Denying free speech will not solve the problem

Mohamed Abdalla 14 February 2010

A healthy democracy is typified by freedom of expression and criticism of beliefs, whatever they may be. Britain has a global and historic reputation as the place where free speech, among other civil liberties, was pioneered and established. We pride our openness to discussion and granting those with different ideologies the right to air their opinions.

Although Britain deservedly claims to be a beacon for freedom of expression, democracy and liberty, we find that these ambiguous and open-ended concepts are misused to propagate ill-motivated rhetoric. In a society which is informed and has had its discourse defined by secularism, such emotive and poorly defined terms are often used as a de facto shroud to stifle debate and discussion. This has led to a paradox, such that we find that we do not tolerate racial denigration; while on the other hand religion is fair game.

Last week a talk by Benny Morris, an Israeli historian, was cancelled by the Israel Society. Benny Morris is on record for holding stridently racist and anti-Muslim views. In January 2004, in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz he said “There are circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing. A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them. There was no choice but to expel that population.” Continued from previous page…

In March 2007, further comments by Morris appeared in The Washington Post, when he said that “the Muslims are busy killing people, and killing people for reasons that in the West are regarded as idiotic. There is a problem here with Islam.”

Certainly, the focus was not his opinions on the Israel/Palestine issue. The focus was on his evidently strong prejudice opinions with regard to Muslims and Arabs.

Now before we delve into the issue of political correctness, I would argue that if student societies did not provide a platform for speakers reflecting the broad political spectrum of interest, then who would? Views from both the far right and left should be welcomed and scrutinised under an intellectual, historical and moral lens.

Morris seems to be under the false impression there was pressure to cancel his talk, as he was quoted in Varsity as saying “I believe that the attempt by several Cambridge students and a lecturer to prevent me lecturing in Cambridge is a violation of basic rights of free speech”.

The fog created by sensationalism in recent weeks has deceived Morris and many others about the facts, since there was absolutely no attempt or even the alluding to the cancellation of his talk.

Analysing the letter sent to CUSU, it is strikingly obvious it only sought to discredit Morris’ views hence appealing to the spirit of CUSU’s anti-racist stand.

The letter stated that his views go “against the spirit of CUSU’s stated anti-Islamophobia policy” and it asked CUSU to “publically make clear that these kinds of views are abhorrent and offensive.”

Discrediting racism and bigotry is distinct from silencing free speech.

It is worth reiterating that the Islamic Society among other groups and individuals did not lobby to see this talk cancelled and anything suggesting the contrary is inherently fallacious. Ultimately, the cancellation of the talk was carried out at the Israel Society’s discretion, which is their prerogative, on the grounds that they never intended to “provide a platform for racism” and “respect for those who have been offended above the importance of hosting this speaker”.

Cambridge does not currently have a no-platform policy, but if a speaker is inciting racial, religious or other forms of bigotry that will cause strife within the student community then it is justified in raising concerns. It is imperative we use free speech to draw rightful attention to discreditable attitudes to avoid such harmful notions becoming normalised.

However, denying individuals the opportunity to speak does not mean their views are not still ‘out there’ and unchallenged.

The question then arises, how do we practically decide what sort of views should not even be given a platform?

Morris does incite religious and racial hatred but he does not incite to violence.

Inciting violence is calling for the physical abuse of another person or people.

There should be zero tolerance for this kind of speech. Based on this argument, Morris’ visit last week should not have been cancelled in order to confute his views.

After all, individuals such as Benny Morris, Nick Griffin and their ilk, and groups such as Islam4UK and the BNP will truly be silenced through the contradiction of their laughably baseless arguments and the exposure of their nihilistic agenda through open and public debate.

Mohamed Abdalla