By Faisal Hanjra - President of the Federation of Student Islamic Societies (FOSIS)
Do you want to be mentally imprisoned, or mentally free? Freedom of expression is high on the agenda paper for campuses, and there are those who are attacking it.
As the lead body for Muslim students, we stand firmly by the law, affirming a belief in freedom of expression, except that which incites to violence. FOSIS has always championed the notion of legitimate freedom of expression as a platform for discussion and debate - with Universities, whose students have long been at the forefront of change, holding an important role in leading this.
John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty’ said “If any opinion is compelled to
silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility”. I believe that at the heart of the desire for freedom of speech is the pursuit of truth – and I believe we need to be able to hear the truth whether we like it or not. The Greek philosopher Socrates once referred to himself as the midwife; by that he meant he considered himself someone who was able to safely deliver the truth by initiating dialectic, debate and discussion. Then I remember the story of Malcolm X when he came to British Universities in 1964 – hosted by FOSIS. The Manchester Student Union initially tried to bar him from speaking as it was their policy to bar “extremists” - but when convinced of the reality of this great individual, free speech prevailed – and he went on speak powerfully to a “jam-packed audience” on a day described as when the University “came to a standstill”. Then, racism was rife. But today, with the help of people like Malcolm X, ethnic minorities have rights and this would not have been the case if voices such as his were silenced.
Many, like FOSIS, continue to resist those that seek to curb freedom of expression. Today groups like the Union of Jewish Students dangerously and irresponsibly attack the right of speakers to speak on campus that do not bode well with their political agenda. They do this to curb the exposure and criticism of the Israeli government’s persistent persecution of the Palestinian people – and try to discredit those voices that speak the truth loudest. In a similar vein there is a concerted agenda by some, like the Centre for Social Cohesion, to discriminate mainstream Islam and Muslims because they’re seen to be incompatible with their far-right version of Islam – rejecting the rich diversity of Muslim traditions that we uphold and respect.
By the method of a hysterical attitude towards speech on campus, such groups sponsor inaccurate and out of context misrepresentation of the words of positive, popular and ultimately lawful speakers and the Islamic Societies that host them.
Dangerously - by doing this they are whipping up fear amongst ordinary students on campus – including Jewish students - and their miscalculation has once again made efforts towards reconciliation between Muslim and Jewish students yet more difficult. Such irresponsibility took centre stage at an NUS-led joint-fringe meeting with us at the NUS Conference – a proposal we put forward to genuinely listen, to discuss with respect with each other the issue of speech on campus – but perhaps unsurprisingly there was no attempt at dialogue, rather a reel of attacks on Muslim students and Islamic Societies. One could expect better with all the challenges of the gains of the far-right in our communities and physical attacks on Muslims, with stoked tension against Muslim students as well as Jewish students. This could quite possibly have been a groundbreaking moment where we could have been onto something constructive – but no – mature co-operation doesn’t cut it in the world of Zionist politics, and the UJS made their intentions clear in their post-Conference statement.
Such irresponsible attacks of the UJS are not new. Notably in 2005 the former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, a champion of minorities and an individual elected by the masses, was sought to be banned by the UJS from attending a fringe meeting hosted by FOSIS. Attacks on freedom of expression more recently include Abu Usama labelled as a preacher of hate using claims made on a discredited “Dispatches” documentary – which were refuted by the speaker and the speaker cleared of any wrong doing by the authorities. And similarly Abdul Raheem Green who not only has held public talks to counter jihadist ideology, but teaches Muslims how to engage positively with non-Muslims. Now Douglas Murray has decided to have a strop following the NUS Conference because the UJS uninvited him from the fringe meeting, attacking FOSIS in the process. We have debated Doug before and have no problem debating him in the future. But more than a single group said that they did not think he was a suitable candidate to host for this event – and the UJS made their decision. Perhaps he was sold the wrong information, or perhaps a little insecurity on his part is understandable considering his widespread discrediting. Indeed, in contrary to the UJS claim of exposing FOSIS, our views have always been widely known – and we stand by them.
In the face of all this, the positive, purposeful, energetic and engaging work of Islamic Societies continues – from the unmatched charitable work for orphans we have done, to providing spaces for prayer, to teaching about the Islamic faith from diverse Islamic voices, to campaigning on issues from the environment and Islam to Palestine, and empowering Muslim students towards mainstream political engagement.
Looking to the future, we must protect freedom of expression and we have a robust and sufficient framework in the law to do just this. Judgements on speakers must not be in the hands of emotional students, rather they must continue to be based on solid evidence and be subject to the law. Thankfully FOSIS is in constant engagement with Universities, the government, the media and student bodies campaigning for the right to ensure there is positive action on the issue of freedom of expression. FOSIS have succeeded where it matters most and when the vast majority of political, social and legal actors have not curbed freedom of expression, it begs to differ why then the likes of the UJS and Douglas Murray seek otherwise. Is it really their intention to protect freedom of expression or is to stifle the freedom of expression which disagrees with their ideology and mindset? Our message is clear - don't let people who don't want you to hear challenging ideas ruin the pivotal role of Universities – let campuses deliver truth and change, and let our minds run free.