29 April 2010


I was thinking of not bothering to reply to the City University Islamic Society’s riposte to me and Rosie Waterhouse (see below) because I thought I’d already made all the substantive points I wanted to make about the ISoc – and its diatribe was beyond parody.
Private Eye’s Dave Spart couldn’t have managed a more contorted statement of evidence-free denunciation than this (mangled spelling, grammar and punctuation retained):
Despite Ms Waterhouse and Mr Andersons political opportunism, their ideological contradictions expose their conscious ignorance, and some may say, out right hatred for the Islamic way of life and all Muslims that adhere to the principles of their religion.

You what? What “political opportunism”? What on earth is “conscious ignorance”? What’s the evidence for our “out right hatred” (sic) for Islam or for Muslims? How did someone who spells, writes and argues as badly as this get a place at university?

But now the ISoc has posted pictures of Waterhouse and me on its website’s home page with links to the diatribe and is claiming – via a post for a blog promoted by the Independent here – that the university has somehow contrived to prevent members of the ISoc talking to the police about a street fight (or rather two fights) that took place outside the university’s Muslim prayer room last November. Reluctantly, I’ve decided that I’ve got to respond.

First, the ISoc’s diatribe against Waterhouse and me. It’s poisonous and stupid, but there is a trace of rational argument to it, which, put simply, is that we are hypocrites, arguing for suppression of freedom of expression in the name of freedom of expression.

I take that charge seriously. Leave aside the fact that it takes some chutzpah to make it if you believe that individual freedoms are based on a “false premise” and if you refuse to allow journalists to ask the questions they want at a press conference or to record the proceedings. (For the record, I did not use “foul language” at the ISoc press conference last month, nor did I “storm out”: I simply said that a press conference without open questioning was a farce and a mark of cowardice, then left perfectly calmly.)

The important point is that the charge is entirely without foundation. I am, as it happens, an atheist, and if anyone wants a civilised discussion about the existence of a deity or deities I’m more than happy to oblige. But I’m above all a secularist. I think that a person’s religion (or lack of it) should be a private matter, given due respect by law and by custom but with no formal role in public or working life – which includes academia.

Everyone has the right to believe what they want and to engage in whatever religious practices they choose (as long as they are not abusive of others’ rights). Everyone has the right to proselytise.

There is, however, a time and a place for everything. There are rules at the heart of a liberal democratic polity and academic culture, both explicit and implicit, about what one should do, where and when.

I don’t worry much about dress codes – though there are limits, and they are legitimate subjects for debate. Some people think it’s outrageous that I’ve always turned up to work in jeans; some consider that overt displays of religious belief through clothing are beyond the pale. I’m relaxed about what people wear, but even I don’t think it would be acceptable for someone to attend university wearing nothing but a g-string or sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Put the Musulman to the sword”.

The crucial question is where you draw the line – and it’s in no sense Islamophobic to draw it below the full-face veil (even though I wouldn’t do so myself). Most of my Muslim women friends are hostile to it. And even those who aren’t particularly bothered believe that most young women who adopt it in the UK do so primarily as a provocation, an “up yours” political fashion statement.

I’m not provoked, but I do care a great deal about preserving certain norms of liberal university life and of the liberal public sphere more generally. The most important is that of free debate, which to me means that all speaker meetings held on university premises should allow participation by all members of the university unconstrained except by the laws and university rules that prohibit hate-speech and incitement to violence.

Just as a Conservative Club – if we had one at City – would be required to allow members of a Labour Club – ditto – to make vigorously critical contributions from the floor, so the Islamic Society should be required at its speaker meetings to allow any member of the university – male, female, gay, straight, atheist, Jewish, Shia Muslim, Christian, Hindu, whatever – directly to contradict its speakers, to argue that its vision of Islam is narrow and small-minded, to question its apparent enthusiasm for some of the most extreme jihadists on the circuit.

This requires gender desegregation of ISoc meetings, so that male and female participants are treated equally, and an end to meetings set up as propagandist rallies at which no one critical of the demagogue on stage (or on video link) is allowed to speak.

As for facilities for worship, it is entirely reasonable for the university to provide rooms that are shared by different faith groups and timetabled so that all can use them whenever different religious observance rules apply. No faith group should be given privileged treatment, and the university should do nothing to encourage religious separatism.

Finally, there’s the bizarre business of the ISoc claiming that the university somehow conspired to prevent a proper police investigation into the incidents last November outside what was then the Muslim prayer room. According to the ISoc at the time, on two occasions Muslim students were subjected to brutal and unprovoked assaults by local youths after leaving the building. The ISoc said that the assaults, in the second of which four people were reported to have been stabbed, were Islamophobic, and the police said immediately afterwards that they were treating the incidents as racially aggravated crimes. The university promptly provided alternative worship rooms with better security.

Three local youths were arrested – but early this year the police announced that they were not going to prosecute. The reason was simple: they didn’t have sufficient evidence because two of the victims of the alleged assaults and several witnesses had not made statements to them. This had nothing to do with any actions (or inaction) of the university and everything to do with the unwillingness of the alleged victims and other witnesses to co-operate with the police – which in turn had everything to do with the ideology of the ISoc’s leaders. No evidence whatsoever has been produced by anyone that the university or the police behaved in anything but an exemplary manner in investigating the incidents or introducing measures to ensure the safety of students.

No one is discriminating against Muslim students at City University, and the ISoc’s claims to the contrary are a cynical attempt to polarise opinion and recruit the unwary to its leaders’ paranoid separatist current of political Islamism. It is not in any sense “Islamophobic” to say so.

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