The Warwick Students’ Union has barred human rights campaigner and leader of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Maryam Namazie, from giving a talk on campus, because, they say, she is “highly inflammatory and could incite hatred.” Now a petition has been launched against her ban, which has forced the Warwick Students’ Union to announce “no final decision has been taken.”
I have not met Maryam Namazie or read her views, but I can imagine how her stance might provoke some dogmatic Muslims. Nonetheless, it is deeply unsettling to see her barred from expressing her views in a British university. Any rational observer may justifiably ask the question: How can a single woman offend a divine faith that has survived for centuries? What kind of message is Warwick University sending to the many oppressed atheists or secular citizens in Muslim-majority countries?
My first encounter with an ex-Muslim came years ago in front of the French Embassy in London. She was a young, cheerful Turkish girl whom I met while we both were waiting in the long queue to apply for a visa to France. In the pre-Internet era, visa applicants were allowed to turn up at the embassy door without a previous appointment. The long, painful wait triggered a conversation between us, which somehow evolved into a deeper discussion about faith and society in Muslim countries. “I stopped believing in God a long time ago, and decided that Islam is not the religion I would like to follow,” she told me. At the time, I was shocked, even offended, by her views. In subsequent years, however, I have met many ex-Muslims and become used to their bitter rejection of Islam. Listening to them has been a great opportunity to develop the practice of tolerance. Each one who recounted their personal experiences had a story of injustice and abuse in their native countries, and all their stories were related to one of the many forms of regressive Islamism. These practices were based on medieval texts that are certainly inappropriate in the modern era. Now I have learned to support ex-Muslims by respecting their right to leave Islam.
Various political Islamist groups with various ethnic and sub-ideological backgrounds exist in Britain: Shia and Sunni, Brotherhood and Salafi, immigrants and native born. One theme they all share is a self-righteous, unapologetic declaration that their version of Islam is the correct one. Many Islamists reject liberal Muslims as either ignorant or infidels, an experience I unfortunately have encountered many times.
Furthermore, a disturbing pattern has emerged. Many self-proclaimed liberal, leftist British non-Muslims have embraced Islamism, an ideology that seeks to impose any version of Islam over society, as the more “authentic” brand of Islam. Such a misguided approach that subtly renders liberal Muslims and ex-Muslims into a second-tier minority that should be ignored or even detested. The events of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq have cemented this subtle alliance between British leftists and Islamists. Both consider republican Americans and central and far right Britons their common enemies. America’s failed policies against terrorism and the war in Iraq have become an excuse for the British left to turn a blind eye to the oppressive, regressive views of Islamists. Liberal/ex-Muslims have been branded as xenophobes, a group collectively referred to as self-haters for daring to criticize political Islam.
The illiberalism of the supposedly liberal left in Britain is a phenomenon worth studying, and the barring of Maryam Namazie highlights the extraordinary biased approach toward Islamism from some quarters. Unfortunately, the Warwick Students’ Union has failed to define “highly inflammatory” and has thus been left speechless in an attempt to justify its ambiguous stance. Would the union’s definition change if Namazie were an ex-Jew or an ex-Christian? Religion should not be immune to criticism, and yes, this includes Islam. The Warwick Students’ Union appears to have deliberately tried to shelter political Islam from any voice of dissent.
Paradoxically, the radical left, under the pretext of defending Muslim minorities from racism and Islamophobia, is happy to oppress voices of dissent from Muslim communities to appease their Islamist allies. Such a patronizing approach will lead only to more racism and hatred in Britain. It is misguided and will not benefit the left or the Islamists.
Criticism can be harsh and often offensive, but it is necessary for the health of any community. In fact, it is important for Muslims to listen to ex-Muslims, as an understanding of their perceptions can be an important preliminary step in the much-needed reformation of Islamic thoughts. Rather than blaming deserters for leaving the faith, Muslims should ask themselves why some have started to see their faith as an ugly, rigid doctrine. Religion is not a set of inflexible ideas, but a collection of firm, positive values that provide a template for various models to suit different eras and nations.
I came to Britain yearning for a liberal, pluralistic society. Instead, I found a society struggling between an illiberal right and illiberal left, in a battle that political Islam happily exploits by attempting to silence any dissenting voice among Muslims and ex-Muslims. It pains me deeply to see Islam, my faith, being used as a political weapon, a tool to kill pluralism.
In the name of a compassionate faith, I reject dogma and I support Maryam Namazie’s right to express her views freely. As such, Warwick University’s Students’ Union should reconsider its stance. If universities cannot nurture freedom of speech, pluralism, and a diversity of views, who else can? What kind of barracked society are we left with?
Warwick Student Union has decided, later today, to host Maryam Namazie. That is great news. I hope their wise change will reverse the ugly trend that I discussed above. Nonetheless, it is also worth reading this statement from Warwick Atheists.