I read with interest the piece called “”˜Isl¬¬amophobia’ narrative stifles alternatives,” by my good colleague, professor David Crockett. He mentioned many things but his starting as well as finishing point concerned free speech in universities. He rightly stated that universities must be places where everyone is free to express his or her opinion without interference. But what seemed to be a defense of free speech turned out to be a call for its confinement. Let me explain:
The series of commentaries published in Trinitonian that Professor Crockett called a “minor fracas” were about a student-organized panel on prejudice. The first was a criticism of the panel by Nikita Chirkov on Oct 2, for among other things, its use of the term Islamophobia, which he found as ridiculous as made up terms such as “marketophobia” or “offendophobia.” In the next week there were several pieces on the same topic, two of which were direct responses to Chirkov. In one column, Joseph Khalaf was tough not only on Mr. Chirkov but on the panel’s organizers. In another, Anne Belleville gave a measured and respectful response to Mr. Chirkov while defending the panel. She explained the concept of Islamophobia and what it actually entails, and thus challenged Chirkov’s interpretation.
Professor Crockett finds the panel, that neither he nor I attended, and the subsequent commentaries, or rather some of it, to represent examples of “the conventional wisdom of the university” and/or “the tyranny of the public opinion.” One may now ask in what way was the student organized panel, sympathetic to the argument that Ahmed Mohamed was a victim of prejudice, an example of “the conventional wisdom of the university?” And in what sense should the two responses to Chirkov’s piece qualified as “tyranny of public opinion?” Professor Crockett did not explain. Perhaps his sentiment resides in the title of his commentary that the “Islamophobia” narrative stifles alternatives. Could this be interpreted as a call for restraining Islamophobic speech so that alternative viewpoints find the opportunity to be expressed and perhaps then true “free” speech to be restored?
Dr. Crockett’s stated point is that the minority voice, in this case the voice of those who question that the treatment of Ahmed Mohamed, was an example of discrimination against Muslims in this country, or even the voice of those who believe that if prejudice against Muslims exists it is due to their own fault, have the right to be expressed. But who is stopping these voices? What institutional, financial or structural forces have been garnered against minority voices? Dr. Crockett, a member of one “minority,” has been the most frequent commentator in the Trinitonian. In many of his pieces he speaks of controversial matters and chooses a side, sometimes gently mocking the opposing position. Occasionally he has been taken to task in the same manner. Does he consider these challenges to his opinion as examples of “the tyranny of public opinion?” In the present case, has the university prevented or even discouraged representatives of “minority” opinion from organizing an alternative panel? Chirkov suggested that there are “threats and pure hatred from other students and administrative staff” against/toward conservatives. Are these “threats” taken within the university setting? If so have they been reported to the authorities? And if so, has the university failed to respond? If there has been a lack of proper university response then shame on the university. If not, then what is this talk about constraint on alternative viewpoints? In other words where is the beef?
Freedom of speech does not mean protection of our speech from potential challenges raised in others’ speech. Nor does it mean that the opposing side has the responsibility to ensure that we speak our mind. That responsibility belongs to those of us who, in one way or another, hold a minority point of view. On occasion, many of us have found ourselves in a spot where due to fear of the reaction of the majority opinion, we hesitated to express ourselves. But we did, we got bruised and we became part of an intellectually-lively community. This is what a university experience is all about.
There is a national debate about whether or not Ahmed Mohamed’s case is an example of Islamophobia. In my personal view it is, but I also believe that the skeptics have every right to express their opinions, not only in this case, but in others such as the murders of three Muslim students at North Carolina University. And they actually do, judging by the loud voices in major media outlets such as Fox News, numerous talk radio shows and across social media. But along with opinions come facts.
According to a 2006 Washington Post- ABC poll, 46 percent of Americans have unfavorable view of Islam but more importantly a large minority, 33% of Americans thought that “MAINSTREAM [emphasis is mine] Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims.” Well, it does not. Contrary to the public opinion the Quran is no more violent than the holy texts of other Abrahamic religions. But, the negative view of Muslims due to the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria (whether our invasion of Iraq contributed to the rise of ISIS is a matter for another discussion) have increased since 2006. And in fact these statistics do not suggest that the majority of Americans necessarily have favorable view of Muslims.
There is a widespread suspicion of not only of the small minority of the radicalized Muslims who would like to hurt us but of all Muslims, over 1.6 billion of them. I do not believe that this fact along with the vulnerability and fear that it brings to Muslim Americans should be swept under the rug. Do American Muslims have the right to say that they are victims of discrimination, profiling, and at times even violence without being subject to the condescending reply that they should quit whining and be grateful that “we” have avoided the option of putting them in “detention camps”?
Universities should protect free speech and refrain from any attempt to silence minority views. But it is not the responsibility of the university to protect any minority view from being challenged. Free speech is meant to be for all and not only the side with which we sympathize.