We cannot let Islamism
destroy free speech

‘If people like me who fled an Islamist regime can’t speak out about my opposition to the far-right Islamic Movement, if I can’t criticise Islam that leaves me very few options for me as a dissenter because the only thing I have is my freedom of expression. If anyone is inciting hatred, it’s the Islamists who are threatening people like me just for deciding we want to be an atheist, just because we don’t want to toe the line.’

– Maryam Namazie, the leader of the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain, responds to Warwick Student Union barring her from speaking to Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists

For those who don’t know Maryam Namazie, she is a longstanding human rights campaigner who was forced out of her own homeland of Iran, due to her opposition to the Islamist regime of Iran’s Ayatollahs. She describes herself as a Marxist, so whilst you may not agree with her, she seems exactly the sort of thought provoking speaker you would want on campus to promote a lively debate and explain from her perspective the threat of Islamism first hand.

Unfortunately, the Student Union initially made the cowardly decision to rob Namazie of the right to freely speak. In doing so the Student Union tried to stop someone who has spent her life speaking against those who would like to kill her was initially gagged from expressing her opinions. This seems perverse, when the very reason Namazie was forced to leave Iran in the first place was because she wasn’t prepared to her to ignore the myriad of crime’s being committed by Iran’s regime.

The second crime the Student Union initially committed is to stop everyone else who would have liked to have gone to the talk on campus from their right to hear Namazie’s opinions and yes if they disagreed with them, question them.

Thankfully the Student Union finally came to its senses and after significant pressure and a petition on change.org signed by thousands, deigned to allow Ms Namazie to speak. Whilst I commend them for finally reaching the right decision, I believe unless we address the root causes of why Namazie was banned in the first places, we will seem similar cases happen again and again. After all, it shouldn’t take public pressure to realise that restricting free speech is always a bad idea.

Presently, universities appear to be plagued by the idea of a so called safe space. This space seeks to create a sanitised environment, where students are treated like characters from Teletubbies with vacant trusting smiles not expected to think for themselves, challenge reprehensible views or hear anything which might hurt their feelings. It leads to ridiculous decisions, such as Birmingham Union’s ban on sombreros because they were deemed ‘racist’. The idea that students need to be kept safe from ideas and arguments has about as much going for it as banning scrums in rugby for fear someone might get hurt.

Sadly, what happened with Maryam Namazie is nothing new. A similar excuse was used in May 2012 when Leeds University Jewish Society withdrew an invitation to the American Lawyer, Brooke Goldstein, Director of the Lawfare Project, who specialises in highlighting how Islamist leaders use “lawfare” to sue those who publish articles against radical Islam. She was deemed too controversial, because she defended the Far Right Dutch Leader, Geert Wilders in a court of law and thus the Jewish Society were worried she was Islamophobic.

The did not take into consideration the crucial point as to why Brooke Goodstein defended Geert Wilders; “whether you agree with him or not, and there are a lot of points we disagree on, surely he deserves to be allowed to express his opinions in the 21st century?”

Yet with university societies and unions so worried about causing offence, they deem anyone controversial who is willing to actively defend free speech and challenge people like Islamists. They would rather stop people from expressing an opinion for this will cause hostility or controversy, than challenge Islamism. You can read more about the Brooke Goldstein case here.

There are many more examples. To take a more recent case, at Queen’s University in Belfast a symposium with the name Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo was banned as the Vice Chancellor of the University, Paul Johnston believed was worried about the security risk and the reputation of the university, as highlighted by Nick Cohen’s excellent blog here.

Lest you think that because I oppose Islamism I believe you must ban extremist Islamist speakers, I assure you I believe nothing of the sort. If Islamists are banned from speaking, then they cannot be challenged and it gives legitimacy to their own opinion that the best way to spread one’s worldview, is to silence, rather than debate those with different opinions.

We are letting a barbaric ideological minority view within Islam call the shots and attempt to stop anyone who seeks to challenge their medieval views. In doing so we are creating the very atmosphere on campus Islamists seek to achieve, a repressive atmosphere where controversies cannot be openly discussed and opinions from a range of views are censored, due to the threat of hostility.

This perverse environment of censorship supposedly to make us all safe leads to a situation where those seeking to violently repress free speech are rewarded without fear of exposure, fact checking or mockery, whilst those who have bravely defend free speech despite in many cases receiving death threats are potentially gagged.


Stephen Hoffman is the Parliamentary Liaison Officer for Conservatives for Liberty. He tweets at @thehoff102

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The views expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Conservatives for Liberty

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