Cowardly University of Cape Town panics, disinvites speaker who published the Danish “Mohammed” cartoons

July 25, 2016 • 9:30 am

Last year writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik was invited to the University of Cape Town in South Africa to deliver the T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture, an annual talk devoted to “academic and human freedom.” Malik’s talk, “Free speech in an age of identity politics,” was a spirited defense of untrammeled free speech, and included passages like this:

. . . we can see how in the marriage of identity politics and the therapeutic society, the very character of free speech has become transformed. In a world in which many reject the possibility – indeed the desirability – of common values and goals; in which the prospects of fundamental social transformation seem to have ebbed away; in which societies have become more fragmented and identities more parochial; in which words can appear not as a means through which to find our common humanity but as constant threats to our self-identity; in which there is a tendency to deprecate the idea of moral autonomy and to view the human individual as vulnerable and damaged and in need of protection – in such a world, it is not difficult to see how censorship, the means through which to restrain the power of words, can become transformed into a good.

. . . It is precisely because we do live in plural societies that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In plural societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society.   And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.

And important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged. Human beings, as Salman Rushdie has put it, ‘shape their futures by arguing and challenging and saying the unsayable; not by bowing their knee whether to gods or to men.’

Good stuff! Unfortunately, Malik’s message was firmly repudiated by the University’s treatment of his successor, Flemming Rose, invited to give the 2016 Davie Memorial Lecture. Rose was the cultural editor of the Jyllands Posten, the Danish magazine that published the well known “Mohammed Cartoons” that enraged all Muslims and brought many newspapers to their knees, fearful of even showing the cartoons because of possible violent reprisal from offended Muslims. (Yale University Press even published a book about the cartoons without showing any of them! You can see them at the Wikipedia link in this paragraph.) Rose is now the foreign affairs editor of the same magazine.

After the University invited Rose to come, they started to have second thoughts. They have now withdrawn the invitation, with the rationale given in a July 12 letter written by the University’s Vice Chancellor, Dr. Max Price, to the Academic Freedom Committee (copy here). The letter is a masterpiece of evasion, cowardice, and duplicity.  As Price says at the beginning of his pusillanimous screed:

No freedom, however, is unlimited. As with all rights, context and consequence are also critical. The right to academic freedom is fundamental, but cannot be exercised in a vacuum. We have a responsibility to exercise this right with due, thoughtful consideration of other equally important rights, and the possibility of other harmful consequences. Indeed, in terms of our Constitution (as in all modern democratic constitutions), every right is subject to limitation by law of general application which complies with a number of requirements, the most significant of which is that the limitation must be proportional to the context in which it operates, and to the impact which its exercise will have on those affected by its exercise.

And then Price lists the harms that would happen to his University were Rose allowed to speak. A brief excerpt from Price’s letter follows; the words are his but where there are ellipses I’ve left out some text for brevity:

1. Provoking conflict on campus. Public order on many campuses is in a fragile state and in some cases volatile. It would be ill-advised to add a highly contentious speaker to the mix at this time. Our consultations have convinced us that bringing Mr Rose to UCT would generate widespread protest and disruption. Mr Rose is regarded by many around the world as right wing, Islamophobic, someone whose statements have been deliberately provocative, insulting and possibly amount to hate speech, and an editor of a “Our Mission is to be an outstanding teaching and research university, educating for life and addressing the challenges facing our society.” publication that many believe took a bigoted view of freedom of expression. . .

2. The security risks of presenting the lecture. The rise of Islamophobia, the undeniable turmoil in the Middle East in general, the Palestinian question, the rise in extremist terrorist groups, and the violent consequences of these factors in the world (including West and East Africa) is the context in which one must consider the consequences of hosting Mr Rose. In particular, the reality of the rise of extremism in almost every established religion, has made the selective defence of blasphemy particularly hazardous and provocative, probably even more so than when the cartoons were originally published. . . . Mr Rose is seen by many as a persona non grata and while most would protest peacefully against him, we believe there is a real danger that among those offended by the cartoons, an element may resort to violence. We are convinced his presence at this time would lead to vehement and possibly violent protest against him and against UCT.

3. Bringing this speaker to deliver the TB Davie lecture in the current environment might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus. Everyone is deeply aware of the very testing circumstances that pertain to freedom of expression about controversial ideas in this country at present, particularly on university campuses. Our campuses have become charged spaces, in which ideological and social fault-lines have become intensely politicised, sometimes violently so. We are committed to weathering these storms in ways that acknowledge and protect the need for safe spaces to confront and debate such matters. We know that many within our universities don’t feel safe to engage, which undermines the spirit of mutual tolerance and understanding. This is a deeply worrying situation which all adherents of academic freedom should find disconcerting, and ultimately unacceptable. Academic freedom cannot survive, let alone flourish, in such an atmosphere. But will progress on this issue be advanced by inviting someone who represents a provocatively – potentially violently – divisive view to make the case for a considered version of academic freedom that is avowedly sensitive to the concurrent rights to dignity and freedom from harm?

