Rumble In Bankstown: A Debate On Islam And Social Media

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Michael Brull headed west to catch all the action, on and off the stage.

While others were out partying, I spent Saturday night watching a debate in Bankstown. The topic was “social media causes more harm than benefit to the Muslim community”. I had the vague hope that fireworks would fly. Alas, it was a warm debate among friends, and in some cases, family.

The debate was hosted by ISRA, Islamic Sciences and Research Academy Australia. I met the head of ISRA at an event for media held by the Lebanese Muslim Association in Lakemba. He seemed warm and friendly, though the day was a blur of people introducing themselves to me. My best memory of the day was my argument with the counter-terrorism police officer in attendance, which I will hopefully write about one day. I also made the acquaintance of one of the debaters on the negative side, Mohammed Taha.

The debate was reasonably priced ($10), and had an interesting line-up. The negative side also included Lydia Shelly, and Shaykh Ahmed Abdo. I share about a dozen Facebook friends with Lydia, and have friends who have spoken highly of her, so I was keen to hear her and hopefully meet her. Lydia was particularly renowned in leftist circles recently for successfully representing a woman who was physically assaulted and groped by police at an anti-Reclaim Australia rally. She is also an occasional contributor to New Matilda.

Aside from personally meeting Taha, I also know he has done a lot of work for the ABC. He now works as director-producer for Breakthrough Media. I intend to discuss Breakthrough Media at greater length in another article, as some argue it produces government propaganda, as part of the Countering Violent Extremism agenda. I am also willing to stretch the New Matilda budget to offer one coffee to Mohammed to discuss Breakthrough Media. The ball is now in your court, Mohammed.

Mehal Krayem is co-founder and copy-editor at Sajjeeling, an online magazine for Australian Arabs. I don’t know her, but someone who I am told is her has come up on my Facebook feed regularly enough for me to start following him. I didn’t know the rest of the affirmative team.

My Review: The Negative Were Robbed!

new matilda, shelly
Lydia Shelly drops the mike and engages in some pre-debate smack talk.

About 100 people showed up for the debate. I wrote copious notes as the debate progressed, and then lost them after about 30 minutes, because I’m apparently not very good with phones. There were three speakers on each side. Impressively, given the traditional failings of secular and leftists groups in this area, the gender balance was three male debaters and three female debaters. The debaters were mostly excellent speakers – I rate four out of six as particularly effective in conveying their arguments fluidly and charmingly. And the other two were still good speakers by any reasonable standard.

Before the debate started, the top two trash talkers on Facebook were Mehal and Lydia. Lydia’s video was particularly hilarious. After talking about how she would win the debate, she produced a microphone from nowhere, just so that she could then drop it.

Two of the speakers were scholars of Islam – the second one was Sheikh Soner Coruhlu. I have a mutual friend with him. He also apparently shared a panel with Rabbi Zalman Kastel exactly one year before I met the Rabbi. Sheikh Soner was my least favourite speaker. I felt his tone was generally scolding. The case of the affirmative team was mostly that Muslims went on social media and wasted time looking at cat videos and Lady Gaga, whereas only a comparative few followed the famous American Islamic scholar, Hamza Yusuf. Sheikh Soner also gave a closing address for his team. I thought most of his two addresses were wowserism. Sheikh Ahmed had a generally lighter touch, and I thought he was charismatic. Yet that may be simply because he had an easier topic.

I assumed that the many references to cat videos and Lady Gaga were euphemisms for even more sinful activities on social media. There was a Q&A period in the debate, and two of the questioners mentioned porn in their questions. One asked Sheikh Ahmed about the 95 per cent Muslims who aren’t practicing and who use social media for the wrong kind of thing. Sheikh Ahmed explained that in Islam, modesty is also about averting your gaze, as we should learn from the Prophet. One question for Mohammed included the claim that porn changes the wiring of people’s brains. Mohammed agreed that porn was awful, but said that on the balance, social media was a force for good. It seemed there were no sinners on stage. Mohammed was willing to speak up for cat videos, but that was it.

The debate not only had excellent speakers, but was also intensely policed. When time was up, a bell dinged. After a few seconds, it was constantly dinged, and then the MC got up on stage and stood next to the speaker. On two occasions, the other team was awarded an extra 10 seconds to speak.

Though the topic seemed rather political, there was more religion than politics on the night. The negative team – in particular Lydia – mentioned how social media had been used to achieve and fight for social change. She cited Black Lives Matter, the filming of police brutality and uploading of those videos. She talked about how social media was used in the Arab Uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, and she also talked about how it had been used for SOS Blak Australia, to draw attention to the closures of remote Aboriginal communities. In terms of substance, Lydia’s speech was my favourite. She spoke in favour of being radical, explaining that other radicals included Jesus, Galileo, the Prophet, and Malcolm X.

