Wolfson College don under fire over ‘homophobic’ video: Theology lecturer ‘haunted by ghost from the past’

Zoah Hedges-Stocks 1 May 2013

Cambridge Theology lecturer and top UK Muslim academic Timothy Winter came under fire today over remarks he has made about homosexuality. In a video posted on Youtube yesterday, Winter describes homosexuality as “a flagrant defiance of God’s good purposes” and an “inexplicable aberration.”

However, it has since transpired that the recording is almost two decades old. Winter, speaking to TCS, was quick to explain that he no longer holds the views he expresses in the video: “It is depressing how the past can return to haunt us Please let me know if it reappears anywhere – it is a ghost with no right to speak.”

Winter, also known as Abdal Hakim Murad, is the Shaykh Zayed Lecturer of Islamic Studies in the Faculty of Divinity, a preacher Cambridge Central Mosque, and the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Ideology. He was described by The Independent as ‘Britain’s most influential Muslim’.

When the six minute video was posted to the Facebook page for Wolfson College Students’ Association, many students were angered by Winter’s comments, with some even going as far as to call for his dismissal, though apparently unaware of when the recording was made.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a Wolfson AMES student, told TCS: “The views espoused by Wolfson DOS Tim Winter are odious, backward and neglectful of both science and the academic rigor which we expect from our lecturers here at Cambridge. They are not only offensive to Wolfson, which prides itself on being the most cosmopolitan and inclusive college in Cambridge, but are dangerous, as Dr Winter’s position gives his remarks an element of authority and respectability which they do not deserve.’

Eirik Svela, also at Wolfson, said:”In his capacity as Director of Studies, Mr Winter represents the college. As such, I think it’s wildly inappropriate of him to publicly front views which are bound to offend large numbers of people and I think the college should consider dismissing him. What he’s saying is basically hate speech and I don’t see why we should tolerate it. As for the issue of freedom of expression, I think liberally inclined people have a silly habit of getting too distracted by the question of what kind of speech we can reasonably restrict. What is materially at stake here is the dignity of homosexual people.”

The video has re-ignited the ongoing debate about academic freedom of speech. Whilst many students have criticised Winter for publicly airing these views, others have defended his right to hold them.

Alexander Bradley-Sitch, also at Wolfson, said: ‘I for one am not baying for his dismissal. I just passionately disagree with his views, and believe that, morally, they are worth being disassociated from. I hope College believe that too and will not merely gloss over this issue as though it never happened. Free speech should not be an issue here – he has every right to say his piece. However, it is important that it is stressed in some manner or another that the College and the Staff and the Students find his views repugnant.’

Winter’s comments in the video came as a surprise, given that the well-respected academic generally takes a moderate stance on religious issues. When contacted by TCS, it emerged that the video of Winter was made in the mid-90s at a Muslin retreat in the US, when, in Winter’s own words, he “was in the grip of a kind of zealot enthusiasm”. He added, “of course the atmosphere has changed almost beyond recognition since that time, and my views are now quite different”.

In response to the suggestion that he be dismissed, Winter said “I think that the students concerned would be well advised to consult with me directly to determine what my views actually are, rather than complaining to others. That is the correct way of doing things in a university.”

He added that the clip was posted on Youtube without his knowledge, and that it has since been taken down at his request. Winter said “if anyone took offence at what I said I am very happy to apologise to them.”

Charlie Bell from Cambridge University Students’ Union LGBT autonomous campaign commented as follows: “Remarks degrading LGBT+ people, relationships or sexual practices surely disgust any of us who are part of the decades long struggle to see LGBT+ people as valued, equal citizens. CUSU LGBT+ was made aware of the video featuring the views of Mr Winter, DoS in Theology at Wolfson College, which hails from his time before being a Fellow at Cambridge. Whilst we, like the vast majority of students, absolutely disagree with his views on homosexuality, and indeed the tone in which they are made, he is an academic and the university has a duty to allow freedom of speech in its academical disciplines. We know that Mr Winter has asked for the video to be taken down; it remains for his college to decide whether these past remarks are incompatible with his current role in the college, especially if it has a pastoral nature, and we are currently in communication with them over this. To our knowledge no student of Mr Winter’s has made any accusations that he has treated them any differently because of their sexuality; his college must act on the best evidence and the views of students in that discipline and in that practice (and indeed potential applicants) before making any sudden decision on the back of a YouTube video. It is our role to be a campaign open to student views and opinions, and to remind the university that whatever academical views might be expressed, LGBT+ students and staff have the same rights as any others, and should be treated with the same respect and decency as any other member of this university, by every member of this university. We encourage any students who do not receive this respect or who otherwise need our support to contact us.”

Zoah Hedges-Stocks