Delivered 29 April 2015. Posted 17 May 2015.
I recently spoke to the sixth form at Lancaster Royal Grammar School, organised by the charity Speakers for Schools. The pupils were taking part in the session voluntarily during their lunchtime. In advance, via their teacher they sent me two possible subjects to cover.
One of the two was "If the world finance system had been run on Islamic principles would we have avoided the 2008 Crash?" This is a subject I have spoken on to the Gates Scholars Society and in Melbourne as well as in London. However I decided against tackling this question because I considered that the pupils would have insufficient financial knowledge to appreciate the issues, and it would take too long to cover the ground.
The other question they gave me was "Why as a devout Muslim do you support a political party which in government has attacked Muslims overseas?" I do not believe in shying away from challenging questions, and chose to tackle this.
I always give such talks from a written out text so that I can predict accurately how long the speech will take. The text I wrote is reproduced below.
As we’ve only got 45 minutes, I’ll get straight into it. I’ve been asked to answer one question.
“Why as a devout Muslim do you support a political party which in government has attacked Muslims overseas?”
I’m going to speak for about 10 minutes, and then we can use the rest of the session for questions and answers. I’m going to cover a lot of ground in my 10 minutes:
At one time we were all hunter gatherers living on grassy plains next to tropical rain forests. In those places, there is next to nothing worth trying to control. You don’t get kingdoms and empires in that kind of society.
After we took up farming, land became very important. Land can be controlled, taken away from people and given to other people. Even more importantly, in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia, irrigation water is critical for farming. Irrigation water can also be controlled.
That is why kingdoms and empires arose. All empires spent their time trying to expand by taking land away from others.
In the past, everyone behaved badly. We like to pick sides. Most Muslims cheer on the Arab conquests over the Byzantine and Persian Empires. The Arabs may have been better people than the Byzantines because they were Muslims. After all they didn’t persecute people on the grounds of religion.
However they were taking someone else’s lands by force. The people being robbed had also got their lands by force further back in the past.
That was human history until very recently. The Ottoman Turks were trying to conquer Europe, and only stopped because they couldn’t. The key message is that in the past everyone behaved badly.
Eventually the Europeans got better technology. Better technology enabled Europeans to conquer North America, South America, most of Africa, South Asia and South East Asia. I won’t list all the empires.
When the Japanese modernised starting with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, as soon as they got modern technology, they started building their own empire.
Some empires behaved worse than others. The Belgians in the Congo were particularly awful. The British and the French were not too bad most of the time, except when provoked. Britain took a lot from India, but also gave India the English language, cricket, railways, civil administration and many other things.
It’s wrong to judge the people of the past by modern standards.
Winston Churchill is one of my greatest heroes. I cannot listen to his great wartime speeches without crying. I also know that the same Winston Churchill was a racist, made terrible remarks about Mahatma Gandhi, and was dead against freedom and independence for India. In his day, most people were racists. However not all of them.
With illiterate poor working class parents I understandably grew up supporting the Labour Party. I took a detour into Trotskyism at university before returning to mainstream Labour. Around 1980 I joined the Liberal Party for a couple of years, but in 1983 left them to join the Conservative Party. I have been a Conservative ever since.
The reason I joined the Conservative Party is very simple. Milton Friedman’s TV series “Free to choose” and book "Free to Choose: A Personal Statement" convinced me of the virtues of capitalism and free markets. In passing, although I am a Conservative with a big “C”, I am not a conservative with a small “c”. I joined the Party because I saw Margaret Thatcher radically changing Britain for the better.
In real life, you can never find a political party you agree with 100%. There has never been a single day when I agreed with every Conservative Party policy, and there never will be. However I agree with far more Conservative Party policies than I do with the policies of any other political party, which is why I am a Conservative.
I’ve picked that date for a specific reason. In 1979, the Iranian people overthrew the dictatorial Shah of Iran, and Ayatollah Khomeini became Iran’s Supreme Leader. This was the first time in modern history that we had seen a theocratic government, a government based on a religion, in this case Islam of the Shia variety.
