We cannot fight ignorance with ignorance

On Wednesday night Yusuf Chambers, a founding member of the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA), spoke at an Islamic Society event in Alcuin. The title of the event was ‘Patience, perseverance, and the final exam’. The content was just that – the iERA described it as “useful skills we can apply to our student lives”.

Of course, the man himself also believes that there should be a death penalty for adultery, and has wished death upon all homosexuals. Personally I feel abhorred by those views. I think on those issues he is misguided, deluded, and unjustified. And inevitably my deep-seated belief that he is wrong makes me more likely to question his standpoint on other issues.

But that does not make Chambers less qualified to talk about separate issues, like how to apply patience and perseverance to a student life. Chambers is a fairly prominent figure in academic Islam, and gives lectures all over the world. His role in iERA is one to be respected. For this reason I would defend the Islamic Society’s decision to invite him to lecture on issues of which he is knowledgeable, and on which he can give valuable insight to society members.

But the decision to invite him has caused new calls for a ‘no platform’ policy of the kind advocated by Tim Ngwena last year. Yet such a policy would not apply to this event. Chambers has some particularly disgusting opinions, but he is not being invited to lecture on those opinions, nor is the society condoning them.

In any case, a ‘no platform’ policy would not stop Chambers in a lecture answering audience questions about his views on homosexuality or adultery truthfully. Clearly, if the lecture were ‘Why homosexuals and adulterers should be killed’ then the policy would prevent it, but no student is proposing such a lecture.

Much of the uproar about Chambers’ visit is focused on the perceived danger to students, that the University has a duty to protect students from extremist views. This in itself is not only frustratingly patronising, but also dangerous.

University should be the antithesis of ignorance. We should not only learn about, but also learn to confront others’ opinions with criticism and rigour. Allowing ourselves to be sheltered from any radicalism is a road to petty, pseudo-liberal mediocrity. How can we be firm in what we believe, and be prepared with the tools to refute others, if we do not expose ourselves to the wide spectrum of beliefs that exist in the real world?

From any religious university society’s point of view, surely it is paramount to be aware of extreme elements of your faith. If you are going to adopt the teachings of a holy book, you should learn the many interpretations of that book, to illuminate and augment your faith and to define your belief by confronting those you may disagree with.

It is a disappointing and pathetic characterisation of students to believe that we do not have the mental resources to question Chambers. Students should be given the opportunity to make up their own minds on any issue, no matter the extremity. Censoring the open discussion of extremist views can lead to students encountering them in an uncritical environment, from a position of ignorance, which is a much more dangerous prospect.

To present Chambers’ views in an environment where opposing parties such as the LGBT are able to confront and argue against him is a much healthier and enlightening way of investigating extremist views. It is an invaluable opportunity for constructive discussion, in the face of so many other uncritical, untruthful mediums to encounter those views.

If we prevent ourselves access to any opinion other than the norm, we prevent ourselves access to any personal development beyond the norm. Attendance at a top university is about becoming exceptional, and for that we must encounter the exceptions.

8 comments

  1. I broadly agree with the sentiment of this piece, but free speech is not a zero-sum game, and if someone has radical views they ought to be challenged with a skilful interlocutor, who is given equal air time. In this case: A progressive scholar of Islam would have been ideal.

    Yusuf lectured for an hour and any direct attempt to bring up his views on stoning people to death was shouted down by the chair of the debate. Additionally, it was clear to everyone in the room that his talk was endorsing a Medieval interpretation of the Koran, with all of the implications that brings. So I do not agree with you that his talk was innocuous.

    I’m not in favour of a ‘no platform’ policy, but we do need to think in terms of ‘free and equal’ speech, especially in cases like this. Thankfully, the blogosphere and media reaction have allowed an important and interesting debate to occur, but unfortunately no such debate occurred in the lecture itself.

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  2. “misguided, deluded and unjustified” are adjectives I might use to describe the views of people who support (mainstream) political parties I wouldn’t vote for. Can you think of better alternatives?

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  3. 15 Jun ’12 at 10:29 pm

    Curtis Sinclair

    What I would like to know is why my money – as a student here at York and also as a taxpayer subsidising the University – is being spent on effectively giving legitimacy to this ignorant moronic fool and the society which has time and time again pushed racist, rape-endorsing, terrorist-supporting, Jew-hating, and positively evil human beings onto the campus of this University? This was never a question of free speech; no-one wants to silence this man, they just don’t want it on their doorstep at a place where they live and work. It’s offensive and demeaning, and frankly, below the dignity of the University and it’s student body.

