“…the only ideas I’m afraid of letting people say are the ones that I think may be true and that I don’t like. But I accept that censorship is not going to make the world be the way I wish it were.” – Sam Altman
In the Spring of 2016, Summit – the magazine created by Mount Royal University (MRU) to “showcase the aspirations, achievements and contributions of Mount Royal students, faculty, staff, alumni and supporters and, in so doing, clarify Mount Royal’s profile as a Canadian leader in undergraduate education” – put out an article rationalizing the Islamic religion. Entitled “Semblance of faith: A campus community defies dinner-party etiquette and dares to talk religion” (http://mtroyal.ca/summit/faith.htm), the article featured a number of students, faculty and staff who were intent on showing that the Islamic religion was not oppressive to women and was not linked to violence. It was implied that those who thought the contrary were guilty of “Islamophobia”, which the article defined “as dislike of or prejudice against Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force”. What was needed, according to the article, was for Muslims to embark upon a “public awareness campaign” to “address misconceptions”, so that critics would overcome their “fear and ignorance” and accept Islamic beliefs and practices as being “normal”.
While the article assumed that there was widespread agreement with its buoyant portrayal of Islam, “Islamophobia” was soon to rear its ugly head. This occurred in October 2016, when David Docherty, the president of MRU, sent out a cryptic email asserting the following:
Post-secondaries by design encourage and challenge ideas; however, expressions of hate in any form and directed at any group or individual have no place on our campuses.
Mount Royal University will not tolerate Islamophobia.
I know all of you stand with me in solidarity with our Muslim students and employees, as well as members of all faiths and identities, to protect and celebrate inclusive communities.
At the time, it was irritating to receive such a presumptuous dispatch about “solidarity” and the need to “celebrate inclusive communities”. But, as no other details were forthcoming, the communication was soon forgotten. One year later, however, disturbing information was conveyed about the reasons for this email from the Diversity and Human Rights Office. According to the Director of this office, President Docherty’s email was in response to some public written statements of a student, which included the following: “Fuck Islam”, “Islam is Cancer” and “Love Muslims, Hate Islam”. It was also revealed that, at the time, the student making the statements had been identified and went through a process with the Office of Student Conduct.
While President Docherty’s email may have been prompted in part by the medium of communication chosen (evidently, the student had put up some posters, had written on a whiteboard in a classroom, and had marked a wall), it was likely that some of the president’s response was due to the content of the public utterances. The president’s email, after all, was about how MRU would “not tolerate Islamophobia”. This assertion required clarification about what was considered permissible discourse on campus.
In order to determine what the president was intending with his email, a written question was submitted to General Faculties Council. After providing the background noted above, inquiries were made about the following:
Is President Docherty asserting that arguments maintaining that a religious ideology is “cancer” will not be tolerated at this university? One of the statements – “Love Muslims, Hate Islam” – clearly distinguishes between religious ideas and the people that have chosen to believe in them. Is President Docherty asserting that to express intense dislike for a belief system constitutes an “[expression] of hate” that has “no place on our campuses”? Does “[standing] in solidarity…with all members of all faiths and identities…to protect and celebrate inclusive communities” include prohibiting the expression of a strong aversion to their ideas?
It should be noted that two famous public intellectuals have made similar comments about religion in general, and Islam in particular. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, called faith a “virus”, while the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris made the following statement about Islam: “It is time we admitted that we are not at war with ‘terrorism’. We are at war with Islam. This is not to say that we are at war with all Muslims, but we are absolutely at war with the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. The only reason Muslim fundamentalism is a threat to us is because the fundamentals of Islam are a threat to us” (Sam Harris, “Mired in a religious war”, The Washington Times, December 1, 2004, https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2004/dec/1/20041201-090801-2582r/ [accessed November 2017]). While many would disagree with these statements, it is unlikely that they would be prohibited on the grounds that they are “hateful” or “Islamophobic”. It is essential, in fact, that assertions like these be debated at a university.
Is it appropriate for Mount Royal University to muzzle critical statements or opinions that vehemently oppose the chosen beliefs of certain members of our community?
In his response on December 14, 2017, Docherty expressed his appreciation for the written question and said that the university’s reaction was largely provoked by how the student had chosen to express their opinions. The president, however, also stated that MRU expected views to be expressed “respectfully”. The fact that the student had used an “f-bomb”, according to the president, gave a good indication that the student was not interested in having a respectful discussion about the subject.
The president’s response raised more questions than it answered. Sure, we might agree that the use of profanity in the exchange of ideas should be avoided, but what if the student had said “fuck fascism” instead of “fuck Islam”? Would this have elicited the same response? And what about the two other statements? Were they, as well, considered to be “disrespectful” and therefore forbidden?
While the president’s response was somewhat unsatisfactory, the faculty and student reactions to the question at General Faculties Council were alarming. These responses were overwhelmingly supportive of restricting freedom of expression in certain “contexts”, resulting in two main arguments opposing the “disrespectful” criticism of Islam. The first “context” was specific to the religion itself and pertained to the assumption that, unlike other belief systems or ideologies, Islam was “not an idea”. It was argued that Islam consisted of “many ideas” that were intricately connected to the identities of various ethnic groups. Therefore, criticism of Islam amounted to “hate speech” and disguised the tremendous benefits that the religion had brought to the world. The statement “fuck Islam” was very different from using the words “fuck fascism”, it was maintained, as fascism was not connected to identifiable groups of people. Saying that the Islamic religion was contemptible, according to this view, would be equivalent to regarding Muslim people with contempt.
The second argument was broader and concerned the minority “context” of those members of the MRU community who believed in the Islamic religion. It was asserted that everyone at MRU had to be very cognizant of the power differentials that existed on campus, and that not all people would feel equally comfortable in airing their opinions. The public rejection of Islam had the potential to create a “chill” on campus, and this could result in a climate where it would be difficult for some to participate. It was noted that many members of minority groups were now feeling “unsafe” at MRU, and prohibitions against vitriolic criticisms of their identities were needed to create an inclusive environment on campus.
These arguments are highly destructive to the university as an intellectual institution and the human interactions it makes possible. The first argument is very dangerous to those who believe in the Islamic religion, as it implies that their religious beliefs are innate and therefore unchangeable. Rather than facilitating “inclusion”, it will likely lead to an increase in resentment towards Muslim people, because there will be no ability to distinguish between the terrible things that the belief system commands and the unfortunate people who happen to have been indoctrinated into accepting these religious dictates. This failure to distinguish between believers and their ideas is obviously untenable because many people convert to Islam and many decide to leave the faith. The organization Ex-Muslims of North America, with thousands of members, shows how ridiculous it is to confuse ethnicity with this belief system.
The second argument – about being careful in expressing ideas that could result in the further marginalization of minorities – is even more problematic for universities because it encourages us to view people, not as individuals, who can self-actualize and find their own way in the world, but as members of groups that must be protected from feeling “unsafe” (i.e. uncomfortable). To be a real university there can be no “safe spaces” for ideas. To say that criticizing a particular belief system is off limits because it is “disrespectful” is to create a climate where people will self-censor for fear of causing offense. This will then limit the capacity of atheists to express themselves and will prevent critical thinkers from analyzing the potential irrationality of various ideas. It also will act to prevent all of us from engaging honestly with one another and learning how to create a better world that will include us all.