Whoever the argument about inviting offensive guest speakers on campus is about, it’s not about Maryam Namazie. Namazie is an Iranian who escaped with her family after the revolution of 1979. She studied in America and began her career aiding refugees in Sudan and then established an underground human rights network after the Islamist Revolution of 1989 before her cover was blown and she was forced to run.
She has spent much of her life advocating for Iranian refugees – campaigning, for example, against abuses committed against them in Turkey. She is a prominent feminist activist, who protests against the oppressive treatment of women in Iran and around the world. She protested nude in Paris last year on International Women’s Day for exactly that reason. She is in other words entirely the kind of person whom Warwick’s Students’ Union should, in fact, be aiming to give a platform.
Instead, after she was invited to speak by the Warwick Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society, the college’s SU tried to do the opposite. They announced that Namazie would not be allowed to speak, declaring that she was “highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred” against Muslim students. They reversed their position only after an aggressive campaign on the internet and on the ground in Warwick forced their hand.
The decision was framed as a bureaucratic one. The official statement used phrases such as “risk assessment” and “a number of flags have been raised.” You would be forgiven, I think, for believing that Namazie had posed a serious health-and-safety risk to somebody. In reality, of course, this was merely a bureaucratic veneer. There was nothing objective about the decision. Even if you believe that racist or Islamophobic speakers ought not be allowed on university campuses, Maryam Namazie is neither. She was, it seems, banned from speaking at Warwick because the SU believed that her ideas were wrong.
I’m aware at this point that there will be people who disagree with my summary of Namazie’s views – as there would be with anybody’s – whether because I have left something out, or because they’ve read or seen either more or less of her than I have, so I am going to preface this by urging you to go look her up and decide for yourself what you think of her. As an activist, she most frequently campaigns for secularism and against Islamist theocracy.
She was a vocal supporter of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten when their staff received death threats for publishing a cartoon of Muhammad in 2005. She believes that organised religion, rather than the West, is responsible for most of the crises in the Middle East. She aggressively campaigned against an initiative attempting to establish Sharia Courts in Ontario, Canada. Most of her efforts are directed against what she calls ‘Islamism,’ which is a word used by some to describe a spectrum of political ideology ranging from a kind of Islamic equivalent of America’s Moral Majority to the desire to establish a Global Caliphate: the ideology of a tiny minority who rule a large chunk of the world. Namazie is not a Muslim. She is an ex-Muslim, in the way that many Irish people are ex-Catholics, and is often scathing when she criticises Islam, but she never attacks Muslims as individuals. She, of all people, can tell the difference.
Namazie’s case, then, is clear-cut. It’s hard to imagine anyone being incited to hatred by her presence. Yet Warwick SU initially chose to ban her anyway. Their committee is (for those who keep score) all-white and all-male, and there’s no evidence that any Muslim students of Warwick were consulted. It’s hard to understand why they would think that any Muslim students who disagreed with Maryam Namazie would prefer to censor her rather than argue with her.
To some, the idea that Muslims are uniquely in need of protection from criticisms of ideas held under the umbrella of the religion they associate with would seem patronising. Though even if the SU were entirely composed of Muslims, would it be fair for those 7 or 8 Muslims to make that decision on behalf of every Muslim on campus? To many, one of the most important functions of a university is to expose people to new ideas, especially those they might disagree with, although the irony of the Namazie case is that the vast majority of Muslims probably agree with most of what she has to say.
The SU acted arbitrarily when they decided that some of Namazie’s opinions were “flags” which were grounds to remove her right to speak on campus and the right of all people on campus – Muslim or otherwise – to listen to her. She was to be silenced because a committee decided she was offensive. Warwick SU neither provided examples of these “flags,” nor elaborated upon what the ‘’incitement to hatred’’ in the original statement actually meant. So it’s unlikely that we’ll ever know what exactly the process was.
The cynic in me wonders whether Asghar Bukhari, a political commentator who shares the apparent views of Warwick SU on the West and free speech/offence, but whose recent claim that Zionists snuck into his house at night and stole one of his shoes surely raises some sort of anti-Semitic ‘flag’,would have been subjected to the same ordeal as Namazie. He was invited – rightly – to The Phil this week for ‘This House Believes in a Right to Offend,’ and gave a stunning speech in opposition.
The whole issue raises a number of questions universities must answer. Should societies be restricted in whom they are able to invite to speak? If so, is restriction the job of a Students’ Union? What are the criteria for restriction? If that criteria includes “incitement to hatred” then what does that mean, exactly? If the intended aim is to protect people, how many even want protection?
The Warwick fiasco is a perfect example of what happens when these questions are swept under the rug: a couple of students use gut-instinct to decide on speech-issues, and reasonable people are silenced. It’s hard to see how offloading responsibility for these questions to an SU Board could ever work well because, among other things, it’s very difficult to imagine any criteria which can be applied objectively. When we allow others to take ownership of what we say and hear, our universities will become very dark places. And if we are going to give up that right, we should not do so without first knowing exactly what that means.