August 10, 2013
By Eric D. Lawrence
A man who was banned from speaking in Britain because of his views on Islam faced off Saturday against a defender of that faith in a debate about whether Islam is a religion of peace.
Robert Spencer, director of the Jihad Watch blog, took the position that Islam is not peaceful and insisted his detractors are missing the point.
“What I say is true, and in the immortal words of Jack Nicholson … ‘You can’t handle the truth,’ ” he said during the debate sponsored by Ave Maria Radio, an Ann Arbor-based Catholic station.
Spencer is the author of 12 books, including two New York Times best sellers about Islam, but has been labeled by the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of the center’s Anti-Muslim Inner Circle.
Spencer was challenged by Shadid Lewis, regional director of the Muslim Debate Initiative, who insisted that Islam is, in fact, a religion of peace. Lewis said he had agreed to participate in the debate because there’s a need to respond to Spencer and others who criticize Islam. “If we remain quiet, then it gives the appearance that Robert knows what he’s talking about,” Lewis said.
The debate was part of a daylong conference at Eastern Michigan University attended by more than 500 people on the topic of Islam and peace. The school has come under criticism for allowing the event to be held and released a statement saying, “As a public institution, and under the freedom of speech protections provided by the First Amendment, we do not and cannot make determinations about access to our facilities based on the viewpoints being presented.”
Victor Begg, senior adviser of the Michigan Muslim Community Council, said the idea that EMU had no choice in hosting the event is absurd. “We respect the freedom of speech. However, denying the Holocaust, yelling ‘fire’ in a theater or glorifying Hitler would not constitute freedom of speech,” he said.
Those who attended the debate, moderated by Ave Maria host Al Kresta, took away differing viewpoints.
Alex Wallo, 17, of Westland identified himself as Catholic and said he learned a lot. “I’ve been persuaded to the affirmative position so far,” Wallo said of whether Islam is peaceful.
But Troy Haarala, 51, of Trenton, who is also Catholic, said that even though he gained a greater understanding of Islam, it deserves blame for violent acts committed in its name because such teachings, he said, are in the Quran.
“Muslims have certain teachings that aren’t compatible with our culture,” he said.
The issue of what the Quran teaches was central in the debate, with Spencer and Lewis citing verses to make their points, usually insisting that the other side was failing to provide complete context.
Lewis noted that Catholicism had its own extreme views in the past. Former popes and Thomas Aquinas, a theologian and philosopher, had suggested that Jews should be subjugated, he said.
Spencer said that making those kinds of references is disingenuous because they are not part of official church teachings, and that the difference is that prominent Muslim authorities currently subscribe to notions of violence against nonbelievers.
“These things are not just the crazy misunderstandings of a group of violent people,” Spencer said.
Lewis said Islamic scholars may offer different interpretations of the Quran, but there’s an answer to that, as well. “Islam warns us about blindly following religious leaders,” he said.
Staff writer Patricia Montemurri contributed to this report.