You can sign the petition here
Call on NUS to reform free-speech suppressing ‘safe space’ policies
“Freedom of expression for all, including non-believers, is a basic human right and one that universities of all places must unequivocally defend.
We feel that the current policy prescriptions the NUS espouses and which many SUs have adopted as a result, have consistently been shown to be at least ineffective and in many cases, actively suppressive of freedom of expression …”
I heard about this petition through my friend Chris French, himself a Professor at the University where these events took place, and signed it with the comment “No space, least of all a University space, should be free from disturbing ideas.” This morning, Prof. French confirmed to me that the account in the text of the petition, below, is generally correct, and gave permission to quote him to that effect. I am therefore inviting those of you who share our concerns about the erosion and suppression of free speech on University campuses to sign the petition here, and to publicise it to your own networks.
The petition is in the form of an open letter to the National Union of Students, and runs as follows:
Following the events at Goldsmiths University on Monday 30th of November, where members and friends of Goldsmiths Islamic Society (ISoc) tried and failed to intimidate, in order to silence, Iranian-born ex-Muslim and human rights activist Maryam Namazie from speaking on “Blasphemy, Apostasy and Free Expression in the age of ISIS” at our invitation, Goldsmiths University Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (GUASHsoc) calls on the National Union of Students to respond.
For those who have not seen media reports, the ISoc president sent the GUASHsoc a thinly veiled threat demanding the talk was cancelled the night before, on the grounds that it supposedly violated the SU’s ‘safe space’ policy. When the event went ahead, some of the ISoc members and associates aggressively disrupted the event, continuously shouting and trying to intimidate Maryam and other attendees, turning off her projector and one disruptor allegedly made a death threat towards a friend of Maryam’s.
This debacle shows, ‘safe spaces’ are being used to silence dissent and stifle free expression. Whilst ‘safe spaces’ are legitimate options for those who have been victimised and discriminated against, universities by their very definition cannot be ‘safe spaces’. Few would disagree that, if anywhere, universities should be bastions of freedom of thought and ideas, but for this to hold any meaning whatsoever, they must be bastions for the freedom of all ideas – regardless of how popular they may be or whether they are deemed ‘controversial’ or even offensive, by some. Offence, may act as an impetus for argument, but it is not, in and of itself, an argument, nor grounds for suppression. It is essential to be able to hear ideas that make us uncomfortable; this is the essence of tolerance. There should be no ‘safe spaces’ for ideas to go unchallenged.
The claims often made against Maryam and other speakers alike, seem to insist that, because there is a climate of hatred towards Muslims from the far-right, we should not allow what some consider offensive criticism of Islam as a religious ideology, like any other. In the incident at Goldsmiths, the Feminist and LGBTQI+ societies shared anti-free speech sentiments by making statements of solidarity with the Isoc leadership’s position and as such, seemed to tacitly condone their actions. This is a response rooted in a convoluted and solipsistic notion of regressive identity politics that wrongly conflates criticisms of Islam as an ideology or Islamism as a political movement, with inciting hatred towards Muslims. It fails to see the dissent within minority communities and also implicitly assumes that a diverse body of people who follow the Islamic faith are all offended or intolerant of Maryam’s opinions. As was evident in the meeting itself, some of the women members of Isoc did not condone the intimidating behaviour of the male members; some Muslims in the audience apologised to Maryam for their behaviour making it clear that not all Muslims agree with this assumption. Also, rather than having any real concern for safe spaces, the ISoc leadership used this policy in order to make the event unsafe for all those who disagreed with them.
Such mischaracterisations have led to the abuse of ‘safe space’ policies in the past and a culture of suppression at the university towards views that are not in line with the SU or, as in this case, other politically oriented societies. This is a gross subversion. What is more important however, is that this incident is not isolated, nor is the response.
