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Concerns over NUS censorship: Why should political correctness outweigh freedom of speech?

With the modern era of twenty-four hour news cycles it is perhaps quite likely that, despite its publicity, the relatively recent events involving Maryam Namazie and her clash with Warwick University’s Student Union may have slipped under your radar.

While this is nothing to be ashamed of – an expectation for us to be aware of all events at all times is blisteringly unrealistic – I bring it to your attention now because it comes as another example in a worrying trend that is developing across Universities and student establishments in the UK.

Maryam Namazie is an ex-Muslim secular rights activist who was invited to speak by the Warwick Atheists, Secularist and Humanist Society (WASH) until the Student Union made the decision to block her on the grounds that she was “highly inflammatory” and “could incite hatred” against Muslims; a decision that is concerning even if you know nothing about Namazie, but which only gets more concerning the more you learn about her.

Namazie is a spokesperson for organisations such as ‘Equal Rights Now’ and ‘Fitnah’, which call for things such as an “end to misogynist cultural, religious and moral laws and customs, compulsory veiling, sex apartheid, sex trafficking, and violence against women” and instead demands “freedom, equality, and secularism” – hardly ideas that one would describe as “highly inflammatory”.

In short what we have here is a woman who is concerned about women, specifically their treatment in fundamentalist Islamic communities, and who champions liberal values such as free speech and equality.

One would expect that a university would be eager to have such a speaker at one of its events, but what was instead illustrated to us at Warwick University was the tiresome conflation of criticising Islam as a set of ideas (or in this case Islamism, the heavily politicised and fundamentalist version of Islam that Namazie campaigns against) with discrimination and bigotry against Muslims as people.

Not only is this conflation intellectually ridiculous but it is also astonishingly ironic in that it is silencing a person in fear that they will incite hatred, when the person who is planning to speak is speaking out against an ideology that incites hatred!

As Namazie wrote on her blog shortly after being told she could not speak at the University, “Inciting hatred is what the Islamists do; I and my organisation challenge them and defend the rights of ex-Muslims, Muslims and others to dissent”.

One has to begin to wonder, in the face of such an event, that if a university cannot be a space where ideas are challenged and criticised, what is the university for in the first place?

Thankfully, in the days following this, prominent figures such as Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, and Professor Brian Cox expressed solidarity with Namazie on twitter, giving the event the publicity it needed for significant pressure to be placed on Warwick University.

This eventually led to the Students’ Union at Warwick overturning the ban and allowing Namazie to speak as originally planned.

In light of this you may well be wondering why I have bothered to use up a perfectly serviceable evening to reiterate a series of events that ended favourably. I am writing out of a concern of a developing trend. It is tempting to discard the case of Maryam Namazie as a one off; a simple lack of judgement on the part of the Students’ Union. This, however, does not appear to be the case.

Take, for example, the incident at the London School of Economics where members of the Atheist, Secularist & Humanist Society (ASH) were ordered to cover up the t-shirts they were wearing which had cartooned depictions of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on them, the reasoning for such censorship being that it was “offensive” and “deliberately provocative”. Or the similar case at Reading University where the Atheist, Humanist and Secularist Society (RAHS) were thrown out of their fresher’s fair for having a pineapple labelled “Mohammed” on display. The irony being that the intention of the pineapple was to “draw attention to cases where religion has been used to limit freedom of expression and other fundamental rights”, meaning that it became its own example of what it was trying to draw attention to.

On top of this we have the more recent case that took place at Bath University whereby a comedy sketch was blocked after a line in the sketch that mentioned Mohammed was disputed as one that caused “great offence” . There are multiple reasons to object to this sort of censorship but what is important to recognise is the trend that is occurring whereby the criticism of Islam is being disallowed based on the notion that to do so is unfair and discriminatory to the Muslim community. It simultaneously patronises Muslims by assuming they are too thin skinned to have their beliefs scrutinised, while reducing the University experience to one where only certain ideas, approved by those in charge, can be said and heard – a patently anti-liberal state of affairs.

If these examples are not enough to cause you concern, then consider the disgraceful decision by the National Union of Students (NUS) last year to refuse to condemn ISIS based on grounds that to do so would be “Islamaphobic” and “could lead to pro-interventionism” – a fact that I’m sure is hard to believe if it is new to you. Such a defence given by the NUS could potentially be reputable if the motion titled “Iraqi/Kurdish Solidarity” had even a semblance of pro- interventionist sentiment or a modicum of potential bigotry against Muslims. I’m sure you are unsurprised at this point to be told that it did not contain anything of the sort and even went to the effort of stating “to condemn the IS and support the Kurdish forces fighting against it, while expressing no confidence or trust in the US military intervention”.

I personally cannot think a more pronounced way of condemning IS while remaining anti-intervention in the same sentence, but this was still not good enough for the NUS. In this case even the condemnation of an organisation that was killing more Muslims than anyone else was decried as “Islamaphobic” and once again falsely conflated with bigotry. This is not to suggest that the NUS is in any way “pro-IS” and it is important to point out that in December 2014, after great pressure from the public and figures such as the Prime Minister, the NUS finally made a statement condemning IS. It is to illustrate that there is a concerning inability on the part of certain people across Universities and student bodies to criticise even the most radical forms of Islam because they believe it in some way to be bigoted or discriminatory, or that it might lead to such activity.

University should be a place where ideas are freely shared and debated; yet there appears to be increasing pressure to prevent this from being the case on certain issues, specifically in the case of Islam, and while attempted censorship of this kind damages the very spirit of a university, the real disservice is to the liberal Muslims who recognise that their religion, like all ideas, is open to criticism and reform.

It inaccurately homogenises all Muslims as a community of people who believe that it is entirely illegitimate to criticise their religion, and prevents those who want to show solidarity to the oppressed the ability to do so. As Maryam Namazie said herself, “To try to censor me, does a double disservice to those people who are dissenting by denying people like me the only opportunity we have to speak”.

 

Rory Lightfoot

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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