limbs for theft. After deflecting the question, Hewitt said it was a “complex issue”. I took exception to this, finding it particularly unnerving that a headteacher would not openly condemn executing people by throwing rocks at them, chopping off limbs, and dehumanising the LGBT community. After taking issue, I was asked on Twitter:
“But what makes stoning objectively wrong?”
– This curious – and rather grotesque – question echoes a lot of conservative religious apologists when seeking to defend abhorrent and archaic practices, by philosophising on objectivity in the hope of giving themselves a base by which they can legitimise the oppression of others. I find the framing of the question to be aimed in the wrong direction, and based on an incredibly faulty premise. The question presumes that the burden is on those of us who do not wish to be controlled by a single faith, to provide an explanation as to why our life is ours, and not owned by their religion.
The framing of the question – by presuming the burden is on us – implies a self evident privileged position for those that claim stoning is ‘objectively right‘, and that it is up to the rest of us to argue that it is in fact, wrong. The premise of the question itself is not proven first, and so the actual question has no reasonable basis. The premise is one in which I am wholly owned and subject to that particular faith, without offering proof as to why that should be true, whether I like it or not. It further implies that if I wish to free myself from the faith of those claiming ownership of my life, I must argue why their self-proclaimed right to subject me to religious punishment, is “objectively wrong“. This is an untenable position to start at, because at its core it permits religious folk the right to control me according to their faith, me the right to control their life if I simply say “My God says it’s objectively right“, it permits my neighbour the same right, and her neighbour the same right, and we end up in a situation in which all of us believe we have some sort of divine right to force others to abide by our personal religious beliefs. It is one big hellish Hobbesian condition of war. It offers no reasonable position as to why I shouldn’t be allowed to viciously oppress Muslims, if I simply add the phrase “… because God said so” at the end of an oppressive judgement, without first proving the validity of my premise; or indeed, the existence of my God. On the contrary, it appears to permit that state of all out God-wars. Each of us would thus begin from the position that our belief is true and must be inflicted upon others (whose beliefs must be presumed “objectively” false), without having to first offer conclusive proof. This seems entirely self defeating and based solely on who can subdue the other the quickest.
It seems to me that the only basis for a progressive and civilised society, is one that permits each the freedom to believe and to worship according to one’s conscience, but restricts that freedom at the point in which it inflicts upon the freedoms of others. So the case must be made that it isn’t my burden to explain why it is “objectively wrong” to punish me – with stoning or any other form of punishment – according to your faith. I begin life completely free from ideological dogma and chains. If you seek to erect barriers to my freedom, according to what your faith demands of you, you’re going to have to convince me to go along with it, otherwise it is simply oppression. Your faith does not own me at birth. If you believe it does, conclusively prove it, convince me. If you fail to do so, you have absolutely no authority by which to subject me to the punishments of your religious beliefs. Whether I live or die, must not be decided upon by the religious beliefs of anyone else. Therefore, the burden is yours to explain why it is “objectively right” that I be ideologically chained to your faith in the first place, before I am at all required to offer a rebuttal. It is not up to me to prove that I shouldn’t be subject to your religious beliefs, it is up to you to prove that I should. Good luck with that.