Most young British Muslims today will make no secret of the pertinent leadership crisis in their communities. From Khutbahs (Friday sermons) recited in Urdu by out of touch preachers to uninspiring mosque committees forged through generations of nepotism, it's no surprise that many young Muslims- myself included, feel disenfranchised by our religious institutions. Despite the best intentions, at a time when Muslims face fundamental questions in relation to both identity and place in Britain, such leaders do little to advance a progressive vision.
Of course where mosque committees have failed, a number of industrious groups powered by creative use of social media, have stepped in to take their place. One group in particular has enjoyed so much success across British university campuses that they have become one of the most recognisable names in Islamic apologetics.
The Islamic Education and Research academy (iERA) have recently made headlines after one of its most prominent Muslim speakers, Hamza Andreas Tzortzis debated the theoretical physicist and atheist spokesman Lawrence Krauss and University College London. Most of the controversy surrounding the debate has so far focused on gender segregation in the seating order, prompting UCL's decision to ban the group. Despite the gesture, this move will do little to wane iERA's popularity amongst the new generation of educated, middle class Muslim students, with access to the organisation's vivacious creative output.
Certainly on the outset, iERA seems like a great concept. Far from the generalisations, polemic and unfounded assertions espoused by classically trained preachers, the organisation offers a more intellectual and charismatic approach to lecturing. After all, it was only after attending an iERA event in my first year at York, that I heard both the scottish philosopher David Hume and the Qu'ran in the same sentence. Indeed, having previously experienced a religious education more akin to military indoctrination, such an approach was refreshing. More importantly, this type of intellectual introspection had the potential to allow both open debate and an active empowerment of Muslim students in the UK.
Yet for the most part, iERA has failed to achieve either of these. Rather, as a number of Youtube videos will show, the organisation often finds itself taking up self defeating positions in attempting to assert forms of moral superiority over other belief systems. No better is this shown than in the UCL debate, where a question on the concept of morality and incest arises. In response to Mr.Tzortzis' question on 'why is incest bad?', Krauss argues that the latter word is contentious- that the term 'bad' is abstract and contextual. Though societies have a tendency to disapprove of it, to place the question in such absolute terms removes both the consensual component of sexual relations, as well as the act of sex in a cultural context. Rather than a philosophical consideration, iERA supporters at both the debate and on social media berated Mr.Krauss for "proving atheists have no moral basis".
Such misappropriation is far from uncommon, and in some ways is facilitated by the way iERA operates. A simple Google or Youtube search will show that most of its activities have taken place within Islamic societies, or as part of its 'Big Debates' project. The majority of these debates will focus on the merits of Islam over atheism, often seeing Hamza Tzortzis facing off against a prominent atheist spokesperson. But while this might seem like the makings of an engaging and open discussion, a closer looks suggests that the environments in which iERA operate- areas where large congregations of the organisation's purporters can assemble and easily outnumber their ideological opponents, provides obvious advantages.
Furthermore, the tech-savvy folk at iERA know how to do PR remarkably well. In fact, their content is what most young Muslims will probably enjoy watching. Yet, in a Youtube driven culture where instantaneous tropes are the norm, videos showing iERA speakers apparently 'owning' atheists in forced debate , as well as convincing street-level religious conversions captured on camera, give further acclaim to the organisation's influence. No wonder that even young Muslims abroad are turning to iERA.
However, the problem with iERA is that it has been given a fairly easy ride by most Islamic societies. Rather than providing genuine, open intellectual discussions, the conditions in which the organisation functions allows it to proselytize on its own terms, preaching to the converted while using their events to further strengthen their authority within Islamic apologetics circles. And though this might be good at making Muslim students enthusiastic about their faith, it does little to place Islam within the frame of intellectual, scholarly discussion. Despite all of Mr.Tzortzis' enviable charisma and charm, the current structure of iERA events renders the organisation simply as another evangelical group using a public platform to proselytize.
While iERA may provide a more engaging outlet for religious thought, it does a disservice to Muslim students by reducing intellectual debates to oversimplified absolutes. For while such methods might make for a good speech, particularly against an arrogant atheist, it does little to tackle the real issues that young Muslims face in Britain today. Rather, it perpetuates the unfortunate notion that Islamic societies are closed off, unwelcoming pariahs to those not affiliated with Islam. Certainly, this is undesirable in a diverse campus community.