Op-Ed: Complicating the free speech discourse at F&M and beyond

By SherAli Tareen || Assistant Professor of Religious Studies

The controversy over the recent Flemming Rose lecture at F&M highlights certain vexing conundrums over the problem of free speech on campus, especially as they intersect with questions of religion, race, and minority sensibilities. In an opinion piece published in this paper, Professor Matt Hoffman (the primary organizer of the event) sought to shed light on the question: why is it that of all people he could have invited to talk about free speech, he chose in particular Flemming Rose, a central figure of the 2005 Danish cartoon controversy. Remember, this question did not originate with Professor Hoffman; it was raised to him in anguish and pain by a female Muslim student protesting at the door of an event that to her represented an affront to her religious sensibilities. It is debatable whether Professor Hoffman addressed this question adequately. But his explanation does offer a useful opportunity for reflecting on some of the conceptual shortcomings with dominant strands of the free speech discourse at F&M. 

At the heart of the problem in much of the conversation surrounding free speech on campus (as exemplified by Professor Hoffman’s response) is a failure and refusal to think through questions of context and power. Free speech is not an ideal that hangs suspended in the sky. It is exercised, negotiated, and at times imposed in specific contexts and under particular relations of power. Who has the power and authority to decide what forms of speech and offence are permissible and what forms are not? Whose desires, experiences, and normative viewpoints inform that decision? Whose logics and views are privileged? A careful consideration of these questions is critical to nuancing the conversation on free speech in a manner that is not imprisoned to the facile binary of ban speech/celebrate free speech through offense. The point is not to ban any speaker or viewpoint and neither is it to stifle difficult or uncomfortable conversations. The larger point is this: there is no universal consensus on what constitutes offence and moral injury.  And the free speech principle of say what you wish so long as you don’t break the law by its nature privileges majoritarian priorities and sensibilities. The law, with its foremost concern for maintaining public order, cannot help but prioritize the normative expectations and pressures of the majority population. Back to Rose, it is precisely this haughty indifference towards any attempt to entertain a different logic of offense and pain that does not fit a dominant liberal secular narrative that is at the crux of the issue.

The final paragraph of Professor Hoffman’s letter captures this point to great effect. In the course of apologizing to students who may have been hurt by the lecture, Professor Hoffman proceeded to suggest that only if these students “had not let their emotions primarily guide them” and had they “read Rose’s book,” “they would have been better able to grapple with his [Rose’s] words, ideas, and arguments.” A rather peculiar apology this is. The exhortation to jettison emotion in favor of dispassionate reading has all the trappings of the colonizer’s demand that the native abandon her irrational attachment to emotion and embrace the light of reason and civilization. This patronizing gesture is both conceptually clumsy and deeply condescending. Only if these emotionally overpowered Muslims read Rose’s writings, they would realize that their rage is misplaced; it may even dawn on them that Rose is in fact an advocate of their rights and freedoms. This seems to be the suggestion here. 

Lurking in this suggestion is a dismissal of the legitimacy of the pain and injury felt by Muslim and other minority students who protested on the evening of the lecture. By diagnosing their pain as a symptom of emotional excess, Professor Hoffman attributes that pain to a condition of false judgment that can (must?) be treated with the proper dosage of liberal knowledge and reason. This kind of a framing hinges on an equally problematic binary between the virtue of secular reason enshrined in the right to satire and offend and religious emotion that supposedly prevents unlettered souls from enjoying the fruits of that virtue. The inadequacy of such a framing also explains Professor Hoffman’s bafflement at the sight of protesting Muslim students who were unprepared to eagerly embrace the protocols of liberal discipline.

