First a little about the speaker. Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’ was a humanist, as his parents still are, but became a Muslim around 8 years ago. His blog introduces him as “an international public speaker on Islam, a writer and intellectual activist. He has debated prominent intellectuals and academics. Some of his interlocutors include the leading humanist and best selling author Peter Cave, the editor of the Philosophy Now magazine, Rick Lewis, and the highly acclaimed Professor Simon Blackburn. More recently Hamza debated one of the leading American atheists and secular activists, Dr Ed Buckner, the president of American Atheists.”
Only an hour before the talk, I was sent a link to this post on the Harry's Place blog on Tzortzis, along with a warning not to engage with him. I read the post with interest and admit it did set some alarm bells ringing, not least allusions to Tzortzi’s ties to an extremist Islamist group, Hizb ut-Tahrir Britain (HTB), which the Centre for Social Cohesion called a “revolutionary Islamist party that works to establish an expansionist super-state in Muslim-majority countries, unifying Muslims worldwide as one political bloc, or “ummah”…”
The article also urges that, in the same way that Richard Dawkins now famously refuses to share a platform with Creationists, humanists should not debate with people like Tzortzis for fear of lending them credibility. It’s clear from the way Tzortzis introduces himself on his blog (and during the talk) that he is certainly proud of the people he has shared a platform with. He has managed to secure time with some significant atheists; it certainly does give him an air of respectability to have gone up against such prominent and intelligent speakers.
The Harry’s Place and Richard Dawkins articles propose taking the high road in order to avoid giving the public the false impression that there was some to debate about at all. I gave this idea some real thought and still decided to go; that’s not to say I’m not struggling answer whether it’s more important not to lend them credibility, or to actively show that their arguments lack credibility.
I decided to go for a number of reasons. First, I’m concerned that not engaging with groups like the Islamic Society and speakers like Tzortzis gives the impression that atheists and the like are ‘above all that’, which I hope is not the case, and certainly isn’t the case for me. Second, I’m not sure avoiding lending credibility outweighs the obligation to challenge the anti-secular, anti-science, anti-liberal ideology which is actively undermining progress and societal cohesion; there is an argument to be had because one side is already doing the arguing. I think it would have been a real shame to simply ignore him and leave his potentially dangerous opinions unchallenged. Third, Tzortzis was on campus preaching to my fellow students, even if I wasn’t going to take him on in a debate, it is important to know just what he is saying and how he is saying it. I was curious to see what the group thought of his ideas and just what kind of reactions he would provoke.
I have to say that I was impressed by the size of the crowd. A 120-capacity lecture theatre was full, with around 20 people sitting on the floor. It started off with a quick talk by a representative of the Qu’ran Project a scheme started to distribute a compendium containing a full up-to-date translation of the Qu’ran , with additional chapters aimed at addressing issues like the role of women and science in Islam. I bagged my free copy and made it next on my reading list – although I might skip to the Science in the Qu’ran chapter first. It’s interesting to note how much time religious people expend trying to convince us that their texts have scientific credibility, given the little credence they give to science. If science doesn’t really matter, why bother?
My initial intention was just to sit in on Tzortzis’ talk, make copious notes and report back what was said, and perhaps deconstruct his arguments. I don’t think it would be particularly fruitful to provide a transcript of his talk, especially as it won’t be verbatim and I don’t want to be accused of misrepresenting his ideas. I did record the talk on my phone, but was told that the Islamic Society own the rights to the video that it would be appearing on Tzortzis’ YouTube channel shortly. Almost all of the content of the talk is covered in various articles on his blog:
How do we know God is one? A theological and philosophical perspective.
God’s will and power. Answers to common questions.
Questions: How does the Qu’ran’s uniqueness make it a divine and miraculous text?
Comment: Assisted suicide and subjective morality.
I do hope that people will read his articles and watch the above video, because they make for an interesting insight into the mind and opinions of someone who has the respect of many Muslims, but to even the half-inquisitive eye comes across like someone that’s read a lot and perhaps understood little. I just read Alex Bellos’ Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (which I highly recommend) and I have a better grasp of probabilities and the concept of infinity than Tzortzis. The writer of the Harry’s Place blog has it exactly right in stating that “he is a particularly confrontational character with a host of tricks up his sleeve to make up for his deficient philosophical arguments”.
I made a list of a few things that Tzortzis did which would undermine his claim to be anywhere near a good debater:
Blinding the audience with philosophical terms. When I attempted to call him on the fact that his use of complex terminology in a room full of non-philosophy students did little to explain his arguments, he became personal and suggested that ‘I was a typical atheist who thinks that just because he didn’t understand no one else did either’. When I asked for a show of hands of who actually understood any of the phrases like 'Argumentum Ad Ignorantiam' or ‘ontological argument’ meant, only four people in a room of 140 put their hands up, and when he asked for a show of hands for who actually understood his arguments little over third did.
Avoiding answering any question directly and instead, diverting the question into areas where he was able to go on long, self-serving rants. His rhetorical loop-the-loops would have politicians gushing in admiration.
