How an accusation of Islamophobia forced me off campus
Academic Steven Greer on how British universities are capitulating to intolerance.
The life of Steven Greer, a former professor at the University of Bristol, was turned upside down by an allegation of ‘Islamophobia’. In 2021, a group of students accused him of insulting Islam and the Koran in one of his courses. The complaint was baseless. He was cleared by an official investigation. But in his telling, his university still failed to adequately defend him. He has accused university leaders of allowing his reputation to be tarnished and of abandoning him to the mob. Amid the furore, he decided to leave campus. He says that, at times, he even feared for his life. spiked caught up with Greer to find out more.
spiked: What were you accused of? And what did your university do in response?
Steven Greer: I was at the University of Bristol for 36 years. Until 18 months ago, I had a blemish-free career. The problem erupted in February 2021, when the University of Bristol Islamic Society (BRISOC) launched a savage social-media campaign against me. It demanded that I apologise for Islamophobic remarks I had allegedly made in class. The module in question was on my Human Rights in Law, Politics and Society unit, called ‘Islam, China and the Far East’. In BRISOC’s estimation, the whole module was riddled with Islamophobia and should therefore be cancelled.
Not only was there no shred of truth to this accusation, but the whole process was handled terribly, too. The complaint was made months after the incident had supposedly occurred, way past the deadline that is set out in the university’s procedures. The only named party was the president of BRISOC, who was a medical student who had not attended any of my classes. He also refused to engage in any of the negotiations that were required by university guidelines.
I was subjected to a five-month inquiry, which resoundingly acquitted me. I was completely, unreservedly exonerated. In fact, I was commended for the speed and diligence with which I had cooperated and my unit was commended for its academic rigour. But the university then told me that I couldn’t go public about this until all parties had agreed on a statement. That never happened.
When I returned to work, my module was also taken off the unit. So by the end of September 2021, I had been exonerated, but I hadn’t been allowed to tell anybody about it and my module had been withdrawn. The net effect of those things was that it made me look guilty.
I decided I couldn’t tolerate it any longer and went on sick leave. I was already completely worn out, but removing the core module of my unit was the final straw.
One of the great ironies of this situation is that I was actually contacted by a progressive Muslim imam in Bristol, who was appalled at how BRISOC had treated me. He offered me a visiting research fellowship at the Oxford Institute for British Islam, which was just setting up at the time. I joined very enthusiastically. The people there liked my contributions so much that they asked me to become a research director.
So one group of Muslims was reaching out to me to work together, while another was leading such a vicious campaign against me that I sometimes felt that my life was in danger. I don’t mean that anybody from BRISOC was going to threaten my life. But when you’re accused of mocking the Koran and denigrating Islam, that is a serious accusation that could encourage someone more radical to act.
This is what happened to the teacher, Samuel Paty, in France in 2020. He had shown a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad to his class, and Islamists launched a social-media campaign against him. The result of this was that an Islamist travelled 100 kilometres from another part of France to murder and decapitate him.
spiked: Why do you think the university responded in this way?
Greer: In my view, it was terrified of being seen as Islamophobic. University leaders were so terrified of being denounced as anti-Muslim themselves, that they preferred to entertain the baseless accusations against me. Even when I had been completely exonerated, the university said that it ‘recognised’ BRISOC’s ‘concerns’ about me.
Very few of my colleagues defended me, either. I received a handful of private emails with support from colleagues – the rest were silent. It’s sad and painful, as I thought many of these people were my friends. For 36 years, I had counselled them and mentored them and had them for dinner and drank with them. That hurts.
spiked: Do you feel there is a wider culture of fear across university campuses in the UK?
Greer: I’m in my mid 60s now and I have essentially been in universities since the 1970s. The atmosphere has changed fundamentally. There used to be vigorous debates about everything – and I come from Northern Ireland, so those debates were quite visceral. Back then I was on the centre left, but I always wanted to hear what the opposite case was. I assumed that you couldn’t argue against something unless you found out exactly what it is your opponent is saying.
The sad fact is, you can no longer engage with people in honest debate. In the past, the tradition in any reputable university would be that if you had ideas, you would road-test them with your colleagues before you went into print with them. You typically wrote a draft paper, you presented that to people, you debated it and revised it. I tried to do that at Bristol and the people who were hostile to my ideas just didn’t turn up to these conversations. They don’t want to hear the opposing argument. They just want to denounce and condemn.
Steven Greer was talking to Lauren Smith.
Falsely Accused of Islamophobia: My Struggle Against Academic Cancellation, by Steven Greer, is published by Academica Press.
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