My first encounter with the polemicists of Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner occurred in the basement cafeteria at All Souls, Langham Place, just across the road from Broadcasting House on London’s Regent Street. I think it was Sunday 3 August, 1997. In the company of my maternal grandmother and brother, we had just listened to John Stott preach the second of his series of sermons on the four faces of Christ, as purportedly expounded in each of the four gospels. This one was entitled, The Suffering Servant.
We had just settled down with our trays of Sunday lunch, when two excitable gentlemen plopped down at the other end of the table. Their conversation seemed to pique my companions’ attention, for they were speaking of the realm of Islam — a common concern, for my uncle was then a lecturer on Islam at a theology college in East Africa and was considered our resident expert. They had, they announced, identified the ultimate knock-out blow for the Muslims, and were just about to set out for Speakers’ Corner to proclaim their great discovery to the crowds that gather there.
It would be another year before I would venture to that peculiar arena myself. By then, I had become Muslim and soon found myself absorbed into the fraternity of Salafi converts, whose main hobby was calling people to faith. A trip to Speakers’ Corner on Sunday afternoons seemed to be a rite of passage. It followed frosty Friday nights cowering behind a dawah table in Leicester Square, watching as young zealots tried to convince inebriated clubbers to utter their shahada and turn to a life of piety.
I was unconvinced by the dawah of my companions. The Christianity they spoke of was nothing like the Christianity I knew, grounded in compromise, nuance and breadth. The pamphlets detailing one hundred and one contradictions in the Bible were pointless, for the Christians I knew did not consider the Bible the literal word of God. Videos and audio cassettes of Ahmed Deedat were popular amongst young Muslims, but seemed irrelevant to one raised in the Anglican tradition.
My companions, though, were unperturbed by my critique and swept me along with them to engage the fanatical missionaries that squabbled with the heathens and heretics week after week. It was a baptism of fire, wandering amongst the bickering rabbles, convinced of their own righteousness. Young Muslims like me, mostly new converts or the recently religious, were called upon to witness to the truth, despite an excess of ignorance and immaturity. Middle aged evangelists were found attacking Catholics, Anglicans and Muslims with unrepentant vitriol. Beardos on step ladders would be seen rehearsing their weekly address to slavish disciples and curious tourists.
I hated Speakers’ Corner through and through. It was the antithesis of my whole being: quiet, shy, retiring. It demanded conceit, belligerence, vanity. We were supposed to be callers to faith, despite possessing little faith ourselves. We were supposed to be guides for others, despite possessing hardly any knowledge, and certainly nothing of any depth. But we were carried along by the tribe, by peer pressure and overbearing mentors, until fortunate happenstance allowed us to part and go our separate ways.
Twenty-three years later, therefore, I am surprised to discover that men and women are still at it, still brandishing apologetics and polemics with which to trounce their opponents. Two decades ago, select exchanges might have been recorded onto audio cassette to be distributed amongst friends; nowadays, they are digitised weekly for global consumption via YouTube. The ignorant, stumbling upon them by accident, might be swayed one way or the other, depending on their disposition, but anyone with any common sense would know to leave the risible antics of the polemicists well alone.
The participants are mostly the same now as then. Salafi preachers calling to their own particular brand of Islam. Protestant evangelists calling to their particular brand of Christianity. The two groups feed off each other, vanquishing each other with arguments based on a constrictive vision of their opponent’s faith and tradition. Altogether they set up polemics true only in their own heads, then quarrel at length with their adversaries to convince them that their made-up controversy is real and that the other party is therefore misguided.
Recently, I watched as a fervent young apostle characterised a mainstream component of Muslim tradition as a contentious discipline, depicting it as lore denied by believers. Yet it had been made real only by the dawah of their opponents, which had constructed a worldview only partially grounded in the Muslim inheritance. Without the narrow rendition of faith adhered to by the not-very-learned but overly-enthusiastic, there was no counter-argument. The Christian missionary has believed the Salafi dawah, that their version of faith is the most authentic portrayal of Islam, and thus all their efforts have been directed to responding in kind.
I am not really sure of the point of all these curious antics — though I suppose some young men and women may be convinced by them for a while. Perhaps some young men, as I was once, are convinced by the arguments for a while, just long enough to jump aboard one caravan, or jump off another, to live for a while as a fanatical devotee of one narrow interpretation or another. In time, I hope, they will delve deeper and leave behind these shallow depictions of faith. Therein the polemics collapse.
As for the professional polemicists: I just find it extraordinary that in two decades, some people have not moved at all. The excitable men I shared Sunday lunch with 24 years ago still jump up and down, impressed by their own brilliance, convinced that their sparring with men who have made preaching a lucrative business will change the world. You might think that time, experience and increasing insight might change people, perhaps mellowing them a little. Ah, but no: some people are destined to be polemicists for life.