Yes, I know.
I react badly, on a visceral level, to student union motions mandating or opposing particular forms of speech. Most of you probably do too.
Here’s the motion:
1. In the right to criticise religion,
2. In freedom of speech and thought,
3. It has a responsibility to protect its members from hate crime and hate speech,
4. Debate on religious matters should not be limited by what may be offensive to any particular religion, but the deliberate and persistent targeting of one religious group about any issue with the intent or effect of being Islamophobic (‘Islamophobia’ as defined below) will not be tolerated.
5. That Islamophobia is a form of anti-Islamic racism.
1. To define Islamophobia as “a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture, and the stereotyping, demonisation or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists, or attacking the Qur’an as a manual of hatred”,
2. To take a firm stance against all Islamophobic incidents at LSE and conduct internal investigations if and when they occur.
3. To publicly oppose actions on campus that are Islamophobic based on the aforementioned definition,
4. To ensure that all Islamophobic incidents aimed at or perpetrated by LSE students either verbal, physical or online are dealt with swiftly and effectively in conjunction with the School,
5. To work with the Pro-Director for Teaching and Learning and Deans to address Islamophobia and other forms of racism on campus and methods to alleviate it,
6. To ensure that this definition is used to promote and enhance legitimate debate regarding the morality and legitimacy of international conflicts and oppose illegitimate acts of Islamophobia on campus.
First of all, the definition in ‘resolves: 1′ is imperfect, in that it is unclear, and therefore is liable to be applied in an over-broad manner under 2-6. It might have been improved by a requirement that any action also respect the principles set out in ‘believes: 1, 2 and 4′. In addition, the motion ought not to have included an essentialising statement about the nature of Islam. Instead, it could have focused upon the Muslim baiters, themselves. That might, perhaps, have gone some way to allay the concerns of secularists and humanists who believe that the LSE has enacted a “blasphemy law“.
Now that the motion has been passed, the LSE is in the difficult position of enforcing a policy which takes a particular position on the nature of the Quran. Given that the status and nature of holy books tend to be at the heart of disagreements between groups of religious people, the LSE Students’ Union has, metaphorically speaking, chosen to stand in the middle of a busy ideological motorway.
For example, a person who has converted from Islam to another religion or no religion might well want to say that the Quran is a “manual of hatred”. Similarly, a person who has converted from Christianity to Islam might well express the view that the New Testament contains wicked lies. But only one such expression of belief would fall foul of the union’s policy.
There’s another problem too.
There are certainly people who say that the Quran requires them to hate. For example, hate preacher Uthman Lateef said this to Queen Mary students in 2007:
“We don’t accept homosexuality … we hate it because Allah hates it”
As far as I can tell, it wouldn’t amount to “Islamophobia” for Uthman Lateef to express this view. However, it would be in breach of the Union policy to point out the fact that Lateef directly links his hatred to what he takes to be the Word of God.
Similarly, Azzam Tamimi is openly supportive of terrorism and wishes to be a terrorist himself, because he believes that suicide bombing is “the straight way to pleasing my God”. Moreover, he has justified executing “apostates“. I suppose that Azzam Tamimi might himself fall foul of the prohibition on “portraying Muslims as terrorists”, but it would be a little unfair. However, not as unfair as punishing a student for objecting to Tamimi’s barbaric support for terrorism and the killing of apostates: which may well be prohibited by the motion.
It would be possible to produce a better policy than this. If you compare it with the LSESU’s simultaneously adopted policy on antisemitism, an extensive and useful definition of antisemitism has been used. Here it is:
1. All forms of racism are abhorrent and should be opposed.
2. Anti-Semitism is specific form of racism, relating to Jews and Judaism.
3. Anti-Semitism includes but is not limited to:
4. Denying, trivializing and misconstruing the Nazi Holocaust. This includes denying the fact, scope, method, or motivation for the genocide of 6 million Jews at the hands of the National Socialist regime. It also includes the accusation that Jews or the state of Israel have fabricated, cause or over-exaggerated the Holocaust.
5. Calling for, aiding or justifying the killing or harming of Jews for the sake of their Jewish religion, ethnicity or identity.
6. Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such. This includes accusations of Jewish control of the world, government, media, as well as blaming Jews for imagined and real atrocities
7. Questioning the loyalty of Jews to their nation of citizenship simply on the basis of their Jewish identity. This includes claims that Jews as a collective or a community subvert or mislead the general population, as well as the claim that Jews are more loyal to the state of Israel than their country of citizenship.
8. Claiming that Jews do not have the same rights as any other ethnic group. This includes the right to free speech, free practice of religion, free use of native languages (i.e. Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, etc.) and self-determination.
9. ‘Equating Jews or maliciously equating Jewish Foundations of the state of Israel with the Nazi Regime. This includes, but is not limited to equating Zionism with Nazism and claiming that ‘History is repeating itself’ with regards to the Nazi Holocaust and the state of Israel. This also includes using Jewish symbols and religious imagery alongside Nazi symbols and imagery. This does not necessarily include analogies between historical events.’
10. Using Jewish symbols to antagonize, harass, and intimidate Jewish students.
11. Legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its actions are not inherently anti-Semitic.
1. To publicly oppose actions on campus that are anti-Semitic based on the aforementioned definition.
2. To ensure all anti-Semitic incidents aimed at or perpetrated by LSE students either verbal, physical or online are dealt with swiftly and effectively in conjunction with the school and, if appropriate or requested by the victim, the Metropolitan Police.
3. To mandate the SU Anti-Racism officer to publish a semi-annual report detailing all incidents of racism, including anti-Semitic incidents of racism that have occurred on campus during the previous six months and the actions taken by the union and the School. The first report to be published Summer Term 09.
4. To work with Pro-Director for Teaching and Learning and Deans to address racism and anti-Semitism on campus and methods to alleviate it.
5. To ensure that this definition is used to promote and enhance legitimate debate regarding the morality and legitimacy of international conflicts and oppose illegitimate acts of anti-Semitism on campus.
You will note that this policy focuses on conduct towards Jews, and has nothing to say about the content of the Judaism or Jewish religious texts. A similar approach could have been used in relation to the Islamophobia motion. From the look of it, it very nearly was.
The essential problem lies with the concept of Islamophobia: because it focuses on a fear of a belief system, rather than hostility towards individuals by virtue of their membership of a cultural group. As a result, the term has been expanded to cover (for example) Muslims in Tunisia opposing an Islamist political party.
However, it is entirely proper for the LSE SU to oppose hatred directed at Muslims. This can be done, without censoring atheists or members of other religions, or silencing those who oppose jihadist terrorism.
Take this tricky example. There is a popular conspiracy theory which suggests that all Muslims are either the willing dupes of or co-conspirators in plot to undermine and subvert Western societies. That, I think, is akin to other forms of conspiracism which are designed to encourage hatred of minority groups.
Now, there are such people, active in Islamist political organisations, who do see them as engaged in a “grand jihad” against the West. That most certainly does not mean that this is what all Muslims are, or think that they should be, doing. It is important to stress, moreover, that it is possible to oppose and campaign against such Islamists by specifically and carefully identifying the individuals and the organisations to which they belong.
It would not be too difficult for LSE SU to improve this motion by removing references to “Islam” and “the Quran”. At the same time, the LSE really ought to pass a third motion: which focuses on the rejection of hate preachers who recruit on University campuses, and a commitment to combat their malign influence.