I’m not going to try to cover everything since then, but have picked a few key highlights.
In 1980, Iraq under the Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein attacked Iran. The war lasted for eight years. About 1 million people died. It is disgraceful that Britain and America secretly supplied weapons to Iraq. However the blame for the war lies with Iraq, and this was Muslims killing other Muslims.
In 1990 Iraq invaded and conquered Kuwait, another Muslim majority country. A coalition led by the USA, but including many Muslim majority countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Morocco and others ejected the Iraqis by force.
Also in 1979 the USSR (basically Russia and its empire) had invaded Afghanistan to prop up a failing communist government. The USA and other countries, especially Pakistan, helped to arm and train the Afghan resistance, along with foreign Muslim fighters who took part for religious reasons. The religious reason was to help Muslims resist an invasion by non-Muslims. One of those Muslim fighters was Osama Bin Laden from Saudi Arabia.
After Iraq had invaded Kuwait, Osama Bin Laden offered his help to the Saudi government. They rejected him preferring American help. He was religiously horrified by infidel American troops being in Saudi Arabia, and this led to the setting up of Al Qaeda.
It was Al Qaeda who killed hundreds in the East African embassy bombings of 1998, and 3,000 people (including about 60 innocent Muslims) in 9/11 in 2001. Al Qaeda had been sheltered and given facilities by the Afghanistan government. Accordingly the USA, UK and others invaded Afghanistan to help one group of Afghan Muslims (the Northern Alliance) overthrow another group, the Taliban, who controlled most of the country including the capital Kabul.
In 2003 Iraq was invaded by the USA and UK, because it kept pretending to have chemical and biological weapons, even though at that time it didn’t. Several thousand people were killed during the allied conquest, but since then hundreds of thousands have died at the hands of other Muslims, just as in Syria we have seen hundreds of thousands of Muslims killed by other Muslims.
I’ve skipped over Bosnia where after several years of terrible dithering the UK and USA intervened after the Srebrenica massacre to stop Serbs killing more Bosnian Muslims.
I’ve also skipped over Kosovo where US and UK military action saved large numbers of Kosovan Muslims from being killed and Sierra Leone where the UK ended a civil war in a Muslim majority country.
Libya is a mess today, but we intervened to stop the Muslim dictator Gaddafi killing large numbers of Muslims in Benghazi.
There was plenty of bad UK behaviour in the past.
I don’t see the UK as having attacked Muslims in the recent past, whether under Labour Governments or under Conservative Governments.
Some of our policies have worked, and some have not worked. However I don’t see our policies being motivated by anti-Muslim attitudes in any way.
Let’s take questions.
I finished my prepared speech in the promised 10 minutes; that is the benefit of a prepared text. 1,282 words takes less than 10 minutes at 150 words spoken per minute, but some time needs to be added to allow for ad-libbing, since I do not read out the speech word for word. Hence keeping the written text below 1,500 words.
The remaining 35 minutes were devoted to questions from the pupils who came from diverse backgrounds, including a number of Muslims. There were some very tough questions.
Wwhat made the session work well is that once the question had been asked, I was given silence in which to answer it. The presence of the school's head-teacher who was sitting in to watch may have contributed to the pupils good behaviour! I found some of the questions quite thought provoking, and was frank with my answers.
Subsequently I was delighted to receive a glowing feedback email from the teacher who had organised the session.
Lack of historical perspective is a major problem amongst people with all kinds of views. Anti-Muslim bigots see the barbarity of some modern Muslims such as so-called "Islamic State" but are too ready to forget the barbarity of Christians and atheists as recently as the middle of the twentieth century. Muslims forget that Muslim led empires were as keen on conquest as European empires.
The other common problem is failure to accept that people are responsible for their own actions. The 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the USA and UK had many flaws. However the massive death toll since 2003 consists primarily of Muslims in Iraq killing other Muslims, and the blame for those deaths rests with the people doing the killing.