Universities are places of learning. Free speech must not die there.

By LSS Secretary Charlie Klendjian *

It’s been quite an eventful few weeks for the Lawyers’ Secular Society. I’m only just catching my breath.

One of our university talks about radicalisation was cancelled; our persistent campaigning led the Law Society to withdraw its sharia practice note and to apologise clearly for issuing it; and another one of our campus talks about Islam went ahead – but only just.

This piece will focus on the two campus events.

University of West London (UWL)

On 12 November 2014 I was due to speak at UWL alongside my friend Anne Marie Waters, the spokesperson of Sharia Watch UK (SWUK). The event had kindly been organised by UWL’s Law Society.

The purpose of the event was to present the findings of a new SWUK report which dealt with, amongst other things, extremist speakers on campus, censorship on campus, and the difficulty of talking freely about Islam.

With just 24 hours to go UWL – you guessed it – cancelled our event. Irony is so difficult to define, but so easy to recognise.

The LSS’s current understanding is that UWL cancelled the event for one or more of three reasons.

Firstly, UWL was worried about “bad PR” – but apparently not so worried about extinguishing freedom of speech or the bad PR that might flow from that.

Secondly, UWL was concerned that the event was not “balanced” enough, even though:

  • It was clear from the outset that the event was not a debate involving two opposing sides debating a motion, but rather a panel discussion involving the presentation of a report
  • The event was scheduled for two hours, with a full hour devoted to questions and challenges from the audience
  • UWL’s Law Society had specifically invited UWL’s Islamic Society

And thirdly, UWL claimed that various administrative procedures – room-booking and the like – had not been followed correctly, something disputed by UWL’s Law Society and hardly a justification to cancel an event with 24 hours’ notice when the booking had already been in place for some time prior to that.

I am appalled at UWL’s decision to cancel. The LSS is currently challenging the cancellation with a view to rescheduling the event. Watch this space.

Manchester University

Mercifully, on 3 December 2014 Anne Marie and I did manage to exercise our freedom of speech at Manchester University to discuss sharia, women’s rights, free speech and universities – this time at the kind invitation of the university’s Free Speech and Secular Society (FSS).

I want to describe here some of the hurdles that had to be cleared, and also some of the positive lessons I think university bodies can learn from the eventual positive outcome.

The build-up

There was pressure from the university’s students union (SU) to significantly change the format of our event.

Our intended format was the same as the aborted UWL event: a very simple panel discussion involving me and Anne Marie, with plenty of time set aside after our speeches for questions and challenges from the audience.

The SU put pressure on the FSS to change the format to a formal debate – not necessarily a debate against Muslims but a debate nonetheless. The FSS, to their immense credit, resisted this pressure.

This might not sound significant but it is. Free speech with imposed conditions is not free speech. In any case, I wonder if the SU would place pressure on, say, the university’s Islamic Society to change the format of one of their talks to a debate.

No sooner had one hurdle been successfully negotiated than another one appeared. This time the SU, under pressure from some Muslims who were not happy with the event going ahead, took a leaf out of UWL’s free speech handbook and pulled the “balance” requirement out of the hat.

What did “balance” mean in this context, you might ask? Quite simply, it meant that we had to have a Muslim on the panel. Why? Because of a “lack of representation of a Muslim voice”.

Can a talk about Islam only take place with the involvement of a Muslim on the panel? If the university’s Labour Society want to have a panel discussion about Tory austerity cuts, must they invite a Tory on to their panel?

Most worryingly, the SU “strongly recommended” that we agree to a Muslim panellist in order to reduce the “risks” of the event.

Who posed these risks, and who was in danger? Could safety only be ensured by the presence of a Muslim on the panel?

It got worse. Our would-be panel gatecrasher was recommended to us: a Mr Abdullah al Andalusi.

Mr al Andalusi has referred to secular liberal democracy as a “totalitarian system”. He has referred to democracy, secularism and feminism as “blatantly un-Islamic concepts”.

If the SU consider al Andalusi a representative Muslim voice then they don’t seem to have a very high regard for Muslims. And in any case, why on earth should Anne Marie and I be under pressure to share a panel with a man whose worldview is so fundamentally different to our own? Why can’t we have our event, he have his own event if he wants to, and if we want a debate against each other then we can arrange that ourselves without the SU playing the role of a coercive online dating agency?

The SU’s condition was unacceptable in principle and also on its merits. Once again, the FSS admirably resisted the pressure. I also felt a strong personal responsibility not to set a precedent on campus, whereby people could only discuss Islam in the presence of a Muslim panellist. I was adamant that free speech would not take another body blow after the UWL fiasco.

It’s reasonable to consider whether this requirement of “balance” – which seems to be a newly-emerging condition for campus events about Islam – is applied consistently at Manchester University.

I understand from speaking to some of the students in Manchester that their university has an annual “Israel Apartheid Week”, with speaker after speaker lined up to condemn Israel and also to advocate the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) campaign against Israel.

How much balance does the SU insist on during “Israel Apartheid Week”? None, from what I can make out.

And look at this poster for an event at Manchester University, scheduled for the day after our event:


I don’t see too much “balance” here. But I do see the SU’s logo at the bottom right of the poster.

To be clear: from a free speech perspective I have no objection whatsoever to anti-Israel or BDS speakers on campus. And I don’t want any requirement of “balance” for my event any more than I want it for other people’s events.

