“Universities should be bastions of freedom of thought”

Submitted by cathy n on 8 December, 2015 - 8:09 Author: Goldsmiths Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society

On Monday 30 November a meeting at Goldsmiths University, London, with the Iranian-born secular, ex-Muslim, feminist and socialist activist Maryam Namazie was seriously disrupted by individuals from the University’s Islamic Society (Isoc). They accused Namazie of Islamophobia and were trying to “no-platform” her.

On the day before the meeting the president of ISoc called for the hosts, the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (ASHsoc) to stop the meeting. The Feminist Society and LGBTQ Society publicly backed that stance as Namazie’s presence on campus violated the Student Union’s Safer Spaces policy. The meeting went ahead, ending with an interesting dialogue between Namazie and Muslim women students. Namazie, unsurprisingly to anyone acquainted with her real views, went to great lengths to express her opposition to racist attacks on Muslims, migrants and others.

The following statement (extracts printed here) from ASHSoc is a thoughtful and convincing response to this “controversy”.

Cathy Nugent

...Whilst “safe spaces” are legitimate options for those who have been victimised and discriminated against, universities by their very definition cannot be “safe spaces”.

Few would disagree that, if anywhere, universities should be bastions of freedom of thought and ideas, but for this to hold any meaning whatsoever, they must be bastions for the freedom of all ideas — regardless of how popular they may be or whether they are deemed “controversial” or even offensive by some.

Offence, may act as an impetus for argument, but it is not, in and of itself, an argument, nor grounds for suppression. It is essential to be able to hear ideas that make us uncomfortable; this is the essence of tolerance. There should be no “safe spaces” for ideas to go unchallenged.

The claims often made against Maryam and other speakers alike seem to insist that because there is a climate of hatred towards Muslims from the far-right, we should not allow what some consider offensive criticism of Islam as a religious ideology, like any other.

In the incident at Goldsmiths, the Feminist and LGBTQI+ societies shared anti-free speech sentiments by making statements of solidarity with the Isoc leadership’s position and as such, seemed to tacitly condone their actions. This is a response rooted in a convoluted and solipsistic notion of regressive identity politics that wrongly conflates criticisms of Islam as an ideology or Islamism as a political movement, with inciting hatred towards Muslims.

It fails to see the dissent within minority communities and also implicitly assumes that a diverse body of people who follow the Islamic faith are all offended or intolerant of Maryam’s opinions.

As was evident in the meeting itself, some of the women members of Isoc did not condone the intimidating behaviour of the male members; some Muslims in the audience apologised to Maryam for their behaviour, making it clear that not all Muslims agree with this assumption. Also, rather than having any real concern for safe spaces, the ISoc leadership used this policy in order to make the event unsafe for all those who disagreed with them.

Such mischaracterisations have led to the abuse of “safe space” policies in the past and a culture of suppression at the university towards views that are not in line with the student union or, as in this case, other politically oriented societies. This is a gross subversion. What is more important however, is that this incident is not isolated, nor is the response.

What must be more clearly stressed is that, whilst non-violent protest and challenging ideas should be actively encouraged at universities, what cannot be tolerated is making an attempt to stop speakers from speaking entirely, unless they are directly inciting violence. Whether this be through vague “blasphemy laws” with little to no basis in established law, which exist in numerous student union external speaker policies, or whether it be through “safe space” policies, which often have similar rules open to abuse and are sometimes used for intimidation, as in this case...

Student Unions’ responses have typically suggested that the issue lies in the misuse of these policies by individuals. Clearly, because this is a recurrent theme at universities, this is a structural problem which enables this to keep occurring. It is the policies themselves that need to be amended so as to ensure this does not continue to happen. Whilst our Student Union has not officially responded yet... we fear that a similar dismissive response will occur with no policy changes.

In the same way that we cannot champion free expression for some, but not others, we cannot champion the rights of those who believe and not champion the rights of those who choose not to believe. Freedom of expression for all, including non-believers, is a basic human right and one that universities of all places must unequivocally defend.

We feel that the current policy prescriptions the NUS espouse, and which many student unions have adopted as a result, have consistently been shown to be at least ineffective and in many cases, actively suppressive of freedom of expression and we strongly urge the NUS, and Goldsmiths Student Union, to reform their policies.

As with similar events... public outcry has had a strong influence on the response of student unions, therefore, we are making this statement public, but will also be pursuing formal channels of complaint to the NUS and we encourage them to respond in regards to further action.

• Full statement: http://chn.ge/1NTCMHB