What must be more clearly stressed is that, whilst non-violent protest and challenging ideas should be actively encouraged at universities, what cannot be tolerated is making an attempt to stop speakers from speaking entirely, unless they are directly inciting violence. Whether this be through vague ‘blasphemy laws’ with little to no basis in established law, which exist in numerous SU external speaker policies or whether it be through ‘safe space’ policies, which often have similar rules open to abuse and are sometimes used for intimidation, as in this case. There are a plethora of cases similar to ours at other universities and with other speakers, where freedom of expression has been suppressed in all manner of forms.
SU’s responses have typically suggested that the issue lies in the misuse of these policies by individuals. Clearly, because this is a recurrent theme at universities, this is a structural problem which enables this to keep occurring. It is the policies themselves that need to be amended so as to ensure this does not continue to happen. Whilst our SU has not officially responded yet in regards to consequences from the events of Monday 30 November, we fear that a similar dismissive response will occur with no policy changes.
In the same way that we cannot champion free expression for some, but not others, we cannot champion the rights of those who believe and not champion the rights of those who choose not to believe. Freedom of expression for all, including non-believers, is a basic human right and one that universities of all places must unequivocally defend.
We feel that the current policy prescriptions the NUS espouses and which many SUs have adopted as a result, have consistently been shown to be at least ineffective and in many cases, actively suppressive of freedom of expression and we strongly urge the NUS, and Goldsmiths SU, to reform their policies.
As with similar events where External speaker policies and ‘safe space’ policies have been used to try to silence freedom of expression, public outcry has had a strong influence on the response of SUs, therefore, we are making this statement public but will also be pursuing formal channels of complaint to the NUS and we encourage them to respond in regards to further action.
We thank all those who have sent messages of support for our society including Muslims, ex-Muslims, believers and non-believers, students, lecturers, members of the public, secular organisations, religious organisations, people of different political persuasions, sexual orientations, genders, races and nationalities. We urge them to join us in pressuring the NUS to protect the right to free expression and reform the ‘safe space’ policies that are stifling free expression.
Thank you all for your support.
Asher A-F (GUASHsoc president)
Image from petition website
“And if he insists on being killed … then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it’s done.”
Sheikh Kamal El Mekki, who expounds with apparent approval the law on beheading ex-Muslims, spoke this February at Trinity College Dublin. Maryam Namazie, equal law campaigner, ex-Muslim and prominent critic of political Islam, was, after agreeing to speak in March, presented with conditions impossible to accept. We know from Trinity News, the excellent student newspaper, that El Mekki’s talk went ahead without restrictions despite concerns expressed by the President of the Students Union. We know from Maryam’s blog that her talk was cancelled, by the College, not her, and that she remains eager to speak there.
An earlier version of this post appeared on 3 Quarks Daily, and was sent on Monday March 30 to the three TDC staff named here, with invitation to comment. None has chosen to do so. So today, April 6, I am sending them this version.
El Mekki is on video (embedded in the Trinity newspaper report; also circulating under the curious title “The apostate – funny”), at an event organised by the AlMaghrib Institute (of which more below) in July 2011, describing how he explained to a Christian missionary the law about apostasy. The missionary was complaining because of his lack of success in Morocco, which he attributed to the law  against apostasy. In reply, El Mekki, visibly amused at the missionary’s predicament, draws an analogy between apostasy and treason (a justification that when examined makes matters worse), and goes on to explain
It’s not like somewhere you heard someone leaves Islam and you just go get him and stuff like that. First of all it’s done by the authorities, there are procedures and steps involved. First of all they talk to him, yeah, about, yanni, the scholars refute any doubt that he has on the issue, they spend days with him refuting and arguing with him, trying to convince him. Then they might even, yanni, threaten him with the sword and tell him ‘You need to repent from this because if you don’t you repent you will be killed.’ And if he insists on being killed that means really, really believing in that. And then, after the procedures take their toll, and then at the end, by the authority of the ruling body, it’s done.
“Yanni,” a common interection in Arabic, means “kind of.” I wonder how one “kind of” threatens someone with the sword. However, we are left with the impression that El Mekki would be opposed to recent well-publicised Jihadist beheadings, not out of any objection to beheading as such, but because of failure to conform to the proper procedures.