    There will be many people saying “although I don’t like this person on campus I think that if we prevented them from freely speaking here it would mean that any speaker who didn’t have the express permission of a majority of students would be prevented from coming here, it would be a tyranny of the majority and there would be no real free speech on campus.”

    In response I suggest this (listen up YUSU, this might be a policy you’d be interested in*): A) WE SHOULD BE INTOLERANT OF THOSE WHO ARE INTOLERANT OF US. B) WE SHOULD DENY THE RIGHT TO SPEAK AT OUR UNIVERSITY TO THOSE WHO WOULD WILLINGLY DENY OUR RIGHT TO SPEAK ANYWHERE.

    This isn’t “psuedo-liberalism.” It’s real liberalism. I’m talking about the kind of liberalism which defends liberal society. Adolf Hitler was given a platform in a supposedly ‘liberal’ society so keen to give all variations of political thought a voice that in doing so it gave power to a party which keenly shut down it’s that open system, and indeed set about eliminating large sections of it’s society. We should not make the same mistakes here.

    OK, so lets talk about this policy; I’ll use two examples to demonstrate.

    Example One:
    DAVID MILIBAND (visited December 2010). David is someone who really dislike. I think he’s a publicity seeking, self-serving Blairite git. Let’s ask some questions of him.
    1. Is he in favour of denying anyone free speech? NO.
    2. Does he wish any members of the Union dead? NO.
    3. Does giving him a platform assist the cause of someone who would readily shut down the democratic institutions of this nation and who would happily silence others? NO.
    With this in mind, should we allow this speaker to use the resources of the University? YES.

    Simple. We don’t necessarily like this person, but they’re not wishing any of us dead and they’d always allow us our free speech, so we should allow them a platform here at York.

    Example Two:
    YUSUF CHAMBERS.
    1. Is he in favour of denying anyone free speech? YES. (women, gays, jews, etc…)
    2. Does he wish any members of the Union dead? YES. (Any of you girls drunkenly gone home with some munter from Willow at 3am? Yeah, errr, that’s a hanging offence in Yusuf’s book.)
    3. Does giving him a platform assist the cause of someone who would readily shut down the democratic institutions of this nation and who would happily silence others? YES. (Pretty sure the worldwide Islamic Caliphate that Yusuf advocates isn’t too big on that democracy idea.)
    With this in mind, should we allow this speaker to use the resources of the University? NO.

    Simpler. We don’t necessarily like this person, they wish some of us dead and they’d happily remove our free speech, so we absolutely shouldn’t allow them a platform here at York. Let him keep peddling his hate filled nonsense somewhere else. It’s not taking his freedom of speech away; he can do it, just somewhere else. All it is doing is saying that a) we don’t want to pay for someone who advocates the stoning of our classmates, b) we don’t want to give a platform to a man who would close the University as a secular place of learning and c) we feel that it is an embarrassment, and indeed below the dignity of the student body and the University, to host such a man.

    The succession of extremist speakers invited by the Islamic society (think Mufti Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari) suggest to me that there is a potentially dangerous strain within that society. Perhaps YUSU should reconsider the position of the Islamic Society as one affiliated to it.

    * I joke. I know that you’re a spineless organisation with little moral decency or courage to actually implement something as righteous as this.

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  4. Curtis,

    I think you are being quite ridiculous here. As someone who is a ‘liberal’ Muslim and part of the ISOC, I can give you a personal guarantee that the ISOC does not have a dangerous trend, NOR is it ‘extremist’ by contemporary definitions. We are one of the least politically active societies in YUSU, we exist more as a union of Muslim students, who have never, ever publically advocated the sharia, or the removal of rights from the LGBT or other york communities. I suggest you spend a bit of time with the ISOC before passing such judgements.

    On the event itself- I did not support Chambers’ invitation, nor am I at all a fan of IeRA, who I feel are intellectually a disingenuous organization. Yet, I would echo Josh’s sentiments in allowing him to speak, for various reasons.

    First, Chamber’s never implied any death threats, he never excluded any members of the LGBT etc from the event and even in the interviews with Dr. Naik, He did not say that he MORALLY supported the death penalty for homosexuals. The reality is that this action is an inherent element of classical shariah jurisprudence, and as such, cannot be changed or innovated in any way. You will find that similarly, orthodox Judaism and Christianity hold similar stances on homosexuality and adultery- and I am very sure that evangelicals from the CU, as well as members of the JSOC may be inclined to actually support such positions. Silencing this view does little to actually stop it being presented or transmitted, particularly if you consider what goes on in closed door meetings, or even online.

