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The Erosion of Free Speech at Universities

Last week, Goldsmiths University Secular Society hosted guest speaker Maryam Namazie, who spoke about her decision to leave the Muslim faith and how she believes that certain tenets of the religion lead to the oppression of women and the hampering of free speech. Ironically, her discussion was interrupted on several occasions by members of the University’s Islamic society, who sat in on the discussions and regularly interjected, shouted and made other childish complaints at the speaker’s expense. Namazie was incredibly frustrated with their interruptions, but did invite them back during the Q and A session.

Namazie’s tenacity in the face of targeted disruption should be commended, and her attitude embodies the spirit of free speech at universities. Higher education establishments in the UK are places of learning, science and academic dialogue, allowing everyone to raise and debate important societal issues. Student societies are fairly independent in inviting guest speakers, who can really open up discussion on a topic and provide expert knowledge that might otherwise not be available. Free speech is a wonderful thing that grants students fantastic opportunities, and it pains me to see Ms. Namazie disrespected in such a way by a portion of the student body.

If a student disagrees with what a speaker is saying, by all means should they have the opportunity to voice their opinion; this is simply the spirit of debate. If those members of the Islamic society wanted to engage in a fair discussion with Namazie, they could have waited until the Q and A section of the talk. However, I don’t believe these people were interested in rational debate at all, instead this was nothing more than a veiled threat at those who would seek to speak against their interpretation of Islamic law, which makes Namazie’s acts all the more courageous.

For those interested, here is a recording of the debate by Goldsmith’s Secular Society (disruption begins shortly after 11:00, and then at 34:00, 51:00, 1:21:00) :

 

This issue, whilst regrettable, is easily forgettable, and would have blown over in a few days if things were left alone. Instead, Goldsmith’s Feminist society labelled Namazie a “known Islamophobe” and stated that the Secular Society were attempting to create “a climate of hatred”. The inter-society politics at universities are often complicated, but it seems that in this instance at least, the FemSoc have abandoned reason. Namazie has been an ardent voice in support of the rights of Muslim women, drawing directly on her experiences of oppression and how it affected her. It seems unconscionable to me that the FemSoc can condemn Namazie when such an emphasis is being placed on intersectional feminism and the rights of minorities.

While Namazie may argue against current schools of Islamic thought such as Sharia, this does not automatically make her an Islamophobe. She does so through reasoned debate and through an advocacy of secularism and human rights; ideologies which were massively influential in the growth of feminism itself. Meanwhile, the Islamic society that these feminists are defending neglected any rational dialogue, deciding instead that intimidation and disruption were the best ways to get their message across.

Meanwhile, opinions such as this are being espoused by the President of the Goldsmith’s Islamic Society, on his personal Twitter account.

It would be unfair to assume that the FemSoc committee knew of these tweets when they made their statement of support, but one would hope that at least some research was carried out regarding the views of the Islamic Society, given their actions at Namazie’s talk. I still can’t fathom their decision to side with the Islamic Society in the first place, but it seems their actions are focused on an attempt not to offend, and a kowtowing to the religious societies at the University.

No one should begrudge Goldsmith’s FemSoc for choosing to protect freedom of religion over freedom of speech, after all, they are balanceable rights and often come into conflict. But lets not pretend that that’s what happened here. Bullying and intimidation are not legitimate tenets of the Muslim faith, and do not represent any expression of religion. By protecting the cowards that attempted to silence Namazie, the FemSoc are not upholding freedom of religion, but are instead giving legitimacy to hateful members of the Muslim faith, whilst also setting a disturbing precedent regarding free speech on campus.

Maryam Namazie tackles difficult discussions regarding the Islamic faith such as the wearing of burkas as a feminist issue and the gender bias of Sharia courts. Some may find her opinions offensive, but to silence legitimate political discussion is a gross overreaction. Namazie was also denied a platform at Warwick University due to the protests of the Feminist Society, and although this kind of ‘no-platforming’ is rare, a pattern is beginning to emerge. There seems to be a blurring of the lines between the discussion of controversial viewpoints and ‘x-phobia’. Hate speech is of course, not a binary issue. There may not be a clear-cut line that can be crossed, but reasoned, academic discussion should not fall under hate speech.

An emblematic example of speech that does straddle the grey area might be something said by Donald Trump. While not exactly subtle, Trump cloaks his Islamophobia in security concerns, preaching the need for vigilance and increased defence, when in fact the majority of his policies are aimed at the exclusion of Muslims (and other minorities) from American society. If Trump was an out and out self declared Islamophobe, he would garner only marginal support. But he doesn’t. Americans are desperate for some form of security, whether it be economic or political, and his thinly-veiled hate speech gives them hope of a greater, more homogenous America, and as such, Donald Trump currently sits at 1st place in the Republican primaries.

English universities should be doing everything in their power to protect Muslim students from hate crimes based on race or religion, and should also recognise those that would seek to subvert Islam for their own purposes; using it to attack fundamental principles of European democracy such as secularism or gender equality. By giving in to those that are using their religion as a guise for their hatred, student societies are silencing free speech and encouraging the notion that anyone with genuine criticisms of religious teaching must be labelled an Islamophobe. In doing so, student groups are eschewing all nuance, something that is fundamental to true academic discussion.

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