This is all (pardon my French) bullshit. What they have done is consult people after the invitation was issued, only to find—surprise!—that Rose’s actions were controversial.  What that means is that many Muslims didn’t like them and, in fact, killed some people in response. Price, afraid of controversy or Muslim extremist response on his campus, and completely disregarding what Malik said the year before, decided to avoid possible violence or controversy by disinviting Rose. The last bit—the claim that inviting Rose would hinder rather than advance academic freedom—is pure Orwellian doublspeak. How does it advance that freedom by disinviting a “provocative” speaker? Vice-Chancellor Price should be ashamed of himself.

But the best takedown of the University and Price’s letter was by Malik himself, in a piece at his website Pandaemonium called “Academic freedom and academic cowardice.” It’s a devastating indictment of the cowardice of the disinvitation, which does amount to censorship, and I’ll give just the last paragraphs (note: Malik was born in India but moved to England at a young age):

Does the UCT executive really believe that the preservation of academic freedom requires it to invite only those speakers who cause no provocation or raise tension? Does it imagine, in other words, that one can only preserve academic freedom by inviting speakers with whom the audience is likely to agree? In which case, what is the point of such speakers speaking?

In disinviting Flemming Rose because some condemn him as offensive or Islamophobic, the UCT executive is not only undermining academic freedom, it is also blindly entering a fraught debate within Muslim communities – and supporting the conservatives against the progressives. What is called ‘offence to a community’ is more often than not actually a struggle within communities. There are hundreds of thousands, within Muslim communities in the West, and within Muslim-majority countries across the world, challenging religious-based reactionary ideas and policies and institutions. There are writers, artists, political activists, daily putting their lives on the line in facing down blasphemy laws, standing up for equal rights and fighting for democratic freedoms; people like Sabeen Mahmud, the Pakistani rights activist shot dead last year by religious militants; or Bangladeshi bloggers such as Nazimuddin Samad and Avijit Roy, hacked to death for their blasphemies; or Raif Badawi, the Saudi blogger senstenced to seven years’ imprisonment and a thousand lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Such issues are live in South Africa, too. Last year, the writer ZP Dala was violently assaulted in Durban for expressing her admiration of Salman Rushdie, and subsequently forced by the local community into a mental hospital, apparently to cure her of her blasphemous views. For such figures a ‘safe space’ means not a place in which to hide from unpalatable ideas, but a space in which their lives are not threatened. Every time an institution such as UCT attempts to censor a speaker for ‘giving offence’ or for their ‘blasphemous views’, it betrays the struggles of those such as Sabeen Mahmud, Nazimuddin Samad, Avijit Roy, Raif Badawi and ZP Dala.

That’s just damn eloquent.

I’ve written to Vice Chancellor Price, whose cowardly letter was dated July 12 of this year, and if you wish to make your views known, his address is public; you can find it on the letterhead here.

h/t: Coel

40 thoughts on “Cowardly University of Cape Town panics, disinvites speaker who published the Danish “Mohammed” cartoons

  1. Considering the tendencies of muslims these days to start murdering people any time they get upset about something, I’d personally rather not put my neck out there. Call me a coward, but Iv’e got a thing against being dead, so I’d side with at least part of the university’s reason for deciding against the invitation. I personally would’t invite him for the fear over being the next terror target, and then the uber-left would verbally attack me for viewing islam as a violent religion (if the shoe, or suicide vest fits…) but sadly, this is a very real concern that the right can’t bomb their way out of the the left can’t hug and pray their way out of.

    Now, the crap about “retarding” academic freedom is just pure shite indeed, as is the question about Malik’s place on the political spectrum.

    1. Well, what you’ve just said is that nobody anywhere should invite a controversial critic of Islam because of the dangers involved. Do you really think that Islam should get off scot-free, all critics banned, while critics of Catholicism, Hinduism, Judaism, or other faiths can be free to give talks? That, of course, is precisely what Islamists want: to render their faith immune to criticism. We cannot allow that to happen.

