Clearly, if the group could be defined politically at all, they appeared to mix left/liberal complaints about reduced personal freedom with a harsh and authoritarian law-and-order stance enforced by a one-party religious state - hardly compatible bedfellows. I wondered if the freedom to protest would be revered just as long as it takes to replace British law and democracy with Sharia law, at which point it could be abandoned. The existence of fairs of this kind should be of interest to all leftists, especially those involved in anti-fascist work; to what extent should the left tolerate groups (of any creed) who agitate to abandon freedom and democracy? Is our policy of inclusivity towards minority groups - which is laudable in itself - overriding the defence of liberal values?
I spoke to one chap, Kamron, (and will apologise if I've spelled that incorrectly) and introduced myself. I was interested to start with, from the perspective of tolerance, why he couldn't just leave gay lifestyles alone. He replied that they were described as wrong in the Qur'an, and that he knew homosexuality to be wrong, and that deep in my heart, I knew it too. I had to protest several times against this rhetorical technique: if I were to search in my heart, I was told, I would discover that he spoke the truth, regardless of whether he'd put forward a convincing case for the point in hand.
Kamron went on to explain that democracy would be removed from the UK, in his utopian vision, and replaced with a complex system of rulers, heads of state, delegating and executing assistants, a judiciary, courts, and an Islamic army ("the army is usually the tool that opens up other countries to the dawah of Islam"). This is all helpfully set out in a leaflet entitled "Guide To The Ruling System In Islam", which says just as Kamron does, that everything is "proved" by what the prophet Mohammed said, as quoted in the Qur'an.
This proof led us on to our next problem - the rightness of the Qur'an. My interlocuter made much play of the different versions of the Christian Bible, and for how long it had remained unwritten after the life of Jesus. I agreed with him on this point, but whether or not the original Qur'ans exist (there are two, I am told) that does not automatically make its contents true, and nor should everyone be forced to accept them. Upon my declaring that all organised religion is harmful, I received the reassurance that non-Muslims would be looked after under Shariah. Interestingly, during this exchange, one or two racists turned up (allegedly white supremacists) intent on disrupting proceedings, and some of the assembled group of Muslim men - twenty or so - rushed towards them, chanting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great). I advised Kamron that they'll end up looking like a bunch of extremists from a bad Hollywood movie if they persist in doing that, even if they are dealing with fascists; the racist press would have a field-day.
Freedom is a falsehood, I was told, for it cannot be right to do anything you want without boundary. I advised Kamron to study something other than Islamic thought here - specifically libertarianism - but I suspect this fell on deaf ears. Freedoms are always competing with each other, I said: I am not free to kill my neighbour on a whim, since he has a right to his life. I should be free to speak my mind, but not to falsely cry "fire" in a crowded place, for this deprives those who hear it of the freedom to go about their business. Our exchange was a case in point: Kamron was free to speak about the abolition of liberty, but not free to forcibly restrict mine - which is, sadly, exactly what he claimed to want.
One particular dilemma persisted for me throughout our conversation. Since these proponents of a minority religion have been welcomed to the UK, as I think was right, how far should liberal tolerance extend to having our incumbent religious and cultural systems challenged with imported ones? Jesus probably *was* a Muslim, though one wonders whether conservatively dressed Muslims hanging a large banner announcing this in Birmingham, in critical terms, might just look like they were *trying* to cause offence. I am trying to phrase this carefully - lest I sound like a lazy racist from the Daily Mail - but a set of white Christians hanging a large banner in Iran about the indecently young age of Mohammed's wife could not reasonably expect their roadshow to remain open for long.
We argued some while about the proof for a divine creator, and whether the existence of material prior to the big bang was evidence that a god(s) exists. I said that it was not: could existence not have occured randomly? Much of the unsuccessful refutation sounded much like Christian Creationism, which I felt did not bode well for science under the regime Kamron favours.
Closing the discussion, my speaker didn't seem to mind that the cultural gap between conservative Middle-Eastern Islamic values and the prevailing non-totalitarian culture would cause violent friction. Contrary to Christian doctrine, I was told, Islamic thought can be studied in infinite detail by anyone. Doing so would close the cultural gap and help anyone facing the Islamic court to understand the process set against them. I took this to mean that, despite assurances that non-Muslims would be looked after under Sharia, one would have to study Islamic law just to survive, and given the aggressive and wide-ranging law-and-order policies on offer, not to study Islamic theory in such circumstances might actually be foolhardy.
I was assured that a thief had to pass several criteria before his hand was cut off, and that there had been only a limited number of instances in Saudi Arabia in the last so-many years. The punishment for adultery is lashes, or stoning to death in some cases; homosexuality may also carry the death penalty, as does converting from Islam to another religion. The value of a female witness is considered in some interpretations as half of that of a male witness.
I don't know what a brain-washed person might be like; I've always fancied that they might appear drunk, sleepy, hypnotised, and that they would speak in a slow monotone. But Kamron was none of these things; instead he was bright, conversational and well-read. His powers of logic and argument were not brilliant, but he overrided the need for both with a complete certainty of his faith and the rightness of Islam to solve all woe and conflict. I tried to convince him of the value of freedom, and of a society that is not so prescriptive that all the joy is drained from it, and of a culture that is not so totalitarian that everyone must live in fear. I failed to make a noticeable impact, but as I walked away, I wondered: should I get back in touch at a later time, and try again to save Kamron from his folly?