The public debate around three high-profile cases related to academic freedom in UK universities has exposed the contradictions and double standards at the centre of this row, the result of which will be nothing less than a hierarchy of protected speech and the right to hurt and offend some members of society more than others.
It goes without saying that no one has the right not to be offended, not least within a university setting where ideas and beliefs that shape a person’s worldview and identity are forcefully challenged and questioned. Likewise, no one has the right not to feel hurt or expect others to stop questioning their political beliefs because of those feelings of hurt.
Muslims growing up in the West ought to know this better than most. In the toxic environment generated by the “war on terror” symbols of their faith and identity have been attacked and ridiculed under the guise of free speech. “It’s not Islam that is being mocked and denigrated but Islamism,” was the constant refrain of sections of the academia, politicians, thinks tanks, right-wing media figures and commentators and far right activists, when challenged about their hateful and misguided views. United only by their hostility to “Islamism”, so they say, an industry grew that was allowed to spread hate and misinformation about Islam and Muslims presented as opposition to its political version.Most Muslims growing up in the West and constantly told that they are responsible for terrorism carried out in the name of their faith and challenged about their beliefs with equal regularity, realise that it is a small price to pay for living in a free and democratic society. Similar charge is not only unlikely to be made against members of other faith group, but they would also be met with accusations of racism for holding an entire religious community responsible for the horrific acts of a tiny minority.
My recounting of the toxic culture under which Muslims in the West have lived is not as unusual as it may seem. The current row over academic freedom involving three university professors shows that there is a hierarchy when it comes to offending someone’s political beliefs and identity; there is a limit to the “hurt” one can inflict through interrogation of someone’s worldview. The belief that “no idea is above scrutiny, and no people are beneath dignity” only holds true when it comes to Islam though often it seems denigration of the faith of nearly two billion of the world’s population is designed to strip Muslims of dignity.
MEMO readers will be familiar with the details around the sacking of one of the three professors, David Miller, who is at the centre of row over academic freedom. Miller was fired earlier this month by the University of Bristol. The 57-year-old spent 15 years tracking the nefarious effects of the fossil fuel lobby, the pharmaceutical lobby, the tobacco lobby, as well as state lobbies that promote Islamophobia, such as those of Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). His work in uncovering the structures of unaccountable power threatening human rights and democracy had made him a target.
What’s interesting about his sacking is that Miller was dismissed even though an official investigation found no evidence of anti-Semitism on his part. This, however, did not stop pro-Israel commentators from retrofitting a narrative about his sacking that tried to show that it was anti-Semitism that led to his dismissal when in fact that was not the case. If Miller was not sacked for anti-Semitism, then what is the real reason?
In its dismissal of Miller, Bristol University said it had “a duty of care to all students and the wider University community” and that the professor had failed to “meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff,” which appeared to be the university’s equivalent of the all too familiar phrase heard from the UK Labour, “bringing the party into disrepute,” when it failed to provide evidence of anti-Semitism for dismissing members.
Miller’s crime it seems is nothing more than causing pain and hurt to some Jewish students whose political beliefs and identity is deeply connected Israel, a state prominent human rights groups say is carrying out the crime of apartheid. Pointing that out and discussing the ideology at the root of racism endured by millions of non-Jews in historic Palestine is a duty, let alone a subject that should be challenged and discussed at universities, no matter whose identity is deeply entwined with the occupation state.
This empathy shown to certain students was not, however, extended when the hurt and feelings of Muslim pupils became the centre of a row over academic freedom at the same university during the same period.
Nearly 3,800 people signed a petition urging the University of Bristol to take swift action against Law School Professor Steven Greer. The petition against Greer said that he “frequently expresses views in his classes that can be deemed Islamophobic, bigoted and divisive.” The petition cited several examples of alleged bigotry towards Muslims. Nevertheless, in a ruling that has angered the university’s Islamic society (BRICSOC), the University of Bristol concluded that Greer was not guilty of discrimination. But unlike Miller, who despite being exonerated of making hate speech against Jewish students was sacked, Greer was allowed to remain in his post.
The third case highlighting the hypocrisy that runs through our public discourse on academic freedom involves Kathleen Stock. The philosophy professor at Sussex University, has faced calls to be sacked after becoming embroiled in a debate over the transgender issue.
Unlike the Greer and, to a lesser extent the case involving Miller, reactions to calls for Stock to be sacked have generated a national debate. Question Time, a weekly show on the BBC, discussed the case as did every major news agency. The Economist even ran an article under the heading “Academic freedom in British universities is under threat.” The article mentioned that after the Sussex University row started to make the headlines Lady Falkner, a cross-bench peer who is head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, an official watchdog, and who is married to an academic, wrote a letter to the Times saying that “university is a place where we are exposed to ideas and learn to debate with each other.” Students, she says, “do not have a right not to be made uncomfortable. They can’t say that because they feel uncomfortable, someone should be fired.”
I suspect that much of the reason why Stock’s case has become a national debate unlike Greer and Miller is because the campaign against the philosophy professor is one associated generally with the left and therefore chimes perfectly with the Tory government’s effort to push back against what it calls “cancel culture” at universities. The perception is that left-wing activists are “de-platforming” right wing academics and public figures at universities.
Paradoxically, at the same time as the UK government has been demanding an end to “cancel culture” – chiefly attempts by students to deny a platform to racist and transphobic speakers – the Tories have not only ignored the de-platforming of academics critical of Israel, they have applied pressure on universities through threat of funding cuts, to force them to adopt a controversial definition of anti-Semitism that poses an even greater risk to free speech and academic freedom.
If we prize free speech and believe that academic freedom is a fundamental feature of our modern free society, we cannot be selective over which religion, political beliefs and identities can be subjected to rigorous and at times hurtful scrutiny, much less erect a checkpoint to its practice by imposing a controversial definition of anti-Semitism.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.