A staunch critic of the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism is reportedly being considered by the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to become the first ever Director for Free Speech on university campuses. Favoured by Israel, the IHRA has become a major fault line between advocates of free speech and supporters of the apartheid state.
Reports cited in Jewish News revealed that University of Cambridge philosopher, Dr Arif Mohuiddin Ahmed, is Sunak’s favoured candidate. A prominent “new atheist”, Ahmed was awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2021 for services to education. A year later, he became the Commissioner to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a non-departmental public body responsible for the promotion and enforcement of UK’s equality and non-discrimination laws.
Over recent years, Ahmed has been a feature within the debate circuit where he can be seen locking horns with prominent theists, including Muslims. The Cambridge Professor has repeatedly warned that freedom of speech is under threat, a trend which he argues has major implications for universities. Ahmed believes universities should be an environment where “you can pretty much say anything you like.”
Like every new atheist, Ahmed is as close as one can get to a free speech absolutist. Though he has defended this position countless times, usually in opposition to Islam, in recent years the philosopher was seen making several public interventions in defence of free speech, including against the UK government’s effort to impose the IHRA on universities. Ahmed’s intervention was a major contrast to the way the battle for free speech has been conducted in recent history. Over the past two decades, culture warriors used the “defence of free speech” argument to rally against Islam. New atheists, like the late Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, spearhead what they believed was a civilisational clash between intolerant Muslims and freedom loving West.
The culture war that ensued went hand in hand with Western military interventions which followed the launch of the so called “war on terror” in 2001. For free speech warriors like Hitchens, the main battle line between the forces of good and evil was freedom of expression. It is what defines the West from the rest, they would claim. Free speech, as far as they were concerned, is the pre-eminent virtue.
It is fair to say that the influence of new atheists on the cultural front is not what it used be, just as it is fair to suggest that the debate on free speech has moved on from its crude manifestation of Islam and the West that was typical during early decades of the war on terror. Culture war has taken on a new form, one that is centred around identity politics. The phenomenon, argue advocates of free speech, represents not only a threat to universities but also the culture of freedom and tolerance that some believe sets the West apart from the rest.
The right and the left have exploited divisions fuelled by identity politics in advancing their own narrow agendas, often to the detriment of society. Values and principals, such as freedom of expression, which was elevated to the status of standard bearer of Western civilisation in the previous iteration of the culture war, have been displaced from their pre-eminent position by the claims and demands of individual groups concerning the feelings and emotions about their identity.
It should not be controversial to suggest that the IHRA has been advanced precisely because the current cultural moment in the West is locked in identity politics. If Zionism and Israel is part of someone’s identity, why should it not be protected in the same way as other protected categories such race, religion and sex? The IHRA makes this claim in its definition of anti-Semitism by conflating criticism of Israel and the ideology of Zionism with anti-Jewish racism. Seven of the eleven illustrative examples makes this conflation.
Nevertheless, no matter how much Israel and advocates of the apartheid state insist, political ideologies should never be considered protected categories. Should critics of political Islam be described as racist Islamophobes? For many Muslims, the creation of an Islamic state is deeply rooted in their identity and sense of self. As I argued before, Zionism and Islamism have enough in common as political ideologies that if criticism of one is deemed “anti-Semitic”, then criticism of the other should be regarded as Islamophobic.
The assault on free speech that would follow from extending protection to political ideologies is most likely why Ahmed, who has spoken out against some of the fall-out of the identity war, “strongly” opposed the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. The Cambridge Professor voiced his objection in 2021, when former Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, ramped up pressure on universities to adopt the discredited definition. His demand was seen as clear an indication as any that Zionism, unlike other political ideologies, including Islamism and Hindu nationalism, was being granted privileged status.
“I am (like the UCU) strongly against Gavin Williamson’s requirement that universities adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism,” said Ahmed, mentioning the University and College Union (UCU) which strongly opposed Williamson’s intervention to grant Israel and Zionism a special status in universities.
“This ‘definition’ is nothing of the kind,” Ahmed added. “Adopting it obstructs perfectly legitimate defence of Palestinian rights. As such it chills free speech on a matter of the first importance. I hope the Secretary of State reconsiders the need for it; but these new free speech duties ought to rule it out in any case.”
Despite repeated warnings against IHRA’s adoption, including by its main drafter Kenneth Stern, the controversial definition has been endorsed by government bodies and political parties across Europe. In all likelihood, the hostile crackdown on pro-Palestine activism that has followed since, would have led to Ahmed’s fellow traveller, Hitchens – considered one of the greatest champions of free speech in the West – smeared as an anti-Semite. The late author and famous new atheist harboured strong animosity towards Zionism and once called it a “stupid idea”.
Speaking in a US talk show, Charlie Rose, Hitchens said: “I think Zionism, the idea of building a state of Jewish farmers on Arab land in the Middle East is a stupid idea to begin with.” Hitchens, who passed away in 2011, went on to reveal that he once tried to talk his mother out of her support for Zionism because it’s a “messianic idea”, a “superstitious idea”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.