    Secondly, I think it is contentious to argue that we should be intolerant to those that advocate views of intolerance, in many ways it makes no sense to adopt such a platform, considering that the notion of tolerance is also to adapt and challenge views that are contrary to our university community. Yet, such an advocated position is much more difficult in practice- particularly with other societies involved. For example, what if the JSOC invited a rabbi whose orthodox religious views were contrary to the liberalised ideas of non-religious folk on campus? I think when you place religion into the equation, you will find that most orthodox religious people are very much against many of the liberal ideas you and I take for granted- but does that mean they have no right to advocate, to argue and to present these views, PARTICULARLY, when there is no threat that these views will be implemented ? (I also work on the YUSU democracy comittee and sit on various judicial boards at York- and I can guarantee you that the Chamber’s event did not bring about an emergency referendum for Sharia law on campus). The point is, is that in order to ensure that ALL our students are not disenfranchised, the societies should invite whom it wishes to speak, so long as they do not advocate any form of violence or hatred against other communities on campus. As such, while Chamber’s personal views of homosexuality are horrific and immoral, he didn’t present this at his talk, and he certainly did not proclaim that muslims on campus should be agressive to those that do not abide by the Sharia.

    Then again, is the definition of what ‘intolerant views’ actually are- and I feel that these can only be framed against other sets of values, ie. the liberal values you seem to advocate here. Most of the speakers at the ISOC, for example, support the idea that females should wear headscarves and should not wear make up. Does this classify as intolerant in terms of being against the freedom of choice for women? Others do believe that the sharia is a good system, not only because it serves as an adequate organization principle, but also because they believe it is divine, and therefore unchallengeable- so in this case, most Muslims who believe in the Sharia should be excluded from the university’s campus community on the grounds that they have views, no matter how horrible, that dont fit into the liberal democratic ideal that is the dominant framework in the UK. Understandably, this does bring about a lot of issues relating to disenfranchisement while more importantly, how freedom of speech should be maintained. I personally believe that as long as no student’s life is in immediate risk, freedom of speech should be applied to all peoples regardless of views and creeds. For example, Nick Griffin has particularly shit views regarding coloured people- silencing him did no good in 2010, when the BNP were rising rapidly. It was only when a public platform was given, that people saw how much of a mug he actually was. There are countless times when this has happened in Islamic public speaking, where pseudo scholars have been exposed as phonies on the public stage, including many from the Hizb-ut Tahrir group.

    While I do understand your point of view, i cant help but think it really is self defeating in the long run, and really illustrates the contradicitions behind claims to free speech, which I feel should be framed within the classical definition. Otherwise, we simply acommodate speakers who have little variation, a narrow range of views are presented on campus, and intellectual discourse really does find itself stifled by loud voices who don’t like hearing certain things.

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  5. Also interesting to see how Curtis is the treasurer of the York UKIP society. Claiming the ISOC is a dirty stain on university life on his twitter feed, while selectively ignoring the odious views of some of its members both in the society and in the party.

    How noble.

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  6. @Hova

    Essentially what you’ve done there in your second comment, is needlessly attack someone for having different views to your own, hence making yourself look like a fool.

    UKIP are a legitimate centre right alternative to the mainstream parties, and significantly less odious than the BNP (and more popular than any centre left alternative).

    You’ve taken the debate somewhere completely different to the article, focusing on someone’s political viewpoint for no particular reason. Shame really.

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  7. Too bad Curtis had nothing to say when UKIP invited an Israeli politician who advocated the removal of non-Jews from Israel (by death, if necessary) to speak on campus. UKIP are, like most political parties, an utter joke and certainly not libertarian. They are a red herring. LPUK is much better.

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  8. 19 Jun ’12 at 5:40 pm

    Curtis Sinclair

    “Too bad Curtis had nothing to say when UKIP invited an Israeli politician who advocated the removal of non-Jews from Israel (by death, if necessary) to speak on campus.”

    This is utter nonsense. We have/would never invited any such speaker on to campus, and considering the Chairman of the YU UKIP Association is also the head of the national party’s Friends of Palestine it seems exceptionally unlikely that we would do so.

    “Also interesting to see how Curtis is the treasurer of the York UKIP society. Claiming the ISOC is a dirty stain on university life on his twitter feed, while selectively ignoring the odious views of some of its members both in the society and in the party.”

    I support everything which anyone from York University UKIP Association has ever publicly said. I also stand by every statement I have ever made on my Twitter account (@cjgsinclair).

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