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.