There was another free speech skirmish on a UK university campus this week, when the ex-Muslim activist Maryam Namazie was heckled by students at an event at Goldsmiths College.
East London Lines, a online newspaper run by students including many from Goldsmiths, reported the incident after it happened, and have written a follow up in which I am quoted for English PEN.
I want to say a little more in a personal capacity.
The video of the event is available online.
Maryam Namazie gives an interesting and passionate speech. Personally, I would not describe the people who disrupted the event as ‘thugs’ as they did not seem to threaten anyone… but then again, I was not there and did not experience the atmosphere in the room.
Either way, they were certainly disruptive. At one point, one gentleman begins speaking loudly and then, when one of the event organisers loses his temper and swears at the heckler, he and his friends become indignant! It’s a master-class in disruption and, for what it’s worth, a form of censorship. The “heckler’s veto” stops the speech in its tracks.
Not only was Maryam Namazie silenced, but the freedom of expression of the audience was violated too, because they were denied the opportunity to listen. It is crucial to note that most of the Muslim students present1 engaged constructively and politely with the speaker, but their time to do this was cut short because of the actions of a few disruptive people.
Protests can be both a form of free speech and a form of censorship. It is possible to protest and to picket without impeding a speech or shutting down an event. When this happens, it is counter-speech and is to be encouraged. However, when a protest causes the disruption or cancellation of an event, it becomes a way to suppress voices and is illegitimate. It is the responsibility of authorities, be they governments, the police, or university security staff, to facilitate the former and prevent the latter. Goldsmiths University, it’s students union, and the students themselves, have a poor record in making the proper distinction. Other universities are just as confused.
Yet Again, Women’s Voices Are Suppressed
What is striking about the video is that the people disrupting the event are men, and the people who stay to debate Maryam Namazie are women. In behaving childishly, the boys who made a noise and turned off various pieces of electrical equipment reduced the time that the women had to critique Namazie’s speech. In fact, ultimately the only people who were actually silenced on Monday evening were Muslim women: Namazie herself was able to complete her presentation, and it was the Q&A session at the end that was curtailed.
How strange, then, that the Goldsmiths College Feminist Society should issue a statement supporting the disruption of the event by members of the Islamic Society, an action which sought to silence one woman and ended up silencing other women.
— Goldsmiths FemSoc (@goldfemsoc) December 2, 2015
Goldsmiths Feminist Society stands in solidarity with Goldsmiths Islamic Society. We support them in condemning the actions of the Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society and agree that hosting known islamophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.
This blog often gets into the technicalities of free speech and its importance in the abstract. It’s worth taking a moment to speak out against the Goldsmith’s Feminist Society’s claim that Maryam Namazie is an Islamophobe. Say it loudly: this is simply not the case. Namazie is an uncompromising critic of the religion of Islam…. but that is not the same as bigotry towards Muslims. Her right to free speech should not only defended, but encouraged.
I think such categorical mistakes do real harm to the fight for equality. Concepts of intersectionality, and safe spaces are important and useful in ensuring that people who are victims of oppression are recognised as such, and allowed to express themselves freely. By declaring the entire university, (including an event hosted by the Humanist and Secular Society) as a ‘safe space’ the Islamic Society spokesperson has abused the term. In expressing solidarity with a group that claims to have been abused, when in fact it appears to be the group perpetrating the abuse, the Feminist Society are doing nothing for women and everything to keep them silent, out of a misplaced sense of solidarity.
1. Of course I don’t know exactly who in the video is Muslim and who was not, but the audience included many people wearing hijabs, and many people who identified themselves as Muslim, so assumptions in this regard are reasonable.