A blind faith in free speech precludes one from considering the secular theology operative in the expectation that Muslims should after all not be so offended by caricatures or cartoons of the Prophet. As anthropologist Saba Mahmood has best argued, at work in this demand is a secular ideology of language. According to this secular language ideology, as she explains it, since signs are only arbitrarily connected to what they represent, a rational person should be able to distinguish images and icons from the actual figures they represent. Hence, since an image of Muhammad is not really Muhammad just like an image of Jesus is not really Jesus; a rational believer ought to be able to distinguish images of these sacred figures from their actual personhood. This seemingly secular position is in fact deeply embedded in and indebted to quintessential modern Protestant/colonial assumptions regarding “authentic” religion that continue to inspire varied strands of secular humanist thought. The suggestion that Muslims ought not take cartoons of Muhammad too seriously rests on the assumption that since the true locus of religion is in the interior of a person and because religion is ultimately a matter of choice, a properly modern subject must have the capacity to separate inner belief from the external world of objects, images, and materiality.

This impoverished understanding of religion can only show bemusement towards alternative logics of life whereby venerating a figure like Muhammad is not just a matter of choice consigned to the privacy of inner belief. For many Muslims, Muhammad represents the most intimate moral exemplar and model for inhabiting the world: bodily, ethically, and materially. Venerating Muhammad above all represents a quest for cohabiting the body of the Prophet. This means striving to cultivate a pious and virtuous self through a rigorous regime of imitating intimate details of Muhammad’s life and example, as if by cohabiting his body. The cohabitation of the Prophet’s body does not follow the modern liberal imperative of distinguishing between the inner essence of religion (belief) that is protected by law and its external manifestations that are entirely available for offense and injury.

In no way unique to Islam or Muslims, this idea of cohabitation might help us better appreciate the forms of reasoning that animate the pain and moral injury caused by satirical cartoons of Muhammad. To be clear, my point here is not to explain or demystify Muslim responses to satirical representations of Muhammad or to homogenize such responses. Readers who reacted to all this with the objection “but not all Muslims were offended by the cartoons” or “but there were Muslims who did not protest that evening and happily listened to the speaker” will have missed the entire point. The point is this: framing this issue in terms of a standoff between liberal free speech and religious taboo/sensitivity is singularly unhelpful. This is so because the principle of free speech is enwrapped in a set of deeply problematic normative assumptions regarding the proper place and form of religion in the modern world. And it is precisely the refusal to interrogate or to critically evaluate these assumptions that generate diagnoses of pain and moral injury as the product of misplaced emotional outburst, as in Professor Hoffman’s apology of sorry not sorry.

The broader context in which this lecture took place is also critically important to consider. To begin with, just how thoughtful is Flemming Rose is wholly debatable. The evidence of his writings reveals at best a tabloid thinker with a rather unsophisticated and yawningly repetitive insistence on a classic liberal conception of offense as a pillar of free speech. There is little in his work to suggest any sustained theoretical reflection on or engagement with questions of power, histories of colonialism, race, religion, or any attempt to even hint at let alone address, his white privilege. We do the intellectual standards of this college no favor with such speakers whose underlying attraction is tethered to their provocateur shock value. There are many other scholars, from a range of ideological backgrounds, who have written about free speech and about the Danish cartoon controversy more specifically, in far more thoughtful and nuanced ways. But to give the podium to Flemming Rose, who rose to fame precisely through insulting Islam and Muslims, during a moment when the Muslim community in this country confronts an incessant barrage of vitriol, bigotry, and violence, is, to put it mildly, astonishing. The irony involved in the fact that in an event on free speech, student protestors were not allowed to display signs inside the auditorium, as non-uniformed (likely armed) security officers monitored their movement, cannot be more telling.

There was one beautiful aspect to this event: the way in which some members of the Black Student Union came together with Muslim students in solidarity to speak some truth to power. These students made us proud but I am not sure whether their voices were adequately heard. Indeed, while some both within and outside the college may celebrate the Flemming Rose lecture as a shining example of F&M’s commitment to free speech, for many others, including those among the most vulnerable in our community, this event was but a painful reminder of the marginality of their voices.

SherAli Tareen is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies. His email is sherali.tareen@fandm.edu.

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