The last few weeks made for frightening reading, particularly for those who are interested in the right to freely express one’s views at university, supposed centres of free thinking and intellectualism.
Iranian secular human rights activist Maryam Nawazie was initially refused a platform by Warwick Students’ Union, due to fears of “insulting religion”, which makes it baffling that they are okay with having an Atheist Society on their campus. At Oxford, their student union banned the ‘No Offence’ student publication from its Freshers Fayre, for fear of, you guessed it, causing offence. And there’s more. Manchester Students’ Union no-platformed controversial lesbian feminist Julie Bindel, who, although controversial, should never be banned, for reasons I will highlight below.
If student unions nationally were coherent and consistent in this practice, then my frustration would be limited, albeit still present. However, student unions have given the thumbs up to the following people been giving talks to students:
- Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad, who instructed students at the University of Westminster about the ‘correct’ method for FGM clitoral removal
- Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a man who tried to blow up an airliner carrying 290 people, was given a platform at UCL two years ago.
- Tarik Mahri, member of Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, was elected as the SU President of the University of Westminster in 2011.
These are just three examples that I could cite and there are many more in my arsenal. The universities’ greatest concern is that many unions are now opposed to certain speakers because of fear of offending a tiny minority of students, yet they have formed an unholy alliance with Islamist forces, in particular in London. And with respect to NUS, working with jihadist-rights group CAGE is on their manifesto.
Do I seek to ban the above speakers and demand the overturning of the decisions which I am aggrieved with? Absolutely not. Only in circumstances where racial hatred and the incitement of violence towards an individual or group, should a speaker be banned. However, people who harbour extremist views, such as the support of FGM, or sympathies with far-right EDL policies, must be challenged and engaged with. By banning a speaker, you increase the hysteria around them. When a moderate speaker such as Nawazie is banned, you provoke disillusionment with student unions from the majority of students, who deem stifling a human rights activist’s voice unacceptable. When a non-violent extremist speaker is banned, such as Adam Walker, the BNP Leader who was blocked from this very campus last year, you deprive students from wanting to neutralise these extremist views, and the power of civic discourse can do this, instead of banning.
By banning a speaker, you increase the hysteria around them
I remember one example of this vividly, when the BBC decided controversially to give Nick Griffin, ex-BNP leader a platform on Question Time. All of us would find his views deeply disturbing, as did the audience. However, the audience did not shy away from this opportunity to ridicule him. In fact, the collective energy of the other panellists and audience on that night crushed the evil ideology that he was advocating. Where are the BNP now? Estimates put their membership into the 100s, and it was that episode of Question Time that set the wheels spinning for the fascist party’s decline.
Why do SUs seem obsessed with wrapping their students in cotton wool? Being offended is a negative consequence of living in a free society. However, the consequences of living in an unfree society would be far worse. Are they scared that an extremist speaker on campus would increase students sympathy with their views? Are they worried that if a secular civil rights activist speaks, that students will go out and incite racial hatred? By assuming such things, you underestimate the intelligence of Global Top 100 university students.
Being offended is a negative consequence of living in a free society
To sum up, we should not deliberately go out of our way to offend people for the sake of it, however, if a student wants to practice what they believe in, then we must empower him or her to do so, where violence is not incited. We need to be bolder in standing against the authoritarian ‘No Platform Policy’, that all SUs are bound to abide by and give student societies the independence to invite who they want. By doing so, universities can be centres of free speech again, of which they should always be. There are many things that I could be offended by, but no loud minority should ever be allowed to deprive others of hearing an alternative opinion. And that is why my newly-founded society: Quilliam Society will be campaigning for the right to debate.