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Written by Student Rights on 27 January 2012 at 5pm

No to Islamophobia Debate at LSE: An Eyewitness Opinion

Last week Student Rights attended the Emergency General Meeting (EGM) at the London School of Economics during which a motion was proposed which noted “recent Islamophobic incidents at LSE” and attempted to impose a definition which could be used to prosecute those accused of such incidents.

Before the meeting there was some confusion as to the legality of the motion, due to the way it had been rushed onto the agenda.  As the motion did not appear to have been proposed in time to be debated as an ordinary Union General Meeting (UGM) motion, it was debated as an EGM, with the downside to this being that no amendments could be proposed.

The attempt to challenge bigotry on campus is a noble aim, and one which is important to protect Muslim students at the university, yet the motion proposed described Islamophobia as ‘a form of racism expressed through the hatred or fear of Islam, Muslims, or Islamic culture and the stereotyping, demonization or harassment of Muslims, including but not limited to portraying Muslims as barbarians or terrorists or attacking the Quran as a manual of hatred’”. This vague definition could lead to any criticism or mockery of Islam being defined as racism and, as it could not be amended, it was opposed by a number of students.

That this motion should appear so soon in the wake of the publication of ‘Jesus and Mo’ cartoons by the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist (ASH) Society is clearly no coincidence, and this incident was referred to a number of times. One student speaking for the motion declared that this publication was an Islamophobic act as “it is deeply insulting to a Muslim to depict the prophet Muhammad” and that this would “ridicule a faith...a whole culture and a whole ethnicity”.

This portrayal as Muslims as one entity, something she had argued against in her previous statement when she had described Islamophobia as an “attack on a group of people who are thought to be homogenous”, showed a key flaw in this argument. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument also suggests that simply insulting someone’s belief is racist which it is not. It may be provocative, even insensitive, but it is not racist. Rather than defending students from attack, to conflate religion and race in this way looks more like an attempt to define as racism any satire or jokes that a religious person might be offended by.

The two members of the LSE Atheist, Secularist and Humanist (ASH) Society who opposed the motion were subjected to booing by some members of the audience yet presented their case very well. They defended their right to criticise people’s ideas whilst finding a way to protect them from bigoted attacks, and asked that the motion be amended to reflect this.

Key to their argument was the principle that the motion “conflates ideas with people” and that religious beliefs “don’t deserve the same protection from speech and thought that we have to afford people”. This argument was met with a number of questions from the floor, and a statement from the LSE Anti-Racism Officer who declared again that “race does not exist, it is constructed...if people view Muslims as one type of homogenous group...they are being racist”. For those who are confused, this was in support of the motion, despite her sentiments apparently labelling one of the motions defenders as racist.  

Many of the questions asked why this motion was being opposed when the anti-Semitism motion had not been, ignoring the fact that the anti-Semitism motion featured a much clearer definition of its subject. Others asked where this would stop, one man asking whether a Muslim finding him walking hand-in-hand with his boyfriend would be able to complain and another woman asking why Muslim sensibilities should apply to non-Muslims.

All in all, the debate was conducted with a good atmosphere, some booing at the start of the motion aside.  Student Rights welcomes this and would congratulate those present on their ability to discuss the issue without resorting to the insults and slurs sometimes seen elsewhere. However, we fully support the LSE ASH Society and their members in opposing this motion, and feel that it will have a grave effect on freedom of expression at the LSE if it is passed.  

A recording of the debate can be found here