‘If Islamists can speak on campus, why can’t I?’
Maryam Namazie on how she took on the campus censors and won.
This week, a crucial blow was struck for freedom of speech on British campuses. Maryam Namazie, Iranian-born secularist campaigner and spokesperson of Ex-Muslims of Britain, took on the campus censors and won, providing a bit of hope for students across the land trying desperately to debate, discuss and broaden their minds under the cosh of students’ union bureaucracy.
Namazie was due to give a talk at an event organised by the Warwick Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (WASH) on Monday. But, earlier this month, the student organisers received an email from Warwick SU informing them that their external-speaker application had been denied. ‘After researching both her and her organisation, a number of flags have been raised’, read the message. ‘There are a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker that indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus. This is in contravention of our external-speaker policy.’
Neither Namazie nor WASH took it lying down. In a series of posts and press releases they ripped apart the union’s risk-averse reasoning. Namazie, a fierce critic of Islamism, Sharia courts and the veil, is certainly controversial in these increasingly sensitive times, but, as she coyly pointed out in one fiery post, ‘the Islamists incite hatred, not us’: ‘It’s a topsy-turvy world when “progressives” who are meant to be on our side take a stand with our oppressors and try to deny us the only tool we have to resist – our freedom of expression.’
Under the weight of bad press and social-media indignation, the union issued a statement on Sunday night, announcing that it would issue Namazie a ‘full and unequivocal apology’. Ever the bureaucrats, the SU officials claimed that protocol, in this case, was not followed properly. Talking to Namazie yesterday, I asked her what she thinks this victory means for the fight for free speech on campus; I found her in a measured rather than triumphant mood.
‘It’s not just a problem with Warwick, but one that we’re seeing across the board’, she said, reminding me that this wasn’t the first time she’d come face-to-face with the campus thoughtpolice. In March she was forced to pull out of an event organised at Trinity College, Dublin after college security said it would be ‘antagonising’ to Muslims and tried to place restrictions on who could attend. ‘Sometimes the student groups who have invited me have preferred not to make it an issue. But, after a while, I made the decision that I will try to fight it through where I can’, she continues. ‘Luckily, this time the student group [at Warwick] worked closely with me on it.’
Given that so many speakers and societies end up giving in to the ridiculous restrictions placed on them, this kickback was heartening. Not least because the dodgy arguments that prop up student censorship so often go unchallenged. ‘The main crux of [Warwick SU’s] argument was that I will incite discrimination against, and intimidation of, Muslim students’, Namazie says. ‘First of all, which Muslim students are they talking about? They’ve bought into this idea that a Muslim equals an Islamist, and that there’s no difference between Islam, the religion, Islamism, a part of the religious right, and Muslims, who are people with as different a range of beliefs as anybody else.’
Dodgy thinking and double standards permeate modern campus bans. Despite the flurry of softly-softly censorship on British campuses in recent years, in which everything from newspapers to sombreros to pole-dancing societies has been banned in the name of creating a ‘safe’ and ‘inclusive’ space, SU politicos have been more than happy to libel lads, rough up student organisers they disagree with and allow the anti-Semitic disgrace that is Israel Apartheid Week to take place every year with impunity while pro-Israel speakers are deemed dangerous and discriminatory. Still, the biggest double standard of them all surrounds the issue of Islam. The National Union of Students (NUS) has taken up arms against the British government’s plans to clamp down on Islamist speakers, despite the fact that the backward views many of them espouse would be in breach of any Safe Space policy in the land.
I put this to Namazie – who, as a feminist, human-rights campaigner and strident leftist, would, you’d think, have more in common with Warwick SU than, say, the gaggle of genuine hate-spewers they have happily hosted in recent Islamic Society events. ‘The things [SUs] want for themselves, whether it’s gay rights or women’s rights or equality, it seems that it doesn’t apply to the rest of us’, she says. ‘Part of that has to do with multiculturalism. Not, of course, the fantastic lived experience where we have people from everywhere living together, but as a social policy which separates groups into homogenised communities. Hand in hand with that comes this idea that it’s their culture, it’s their religion; they are different from us. And to demand equality is therefore somehow discriminatory and racist. It’s a scandalous thing to say.’
‘Islamist groups are organised, through Islamic Societies, on university campuses’, Namazie continues. ‘They are funded and they do use threatening and intimidating behaviour to stop much-needed debate.’ And herein lies the crucial issue. While Islamist speakers have largely been spared the full brunt of campus illiberalism, the tightening up of debate around them and the constant insistence on tip-toeing around the issue of Islam have allowed certain enclaves of Islamism to flourish. When free debate is stifled, not only are some backward ideas driven underground, but others are insulated from criticism, as dissidents, like Namazie, are silenced.
Having fled Iran with her family after the revolution, and worked on human-rights causes in Islamist-run countries across the Arab world, Namazie is, perhaps understandably, cagey about continuing to allow Islamists to run loose on campus. Incitement to hatred, she hints at one point, is somewhere where the law could play a role. I’m not convinced: as Namazie herself has found out, accusations of ‘incitement to hatred’ are often used to silence those who simply have very unpopular views. But before we part ways she makes clear that what we really need is more debate, not less: ‘Freedom of expression means nothing if it’s just for people you agree with. Even people with the vilest views, who deny the Holocaust or defend the Caliphate, they have a right to speak, as do we. The problem is that they’ve always had the right to speak and we never have.’
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