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On the destruction of Speaker’s Corner

After four years of living in London I have learned that I can be assured of two things in the summer: 1) Gulf Arabs 2) Christian missionaries (actually, add rain to the list). The two are linked; it seems that the (largely American) missionaries know that they can’t go out to the Gulf and preach the good word, so they’ve decided to try the next best thing – Knightsbridge and Oxford Street.

This leads to some interesting scenarios, as you might think. A prominent Saudi sheikh recently ‘live-tweeted’ his own meeting with the missionaries, complete with photos. The sheikh, Mohammed al-Areefee, said that the missionary had explained that he had come to Europe from the States to spread the gospel. Personally, I think handing out Arabic Bibles on the streets of London is a bit of a missionary cop out compared to others going to African villages and then starting global viral mass movements, but then what do I know.

Now, after observing these guys for years, I have come to one conclusion: they’re crap.

Every summer the missionaries’ faces are different, but the tactics seem to be the same – scream “hadaya majaniya” (free gifts) in some badly pronounced Texan drawl at anyone who looks vaguely Arab. Never mind that you’re essentially treating the heathen Arab like an infant, hoping that the promise of a * free * goodie will trick them into picking up a Bible, only later realising that they’ve fallen for your dastardly plan.

A couple of years ago I used to find the missionaries amusing; the bizarre interactions they’d have with the Gulfies could provide at least a couple of minutes of entertainment. But they just haven’t upped their game. They’ve turned into another annoying thing to avoid when navigating London’s streets, alongside the charity harasser people (shake a bucket and I’ll give you my change, send an agency worker on £10 an hour to not let me walk on a pavement in peace – not gonna sign up) and the beggar gangs.

Our hadaya majaniya friends are not the only ones missionaries patrolling the streets of London.

Enter Speakers’s Corner.

You’ve probably heard of it – that bastion of free speech, the historic heart of freedom of expression, where all viewpoints are heard and respected, and healthy debate is ever present.

Except, if you think that, you’ve probably never been there.

I was waiting for friends at Hyde Park (where Speaker’s Corner is located) and, realising it was a Sunday, thought that I may as well go and check out something I’d wanted to see for years. How disappointed I was.

Speaker’s Corner has turned into the land of the madmen. Instead of the place where the 19th century Chartist movement emerged, where Lenin, Orwell and Marx spoke, we now have a bunch of people on soapboxes shouting, “no, I’m right” followed by their audience replying, “no, you’re wrong.”

It’s quite depressing really. The men on the boxes were largely African and American Christians, and the crowds were largely Gulf Arabs on holiday. Evidently, many of our Gulfie friends are attracted to Speaker’s Corner as a sort of tourist attraction where this curious idea of free speech is practiced. The problem is that many probably return home thinking that Speaker’s Corner is the epitome of democracy, and are all the more pro-autocratic monarchy for it.

Speaker’s Corner is a parody of its former self. On the day I was there, various non-Arabic speakers were telling me about the changes in the Arabic grammar of the Qur’an, a woman was speaking in tongues, and a really arrogant American guy was proclaiming that Muslims couldn’t handle the truth. The worst of it was, the real nutter, the black guy dressed in a sort of black robe with a quasi KKK hood and a large swastika with a line through it was getting no attention.

Both sides weren’t exactly showering themselves in glory, the Muslim fella shouting “gay, gay, gay” at the Christian preacher wasn’t doing his cause much good, nor were the ones who decided that everything would just be better if they had a screaming match.

In essence, intelligent debate seems like an long forgotten concept at Speaker’s Corner – it’s more a “my book says this”, “no, my book says this.” The problem, of course, with that is, you’re not exactly going to convince anyone of anything if they don’t believe in your holy book in the first place.

Maybe I’ll go back to Speaker’s Corner in September. Maybe the rational debaters leave it for the summer, knowing the international men of madness will take over. One can live in hope…

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