Written by Student Rights on 11 March 2013 at 1pm

Student Voice: The Missionary Position

After learning last week that a debate at UCL on 9th March was due to be segregated by gender, we asked several students to report on this event for us. Here, Abhishek Phadnis, a final-year Law Undergraduate at the London School of Economics, and Secretary of the LSE Atheist, Secularist, Humanist & Ex-Muslim Society, gives his take. All views are his own and do not necessarily represent Student Rights...  

Six weeks ago, Student Rights published its findings on the prevalence of rabble-rousing Islamic preachers visiting British universities over the past year.

Topping the charts was trash-talking noisemaker Hamza Tzortzis, with his hit single “we as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom”.

That he has alchemised this rather exotic view into a career as a self-styled ‘intellectual activist’ is the least of his many contradictions.

Mr Tzortzis is an alumnus of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a revolutionary Islamist movement which works to establish a global Islamic state, and stands against the evils of modernity, democracy, women’s rights, and probably happiness itself.

He has argued in favour of such worthy causes as the criminalisation of homosexuality, the imposition of an ‘Islamic Social Model’ in favour of Western liberalism, and the amputation of limbs for minor crimes.

His brand however eschews violent radicalism for a more insidious form of reactionary preaching that sexes up a dark and twisted interpretation of Islam as the ideal.

It is almost received wisdom now that intellectual honesty isn’t one of Mr Tzortzis’s strongest suits. During his appearance at Sheffield Hallam University last month, his acolytes in the Islamic Society secured him a debate with the Atheist Society, who until the very eve of the event, were given the impression that their opponent would be an Islamic Society student.

 This afforded Tzortzis the opportunity to alternate his gormless pseudo-profundity with some self-indulgent whingeing about the reluctance of high-profile unbelievers to debate him.

This bag of squalid tricks resurfaced in the run-up to Mr Tzortzis’s debate with the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss at University College London on Saturday.

The heathen audience’s preparations for the debate, focusing largely on devising rude puns of Mr Tzortzis’s name, were thrown into disarray when it emerged that the organiser, Big Debates, was a front for the missionary Islamic Education and Research Academy (IERA), which counts among its ‘Permanent Staff’ one Hamza Tzortzis.

Intrigued by this subterfuge they dug further, and discovered that an IERA functionary was to moderate the event and that any questions had to be submitted in advance, including a mention of the questioner’s religious belief.

They also found that the organisers’ insistence on knowing the religious inclination of each ticket-holder was ostensibly to guide the allocation of tickets, and that in the heart of Bloomsbury, a supposedly serious debate was to be conducted before a gender-segregated audience.

Meanwhile, a number of closeted ex-Muslims were distraught to discover that they had been hoodwinked into handing over their personal details to an Islamic organisation.

A spirited volley of e-mails ensued, as the agitated atheists petitioned UCL to reassert its principles of equality.

Britain’s original mixed-gender university issued a swift, firm and decisive statement the same afternoon affirming that no gender-segregated seating arrangement would be permitted.

By then, the atheists had discovered the typical IERA debate to be a raucously self-congratulatory affair with an audience ten parts Muslim to one part unbeliever, where every mention of the Prophet is followed with a loud chorus of superstitious Arabic,every mention of homosexuality is greeted by sneering catcalls, and crowing videos spring up not long afterwards with titles like ‘LOL Brother Muslim speaker CRUSHES/DESTROYS/OWNS atheist opponent’.


It soon became clear that IERA had pulled a textbook bait-and-switch on Professor Krauss and his supporters who, resigned to an evening with Mr Tzortzis, would now be subject to the further indignity of doing so amidst an audience so unashamedly stacked against Professor Krauss that he might as well have saved himself the airfare and delivered his address to a cactus in his native Arizona.

In the event, UCL’s assurance wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, as its Equality and Diversity Policy was roundly trashed in a brazen display of religious chauvinism that will rankle long in the memory of those who attended.

The evening turned sour right at the outset, as attendees were herded through segregated entrances into 'Ladies' and 'Gentlemen' sections.

Five minutes of remonstration yielded a slender two-row mixed section for the debauched, with the remaining twenty devoted to good old-fashioned chastity, whilst the five rows at the back with the worst views of the stage comprised the ‘Ladies Area’.

Matters came to a head when two male attendees were forcibly evicted from a section of the auditorium which turned out to be part of the 'Ladies’ Area'.

Incensed, they raised the matter with the organisers, but were staggered to see the organisers set the guards on them instead, this time with the express intention of evicting them from the auditorium itself for “unruly behaviour”.

This behaviour cited consisted of little more than the temerity to occupy a vacant seat in a public auditorium, and to protest one’s unjust eviction, without recourse to raised voices or physical contact.

By then Professor Krauss had been informed of this scandal and hurried upstairs to intercede on their behalf. He insisted that the two seemed dignified and restrained, and did not appear to pose the slightest threat to the peace of the gathering.

Undeterred, the guards piled falsehood upon falsehood, levelling slanderous allegations of harassment and intimidation.

That the objectors were outnumbered seven to one by the guards indicates how laughable this allegation was. Professor Krauss, finding himself unable to unable to bear this pious farce any longer, issued a terse ultimatum – he would leave in protest unless the evictees were returned unscathed to the auditorium.

Threats of the nuclear option rather concentrated the organisers’ minds, and they sought refuge in one last petty trick, emptying out a row of the 'Ladies’ Section' for the pair by scattering its previous inhabitants to upper reaches of that section.

It is difficult to express fully how disillusioning it was to see UCL’s staff openly siding with scripture-sodden prudes bent on simulating the social mores of 7th-century Arabia.

A Dr Rehman, reportedly of the UCL Chemistry Department, staunchly defended the 'His 'n' Hers' farce as being endorsed by UCL. The UCL guards refused to intercede on the pair's behalf, claiming simply that their brief was to follow the organisers’ instructions.

To complete the infamy, only one of the ten or so participants in the Q&A session at the end of the debate was a woman, with her contribution designed solely to exhume the carcass of the seating issue.

Professor Krauss shot back that women so viscerally offended by unthreatening male company in a public space would do well to stay home and spare others their sanctimonious conservatism.

Organisations like IERA find visceral joy in the blood-sport of bringing down a giant of the opposition, like Lilliputians downing Gulliver, in the rigged travesty of a format they call a debate. One finds increasingly that this lack of scruple is visited upon dissenting members of the audience too.

Mr Tzortzis is currently on an Islamic Awareness Week Tour and we’re delighted that he’s raising awareness of the extreme strain of Islam that is peddled by a minority on Britain’s university campuses.

That the unapologetic crookedness of his cabal caught us unawares suggests we could all do with a little more awareness.