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Is freedom of speech selective?

  • Opinion

SOAS has recently become a newsworthy subject due to a talk which preacher Haitham al-Haddad, PhD, gave here on the 17th of February. Al-Haddad spoke at SOAS on why ‘riba’ (interest) is prohibited in Islam, but he is also known to hold questionable views regarding FGM, domestic violence and homosexuality.



Preacher al-Haddad Source: Unknown

Al-Haddad’s presence at SOAS has triggered numerous complaints and several reports in the media; among the SOAS voices, I have heard people take issue with his extremist views, and the fact that his speaking here turns SOAS into an ‘unsafe space’. My question is – ‘unsafe’ for what?

In my opinion, universities are meant to be safe spaces for learning – about the world and, if we’re lucky, a little about ourselves. While physical and verbal abuse should not be tolerated in universities any more than in other places, the academic environment is one of the few which claims to be an open space for dialogue (this holds especially true at SOAS). This open policy does not come with the caveat “as long as we only talk about what I agree with.”

At the same time, universities shouldn’t be thought bubbles, removed from the world and its diversity of opinions; they are made up of people, each with their own unique vision, and a marker of a safe space is a place where everyone gets to have their say, without fear of being antagonized.

Freedom of speech is a funny thing. Probably one of the most commonly accepted traits of democracy, it’s also one of the most controversial. Who do we ‘allow’ a voice to, and who do we expose as a villain for their opinions is a common question. The truth is, we are not in a position to ‘allow’ anything to anyone, and we shouldn’t be. The state guarantees everyone a voice as long as it doesn’t turn into a verbally abusive slur – as long as the voice doesn’t shut down other voices.

In the case of al-Haddad, that’s exactly what some were calling for (never mind that his talk had nothing to do with his other, more contentious ideas). He came into an academic institution, a safe space (sic!) to give a lecture on one particular subject. And while a shade of political correctness has been sidestepped in calling him here, whether he is the most appropriate expert to speak on that topic is irrelevant, as he is qualified to speak on it.

Still, let’s imagine for a second that he was here to talk about his view of homosexuality. Banning his voice wouldn’t have made it disappear – they never do, and a ban would set a very dangerous precedent. The way I see it, he should be free to discuss it, and we should be free to leave the classroom empty. But if we’d be a bit more daring, we’d fill the classroom and talk about it.


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