Last Thursday, the Sydney University Muslim Students Association (SUMSA) hosted a debate on whether science disproves god. The event, held as a part of SUMSA’s Islamic Awareness Week, pitted two Muslim activists against two members of the Secular Party of Australia, a relatively irrelevant micro-party. Arguing the case for the existence of god was Uthman Badar, a member of the infamous Muslim political organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir.
To say that Hizb ut-Tahrir is controversial would be an understatement. They are banned in over twenty countries, including many in the Arab world. Their charter calls for the creation of a pan-Islamic caliphate and for the killing of apostates, a position that Badar himself appeared to defend in a public statement earlier this year. This was not the first time Badar has been under scrutiny for making inflammatory remarks. In 2014, he was slated to give a talk titled ‘Why Honour Killings are Morally Justified’ at the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The talk was ultimately cancelled, and the festival’s reputation never fully recovered from the wounds inflicted by the slings and arrows of too many News Corporation column inches.
This is also not the first time that Badar has been invited onto campus by SUMSA.
In 2014, at the height of the honour killings scandal, SUMSA invited Badar to give a speech as part of a similar event. After a series of alarming articles in The Daily Telegraph, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence personally stepped in and successfully urged SUMSA to cancel the event.
Interestingly, Badar’s visit this year registered barely a whisper. The Daily Mail ran one story before the event blaring: “Islamic sheikh slams Sydney Uni for allowing Hizb ut-Tahrir extremist who supports KILLING ex-Muslims to speak” — a title characteristic of the online publication. It followed up after the event with another article: “Islamist extremist tells university students ex-Muslim should be KILLED under Sharia law during debate with atheist who feared for his safety”. Yet nothing during the debate made Secular Party representative John Perkins’ assertion to the Daily Mail that he felt afraid for his safety seem justified. Indeed, aside from an exchange at the opening of the debate in which Badar equivocated over beheading apostates, most of the debate was relatively monotonous.
SUMSA describes itself as the formal body representing Muslim students on campus. It is the larger of two Muslim students’ groups on campus, and tends to cater to Sunni students while the Sydney University AhlulBayt Society is largely Shia. SUMSA did not respond to requests for comment on this article. Nonetheless, a number of Muslim students described SUMSA’s leadership and culture as conservative. Mary*, a fourth year Law student, told Honi that SUMSA was more conservative than Islamic societies at other universities she had attended. She also described attending events which had been segregated by gender.
Rashid*, a fourth year commerce/arts student, said that he had encountered support for Hizb ut-Tahrir among SUMSA executives in the past. While SUMSA members who sympathised with Hizb ut-Tahrir did not necessarily accept the group’s more violent beliefs, Rashid said that he had encountered support for a pan-Islamic super-state, as well as “stock-standard religious conservatism . . . anti-gay, anti-feminist”.
Nonetheless, Rashid emphasised that a sizeable number of SUMSA members did not support Hizb ut-Tahrir and subscribe to progressive politics. Ultimately, the decision to invite Badar to speak may have been due to his position as someone well-versed in public debate and Islamic theology, rather than a desire to provide a platform for his more regressive views. Indeed, successive Australian governments have decided not to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir because they have concluded that it poses a sufficiently low threat.
As a debater, Badar came across as confident and articulate, in contrast to his dour, bumbling counterparts from the Secular Party. He brushed off criticism of his organisation’s views as irrelevant to the evening’s debate. It is, however, ultimately unclear why SUMSA felt the need to invite Badar to speak. In addition to its theological objectives, Islamic Awareness Week has the important goal of trying to start positive conversations about Islam that challenge the fear-mongering and hysteria so often on display in the press. Yet Badar, and Hizb ut-Tahrir, with their well-documented reactionary politics and position on the fringes of the Islamic community, may only serve to reinforce negative and stereotypical portrayal of Muslims.
* Names have been changed