On a gray sunday afternoon at the famous Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London, a turbaned man jabs his finger into the chilly air as he preaches to 200 people crowded around him. Two followers behind him clutch poles supporting a banner emblazoned with Arabic script. Its translation: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger." Fifty feet away, another crowd gathers around Jay Smith, a quick-thinking, controversial evangelical known for debating Muslims. He uses chapters (surahs) from the Qur'an as his principal text. On this occasion, Smith and Beth Grove, a British grad student in theology, debate the place of women in traditional Islam, in contrast to New Testament teaching.
Above murmurs and heckles, Grove notes in surah 2:282 that one man's testimony is equal to that of two women. Surah 4:11 allows a woman only half the inheritance a man receives. Surah 4:34 describes how a husband ought to punish his wife for disobedience: admonish her, kick her out of bed, and beat her.
Before Grove finishes, a bearded challenger named Adnan interrupts her. But Smith booms out, "Let the woman speak! See how he doesn't want to let the woman speak!"
"Liar!" Adnan shouts back at Smith and Grove as tourists' video cameras record the scene.
"So the Qur'an lies?" Smith asks. "You must be saying the Qur'an is lying, then."
Adnan bends to huddle with his debate coaches, who are flipping through written notes to develop a rebuttal. "Patience!" Then he calls out, "The Bible says women are the root of all evil." Smith asks for a scriptural reference. Adnan can't provide one. In the crowd, a Christian quotes 1 Timothy 6:10: "The love of money is the root of all evil."
Grove closes the Qur'an and begins reading Bible verses on women. Ephesians 5:2133 tells each man to love his wife as Christ loved the church, giving his life for her, a picture of Christ's relationship with his people. Colossians 3:19 says a husband must love his wife and not be harsh with her.
Then Adnan calls for a debate about peacemaking and the problem of violence. But Smith refuses to allow his challenger to switch topics.
"Which religion treats women better?" Smith asks the crowd. Many shout: "Christianity!"
Radical Islam's Reach
Smith and Grove are leaders with Hyde Park Christian Fellowship, a group of London evangelicals who study Islam and Muslim communities to bring the gospel to Muslims. Their methods put off Christians who prefer a less confrontational approach, but Smith and friends argue otherwise.
The population of Muslims in Europe is projected to surpass 55 million this year. In the United Kingdom, 2.5 percent of the total population of 61 million is Muslim. The biggest trend among Muslims in Europe is radical Islamic teaching.
In British society, fundamentalist Islam has been extremely controversial and linked to terrorism. In February, Rowan Williams, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, sparked a firestorm of criticism when he said it seemed "unavoidable" for some elements of Islamic law (sharia) to be adopted in the U.K. After that, The Sun, a leading tabloid, called Williams "a dangerous threat to our nation." (Williams explained sharia might function in the same way British Jews have a religious court [beth din]. He rejected the use of sharia as a parallel legal system and noted that sharia is "grim" in Saudi Arabia, where, for example, women must wear black veils that completely cover them in public, and can be stoned for adultery.)
Muslims view sharia as "all that God has willed," meaning it is divine law, eternal and essential to God's nature. Over the centuries, Muslims developed Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), based on sharia, as a set of rules, guidelines, and principles that govern all of Islamic society. The major branches of Islam have a distinctive school of fiqh. A key political goal among fundamentalists is the strict implementation of sharia at the national level.