My point is that this supposed requirement of “balance” was clearly a way of exerting pressure on us to modify our event, rather than the simple implementation of an existing SU policy which is consistently and uniformly applied to all events.

As Anne Marie and I travelled up to Manchester for our talk, scheduled to start at 5pm, we still didn’t know whether it was even going ahead. We got to Manchester, met our contacts, and only at 4.20pm did we finally get the green light: our talk was on, and on our terms.

There was a protest outside the main entrance of the building about the event going ahead (I am told the protesters were overwhelmingly non-Muslims), and so we were smuggled in through the back entrances.

The event itself

It’s fair to say the event was a resounding success. This was primarily because it actually went ahead, and in our chosen format (a very low bar, I readily admit), but also because many people thanked us afterwards for speaking and told us how much they had enjoyed it – even people who had disagreed with much of what we were saying. A number of Muslims were very grateful that the event had not been cancelled.

Of course there was no shortage of heated exchanges and fundamental disagreements, and there was also much cause for face-palming – such as the comment from one member of the audience that ISIS has nothing to do with Islam. This is par for the course though, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary in the context of these events.

Other than the usual robust exchange of opinions the event passed without any incident.

Collectively, everyone in the theatre demonstrated that there was no reason whatsoever for events such as these to be cancelled, or conditioned. If anything, people from all sides of the discussion seemed to be crying out for more of these events.

Credit where it’s due to the SU

My intention here has not been to criticise the SU unfairly or excessively. In the SU’s defence their approach was unfortunately just the standard operating procedure on campuses up and down the country. Their approach is symptomatic of a wider inability and unwillingness by university bodies to treat Islam like any other set of ideas, and Muslims like any other people, and sadly to insist instead on treating Islam and Muslims with patronising kid gloves. This really, really has to stop – for everyone’s sake. Hopefully after this event it will.

Indeed I am very grateful to the SU for allowing the event to go ahead. The night before the event the SU were under huge pressure themselves from the National Union of Students to cancel the event. By the way, this is the same NUS that recently refused to pass a motion condemning the murderous and genocidal ISIS on the basis the motion amounted to “blatant Islamophobia”.

The SU managed to resist the pressure from the NUS to cancel the event and so they deserve credit for that – and they also deserve my gratitude. Hopefully the SU has now set a precedent for other student unions across the country, that we are allowed to talk about Islam.

Everyone needs free speech

We have to remind ourselves of the basics here: the fundamental role of a university is to serve as a place of learning.

As I told my audience at the beginning of my talk – as a pre-warning to anyone who was minded to plead offence at the content that was to follow – if you can’t handle your ideas being challenged then you really have no business being in a university in the first place, and you have no business attending an event hosted by a university’s Free Speech and Secular Society.

Free speech is not just about the right of the speaker to speak. One of its crucial roles is to expose the listener to new ideas.

Whatever their intentions, when university bodies restrict free speech because of a fear that Muslims might be offended, they inadvertently and degradingly enclose Muslims in a time capsule stamped with the words “Handle With Care” on the outside, and they treat Muslims as something less than intellectual adults, and something less than everyone else. In other words by seeking – ostensibly – to protect the rights of Muslims, university bodies actually do the very opposite. And by seeking solace in any Muslim whom they perceive as “representative” of Muslims they treat Muslims with the broadest possible brush and as a homogenous mass, rather than treating them as I and any fellow secularist worth their salt would do: as individual human beings. And to think, it’s secularists that get called “Islamophobic”.

The consequence of this patronising treatment was painfully evident at UWL: we heard from UWL’s Law Society that many Muslims were disappointed by the cancellation as they had really been looking forward to the event. They felt it was an important topic. Unfortunately, UWL chose to deprive them of what might have been an illuminating and engaging discussion.

I’m not saying that all Muslims have a healthy approach to free speech – we know this is simply not the case, sadly. Islamic blasphemy codes, whether formal or de facto, have caused and continue to this day to cause the most unimaginable human suffering. As the secularist and reformed extremist Maajid Nawaz recently said of blasphemy: “Kill the law, not the people.”

Why do university bodies take the side of those Muslims (and those who patronisingly take offence on their behalf) who want to shut down debate and scrutiny, rather than those Muslims who are happy for light to flood in? Instead of just listening to the loudest members of a community, perhaps university bodies should also listen to the quietest, and indeed to the silent.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that university bodies should tally up how many people are for or against an event going ahead and then make a decision on that basis. What I am suggesting is that university bodies must simply demonstrate a firm commitment to free speech, not just in their policies but in practice too.

My hope is that UWL will now have a rethink about their decision to cancel our event. And my hope is also that university bodies, rather than seeking to shut down any uncomfortable discussions about Islam, will make every effort to ensure such events go ahead – without conditions.

Finally, a big thank you to the helpful and cheerful security guards (I counted about six of them) and also the police officers (three or four). But most of all, thank you to all the wonderful students I met for making the evening so enjoyable. In particular, thank you to the brave and principled members of Manchester University’s Free Speech and Secular Society, a politically and culturally diverse group of students who were united in their unwavering commitment to their cause in ensuring this event took place – without conditions. This was their very first event and I hope it will be the first of many.

Update: you can watch the Manchester event here.

* Charlie Klendjian was LSS Secretary and an LSS member from Oct 2012 to Aug 2015

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

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