Duke University’s mission statement says it is dedicated to “promot[ing] an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry.” Yet when Asra Nomani, a journalist and author of two books, came to speak on “The Paradox of Women in Islam,” the university almost rescinded her invitation. The Muslim Students Association sent an email smearing her as a friend of “Islamophobes” and discouraged students from attending.
Nomani isn’t remaining silent. Far from being an Islamophobe, she is a Muslim who has tried to modernize and reform Islam for the past decade. She pushed to integrate the sex-segregated male-only prayer room at her mosque in Morgantown, West Virginia, in 2003. In 2005, she organized a female-led prayer at a mixed-gender congregation. For those transgressions, she says she received death threats.
Be Afraid of Words, Kids
The Muslim Students Association sent an email to students that read:
DIYA [Duke’s South Asian Students Association] has invited the speaker Asra Nomani to campus to speak on the topic “The Paradox of Women in Islam”. A few words of caution that MSA would like to add onto our previous email: Nomani has been noted for her controversial views, both political and religious, as well as being associated with Islamophobic figures, and students would be advised to read more about her before choosing to attend the event. Many thanks!
One would think that adult students—at a university of Duke’s renown, no less—would be able to make their own decisions about a speaker. Any public intellectual who speaks on topics of import is bound to make statements with which some people disagree.
This kind of language reflects the similarly disturbing practice in some college classrooms of presenting materials with “trigger warnings” for even the mildest content. It is an infantilizing concept, and it directly contradicts the goals of open inquiry and open-minded tolerance of a broad range of viewpoints. Free-thinking adults ought to be able to listen to a viewpoint with which they disagree and to engage ideas rather than shutting them down.
Siding With Islamists Against Free Speech
In this case, the Muslim Student Association didn’t just attack the speaker directly, but also used the tactic of guilt by association. Nomani has a “straightforward alliance with many Islamophobic speakers,” Shajuti Hossain, a member of the Duke MSA’s executive board, wrote in an email. The “Islamophobic speakers” were identified as Robert Spencer, Ayan Hirsi, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris. Incidentally, those were among the people Nomani defended in her Washington Post article from the same kind of censorious attacks she has faced. The blasphemy police would not only have us not criticize Islam whatsoever, they also demand we refrain from defending anyone from their smear campaigns.
To be sure, this kind of antagonistic attitude to free discourse is nothing new at elite liberal universities. Conservative speakers have been shouted down at events for years. But, recently, universities appear to be giving more credence to hardline Islamic activists who oppose free speech. Even liberals are being attacked for going against Islamic doctrine.
Hirsi, a feminist who was born Muslim, was denied an honorary degree upon backlash from Muslim activists, and students at the University of California-Berkeley campaigned against Maher giving a commencement speech. One might laugh about what it takes for Berkeley students to get so outraged about anti-religious speech if the matter weren’t so serious.
Silence the Infidels
As Nomani wrote,
Bullying this intense really works. Observant members of the flock are culturally conditioned to avoid shaming Islam, so publicly citing them for that sin often has the desired effect. Non-Muslims, meanwhile, are wary of being labeled ‘Islamophobic’ bigots. So attacks against both groups succeed in quashing civil discourse. They cause governments, writers and experts to walk on eggshells, avoiding important discussion.
This has created a toxic culture:
One prominent target of the honor brigade’s attacks was Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper where several staffers were recently killed by Islamic extremists. According to some accounts, as the killers massacred cartoonists, they shouted: ‘We have avenged the prophet Muhammad.’ The OIC denounced the killings, but in a 2012 report, it also condemned the magazine’s ‘Islamophobic satires.’ Its then-secretary general, Ihsanoglu, said the magazine’s ‘history of attacking Muslim sentiments’ was ‘an outrageous act of incitement and hatred and abuse of freedom of expression.’
Charlie Hebdo is not the only evidence that, to self-appointed defenders of the faith, a call to kill the message can very easily become a plan to kill the messenger. In January 2011, a security officer for the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, Salman Taseer, assassinated him after Taseer defended a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. In court, supporters laid flowers on the shoulders of the assassin in approval.
Murderers like him would be much harder to radicalize in a climate that welcomed debate about Islam rather than seeking revenge on its critics. But in so many Muslim communities now, saving face trumps critical thinking and truth-telling. This is why reform from within Islam is so difficult. In my experience, if you try to hold the community accountable, you’re more likely to be bullied and intimidated than taken seriously.
The targets of the honor brigade are increasingly mainstream. At the University of Michigan, even the $540 million-grossing, Academy Award-nominated film “American Sniper” was initially banned from the school cinema. Many people would agree that Charlie Hebdo printed colorful cartoons, as is their right, but Nomani is a Muslim who just wants her religion to give women more opportunities and to be more open in other regards. She has been published in the most established newspapers of record, as a former Wall Street Journal correspondent, and contributor to the Washington Post, New York Times, and Slate.
Nomani ultimately gave her speech to an audience of twelve.
“I would have come here to speak to just one person. To me, it is simply a victory to stand before you,” she said. She described the incident in an article for Time.
Recalling her message in an interview with Fox News, she said, “I wanted to tell them is that we are living a paradox. We are there as a progressive spirit in Islam, but sadly there are these forces in our community that subordinate us, subjugate us, and silence us. And sadly that’s what I saw at Duke University.”