      1. No, I’m just saying I personally wouldn’t chose to put myself at risk, a very real risk these days. I already admitted I’m a bit a of a coward. and I understand why a university wouldn’t wish to put a target on themselves and put students at risk, if that is in fact the real reason behind the dis-invitation. Nowhere in my post did I say Islam should be above criticism. It would be different if a government could offer a modicum of protection, which none seem particularly able at the moment. I’m glad that there are people out there who are far more brave than I, who are willing to take up the cause. I very much admire those people such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who’ve put their lives in danger in order to speak out against the violence and hate of islam. I don’t wish to “let the terrorists win” any more than I wish to give muslims a free pass, but I admit that right now I’m at a bit of a loss on how we should proceed. Hell, even being just slightly the wrong kind of muslim gets one shot. Everyone is welcome to hate and belittle me for my stance, but I offer it honestly. I really don’t have a clue on what we can or should do that will honestly make a difference at the moment. sorry.

        1. “…I’m a bit a of a coward.”

          I think “dhimmi” is the word you’re looking for. It’s nice that Islam provides these convenient niches for people who don’t want to be killed, it’s really quite civilized that way. Just tug your forelock when appropriate and you’ll be fine.

          1. I don’t think that works anymore. I appreciate the snark behind the comment though.

            I suppose I’m closer to the Japanese term Hikikomori, if you must put a name on it.

            I’m sorry my admission that I’m unsure of the situation offends you and others. But, then that’s life, ain’t it? Variation in personalities and abilities, and of course I don’t really have a choice in the matter. I react how I do, feel how I do, no matter how much I wish otherwise. Perhaps that can change in the future. Perhaps I’ll encounter something that will galvanize my weak backbone. But at least I’m honest about that.

            1. Another “deterministic” person telling it like it is for him and giving offense to people who disagree. Maybe he should be disinvited?!!

              I think it’s critical for us all to hear points of view and truths that we find offensive or difficult to accept. Some of my most important and longest lasting learning experiences have taken place in reaction to messages, issues (or people) I thought I hated. (Maybe I should be disinvited.)

              1. I don’t know if I’m a determinist or what. I’ve yet to read anything about freewill that I can make any sense out of. My comment is more about an emotional state, or flaw, if you will, and one that I know hinders my progress in life. Guess that’s all I can or care to say about the topic.

                “Zaphod did not want to tangle with them and, deciding that just as discretion is the better part of valor, so was cowardice is the better part of discretion, he valiantly hid himself in a closet.”
                ― Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything


        2. I appreciate your honesty. Indeed, with Western governments consistently favoring the domination of Islam, an ordinary citizen can hardly be blamed.

    2. If we give in to threats of violence, then the oppressors win. If we collectively speak out, they can’t kill us all. This is an issue that requires everyone who believes in academic as well as social and religious freedom to speak up.

      1. Why I think that Mr. Rose should have been invited, I do not agree with you. If those speaking out against Islam are murdered, the position of Islamists is even stronger than if nobody speaks out. “See what is happening to the infidels! Allah is great!”

        And the open dissent is soon shut down. Did the occupied Europeans and Asians speak out against Nazi/Japanese occupiers? The occupiers also could not kill the entire population. Not quickly, at any rate. But they quickly silenced it. And if they had not been defeated, the entire population would change. Some would be killed, some would flee, the rest would convert. Muslim-majority countries tend to be 90-98% Muslim.

        1. I meant that those of us in free societies, such as South Africa and the U.S., need to speak up, and support those in closed societies who are being oppressed.

    3. Do you think that “not sticking your neck out” is likely to be a significant protective factor against being involved in the next Islamist (or other religious fanatics) killing you and those near you?
      In addition to the randomness of their targeting – anyone and everyone who they think might be of a different religious sept to them – you have to contend with the incompetence of their first-time bomb builders, and their inability to get the bomb to the nominal target.

    4. I agree with you strongly that safety comes first in such a situation. Although it does make it harder for people to speak out against the violent perpetrators, sometimes it’s just necessary not to take the risk, especially when the threat is so vividly real and there are many people to protect from their violence. It’s basically the problem of who will bell the cat; everyone agrees it must be done, but everyone also agrees its very dangerous and not to be taken lightly.

      What frustrates me about moves like this is that the institutions aren’t content enough to admit it’s a security concern, because that would imply they’re bowing to intimidation from thugs. Instead, they convince themselves that it’s not just safe, but morally right to bow to intimidation from thugs.

      They pussyfoot around the problem by heaping opprobrium on “controversial” speakers, as though it was an equally strong concern if the speaker is “right-wing”, “bigoted”, or “provocative”. Their explanation in the OP reeks of this kind of scapegoating.

      I can fully sympathize with an institute’s need to protect itself. I can’t sympathize with one so determined to blame the speaker for the violent actions of others.

    1. Well said. This is my note to the vice-chancellor:

      Dr. Price,
      I was disappointed to read of your institution’s decision to disinvite Mr. Rose. I can understand security concerns, but any argument that this somehow is in the interest of academic freedom is difficult to accept. I would hope that the task team would at least acknowledge that academic freedom was sacrificed to security concerns. Whenever controversial voices are silenced, that is the opposite of academic freedom.

