“Muslims are self-censoring” Prof Scott-Baumann on the battle for free speech on campus

"Muslims are self-censoring" argues Alison Scott-Baumann
"This is where you form your adult identity. " Alison Scott-Baumann

“Muslims are self-censoring, I have evidence of this in my research

Professor Scott-Baumann utters the sentence calmly but it’s clear that she is deeply concerned at the status of freedom of speech on UK campuses. And if you’ve been following the stories in the media, there’s a strong chance you believe that the problems stem from the students themselves. The ‘snowflake generation’ who scream ‘safe space’ the moment they’re challenged about anything that doesn’t chime with their personal worldview. 

Well, according to Alison’s work this is a gross misrepresentation.

“I think it [free speech] is under threat, but not for the reasons that people such as the former Higher Education minister Jo Johnson have said. What’s actually happening is that the government is making it necessary to suppress free speech. It’s not the universities that are doing it themselves. They’re doing it because the government instructs them to do so.

“There are essentially two things to look at: you have the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, which means that some people can speak freely and some can’t. So if you’re a person of colour or you wear clothes that make it look like you might be Muslim, then you are regarded as possibly needing to be censored. What this means now is that Muslims and people of colour are self-censoring. And I have extensive evidence of that in my research. The other aspect is the Charity Commission, which acts as an attack dog on behalf of Prevent. They are showing great interest in Palestine Societies and Islamic Societies.”

So why is this perspective not being shared? There have been plenty of articles dedicated to a celebrity speaker being ‘no platformed’, but hardly a mention of this. Why do you think that is?

“The media – with the government’s collusion – has created this fake moral crisis that all students are snowflakes who melt the moment anyone starts debating something difficult or controversial. This is completely untrue and there is little real evidence that it is happening to a great scale. But it’s a brilliant image and one that is very difficult to get rid of from the public discourse. And the powerful idea of it is being used to say students are overusing ‘safe space’.”

What is ‘safe space’?

“The idea of a ‘safe space’ is that students can’t bear to talk about big issues like trans, identity politics or anything to do with gender. But there is no evidence for this whatsoever. There is evidence, however, for the fact that students are enthusiastic, and I think rightly so, about common courtesy and not causing offence gratuitously.

“So, for example, at SOAS we have a policy that transphobic comments and behaviour are completely unacceptable. I think that’s reasonable. We’re all different and we shouldn’t be called out on it. Students should be able to carry on being unusual. They’re at university. This is where you form your adult identity. The actual term ’safe space’  is funnily enough most commonly found in documentation created by universities to deal with the censorship which the Government is imposing.

“There is an example I can give you from SOAS. A student group decided they wanted to show The Passion of the Christ. The Mel Gibson film, it’s very violent, it’s like 5 hours of torture. So what then happened was that the SU let it be known that this was a very violent film and that they were creating a space that was safe in the sense that the preconceptions about what will take place in this space are known. If you come, and you pretend that you didn’t know what the film was about, then you’re wrong and you can’t necessarily expect us to be sympathetic. Now that’s a really quite sophisticated use of safe space.

“And when you think about it, the hypocrisy of accusing students of being snowflakes and overusing safe spaces is utterly astounding. Every adult I know in their own home creates their own safe space. They only watch what they want to watch, they only entertain who they want to entertain and they only talk about the things they are interested in. So why students should be accused of this rather than the whole human race is baffling.”

So what are the success stories surrounding free speech the media aren’t talking about?

“SOAS takes free speech really seriously, we’re one of the few campuses that really practices what it preaches. So the extreme example of that is Mark Regev, the Israeli Ambassador to Britain. He was invited by Jewish students. He was able to talk, to take questions. And at the same time, students who were pro-Palestinian were able to protest. That’s not ideal, what would have been brilliant would have been if he was prepared to talk to students and they’d been able to have a dialogue with him too. That wasn’t possible because that would take a lot of preparation and a change of attitude but at least on this campus, he was able to talk, they were able to protest. That is, in a limited but very powerful way, a victory for free speech.”

Alison Scott-Baumann is Professor of Society and Belief in the Department of Religions and Philosophies at SOAS University of London.

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