The state has not gagged her

David Shariatmadari takes the opportunity to piss on Maryam in the wake of Warwick SU’s reversal of its rejection of the ASH invitation to her to speak.

Even if it didn’t evolve into a full-blown Twitter storm, this incident was a classic of the genre. Righteous indignation was tweeted and retweeted, celebrities piled on the pressure, pundits sharpened their quills. Even better, the issue straddled a major faultline in progressive thinking. Advocates of free expression were being pitted against those who feel that criticism of religion, Islam especially, can be antisocial, even dangerous.

For Namazie’s supporters two things were very clear: first, this was a direct attack on free speech; second, lefties were once again siding with religious conservatives because of a misguided belief that Muslims, as a minority group, should be protected at any cost.

The latter is a familiar accusation. I’m suspicious of it because my own willingness to defend Muslims and Islam from certain kinds of attack isn’t motivated by the idea that they and their faith should be beyond criticism.

But what kinds of attack? By “certain kinds of attack” does he mean Maryam’s kind? Maryam is very firm about rejecting the kinds that are just racism hiding behind criticism of religion, so what “certain kinds of attack” can he have in mind?

Also, defending Muslims is not automatically the same thing as defending Islam, and in fact the two can be quite opposed.

First – was the move to block Namazie’s appearance really an attack on free speech? She should certainly be at liberty to express herself within the law. The Guardian has in the past published her work. But does the withdrawal of an invitation really amount to censorship? Her words have not been banned, the state has not gagged her.

It doesn’t amount to direct state censorship, no. (It may amount to indirect state censorship, but that’s not really the core issue.) But the withdrawal of an invitation is not at all the same as not issuing an invitation in the first place. The withdrawal, and the rejection of permission to issue, an invitation is an overt No. That’s much more active than a non-engagement.

In a free society we are, on the one hand, at liberty to publish and promote ideas so far as they do not advocate harm. We are also free to shun them if we want to. The Warwick episode is a case in point. All we’re really seeing is one student body’s messy weighing up of which values it wants to endorse, and which it wants to reject – and exercising its own right of free expression to make that choice.

Yes, but in doing so it canceled the Atheist Secularist Humanist student body’s right of free expression to invite a speaker it wanted to invite. Its “right of free expression” obliterated ASH’s right of free expression by saying No to ASH’s invitation. That’s a power play, not just free expression.

Shariatmadari goes on to explain what he dislikes about Maryam’s atheist take on Islam.

What might lead people to decide they’d rather not give a platform to such rhetoric? Recognising the pressure British Muslims are under – surveilled by the state, victims of verbal abuse, vandalism and arson – could it be that some students felt welcoming a person who believes Islam is incompatible with modern life would be wrong?

They could, of course, have engaged her in debate. Why demand instead that the talk be cancelled? The reason given was that she might incite hatred on campus. I think this is over the top – her words probably wouldn’t have resonated very far beyond the meeting room itself (they might now). But the underlying sentiment is reasonable: we don’t want to have any part in the further stigmatisation of Islam.

It’s not all that reasonable. Wanting to defend Muslims from attack and demonization is reasonable, but wanting to protect a major religion from criticism is not. Why not? Think Raif Badawi, think Asif Mohiuddin, think Avijit Roy, think Taslima Nasreen. That’s why not.

We are lucky to live in a pluralist democracy, with freedom of choice in politics and religion. These are things we should cherish, but they are not in any serious danger. Were they really threatened – by the emergence of a theocracy, by the drafting of racist or misogynist laws – the left would oppose that with every sinew. I hope that more citizens in Muslim-majority countries can one day enjoy the level of political and social freedom that we do, and I support the men and women who try to bring that about.

That’s so smug. Britain as a whole is probably safe from threats to freedom of choice in politics and religion, but plenty of individuals within Britain are not. That’s why Maryam founded the CEMB, isn’t it. That’s why she founded One Law for All. That’s a major part of why she does what she does.

What does David Shariatmadari do?

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