On Thursday 12 April the media was buzzing with stories regarding the subject of a possible ban, by London Metropolitan University on the sale of alcohol. The University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Malcolm Gillies gave a speech in which he said that approximately 20 percent of the University’s students come from Muslim backgrounds and view the consumption of alcohol as “immoral”, consequently the University should look at the introduction of alcohol free zones on campus to create an environment in which muslim students could feel comfortable. Professor Gillies also stated that given the presence of a number of pubs within easy reach of the campus the issue of whether the University should continue to subsidise alcohol needs to be addressed although he did not feel strongly on this matter.
A number of issues raise their heads. The first one which sprung to mind as I read the numerous articles regarding Professor Gillies’s proposals was whether the muslim community does, in fact support such ideas. The BBC’s website reports the views of the Muslim Council of Britain as follows
“Farooq Murad, Muslim Council of Britain secretary general, said that thousands of Muslims attended university and as far as he was aware there had never been a demand for an alcohol ban on campuses.
He said: “There has always been a balance between social life and studying. We believe university authorities should be able to decide what works best for them in managing their campus space.
“Muslims have studied at universities for decades and we cannot imagine that others drinking alcohol will impede them from continuing to attend.” (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-17701963).
Mr Murad’s views accord with my experiences of attending university back in the early 1990’s. During my time at university I patronised the student bar on a fairly regular basis and was never aware of any objections by the student’s Islamic Society to the sale of Alcohol on campus.
On a related point many Indian restaurants are owned or run by muslims. Anyone who (as I do) enjoys a good curry will know that the overwhelming majority of such establishments either serve alcohol or allow their patrons to bring in their own for consumption on the premises. The attitude of most restaurants owned or managed by muslims seems eminently sensible and can, I believe be fairly summed up as “I don’t drink, however I accept that many others do enjoy alcohol, consequently I will respect other people’s right to enjoy alcohol by not imposing my own beliefs and will sell (or permit to be consumed) alcohol on my premises”.
Religions are not monolithic. In the same way in which many Catholics disregard the church’s teaching that the use of contraception is wrong by practicing birth control some, at least in the muslim community do, in fact consume alcohol, consequently the conception of Islam as a monolithic religion is, quite simply not correct.
Let us now turn to the issue of individual liberty. Even if one accepts (which I don’t) that many muslims would like to see the imposition of an alcohol ban (or partial prohibition on it’s sale/consumption) would it be right to restrict the freedom of others to drink responsibly on the basis of such demands?
Professor Gillies refers to many muslim students believing that the drinking of alcohol is “immoral” and to many of them coming from conservative backgrounds. Some muslims (although by no means all) believe that ladies should cover their faces and/or other parts of their bodies to a greater or lesser degree, indeed some believe that it is immodest for ladies to show any flesh whatever. On the basis of this view should restrictions also be placed on how female students dress as the wearing of short skirts may well offend the religious beliefs of some muslims and religious conservatives from other faiths? The answer in a liberal and tolerant society has to be a resounding “no”. How women (and men) dress is a matter for them as adults to determine. The fact that an individual or group of individuals find something offensive is not a reason for prohibiting it. Everyone has the right to follow their conscience as regards religious matters, consequently muslim ladies are (rightly) permitted to cover up if they so choose. The same right to dress in ways which some regard as “provocative” or “immoral” is, rightly extended to those who choose so to do. In passing it should be noted that by no means all muslim women put on the veil or head scarf. Many feel that they can be a good muslim without the need to cover up, again this is their choice and should be respected.
People’s religious beliefs are deeply personal and they should, of course be free to believe and practice as they see fit provided that they do not attempt to impose their views on others. We do (thankfully) live in a free society (a fact respected by people of diverse faith and none), long may this continue to be the case.