Baseless, flippant asides, which actually needed to be discussed, were frequently followed with ‘but that’s for another discussion’. Examples include:
“Atheists don’t have no objective morals so they think it’s OK to bomb children in Baghdad because it’s just ‘the rearrangement of atoms’.”
“For atheists, ‘nothing’ [in the context of the physics and scientific theories of the origin of the universe] is a nothing word, it’s like the term collateral damage when they kill people. In words, it doesn’t mean anything.”
And my absolute favourite: “We live in a post-secular society – it’s time we got our guns out too”, perhaps not the most appropriate metaphor in the current climate.
I could go on.
The Q&A session started with the announcement that whilst the Brothers in the audience were allowed to address the speaker directly, the Sisters had to write their question on a slip of paper which was then passed down to the front and vetted before being answered. Unbelievable. Perhaps what is more unbelievable is that the practice is being defended, and not labelled the outright misogynistic behaviour that it is. This was posted on the Islamic Society group page on Facebook.
“Just one side-note regarding the point which one of the atheists (I don't know who) raised regarding our sisters etc. The reason why sisters write questions on paper is because many of them feel shy, its called "hayaa". Its not because they're less than us!!! And also, there were so many brothers sitting on the floor, can we say: Muslims disrespect men because they had to sit on the floor?? If he didnt know, thats ok, but he should have asked. Isnt asking the cure to the disease of ignorance?”
For a start, ALL the sisters were told to write their questions on paper, not just the shy ones. I can’t imagine that none of the 40-odd women in the room were so shy they couldn’t put their hand up. And surely a room full of fellow, sympathetic Muslims is the best place to overcome your shyness? Yes, asking is the cure to the disease of ignorance. It’s just a shame that the Brothers seems to be keeping the cure for themselves. Around 10 bits of paper were passed to the front and not a single question from them was answered. In fact he actually chastised one woman for ’‘writing an essay’.
Thank goodness that the men were not subject to the same vetting scheme, although the Q&A was the clearest demonstration that debating’ with people like Tzortzis is a completely futile exercise. I’m afraid I did start to monopolise the floor, but I wasn’t going to let him get off lightly. Whilst he acknowledged that my question on the problem of evil and suffering was ‘one of toughest’ (the answer was we can never understand God in his infinite wisdom and life is a test and isn’t just one, ong happy party), many of the questions he received from the audience just resulted in his derision.
His answer to the question ‘What sets Islam apart from other religions that have clearly documented and recent origins, like Scientology and Mormonism?’, asked by the only other openly non-believer in the room, was answered with a reiteration of his arguments about how Allah must be the one, with no specific comment on the question he was actually asked. This was followed by a Muslim member of the crowd who asked ‘As a Muslim, how can I sincerely pray if I’m standing by a billionaire Saudi Sheikh who lives in a palace and is doing little to alleviate the poverty as Mohammad taught?’ This was met with a long rant which can be summarised as ‘What do you know? How much money do you give? Don’t judge others before you judge yourself, and even then only God can judge’. And he even managed to shoe-horn in the claim that believers give more aid that non-believers.
I was apprehensive about taking on a speaker who had traveled the world and debated many prominent atheists, but the feeling dissipated not more than 5 minutes into his talk, once I realised the extent of the logical behind his arguments. His self-proclaimed reputation as a ‘great debater’ who’d taken on all these famous speakers didn’t count for anything, as his ideas were still nonsense and were presented in such an illogical way. I in no way profess to know or understand a fraction of the physics and philosophy spilling from Tzortzis’ mouth, but what little I do know was enough to take his ideas to bits. Alom Shaha recently wrote an piece on how Skeptics should avoid navel gazing and engage with people who might benefit from what you have to say, and I think the argument applies here. We can take the moral high road, scoff amongst ourselves at their crazy ideas, or we can talk to and in front of the people that matter. I understand that not all people are comfortable with the idea of incurring the wrath of religious folk, and whilst I’ve been called brave for going along and confronting him, I don’t think it is bravery; I felt it was my duty to show that people like Tzortzis won’t get an easy ride as they tour universities filling the hearts and minds of students with illiberal, ill-thought out, divisive jargon. I don’t think for one minute that anyone in the audience will change their mind and abandon Islam after listening to me, but I hope that perhaps just one person listened to his arguments and my attempts at addressing and dismantling them and seriously considered whether Tzortzis and his ideas were genuinely worthy of admiration.
I went to this talk in the anticipation of learning something from someone who appeared to have something intelligent to say about the opposing ideologies of atheism and Islam, but left ultimately disappointed. I’m glad I went, as had I not, his visit to Aston would have remained largely unreported outside of Aston, and I don’t think we can afford to just ignore these kinds of speakers are touring universities and preaching to students in this way.
Tzortzis closed the talk at just before 5pm (having to go off and pray), with a closing proviso which I can only dream of feeling like I could get away with at the end of a talk: “If anything I have said is wrong it’s due to Shaitan (Satan); anything good, has been the will of Allah. That just about sums the potency of his arguments up really.