  2. They attempt to say every “right” is subject to limitations. Yes it is. Subject to things like whether you believe in it, practice it and are not afraid of it.

    You know Intimidation is a crime in many states. I’ll bet many Universities don’t even want to know about this either. Too scary.

  3. Price lists the harms – “This is all (pardon my French) bullshit.”

    My sentiments exactly. What a weasel (no offence intended to actual Mustelidae which are as noble as cats).

  4. The threat of violence is simultaneously an indemnity for deference and a proclamation of insecurity. Theoectomy should be a medical term in the lexicon of neurosurgery.

  5. First they came for cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, and I did not speak out, because I was a not a cartoonist.

    Then they came for the concert-goers in Paris, but I did not speak out because I was not at the concert.

    Then they came for the fire-works-watchers in Nice, but I did not speak out because I was not watching the fire works.

    Then they came for the protestors in Kabul, who wanted electricity in their villages, but I did not speak out because I have plenty of electricity.

    Then they shut down free speech in Cape Town, but I did not speak out because I do not live in Cape Town or attend University there.

    And now, “speaking out” may not be an option anywhere in the world, if we don’t start now, in every corner of the world, even here, in rural, small-town Ontario, Canada, where I live. Where political correctness on this issue is rampant.

    As Ploubere noted above, “they can’t kill us all”. Shame on UCT.

  6. I’m a UCT graduate but I’ve been losing respect for the university over some of their actions since I left. This one is especially disappointing. For a university that has an annual lecture dedicated to academic freedom, I expected better.

  7. I can understand he might fear for student’s safety in South Africa – with its religiosity and ethnic diversity in high voltage environment of severe racial and class tensions. What gets me is the utter put down of Rose and dressing it up to pretend that shutting down the chance of a speech actually furthers free speech instead of praising the stance but maybe suggesting a more select or vetted audience if its such a security issue. It brings up every ghastly regressive trope about marginalisation and minorities and cultural rights and even safe spaces and the “right” not to be offended over free expression and reason

    The sanctimonious put down of any right to free speech in the face of islamic bigotry is whats so damaging – its another regressive left broadcast actually doing the islamists message for them whilst pretending its for justice.

    1. I mean re first sentence even though South Africa is on the tip of Africa its close to unstable countries with weak borders and theres been so much terrorism in Kenya, and the uni has a responsibility to Students. Could still have the speaker but perhaps a somewhat select event.

      The reasons in the letter and the treatment of Flemming Rose, were completely pathetic

  8. Here’s my letter to the Vice Chancellor:

    Dear Vice Chancellor Price,

    I was distressed to hear that you have disinvited Flemming Rose as the T. B. Davie lecturer on academic freedom. It’s deeply ironic that you curtail someone’s freedom of speech at a lecture devoted precisely to fostering freedom of speech. And yes, disinviting someone amounts to censorship.

    The reasons given in your letter, I think, amount simply to this: “We are afraid of Muslim violence, so we cannot let this man speak.” That attitude, of course, amounts to saying this: “Islam is now protected from criticism because its adherents get offended and commit violence, while other faiths and ideologies are okay to criticize.” What you have done is exactly what Islamists want: immunize their faith from criticism out of fear of violence. You’ve done their work for them, censoring that criticism by banning the critics. It is a cowardly and reprehensible thing to do, especially at a university that is supposed to value free inquiry.

    I have published a piece on this decision on my website, which has 40,000 subscribers.

    I suppose it’s too late to change the University’s decision, but I think very poorly of both the disinvitation and the unconvincing reasons given in your letter. The Islamists will be very grateful for your protection; the free-speech advocates, not so much.

    Jerry Coyne
    Professor Emeritus
    Dept. Ecology and Evolution
    The University of Chicago

  9. Hi Midge



    On Mon, Jul 25, 2016 at 4:30 PM, Why Evolution Is True wrote:

    > whyevolutionistrue posted: “Last year writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik > was invited to the University of Cape Town in South Africa to deliver the > T. B. Davie Memorial Lecture, an annual talk devoted to “academic and human > freedom.” Malik’s talk, “Free speech in an age of identity p” >

  10. South Africa is soaked in religion. There is a sizeable and affluent Jewish community along with enough Muslims with a appetite for hating Jews. The BDS movement is huge. Billboards advertising it next to highways.

  11. Bringing this speaker … might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus

    I don’t see much downside risk: it’s pretty retarded already.

  12. When oh when will the powers that be learn that pandering to Islam is a complete waste of time, and percieved as weakness by its adherents. We are now at the point where an islamist says”jump” and our Politicos ask “how high”?

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