An on-line search also led me to here, where you can see El Mekki explaining why amputation is a more humane form of punishment than imprisonment.
Sheikh El Mekki’s response to criticism was reported by the student newspaper. He said that the clip had been taken out of context and was an excerpt from a 39-hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice, and wrote in response to questioning
[In the clip,] I first deal with the issue from the historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practice. You will be surprised how many people I’ve met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who thought they had the right to carry out that law in America…. I believe the best way to stop extremism is through moderate Muslims and Imams speaking against it.
I leave it to readers to evaluate this claim to be a moderate in the light of his views on amputation and beheading. For the full text of El Mekki’s statement, see Footnote .
El Mekki spoke at Trinity on February 25 at an event, open to all, jointly organised by the Muslim Students Association and a body called the alMaghrib Institute; for one of many critiques from within Islam of this Insititute’s strict Salafism, see this, from the al Sunna Forum. (Salafism is a rigid, fundamentalist, anti-intellectual form of Islam, closely related to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.) It was the alMaghrib Institute that had earlier hosted his remarks on beheading and amputation. It has branches in 12 countries, including the US, the UK, Ireland, Australia and Canada. and offers its own degree and diplomas, the curriculum for which includes a module on “Signs of the last day”, which are “All Around Us”.
Trinity News reported that eight students had expressed concerns over El Mekki’s visit, among them the President of the Student Union, and an ex-Muslim student who is not willing to be named because of the implications for his own safety. However, Joseph O’Gorman, strategic development officer for the Central Societies Committee (CSC), told McGlacken-Byrne that he “cannot see why there can even be a discussion about cancelling the event or not”. According to the CSC web page , Mr O’Gorman
is responsible for the development of the CSC’s long term strategy. The SDO [Strategic Development officer, i.e., currently, O’Gorman] ensures that the support that the CSC gives societies matches their needs as much as possible. The SDO works with the College Civic Development Officer and the Dean of Students to ensure that College neither forgets the importance of societies to the well-being of students and of the College nor that societies exist for students not for College’s own strategic aims. The SDO is responsible for the training and mentoring of the CSC Executive and Officers.
Maryam Namazie (shown R at the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain’s 5th anniversary meeting) is an outspoken ex-Muslim, vocal opponent of the creeping institutionalisation of Sharia law in British society, and well-known activist on behalf of freedom of thought, women’s rights, and human rights in general. (I have written here before about her role in the successful campaign to persuade London’s Law Society to withdraw its ill-judged guidance on the drafting of Sharia-based wills.) She was invited to speak at Trinity College Dublin on March 23rd, and the event was openly advertised by Maryam and on the inviting society’s Facebook page.
After she had already bought her ticket, she was contacted by that society, to tell her that Trinity was imposing conditions on her talk. In Maryam’s words on her own blog and also on the One Law for All website,
I’ve just been informed, however, that college security (why security?) has claimed that the event would show the college is “one-sided” and would be “antagonising” to “Muslim students”; they threatened to cancel my talk. After further consultation with college management, they have decided to “allow” the event to go ahead with the following conditions:
* All attendants of the event must be 1) Trinity students and 2) members of the society hosting the talk.
* For “balance”, they require that a moderator host the event; Prof. Andrew Pierce of the Irish School of Ecumenics has kindly agreed to do so.
I, however, will not be submitting to any conditions, particularly since such conditions are not usually placed on other speakers.
I intend to speak on Monday as initially planned without any restrictions and conditions and ask that TCD give me immediate assurances that I will be able to do so.
Dr Andrew Pierce is an Assistant Professor in Ecumenics, and Course Co-Ordinator of the M.Phil. in Intercultural Theology & Interreligious Studies. It is not clear whether he was aware that he had been invited to moderate behind Maryam’s back. If he was not aware, he should say so. If he was aware, he has betrayed his academic calling by colluding in this disgraceful episode.
