This week, a crucial blow was struck for freedom of speech on British campuses. Maryam Namazie, Iranian-born secularist campaigner and spokesperson of Ex-Muslims of Britain, took on the campus censors and won, providing a bit of hope for students across the land trying desperately to debate, discuss and broaden their minds under the cosh of students’ union bureaucracy.
Namazie was due to give a talk at an event organised by the Warwick Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society (WASH) on Monday. But, earlier this month, the student organisers received an email from Warwick SU informing them that their external-speaker application had been denied. ‘After researching both her and her organisation, a number of flags have been raised’, read the message. ‘There are a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker that indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus. This is in contravention of our external-speaker policy.’
Neither Namazie nor WASH took it lying down. In a series of posts and press releases they ripped apart the union’s risk-averse reasoning. Namazie, a fierce critic of Islamism, Sharia courts and the veil, is certainly controversial in these increasingly sensitive times, but, as she coyly pointed out in one fiery post, ‘the Islamists incite hatred, not us’: ‘It’s a topsy-turvy world when “progressives” who are meant to be on our side take a stand with our oppressors and try to deny us the only tool we have to resist – our freedom of expression.’
Under the weight of bad press and social-media indignation, the union issued a statement on Sunday night, announcing that it would issue Namazie a ‘full and unequivocal apology’. Ever the bureaucrats, the SU officials claimed that protocol, in this case, was not followed properly. Talking to Namazie yesterday, I asked her what she thinks this victory means for the fight for free speech on campus; I found her in a measured rather than triumphant mood.
‘It’s not just a problem with Warwick, but one that we’re seeing across the board’, she said, reminding me that this wasn’t the first time she’d come face-to-face with the campus thoughtpolice. In March she was forced to pull out of an event organised at Trinity College, Dublin after college security said it would be ‘antagonising’ to Muslims and tried to place restrictions on who could attend. ‘Sometimes the student groups who have invited me have preferred not to make it an issue. But, after a while, I made the decision that I will try to fight it through where I can’, she continues. ‘Luckily, this time the student group [at Warwick] worked closely with me on it.’