I know how Douglas Murray must feel after being disinvited from a university debate. I was once rejected due to my surname.
Organisers of a London School of Economics (LSE) debate titled ‘Islam or Liberalism: Which is the Way Forward?’ came up with a Third Way last week: pre-emptive censorship. Douglas Murray, a self-described neoconservative and critic of Islam, was disinvited from chairing the debate between Dr Alan Sked, senior lecturer in international history at the LSE, and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, a Muslim writer and lecturer, on the basis that his presence might rile some students.
I know how he must feel. I was once turned down from a university debate on the basis that my surname – Rothschild – might upset sensitive attendees.
The decision to bar Murray from the debate, which went ahead without him last Monday, was not based on anything he had said or done. The Telegraph reported Dr Sked saying that Murray had ‘never said anything objectionable’ in previous appearances at the LSE. Instead, the LSE asked Murray not to attend ‘in the interest of public safety’. According to Dr Sked, ‘radical students’ have recently caused trouble, including by occupying LSE buildings. A one-week protest over Israel’s war in Gaza had just taken place at the LSE when Murray received notice that it was no longer appropriate for him to chair Monday’s event.
The purpose of the LSE debate was to evaluate ‘how far Islam and liberalism are compatible’. Perhaps the organisers should do a follow-up discussion on how far the LSE and liberal values are compatible. Free and open debate ought to be the mainstay of any university worth its name, yet the managers of this prestigious institution don’t seem to have the guts to uphold freedom of speech.
Two years ago, I spoke on a panel debate with Murray at the Battle of Ideas, looking at what lay behind ‘the veil row’ – that short-lived but incendiary controversy sparked by former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw’s description of the niqab as a ‘visible demonstration of separateness’. I didn’t find Murray’s warnings about the ‘Islamification of the West’ convincing, and neither did most of the audience, which included representatives of the radical Islamic group Hizb-ut-Tahrir. However, there was no global jihad at this heated debate; radical young Muslims simply challenged Murray from the floor, and he challenged them back. The idea that people will go berserk upon hearing controversial arguments – a fear that apparently haunts the imagination of LSE professors – is unfounded.
It is not just professors who feel the need to tiptoe around students’ supposed sensibilities. Shortly before that Battle of Ideas debate – in October 2006 – I had been recommended as a speaker for a panel debate at Greenwich University titled ‘Does the Veil Stop “Community Cohesion?”’. The event was organised by a Further Education Black Students Officer at the National Union of Students (NUS). Yet when this elected NUS representative, whose primary job was to deal with issues affecting ethnic minorities in Britain’s colleges, found out that my surname is Rothschild, he decided I was persona non grata. Apparently, it is not appropriate for a person with a Jewish name to sit on a panel discussing Muslim issues.
The organiser’s excuse for not inviting me to speak was that he feared the debate would turn into a discussion about Israel/Palestine on the basis of my name, instantly recognisable as Jewish. Yet when I saw the full outline of the event, it was clear that there was no reason why the debate would ‘descend into a row’ about the Middle East. The debate aimed to address four questions: ‘Is the veil stopping community cohesion and why will the Muslim community not integrate? Are the Muslim community intolerant of whether people find the veil uncomfortable? Does the war on terror have anything to do with this? What are Muslims doing to alleviate any fears of the wider non-Muslim community?’ These are all issues I have written on or spoken about, yet the organisers decided not to accept me as a recommended speaker because of the R-word: Rothschild.
Then, three days before the debate was scheduled to take place, they became desperate to find a final speaker. So desperate that they seemed to overcome their qualms about having someone with a recognisable Jewish name on the panel… They emailed asking me to take part, demanding ‘please get back to us ASAP!’. This time, I declined.
The whole saga was pretty insulting. But it wasn’t proof of some endemic anti-Semitism; it simply showed up the prejudice and cowardice of one individual. I quite easily brushed the incident aside. After all, with a name like Rothschild, I have been mistaken for everything from a global international conspirator and an ‘ally of genocidal communism’ to a multibillionaire playboy who hangs out with Russian oligarchs and Tories (also named ‘Nat Rothschild’). So what if some ignoramus deduced from my family name that I could not address a student union debate on Muslim veils without promulgating some ‘Jewish interest’? That was his problem.
However, both my experience and that of Douglas Murray point to the rise and rise of new forms of pre-emptive censorship – the curtailing of debate ‘just in case’. Both the NUS officer who declined me as a speaker and the professors at the LSE who disinvited Murray insulted their prospective audiences, presuming that they would be offended or incited by the presence of a Jew, in my case, or a neocon critic of Islam, in Murray’s case.
Students, professors, politicians and commentators increasingly feel the need to tiptoe around people’s perceived sensitivities, particularly in relation to the Middle East. Fearing complaints and controversy, they end up practising pre-emptive censorship in the name of ‘public safety’ or ‘avoiding offence’. This was also the case when Random House publishers pulled Sherry Jones’ novel, The Jewel of Medina, a Mills-and-Boon style story about the prophet Mohammed’s relationship with his 14-year-old wife Aisha. Random House said the book ‘might be offensive to some in the Muslim community’ and it could ‘incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment’. Again, the ‘just in case’ principle rules: withhold a novel from publication ‘just in case’ it incites anger.
Others argue that radical Muslims should be banned in case they offend Christians or stir young Muslims to become suicide bombers. Indeed, some of the right-wing conservative commentators who were up in arms about the LSE retracting its invitation to Douglas Murray, all self-proclaimed defenders of Enlightenment values, often call for censorship, too. For example, Daily Mail columnist Melanie Philips has demanded the banning of Muslim groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir. Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance, called for the resignation of the LSE professor who took the final decision to disinvite Murray. Gabb was right to say that universities have a commitment to free speech and that the professor undermined this by disinviting Murray. However, his reaction also points to a censorious impulse simply to get rid of those who offend certain ideals rather than to challenge them.
As it happens, the NUS, through its censorious ‘No Platform’ policy, has managed to ban Hiz-but-Tahrir on many British campuses. Sensitivity censorship is rife in British universities: leftists try to ban fascists, right-wing groups oppose radical Muslims, and Muslims try to stop Jews from speaking. When I was a student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, a handful of students formed a Jewish society, yet the Islamic Society complained that the student union had allowed a ‘Zionist organisation’ to set up on campus. Recently, students in Oxford demanded the cancellation of a speech by Israeli president Shimon Peres. Elsewhere, students have campaigned to censor anti-immigrant professors, the youth wing of the British Nationalist Party, Christian Unions, the Daily Mail, and Eminem songs. One university recently banned political groups from participating in freshers’ week – the first week of the academic year when students normally get the chance to mingle and sign up to societies.
Rather than feeding into this bizarre game of ‘No Platform’ one-upmanship, professors, students, publishers and others should stand up for freedom expression for all – and that includes Muslim extremists, neocons, and people with famous surnames.