Hatun Tash is recovering well after being assaulted at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park last month. The attacker, who is still at large, appeared to aim for her neck, but Hatun deflected the knife so that it broke off in the folds of her clothes. Her bandaged right hand and scarred forehead are the only visible clues of her near escape. She tells me she started watching footage of the incident but couldn’t bring herself to finish. ‘All I can say is, it wasn’t my time.’
She speaks with the calm of a woman who has faced death before. In May, a mob surrounded her screaming for her blood. Last October, she was punched in the face. And in July last year, another mob dragged her to the ground for using a sheik's own words to point out 'holes in the narrative' of the doctrine of Koranic preservation – the belief that the Koran is word-for-word unchanged from its original form.
Speakers’ Corner has, since the 19th century, been a place for open-air free speech, a key element in any healthy democracy. These days, it seems to be an increasingly unsafe space, especially if you want to challenge Islam.
Hatun is herself an ex-Muslim shunned by her own family since becoming a Christian. She has turned heads for years with her controversial tactics at the Corner. Whether holding up a 'holey' Koran or waving Charlie Hebdo cartoons, she knows how to draw a crowd. She has been arrested twice in the past year.
When asked about the criticism she faces, sometimes from other Christians, she sighs. ‘I get that critique a lot,’ she says. But there is method in her madness.
‘I used to be a very friendly person,’ she grins. ‘I’m not that friendly now.’ She used to stand in front of mosques and hand out welcoming leaflets with messages like ‘Jesus loves you.’
‘That was okay,’ she recalls, ‘but I was never able to have proper discussions.’ When she first visited Speakers’ Corner in 2013 and watched more forceful Christian preachers at work, she realised that many of the Muslims in the crowd couldn’t answer basic challenges to their own faith. This inspired her to switch things up. And so her distinctive approach of ‘apologetics and polemics together’ was born.
For a few years, Hatun collaborated with American evangelist Jay Smith. When Smith returned to the United States in 2017, Hatun began a new ministry, DCCI (‘Defend Christ, Critique Islam’). She has carried this work beyond the park and across the capital, going into mosques and negotiating with the imams to book small weekly gatherings. These draw as many as 80 people at a time, while smaller groups meet with her in shops over coffee and kebabs. When people are persuaded to convert, she works to ‘plant them’ in church communities for further discipleship.
In total, she estimates she has converted ‘easily over a 1,000’ Muslims since 2013. When I ask how many of these were imams, she pauses. ‘Just a minute…’ Checking her screen, she says, ‘So, I keep them on a list, because I pray for them every day for five years. I’m not up to date.’ She has seventeen names on her list.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hatun lives on the edge, moving from host family to host family. She left her previous house last autumn when the police showed up to deliver an Osman warning. She was sad, but not surprised. As she says twice in our interview, ‘Jesus doesn’t say 'Oh yeah, people are gonna give you flowers and chocolates when you preach the gospel'.'
Her Charlie Hebdo T-shirt drew attention on the day of the stabbing, but she tells me there’s more to it than meets the eye. On the back, she’s designed a picture of Jesus with a gospel message. She wishes the front didn’t get all the attention, but she’s not ashamed of it. Sometimes, she will hold up mocking cartoons of Mohammed and Jesus side by side. ‘I don’t believe Charlie Hebdo is hope to anyone,’ she says. ‘It’s (the) Lord Jesus Christ (that is) hope. But that doesn’t mean I’m gonna chop someone’s head off....I don’t live in Pakistan, I don’t live in Saudi Arabia, and I should not be banned.’
On the rainy July Sunday when she was stabbed, there was no mob. It was just her and a Shia Muslim man in friendly conversation. Salafi hecklers had attempted to hijack the dialogue, so she wanted to wrap up. ‘And then suddenly like…suddenly just like…’ She pauses, then shakes her head laughing. ‘It happened so quick.’
Her attacker came from behind, which still irks her. ‘People don’t even have the dignity to look into your eye and then give you their top five list why they want to kill you…It just says a lot about people.’ She laughs again. ‘I found that heartbreaking.’
There was no pain, she remembers. But when she looked down to see her bloody hand cut open ‘like a chicken,’ she fainted in shock. The video shows her out cold, surrounded by alarmed friends. The next thing she recalls is asking them to help her stand back up. Then, with her face covered in blood, she begins preaching to the crowd.
I ask what went through her mind in that moment. She pauses and grins. ‘Sister, to be honest, I’m so grateful I didn’t say something else, because I don’t fully remember what I said.’ She’s just glad it was ‘something (to do with) the gospel.’ Because ‘you never know, in those places you might say something which is so anti-gospel. And by God’s grace, I said what I said.’
If she could address her attacker face to face, what would she say? She isn't sure, but she hopes he will ‘turn to (the) Lord Jesus Christ,’ as she prays every Sunday for all the Muslims in her audience. She hopes he knows ‘that he is forgiven,’ if he is willing to receive forgiveness when he faces ‘the Lamb of God’ on ‘judgment day.’ ‘It isn’t about my chit-chat with him,’ she says.
She only wants her message to be heard. ‘It is not my story,’ she says. ‘I have a bigger story, (a) better story, and that’s the story of the eternal Son of God who stepped into the world... I don’t want to get attention. If (the) Lord Jesus Christ is gonna get attention, yeah that’s fine, I’ll speak. Otherwise, I’ll just keep my peace. And we get on with life.’