University of Cape Town (UCT) management has, once again, managed to shove its foot firmly within its own mouth. This time to the point where its toes are likely tickling its own tonsils. Here’s hoping they don’t have athlete’s foot.
On the 22nd of July, UCT sent out an email explaining why they made a decision to rescind an invitation to journalist Flemming Rose, who was due speak at the 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture on Academic Freedom.
Rose, controversial editor of the Danish publication Jyllands Posten, became infamous for his decision to publish cartoons featuring the Prophet Muhammad as a “terrorist”. Rose has since become a vocal proponent of free speech, and whom many others believe to contribute to liberal defences of Islamophobia.
While the decision to rescind the invitation is hotly debated, the justification and reasoning provided by Vice Chancellor Max Price, is what concerns me most.
It’s a whole lot of wows.
Conflicting views on conflict
The first reason cited by Price expresses concern over Rose’s presence inflaming campus conflict. Price, however, conveniently overlooks the fact that political tension and polarised ideologies are not new to the university space – and they shouldn’t be seen as necessarily bad. In fact, the live tension between free speech and ensuring the protection of discriminated peoples reflects the political flux of the world right now, and should thus be contextually relevant to us.
In this case specifically, we might be interested in attempting to reconcile the importance of speaking out against right-wing extremist of groups, such as ISIS, while being careful of not encouraging the silencing and discrimination of Muslim communities. If such engagement cannot happen within a university space, then what purpose is the university really serving?
Price also falls into the trap of painting protest action as something that necessarily interferes with academic engagement. This narrow outlook closes off our understanding of the university as a site for diverse and complex modes of intellectual engagement. There’s also hypocrisy in painting protest action so narrowly.
For example, at UCT’s Thomas Piketty lecture on economic inequality, on the 30th of September 2015, student protestors entered the venue and stood silently holding placards in full view of the international audience. The placards highlighted that, while UCT spoke of inequality with a group of elites, it still practised the exploitative policy of outsourcing its own workers. Months later UCT celebrates their great achievement of welcoming those same workers as employed staff – largely due to the efforts of those same protestors.
Are we to believe that this was not meaningful engagement? Is academia secluded to the realm of cold halls where elite groups take part in inaccessible and formalised discussion? Is that how “Academic Freedom” presents itself?
Do these Muslim extremists even go here?
What makes the above all the more concerning is Price’s second justification for revoking Rose’s invitation – that there exist violently intolerant factions within the local Muslim community.
“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”, Price said.
As someone who is intimately familiar with the radical factions in and around UCT – and who is additionally a Muslim who thinks Flemming Rose ain’t shit – I have only one question for Price… okay, I lie, I have a couple:
Who on God’s overheating earth are these Muslim extremists in Cape Town? When has the Muslim community in the area ever displayed signs of political violence? Why would they want to resort to violence when most of us are shitting ourselves over the prospect that SA will start treating us like the West does?
But worst of all, why is Price creating the context in which Muslims are being represented as violently intolerant, without allowing us the chance to present ourselves? While pre-emptively painting Islamic intolerance as homogenous across regions, Price is also feeding into global patterns of illegitimate fear mongering. Not ironically, this is literally how discrimination against people begins.
Heck, even Professor David Benatar, who has historically been very critical of radical activity on campus, has called Price out on this nonsense:
“We have been provided with no evidence that violence is likely to result from Mr. Rose’s lecture (even though the Academic Freedom Committee specifically requested such evidence).”
And as Benatar points out, UCT’s Academic Freedom Committee did not endorse Price’s decision. As a compromise, they reasonably proposed that would be valuable to have Rose debate other scholars who are critics of his work and actions – ideally, I would imagine this to include respected Islamic scholars who themselves are deeply invested in freedom of expression, decry extremist ideologies and yet challenge Rose’s vision of what freedom entails. I’d definitely go see that – placard in hand, of course.
Patricia Lucas, from the UCT Communication and Marketing Department, said that the university regretted its decision but that risks had been identified around having the lecture at UCT.
“The risks are to the security and bodily integrity of Mr Rose himself; to those who will host him, and those who will attend the lecture; to the ability to hold a public lecture without total disruption; to the fragile but uneasy calm which currently exists on campus; and to the positive interfaith relations which currently mark public life in the Western Cape.”
That at the time the invitation was sent out, the climate of campuses was less volatile and much quieter than what it is now.
“#RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #UCTSurvivors and other groups that now protest regularly on the UCT campus were relatively unknown; the protest around the Rhodes statue had not yet been launched. Pro-Palestinian protest activity on campus was sometimes emotional but was not violent.”
Max Price and his executive team, flawed as they may be, are not ignorant or irrational folk. So given the absurdity of his rhetoric and justifications, a final question must be asked – why is he trying to sell us these nonsense reasons? And why does he so easily throw Cape Town’s Muslim community under the bus in doing so?