It is worth reiterating that, although the ostensive issue was security, Noel McCann, the TCD Facilities Officer, told one of the students involved in organising the event that Maryam’s talk would (unlike El Mekki’s?) show the college as “one-sided” and would be “antagonising” to “Muslim students”. He also asked how “could she come and say whatever she wants without a moderator” and “with half the world knowing about it”. He also threatened to cancel the talk and said that he was meeting with “highest management of Trinity” to discuss whether the event would be “allowed” to go ahead.
On learning that Maryam refused to accept these conditions, Trinity revoked the invitation, while leaving the student society involved and Trinity News under the impression that it was Maryam who had withdrawn.
In truth, Maryam remains eager to speak at TCD, as initially arranged and without imposed conditions, and has said so repeatedly.
So there we have it. According to TCD’s criteria, it is legitimate for a college society to host, at an open meeting, someone who gives every impression of approving the idea of cutting Maryam’s head off, provided due procedures are followed. However, Maryam herself is such a dangerous character that her presence requires a moderator, and the well-being of students demands that only members of the society that had invited her be exposed to her opinions.
I am sending Prof Pierce, Joseph O’Gorman, and Noel McCann copies of this piece, and invite their comments.
Disclosure: I have met Maryam and we have corresponded several times. I have not met or corresponded with any of the other individuals named here.
1] Laws Criminalizing Apostasy in Selected Jurisdictions (Law Library of Congress, May 2014) reports that
Morocco does not impose the death penalty against apostates under the provisions of its Penal Code. However, in April 2013, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars issued a religious decree (fatwa) that Moroccan Muslims who leave Islam must be sentenced to death. Religious decrees are significant because Islam is the official state religion under article 3 of the Moroccan Constitution of 2011.54 Additionally, under article 41 of the Constitution, the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars “is the sole instance enabled [habilitée] to comment [prononcer] on religious consultations (Fatwas).”
Apostasy is explicitly punishable by death according to the legal codes of Afghanistan, Brunei, Mauritania, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In Maryam’s native Iran,
While Iranian law does not provide for the death penalty for apostasy, the courts can hand down that punishment, and have done so in previous years, based on their interpretation of Sharia’a law and fatwas (legal opinions or decrees issued by Islamic religious leaders).
2] This, posted by a student on Facebook, is the fullest version I could find of El Mekki’s explanation:
That clip you watched was a five-minute excerpt from a 39 hour course in which apostasy is dealt with twice. I first deal with the issue from a historical standpoint as you have seen, and then I revisit the issue for the sole purpose of explaining to students that apostasy law is not something that we advocate, nor is it something that we are trying to revive or practise. You will be surprised how many people I’ve met while I was the chaplain at George Mason University, who felt they had the right to carry out that law! I believe that part of my responsibility as an educator is to work against any aspect that may lead to the radicalisation of Muslims. I have an entire course where one of the main themes is that bringing Sharia Law to the west has never been one of the objectives of Islam. At the end of the day, you find yourself attacked by Jihadi’s [sic] and extremists on the one end, and misquoted by those who have other agendas on the other. I make the above points crystal clear to students, but I have no control over which clips people isolate and pulled on the internet; and definitely no control over those who purposely take them out of context! Extremism is something that needs to be dealt with, yet those who deal with it in the Muslim communities are misquoted and made to appear as the ones that should be stopped from speaking. Doesn’t seem conducive to ending the problems that plague us! I will continue to be vocal and speak and critique what is wrong. I have not spared any one or group that advocates violence and that is what all our [the al-Maghribi Institute’s] instructors continue to do.
(I would invite readers to watch the clips in question, if they wish to evaluate this explanation.)
Update: in November 2014, under pressure of public opinion, the Law Society withdrew the offending advice note.
That’s my friend Ramin Forghani from Iran, standing next to Maryam Namazie, carrying a placard outside the Law Society offices in London. He knows that what he is doing, and what he is about to say, could get him killed.
