A young woman on a hot day wears a summer dress down to her knees, a black cardigan is covering her shoulders, she defends a friend who is being verbally abused, the angry man turns, he begins to march towards her, pointing his finger at her face, jabbing.
"SHUT UP. SHUT UP. WHO SAID YOU COULD TALK? LOOK AT YOURSELF, AS A WOMAN, YOU ARE A DISGRACE!"
Where did this oppressive and aggressive incident occur? It happened to me at Speaker's Corner, Hyde Park just a few months ago.
For those of you who aren't familiar with Speaker's Corner, it is an area in the north-east section of the park where you can come express, listen and discuss with others about whatever pleases you. On first glance, it is a budding polemicist's dream. The sides are lined with fanatical religious preachers screaming at the top of their lungs. People gather in small clumps as side debates form all around, there is an abundance of arguments ready to be challenged. When you first go you stay for hours until it becomes dark, finally having access to debate face to face, rather than with the members of Ray Comfort's Facebook group.
As I visited there more often my arguing calmed down, I started to hone my debating skills, learning the arguments of the faithful and in turn creating my own shaped rebuttals. Soon enough I started to notice that things weren't as I imagined there.
Being a Woman
The first problem I had, which leads back to my initial tale, is that of being woman. I found myself severely outnumbered in large crowds of howling men. A lot of the time I would be talked over and not listened to. Of course there were other women around, but they became passive listeners in the background. In a place that is supposed to give everyone an equal voice, papa patriarchy still rules, but why?
Naturally it's because of religion, the grand old suppressing agent. As Atheists we know we have struggled in the past to name 'four horseWOMEN' and this gender silence is certainly thriving in the park. If you are a woman, looking for a debating challenge, head down there, we need numbers. The incident that happened to me was admittedly very scary, the man had to be held back and all I did was tell him to "calm down". What's the point of this story? He was a Muslim.
The Main Culprits
Before you start to panic, this is not writing against Muslims. Of course Speaker's Corner is not the place to locate any reasonable ones. What I do wish to draw attention to is that it has become a nidus for extremism and brainwashing. The proof is in the dynamics. If you look around, you will notice that most hardcore Christians and Catholics are still using the traditional method of standing on platforms and shouting like lunatics.
However, the Muslims tend to have their own well-laid out and appealing stalls. Also, I have seen that they will stand directly in front of the soapbox speakers and intimidate them in large groups, another sneaky tactic. One method is filming you without asking first, to then place on their highly biased Youtube channels. Be aware of this! They do not waste their time shouting, but rather moving around in the crowd targeting people individually. I used to spend a lot of my time debating with these foot-soldiers until one day I had heard their arguments so often that I was able to finish one of their sentences. This was shocking for them, but it just highlighted how they are trained and sent out. Extremists are sneaking up on us.
This is not to say that they should not be there, but all I have witnessed are intimidation and isolation tactics and there are not enough Atheists to challenge and stop this. There are rarely any Muslim women debating, so it is difficult to have a voice as a woman, especially an outsider. Another shocking conversation I had with a young Muslim man was "a woman doesn't deserve to get raped..but" and of course my jaw dropped to the grass, "if she dresses a certain way, afterwards she must think...if I hadn't of worn that, I wouldn't have got raped".
Debate Not Anger
The main point of this is that anger breeds there. Where there is anger, particularly religious anger, you get extremism. Implementing Sharia Law is their goal and one of their main target grounds is Hyde Park Corner. The tipping point for me was seeing a group of young men, all in traditional garb, posing for a photograph taken by their friend. What did they have? The ISIS flag and broad, sickening grins. I may or may not have 'photobombed' them by making a gesture with a certain not 'ring-not index finger' in the background, which is highly inappropriate... They didn't like it, spotted me and proceeded to shake the flag at my face.
What should we do? We should shove the metaphorical debating finger right up in their space. There was a time when Speaker's Corner was not dominated by religion, but now things have changed. Going down to de-convert the already hopeless causes is pointless. They won't listen, but we should challenge for the people who have specifically come to listen. People are impressionable, if you can spin words well like the religious people who are sent out to there do, then you are able to influence.
If there is not enough of a secular voice at Speaker's Corner I assure you it will be lost, and not only will it be lost, the lack of it will create monsters. Personally, any place where it's acceptable to wave an ISIS flag around is in need of an un-divine intervention.