Otherwise, there wasn’t much discussion of social media in the Australian context. Mohammed mentioned Mariam Veiszadeh and how she has used social media to fight Islamophobia, but otherwise the debate was generally light-hearted (except Sheikh Soner, in my view).

Most of the speakers were funny at times. The best speaker was Mehal Krayem. Though I don’t think her arguments were persuasive, she made them very well. She spoke with verve, passion, and biting irony. In response to claims about the value of Black Lives Matter and #Illridewithyou, she mocked those who think they understand those causes or thought they were allies because of a few tweets. She argued that social media made conversations superficial, reduces issues to hashtags, and ignores nuance. We are a nuanced people, she exclaimed. She said social media wasn’t a safe space, particularly for Muslims, women, and Muslim women. She also complained that people post something on social media, and then get condemned for it for 10 years, without allowing them to reform. Though I agreed with all of these arguments, I don’t agree that they necessarily make social media harmful for Muslims. When Mohammed spoke (and he also spoke very well), he discussed Mehal’s excellent 11,000 tweets, praising her wonderful use of social media.

Ultimately, the negative team lost. About 52 per cent sided with affirmative after everyone had spoken, though about 55 per cent had sided with the negatives before the debate. One source later showed me evidence that there had been cheating in the voting system. As the margin was narrow, this may have swung the result.

After The Debate

After the debate, I chatted with some of the attendees. I met Lydia, and her husband and son. Her son was a very spirited young man. About five-years-old, he boasted of having trained at boxing for 20 years. He practiced his skills on a bemused security guard, who I know.

I also met Hanan Dover at the debate. She has been a scathing critic of Breakthrough Media. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity this presented by asking a question during the Q&A. Alas, I wasn’t selected. My question for Mohammed was: “I hear that some Muslims use social media to attack other Muslims, and even one prominent user who’s been very critical of Breakthrough Media. Isn’t the use of social media by Muslims to attack other Muslims harmful?”

Under his team’s position, Mohammed would have been obliged to defend his critics. Hanan seemed dismayed by my question, and was glad it wasn’t asked. Mohammed seemed occupied with others after the debate, so I didn’t talk to him on the night. I made the acquaintance of a young man at one point, sitting in my seat, who knew Hanan. She asked him if she was homophobic. He jokingly said “sometimes”. As she protested, he said he was joking. “If she was homophobic, I’d kill her.” Like Mohammed, Hanan has not yet agreed to coffee with me.

I spoke to several other attendees on the night, who were invariably friendly and welcoming. They were curious about my impression of the debate as an outsider. Aside from noting the generally high standard of the debaters, I said that as an atheist and proud sinner, I stood with the negative side. The response to this was good-humoured, and surprisingly thoughtful. I am used to religious debates with Christians and Jews being pretty tedious, as I am confronted with familiar arguments which I know as well as my interlocutors.

The Muslims I discussed the debate and sin with responded in ways I found refreshing. One woman argued that she thought the Islamic arguments about social media were weak, and didn’t find them persuasive. Another said that sin was about one’s moral compass, and surely I believed in avoiding doing things that were wrong (which effectively stepped past my facetiousness, and located the actual disagreement). None expressed any shock, horror, or disapproval at the sinful pastimes I engage in on social media. Though they might understand it in others, none of them was willing to even hint at any interest in or personal sympathy for sinful behaviour.

It should be noted that those I spoke to were in some ways a biased sample. Many Muslims live outside the umbrella of Muslim organisations. Just as many Jews break the laws of Orthodox halacha, so many Muslims engage in plenty of activities that would be considered sinful under most interpretations of Islam. And many Christians engage in activities that are considered sinful under Christianity.

What struck me about the people I spoke to was that they thought carefully about their faith, and interpret it in diverse ways. Though they take their moral obligations under Islam seriously, they don’t necessarily agree on what those obligations are. Sunni Islam is generally non-hierarchical in religious authority; in that sense, it can be compared to Protestantism. The lack of Popes and Archbishops mean that followers exercise their own religious judgment, and, within the constraints of certain contexts, can choose their own preferred religious authorities. As As’ad AbuKhalil observed, “the strength of Islam throughout the ages is that there is no such thing as ‘the true Islam.’” Though Muslims are traditionally thought of as averse to argument due to the taboos of their faith, in my experience, Muslims are not just willing to debate religion, but are thoughtful and talented in doing so.

I really enjoyed the debate, and the hospitality afterwards. I think a lot of Muslim talent is going to waste in Australia, as we so rarely hear from Muslims in most of our media. I’m sure my boss would agree that if you’re a Muslim writer, we would love to hear more from you.

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Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).

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