On a recent vacation in London, I visited Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. I expected to see men lined up with a sign advertising their position and maybe standing on a step stool, speaking to a stationary audience or just to passersby. I imagined the speaker delivering a monologue or sermon, interrupted occasionally by a comment or question (which he’d answer) or a heckling remark (which he’d talk over). I expected discussions of current political or social topics or Christianity.
That’s not what I saw. There were about two hundred people, all men, all speaking Arabic, and presumably all debating facets of Islam. Conversations were often spirited, but all seemed polite. I saw no police, and I understand they only come in response to complaints. (Keep in mind, though, that this is just what I saw on Sunday evening a week ago, and your mileage may vary.)
After walking around a bit, it looked like I wouldn’t find any debate to engage me, but that turned out to be premature.
This photo shows the same northeast corner of Hyde Park as the map view above. (People gather to speak on the wide walkway in the park, not in the middle of the trees as the image suggests.)
I did find some interesting atheists who seemed, like me, to be more interested in the rare Christian discussion. One of the atheist regulars videoed me engaged with regular participant Adnan Rashid, a Muslim. (I don’t see the video as especially informative, but I include it for completeness.)
As an aside, Adnan made several claims: thirty percent of Africans taken to the U.S. as slaves were Muslim (source: Servants of Allah by Sylviane Diouf), and Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S. I haven’t fact checked either claim.
He made another claim that evening that doesn’t hold up. He said that this kind of open public debate was something that would be typical in cities in any Muslim country, though that’s not what the International Humanists and Ethical Union’s “Freedom of Thought Report 2015” says. It lists twelve countries for which blasphemy or apostasy are punishable by death, including Adnan’s own birthplace of Pakistan.
But the specifics of my conversation aren’t the point. Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, George Orwell, Marcus Garvey, and others reportedly have spoken at Speaker’s Corner. Though I only had a couple of hours to chat, it was a thrill to be there.
Everyone has the right to believe anything they want.
And everyone else has the right to find it fucking ridiculous.
— Ricky Gervais
Credit for images: Google Maps