18 August 2016
Safe Space v Freedom of Expression
The Society had two related talks in July. The first, where we once again welcomed Maryam Namizie to the Hall on Sunday 17th July 2016, was entitled “Apostasy, Blasphemy and Resistance to Islam” and provided an update on her campaigning for Iran Solidarity, One Law for All and the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. The second was given by Robbie Travers, a 20-year-old law student and commentator for the Gatestone Institute (a non-partisan, not-for-profit international policy council and think tank, dedicated to educating the public about what the mainstream media fails to report in promoting human rights and in particular freedom of expression). Both speakers highlighted the current threats to freedom of expression in the UK.
Maryam has been experiencing limitations being placed on her freedom to set out her point of view with the recent advocacy for “safe spaces” at universities. She expressed concern that particularly in some universities many “liberals” and “socialists” now seem to regard anything that might be derogatory about religion, in particular Islam, as unacceptable. She has been labelled as a “race traitor” and “Islamaphobe”.
In December 2015 she gave a talk about blasphemy at the Goldsmiths University in London, sponsored by the university's Atheist, Secularist and Humanist society. During her talk, members of the university's Islamic Society caused a disruption by heckling, switching off her presentation and behaving in an intimidatory way. In response to the incident, the university's Feminist Society released a statement expressing support for the Islamic Society, and condemning the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society for inviting "known islamophobes" to speak at the university.
Maryam emphasised that while the beliefs of individuals must be protected, organised religions were often ideologies that could result in fascist societies if allowed to take power, and must be open to criticism and mockery. She was adamant that religions must accept that apostasy and blasphemy are permitted behaviours and, while they may not be welcome, must be tolerated.
Both Maryam and Robbie emphasised the need for Muslims to be able to challenge the ultra orthodox conservative interpretations of Islam and that those who supported progressive political views needed to support groups such as One Law for All, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and British Muslims for Secular Democracy. However both highlighted the fact that people they might normally have regarded as “Progressive” and of the “Left” more often supported Islamists, who advocate death for apostasy, adultery and homosexuality, rather than oppose them.
Robbie highlighted that this was a problem particularly with the younger generation and was particularly well demonstrated by the concept of “safe space”. The term was originally introduced to indicate that a teacher, educational institution or student body does not tolerate anti-LGBT violence, harassment or hate speech, thereby creating a safe place for all LGBT students. However this became extended to refer to the protection of any individuals who felt marginalized on a university campus from being exposed to views that they would find upsetting. Such a rule makes robust free expression impossible.
Some students involved in political discourse now refuse to listen to or engage with people of opposing points of view on the basis that it violates their entitlement to “safe space”. Some also argue that only LGBT people can be regarded as qualified to discuss LGBT issues and only “black” people are qualified to discuss racism etc. Robbie believes that such ideas lead to “group think” and stereotyping.
Robbie put forward the hypothesis that young people are rebelling against the equalities and human rights agendas pursued by the post war generation. Instead they are advocating rights for groups that they feel have been discriminated against in the past. This means that not all groups (and hence people) have the same rights. He highlighted the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). This was now being labelled as female genital circumcision and regarded as a norm for some Islamic groups. As such some of these “avant garde” groups maintain that it should be regarded as acceptable. Hence one young lady, who had suffered FGM and opposed the practice, was told to shut up and branded a “race traitor” by a group of student “feminists”.
It was suggested that the current student generation has grown up in an era when there was no longer a folk memory of the horrors of the World Wars. Many students no longer appreciate how essential it is to avoid stereotyping and that everyone must be entitled to their human rights as individuals, together with equality before the law. Robbie suggested that the older generation, including our membership, needed to try and engage with the younger generation through social media, even if they felt uncomfortable with it, as advocates for liberty and human rights.