Many of you have probably heard about the controversial Islamic cleric Mufti Ismail Menk’s proposed tour of certain British universities. I am a student at the University of Leicester, one such university where our Union’s Islamic Society had invited him to give a lecture called “Young and Responsible”, I suppose about the responsibilities of young Muslims towards their religious obligations. I am actually one of the co-chairs of our Union’s LGBTQ Association and it was brought to my attention by a member of our group that this cleric had previously made a number of disgusting comments about LGB people. This included statements that gay people were “filthy”, worse than “pigs and dogs”, and that consensual gay sex is “as bad as rape” ( http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/11/05/saudi-cleric-who-says-consenting-gay-sex-is-as-bad-as-rape-due-to-visit-oxford-university/). These comments of course made many of our members feel extremely unhappy and uncomfortable and action began to get this speaker uninvited from talking at our Union. After a few days of controversy, Menk issued a statement cancelling his tour. This was good news for us and indeed many other students and staff at the University of Leicester and other Universities who opposed his invitation. However I would just like to take the time to put forward the reasons why we thought he should not be allowed to come to do the talk.
Some people argued that under the principle of free speech, Mufti Menk should be allowed to talk at our Union. However the principle of free speech does not stretch far enough to include hate speech (even under UK law). It is a qualified right and not an absolute one, it never has been. The argument for taking this one step further in Universities is that University Union’s are not public domain. The Union is a private body, a safe space for students, often young and vulnerable. It is not supposed to be a reflection of the outside world, where expression of disgusting comments are tolerated under the principle of free speech, but instead a safe space devoid of such hateful statements. Allowing this man to speak at our Union would have given off completely the wrong message about what the aims of the Union are. We are not supposed to be a Union that tolerates such hateful opinions about members of our student body (or indeed human beings in general), and by allowing individuals like Menk to talk at our Union we are legitimizing his views, when instead we should be sending out a clear message that those views are not acceptable and are not welcome here.
With a certain level of specificity to the University of Leicester’s Student Union, many of us were simply bemused as to how Mufti Menk could possibly have been allowed to speak at our union as his comments on the LGB community clearly violated the No Platform policy that we have in place. Whilst this began as a Union Parliament motion to combat the invitation of fascist speakers, there is at least one specific Union policy that includes homophobia as a reason to bar someone based on the No Platform policy; it can be found here: http://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/nusdigital/document/documents/2390/26ce51e9d09977967b819103899b54ec/Equality011209.pdf . One question many of us are now concerned about is: what exactly is the weight of such union policy? Considering our sabbatical team were not prepared to quickly stand up and point out how this policy was violated, but instead needed to ‘further investigate’ the issue with the University, it doesn’t seem that the policy does carry the weight it is supposed to. Indeed if this is the case, then why bother passing any motion through Union Council when the resolves are not adequately followed, either by the Sabbatical Officers or by the Union as a whole? For myself and many other students at the University of Leicester this issue could have been quickly resolved by reference of the Sabbatical Officers to this one policy – our confidence and trust in said officers and indeed the Union Council system as a whole has been shaken. As a Union Council officer myself (Student Life Zone) I have great concerns about policy being followed. As I was perusing the list of policies up for policy lapse this year (there is a system whereby after 4 years policy will lapse and no longer be enforceable unless renewed by Council), I noticed many policies which simply have not been implemented anyway. What is the purpose of them being part of Union policy if they are not followed/used? One example I found particularly interesting was a policy stating that all student staff of the Union were supposed to be informed about the benefits of joining a trade union etc as part of their staff training. I’m a member of staff in our Union – I was trained at the beginning of September and was given no such information. Why is this allowed to happen?
To summarise: it was quite clear from the outset that a speaker who preaches such hate as Mufti Menk should never be allowed to speak at a University Union, a place that is supposed to be a safe space for students. In this case it compromised the welfare of LGBTQ+ students who are a not insignificant part of the student body at our university. Although our concerns were indeed listened to by Sabbatical Officers, action was slow and passed off instead to the University. This was clearly unnecessary when one considers our No Platform policy – Union Policy that the Officers are supposed to ensure are implemented. Whilst I am glad that the issue has now been resolved, it would have been interesting to see what the outcome at our university would have been had Menk not cancelled his tour. The Universities of Oxford and Leeds both barred him from attending – would our university have followed suit? According to Union policy, it should have – but in light of how it has been dealt with I cannot say I have confidence that it would have.