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Islam and the fine line of academic freedom

I’m in my seventeenth year of working at the University of Melbourne: at 37-years-old, that’s a fair chunk of my life in the one place.

This isn’t a love letter to my employer, nevertheless there are lots of reasons I’ve stayed (beyond reluctance to change my email address): the institution’s support of my academic freedom plays no small part.

Such freedom impacts each of us differently. In my case, I do a lot of media work and write regularly in public forums like this one. And each time I open my mouth or put pen to paper I’m expressing an opinion. It’ll invariably be one based on my teaching or research, but it’ll always be an articulation of my views.

Views which might conflict with the University.

Views which might castigate a government.

Views which might upset members of the tax-paying public.

As someone who has benefited enormously from academic freedom and who, in general, thinks it should be at the heart of all intellectual debate, is there ever a time when it needs to be sanctioned?

Professor Brian McNair.

Brian - a clever and generous Queensland University of Technology colleague whose academic output I admire – is in the press this week for some inflammatory social media comments about Islam.

Brian and I are Facebook friends, but I didn’t see his original post - one which also appeared in his public Twitter feed (above): truth be told, I unfollowed him several terrorists attacks ago when I felt our views on this subject were… incompatible.

The press surrounding Brian’s post is niggling at me. It’s a clash of my passion for academic freedom - and freedom of speech more broadly - and my ever-growing concern that such liberties are becoming a justification for hate; potentially even an encouragement for it.

Numerous questions are plaguing me about this issue; questions QUT are no doubt similarly wrestling with.

Should a scholar’s personal condemnation of Islam be protected under academic freedom?

Do views articulated on Facebook or Twitter fall under the banner of work product? What part does possibly-fleeting red mist and posted-on-the-weekend play in all of this?

Do our audiences have any duty to distinguish between our weekday political musings and our weekend emotional outbursts if they’re delivered via the same media?

Generally I think censoring should be the absolute last resort. Just because I don’t agree with someone shouldn’t be grounds to gag them. It’s a courtesy I’d like extended to me.

But condemning Islam as a whole – as sharply contrasted with denouncing acts of political extremism – gets very close to what I would call hate speech. And when it comes to hate, and protecting victims of it and from it, I’m unconvinced that this is something universities should be in the business of defending.

In recent years, those of us on the Left have had to take positions on all kinds of speech issues. Call-out culture is one example, equally so is deciding who should have a voice on campus: should the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos, say, get his mitts on our young'ns?

Yiannopoulos - a man who I’m at least 50% convinced is a cunningly-crafted caricature designed to expose the gullibility of the Right - has spent much of his time begging, borrowing and stealing pulpits for his special brand of severely misguided malarkey.

Mostly I have a “let the market decide” approach to such matters. If students want to hear such crap, let them. This remains my position right up to the point where a speaker starts espousing hate. And then I think universities have to think very carefully about what they are defending.

Milo is chockful of hate. It’s seeping from his every pore. And while he frames it as cultural criticism, every victim of his diatribes know that his speech is nothing more than the promotion of loathing towards Muslims and feminists and fat people and black women and whomever else he’s chosen to spit upon on a given day.

Once someone unfairly targets an already-oppressed group, then they shouldn’t be excused under the banner of free speech. Universities certainly shouldn’t be in the business of defending bullies.

The University of Melbourne has around about 47,000 students and 6,500 staff. That’s an awful lot of people to care for. Should the speech of someone like Yiannopoulos therefore, be protected at the expense of thousands of people - many who fall into these marginalised groups - who expect the institution to provide a safe space? Is Milo’s supposed right to voice an opinion more important than those who lives get made that little bit worse after such a visit?

Professor Brian McNair.

Had he written “Enough! Religion is a cancer on the planet…”, while I’d have questioned his timing, as a feminist atheist I’ll always make a little space to debate the negative impact of faith on women. Had he written “Enough! Toxic masculinity is a cancer on the planet…” and I might even have been inclined to follow him again.

Brian’s words however, pointed the finger at people 1.6 billion people. I have Muslim friends. And Muslim students. And Muslim colleagues. I suspect Brian does too. So how can they all get tarred with the same brush as the London perps? Why are we expecting them to somehow police their brothers? Am I responsible for the crimes committed by every woman? Every white person? Every atheist? Every academic? What personal convictions do I need to renounce out of fear that a ragtag bunch of disenfranchised thugs might watch a Youtube video, misinterpret my beliefs, and decide to fetish our deaths?

It’s been a brutal few weeks in the world of geo-politics. For me, Manchester involved a lot of tears and a little vomit; undoubtedly London was devastating for Brian. But his comments put in jeopardy the safety of every Muslim who is just as distressed and angry as we are. That’s not the kind of academic freedom I support.

I don’t want Brian thrown over the coals. Equally, strongly-cajoled apologies make me roil. But I do think QUT - and universities more broadly - need to think carefully about how to balance academic freedom with the safe space we must provide to our students, to our staff, to our stakeholders.

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