Take a seat: UCL Islamic V Atheist debate

You may have already heard about this, especially if following on Twitter (which 1/5 of you dear readers do). The debate 9 March at University College London (UCL), which Professor Lawrence Krauss took part in on the atheist side, was organised by the Islamic and Education Research Academy (iERA) which provided for segregated seating by gender and mixed seating. Krauss, who had been warned this might happen by Dawkins, was assured by organisers this would not occur, so announced at the debate that people could sit where they wished.

Three men chose to relocate to the women section. Where upon organisers tried to move them; they called upon Krauss to say they were being moved despite his assurance. Upon which the professor packed up. The men were then allowed to sit where they wished, and Krauss took part in the debate.

So twitter has been aglow, and my new BFF to passionatley disagree with Monsar Ansar had this to say:


Contrast this with the UCL statement explaining that following the incident iERA are banned from using their premises:

UCL was founded in 1826 as a secular institution. That does not mean it is institutionally atheist but that it is an open institution, tolerant of difference, strong on of freedom of speech, but intolerant of discrimination on grounds of gender, race, religion or other irrelevant grounds. There is no shortage of other premises available in London to organisations wishing to operate to different rules. [Source]

Gender allocated seating is not acceptable, not because people may choose to sit where they may, but because the idea behind it suggests that women and men have their own divisions to be maintained in public. The political significance of feminism cannot be overstated in raising awareness – to single out areas for people arbitrarily on the basis of gender is not tolerable.

This would be my reaction if this gender separation happened in a mixed sex school debate or assembly. I am opposed in principle to same sex schools for again we are arbitrarily separating people on the basis of gender from one another.

So to suggest that religious freedom allows this separation may be justified if this was an Islamic meeting or designated islamic place where such rules operate. This was not the case at UCL; just the opposite. Also, an undertaking had been made that this would not happen to a key figure in the debate.

I disagree with Richard Dawkins that Krauss should have walked out in protest to gain more public attention to the issue. That has been secured. It is possible that people at the debate had not heard the atheist side before – and when uploaded on youtube (will include when link available) others not used to such debates may hear what the atheist side has to say for itself. The OUT Campaign was best served by the debate happening and exposing what took place.

Addressing what Monsar says – well we do allow in the UK religious institutions to discriminate on the basis of gender whether the Bishops in the House of Lords being still only male or gender segregation at a Mosque. That is on the basis that people voluntarily chose to be a part of such faiths and comply with such rules. Companies or public institutions cannot function in the same way.

Thankfully I am free to disagree with this while accepting that in some ways this is none of my business. Accept on the point of a faith being voluntary – it is a human rights issue that people may leave a faith without fear, or intimidation. Equally, that a woman and man may chose to sit in a public secular place with whoever she wants when allocated seating allows, while being treated as a person not a personification of a sexual gender.

Human rights trump religious ideas in enforcement. I am not a man, or a human mammal with urges and cravings, when considering such rights. In the eyes of the law we transcend gender, and in the body politic we metamorphose into something that makes us equal and entitled:

Citizens of a secular liberal democracy.

UPDATE Blog: Lawrence Krauss on Incest

UPDATE 8/4/2013: Video of Debate

Article written by John Sargeant on Homo economicus’ Weblog

Follow @JPSargeant78


Filed under atheism, OUT campaign, Religion, Richard Dawkins

10 responses to “Take a seat: UCL Islamic V Atheist debate

  1. excellent post! I was at the event. I was told to head toward the back and enter through the “female” door. But luckily I made friends with a young man who said we could pretend to be a couple so I could sit in front. As we were entering the gathering one of the event staff made a point of turning to this gentleman and asking, “Is she with you?” Don’t want to split hairs or anything– but certainly made it seem like this man, as well as any other male/female couples, had to legitimise and justify the relationship before being allowed to take our seats.

    Like…… what? Isn’t it 2013?

    Then, during the Q&A forum at the end, one young lady stood up and told Dr. Krauss that she preferred gender seating so that she wouldn’t have to sit next to the males. Well, sorry. But that’s JUST as sexist as telling the women they have to sit in the back. I know it’s a part of their culture, and I do respect that. But this was a secular event and their antiquated gender politics had no place at this debate.

    You should check out my post about the debate!


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  4. The hype around this non-issue has seemingly been manufactured for a variety of personal agendas.

    It has then filtered down into the mainstream as some ‘Rosa Parks’ moment.

    We do like to think highly of ourselves don’t we. Most of the time that is most certainty unsubstantiated confidence.

    The organisation iERA has refuted that they enforced segregation. There was a video, if anyone caught it, showing the layout and no force at all. It’s surprising that we listen to Richard Dawkins even when he ignores the empirical evidence and collapses into subjective rants to support his good friend Lawrence Krauss. He himself appears to follow in the tradition of Dawkins’ theater performances.

    Anyhow- perhaps it is time we actually listened to the Muslim women involved, rather than portraying them in crude, outdated stereotypes, and speaking up for them as if they have no voice. This is a true injustice. This calls us backwards to the era of imperialism where we thougth we had some sort of civilizing mission. The events of the 20th century soon refuted that.

    They made their opinions known online, and rejected that they were ‘forced to the back’, ‘forcefully segregated’, and all the other emotive slogans that have been employed recently. But they were of course, ignored. Hence the outpouring of White European, by self-definition ‘secularist’ men and women flowing with guns blazing at strawmen, to explain to us the travesty of tolerance as some affront to their beliefs!

    It appears that the only force at the event was from two men who continually harassed these women, even after they moved, until they had enough and asked security to deal with it. I wonder how we English-folk would deal with our mothers, daughters, wives being harassed.

    But alas, the Muslim women isn’t considered British, even when she is. She’s a traitor- from the right and the left. So feminism is now it seems, to, even when she is telling you as an educated young woman that she doesn’t need to be liberated, emancipated etc, have men harass her until she accepts, mock and attack her until she accepts. Of course, you can paint it in as flowery a rhetoric as you like for the media.

    The Muslim woman cannot speak for herself. She’s not allowed to. When she says it was her request to have the section, her choice, she’s brainwashed, lame and confused. She should either accept the European narrative or sit down and shut up, or in this case,as Mr Krauss so eloquently put it- go home.

    The fact is, we don’t even tolerate their opinion. We just rush to the first arguments we can find from the secular worldview’s handbook without even considering their views. And we call ourselves liberals! We are playing into the EDL rhetoric, and we call ourselves liberals. Embarrassing.

    Regardless, iERA had a duty to accommodate their requests- they were from the orthodoxy of the Islamic religious tradition.

    UCL even agreed to this beforehand, which was conveniently ignored by the press.

    Lo and behold- Muslim women requested something- so they are oppressed because of the choice they made it seems- what arrogance, as if we have something that is universal and unquestionable ourselves.

    Instead of running to condemn organisations, organisations that clearly reach out for open dialogue and the like, why don’t we put equal effort to engage and understand, as history records that trying to understand each other, even when we disagree, can be a lot more fruitful than the militant mindset being offered at this time.

    • You are discounting that people were encouraged to sit according to gender before entering the hall, and volunteers questioned whether some people were actually couples. I was never suggesting all were frog marched to a seat. Only that this behaviour is unacceptable at a public meeting.

      As I mention in my blog, gender segregation in a private religious meeting they can do. In a public meeting I would no more accept that segregation by gender as I would by race. Neither did UCL. Nor would those that think feminism is about not treating people in public according to an arbitrary/religious view of gender – atheism has nothing to do with that.

      You also forget Krauss was assured there would be no seating segregation at all at the meeting. Hence reason he nearly walked out.

      I invite you to read my blogs taking EDL and Robert Spencer to task. And my latest on Dawkins’ tweet mentioning Koran and Mein Kampf. Plus on twitter through the Council of ex-Muslims forum I have met like minded Muslim secularists. If we did not speak out about such things that really would be playing into EDL hands who portray themselves as the only ones to care about these things.

      To suggest being against the notion of gender segregation is a product of militant secularism is not borne out by arguments regarding treating men and women equally, feminism, and that we do not sacrifice this willingly in the public sphere.

    • So discriminatory policy of gender segregation should be tolerated by liberal society…. ugh! This Muslim woman could not disagree more. What ever next, ‘light’ wife beating should be tolerated, as Abdur Raheem Green from iERA states, that a husband has the right to administer ‘some type of physical force… a very light beating’ of his wife, to prevent her from committing ‘evil.’ Thanks to be so considerate to assume we should be left at mercy of misogynistic practices.

      If British society is serious about protecting human rights of us, Muslim women, than it must not allow misogynistic practices to be smuggled in as a ‘religious’ or ‘cultural’ sensitivity. So what if some women want to be segregated in public spaces!? some women were opposed to women’s suffrage. Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League was woman’s organisation that campaigned against woman having right to vote in parliamentary elections – How wrong were they!?

      Segregation on any basis is morally flawed concept, segregated society is unequal society. Whenever, wherever segregation was enforced it was to done to disadvantage certain group of people. Muslim women living in countries where segregation is enforced are severely held back in every aspect of life, from finding employment to not being able to participate in politics and decision making. Women’s Social, Political & Economic Power is held on a tight leash with gender segregation. This is why anyone concerned about human right must fight it.

      You could argue segregation in society is not really mandated by Islamic religion, although men & woman always pray separately. Segregation is certainly fact in islamic tradition and culture but there is much evidence to suggest that first generation of Muslims did not practice segregation outside place of worship and segregation was a later cultural add on.

      Regardless of what culture, tradition & religious views say, we live in contemporary secular democracy that upholds rights of an individual citizen above rights of any religious group. Society based on equality can not, must not permit gender segregation just like it can not permit racial or any other segregation.

      To say it is attack on our faith is ridiculous, religious freedom does not mean that religious group gets the right to impose their religious dogma on other people who may disagree, not in public space and especially not when dogma is contrary to contemporary concepts of liberty and human rights.

      Promoting segregation as a ‘right’ also prevents debate within Muslim community and silences people like myself who wish to pose questions, such as: Is it necessary? Is it rational? is it fair? is it moral?

      PS. iERA deserves to be condemned, on their website man have photographs, women are faceless avatars, female speaker can not address male or mixed audience, only female audience. What does that tell us about status of a woman this organisation is pushing? never mind they endorse ‘light’ wife beating.

    • When you decry critics of such segregation as “imperialists” you commit the very euro-centrist blasphemies to which we ought all to be opposed: Islam is not some crude, monolithic entity. It has always been the case that the numerically greatest victims of fundamentalist religion are invariably members of that religion. The EDL’s claim to speak for “England” is no different to the attempt by fanatical proponents of Sharia to speak for the entire Muslim community. Cultural relativism is dangerous; any credible feminist ought to oppose the subjugation of one sex by the other wherever it is found.

      I’m sorry, but there are some laws in this world that should be absolute and universal, and they are all in themselves liberal; freedom of conscience, of speech, equality of the sexes and races and all the other obvious points. Those who designed this at UCL breached a number of those, and did so without apology; it does not need to invite wishy-washy equivalence with Western morality.

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