Controversial = ill-suited for public discussion?


As we know, free speech has come under renewed attack recently, with calls from an influential portion of Britain’s student population for our universities to retract their provision of an effective platform for wide, open public debate. Renowned critic of Islam Mariam Namazie’s recent experience at Goldsmiths is yet another demonstration of this phenomenon, as her speech was severely disrupted by the university Islamic society (ISOC). An attempt at fair warning was offered by the society beforehand, however, in an email to the ASH society (Atheist, Secularist, Humanist) who hosted the event:

 As an Islamic society, we feel extremely uncomfortable by the fact that you have invited Maryam Namazie. As you very well probably know, she is renowned for being Islamophobic, and very controversial.

Just a few examples of her Islamophobic statements, she labelled the niqab- a religious symbol for Muslim women, “a flag for far-right Islamism”. Also, she went onto tweet, they are ”body bags” for women. That is just 2 examples of how mindless she is, and presents her lack of understanding and knowledge about Islam. I could go on for a while if you would like further examples.

We feel having her present, will be a violation to our safe space, a policy which Goldsmiths SU adheres to strictly, and my society feels that all she will do is incite hatred and bigotry, at a very sensitive time for Muslims in the light of a huge rise in Islamophobic attacks.

For this reason, we advise you to reconsider your event tomorrow. We will otherwise, take this to the Students Union, and present our case there. I however, out of courtesy, felt it would be better to speak to you first.

What I’d like to point out about this message is that it attempts to obscure what are genuinely worrying sentiments with simply mislead ones.

The writer notes that, at a time so sensitive for Muslims, it may not be prudent to have a speaker who actively criticises many of their beliefs and customs. I think there are issues with this perspective. Namazie’s criticism is largely intellectual and unlikely to lead to discriminatory outbursts – especially when you consider that her audience is constituted of young, liberal thinkers and not violent hooligans.

However, this point is relatively unimportant: consider that the writer says that Namazie is ‘very controversial’. The presumptuous nature of these words – the implicit identification of controversy with being inappropriate for public discusion – is what I find positively terrifying.

There is also the argument made that Namazie’s presence would ‘violate’ the ISOC’s safe space. Isn’t the point about spaces that there are lots of them and that they are separate? In what possible sense can it be claimed that their space has been encroached on – unless the ISOC would have their ‘safe space’ as the entire university and thus demand that any dissent be reserved for off campus.

Of course, that the ISOC eventually resorted to forcefully blocking Namazie’s attempt at generating discourse is disgraceful. But the assumptions evident in this email highlight another, more troubling issue: that in some areas of our student body, free speech is not being challenged on an intellectual basis, but forgotten and neglected without second thought.