Imagine that you want to write your will according to sharia law, which in England you are perfectly entitled to do. You can go to your friendly neighbourhood Imam to discuss the matter, ask him to explain what is actual law, and what mere custom, talk about the various different interpretations available), and consider how best to apply them to your own family circumstances. This could be quite a long conversation; there are at least six main traditional schools of sharia jurisprudence, to say nothing of modernisers like Musawah who seek to accommodate Islamic practice to present-day principles of equality.
Or you can go to your solicitor, who handles all your ordinary legal business. And if that solicitor follows the guidance issued by the Law Society, he will simply tell you that sons inherit twice as much as daughters, adopted and illegitimate children do not inherit at all, neither do divorced spouses, and marital status is defined according to religious marriage and not according to the law of the land. Tough, by the way, on your orphaned grandkids; in the Law Society’s version of sharia law “it is not possible to inherit under Sharia rules by a deceased relative.”
The Law Society has no more authority to issue guidance on sharia law than your dentist has to issue guidance on backache. In doing so, it has committed the typical outsider’s error of regarding the most uncompromising form of a religion as the most authentic. It has taken sides in a fierce internal debate within Islam, where it has neither competence nor standing nor expertise. It cites as an authority the Islam Channel, which has allowed presenters to say that rape is legitimate within marriage and that a husband can beat his wife, although knocking a tooth out is going too far. It also cites the Salafist Dr. Muhammad al-Jibaly, whose web page on inheritance incidentally advocates lashing for fornicators and stoning for adulterers. Its specific guidance reflects Dr. al-Jibaly’s views, despite the fact that these are far from universally accepted within the UK Islamic community and indeed, by Muslim lawyers practising within the UK. On the same web page Dr. al-Jibaly also forbids, except within marriage, “anything leading to zina [fornication], such as looking, touching, flirting, kissing, and so on.”
Even if it were the case (as it is not) that al-Jibaly’s views on sharia were beyond dispute, it is not the job of the Law Society to give out guidance in how to apply his pernicious principles. And even if the guidance were thoroughly praiseworthy, which it clearly is not, it is wrong in principle and dangerous in practice to graft any kind of religious law onto the practice of general law, which is the only role of solicitors in a secular and plural society such as ours.
There is worse to come. The Law Society has an event scheduled in June, and already sold out, as a forerunner to future seminar series on Islamic law. This event will count towards solicitors’ mandatory hours of Continuous Professional Development, and will offer sharia training on family and children, among other topics.
No wonder, then, that on Monday 28 April One Law for All and other organizations protested outside the Law Society’s offices in London. And that Change.org is carrying a formal petition to the Society, which you can sign here. But what has this got to do with Ramin? Let him speak for himself:
I’m here on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society. I know that the legal system in Scotland is separate from England and Wales. But I’m Iranian and I well know that what happens when the barrier between Religion and legal system gets destroyed. Iran sharia law sentences apostates like me to death and now the Law Society has written guidance for it. Secularism acknowledges religious freedom and that means keeping a distinct barrier between it and the legal system. That’s a shame that in this country which is famous for secularism, the Law Society has done guidance on sharia law, a religious system. The Law Society is not in a position to write guidance for sharia as a religious legal system. Even if it was, there is a huge debate on sharia law in Muslim countries at the moment and the Law Society has chosen the most outdated, the most reactionary version of it. Shame on them.
Comment is superfluous.
* * *
For more background, and to join the petition to the Law Society to stop promoting discrimination, see here. The One Law for All letter to the Law Society, with list of signatories, is here. For more on the Law Society’s future plans in this area, see here. For the extremely revealing correspondence between the Law Society and Lawyers’ Secular Society, and further background, see here and links therein. Disclosure: Ramin and I are both on the board of Scottish Secular Society. An earlier version of this posting appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.
 Salafis are an extreme literalist sect, often identified with the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia, who do not acknowledge or follow any of the four schools of thought to which other Sunni Muslims adhere.