I recently gave a talk titled “How to understand others (without going mad)” at an inaugural conference on Understanding others through narrative practices at the University of Wollongong’s new School of Liberal Arts.
I was looking forward to other talks on the bill, particularly those by Judith Hurley, director of identity at Edmund Rice College and a founding member of Illawarra People for Peace – a local human rights association – and Sheikh Jamil El-Biza, a UOW alumnus and local Muslim community leader.
Hurley’s advertised talk was to be on what it means to be “people for peace” and El-Biza’s was to be on narratives in Islam, referencing the verse from the Koran: “That you may know one another.”
The event coincided with UOW’s Stand with Muslims initiative against racism and Islamophobia, created in the wake of the terrorist attacks at two Christchurch mosques.
El-Biza had recently been celebrated for encouraging Muslims to show the same grace and kindness in their dealings with non-Muslims as they had been shown in the aftermath of Christchurch.
He had also publicly berated Queensland senator Fraser Anning for his Islamophobic statement after the attacks, and accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of shedding crocodile tears over the attacks. The sheikh’s concern with “rhetoric which puts the blame on you, because you’re a Muslim, and lifts the blame of others because of freedom of speech”, was to prove prophetic.
I never got to see the speakers I had been looking forward to seeing. Both Hurley and El-Biza withdrew from the UOW event after protesters dug up a 2017 homophobic Facebook post by El-Biza to protest against the “shameful workshop” we were all speaking at.
This was the latest in a number of protests by activists attempting to derail the school’s new Bachelor of Arts in Western Civilisation, because of its controversial Ramsay Centre funding. Protesters, who include UOW staff and students, claim that the new degree is “racist” and will promote Western values over non-Western ones.
Protesters claimed that the event was for the purpose of promoting the new degree. One academic described the workshop as “propaganda to give some legitimacy to the Ramsay degree”.
Personally, I found El-Biza’s Facebook post – for which he has since apologised – utterly vile and disgusting; I deeply empathise with anyone who would not wish to attend a talk by its author.
The inclusion of LGBT+ rights is a matter of paramount importance, as are the values of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. Australia’s own laws forbidding hate speech are accordingly based on a particular ethical sensibility about where to place limits on the right to freedom of speech, a stance shared by some, but not all, Western countries.
Progressive academics want to stand up for academic freedom. We want to stand up for rights to freedom of speech, including the right to protest and organise safe spaces. We want to stand against hate speech. We want to stand with, and respect, Islam. We do not want to place Western values above others.
But what happens when we are confronted with non-Western values that appear to be at odds with all that we want to stand for?
Those who protest against Western supremacist and racist attitudes complained that the workshop organisers invited a “fundamentalist”, thereby resorting to a pejorative term used to vilify Islamic revivalism.
It is hypocritical for them to try to ban a Muslim community leader from giving a talk on narrative accounts of understanding others, let alone by invoking a single derogatory statement he made two years ago on social media that clashed with the very same Western values they worry the new BA would champion.
People have become exactly what they claim to fear, in an effort to resist that very thing. When they play all their progressive cards at once, the right to be aggressively intolerant comes up top trumps.
In the most ironic twist, “concerned citizens” emailed the principal of the school where Hurley teaches, in what she described as “a patronising bid to pressure me to withdraw”.
She went on to tell me: “I would be protesting if I thought that there was something to protest. I have spent my life committed genuinely to social justice and human rights. They said that this School of Liberal Arts was one with white supremacist views. When a Muslim cleric who holds Muslim views was slated to speak at a forum hosted by the School of Liberal Arts, those with a political agenda went digging.
“The emails voiced objections about the sheikh’s hate speech and views. I could not ignore that. But, you see, the political agenda motivated them…in conscience I took the only course of action I could which then also led to the Muslim cleric being withdrawn. Which, in a way, plays right into the idea that the white man is setting the agenda. Ironic.”
Anybody who reads its curriculum design and content can see that the new BA is ideally positioned to provide an interface between Western and non-Western practices. Rejecting it for unsubstantiated concerns that it will curtail academic freedom and promote supremacist ideologies is bad enough. Doing so by attempting to no platform a Muslim community speaker and bully a founding member of the Illawarra People for Peace into pulling out of a seminar on understanding others is pure madness.
Constantine Sandis is a professor of philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire.