Law on Trial: The Islamophobic University

This post was contributed by Kinnari Bhatt

Law on TrialThe School of Law kicked off its Law on Trial 2015 series of public lectures with a thought-provoking session exploring different ways in which free speech is being appropriated for Islamophobic ends.

Sarah Keenan and Nadine El-Enany, lecturers in the School of Law introduced the panellists – who combined perspectives from academia, the student voice and an advocacy organisation – Birkbeck, University de Lyon-2, NUS Black Students’ Officer and the Islamic Human Rights Commission.

The panellists were:

  • Malia Bouattia, NUS Black Students’ Officer
  • Souhail Chichah, lecturer at University de Lyon-2
  • Arzu Merali, researcher and co-founder of the Islamic Human Rights Commission
  • Nadine El-Enany, lecturer in law, Birkbeck law school

Three main issues stood out:

1) The UK counter terrorist measures – Effecting freedom of speech in the classroom

The 2015 UK Counter Terrorism and Security Act form a key part of the government’s counter radicalisation and terror measures. Section 29 imposes a legal duty on universities to monitor student activities, with the specific operationalisation measures to be elaborated in September.

Nadine discussed how these measures run the risk of breaking down the relationship of student-teacher trust, intervening in academic freedom and compromising the autonomy of the university by making it instrumental in the racialisation of Islam.

2) The targeting and creation of an Islamophobic identity – Deploying ‘post-colonial’ narratives

Superbly interesting were insights into how colonial language of ‘them and us’ is deployed in today’s liberal discourse on Islam. The jettisoning of Muslims (echoing Fanon’s colonial ‘compartmentalisation’) into ‘good’ ones who assimilate leaving no traces of Islam vs the ‘bad’ ones who choose to identify as Muslim. More of this in the next paragraph.

3) The hypocritical effects of the #Charlie Hebdo hashtag

Western dominant narrative portrayed the Charlie Hebdo attacks as part of a war on freedom and therefore, western democracy. The panel discussed how the #Je Suis Charlie became both a strategy to identify with the victims and a symbol of solidarity in the fight against ‘those’ that wish to destroy the liberal carte blanche to publish.

The panel explored how its support by predominantly white people, however well meaning, has deeply contradictory effects which need to be queried. For example, within the # we witness the silent co-option of free speech (an immensely valuable tool in its ability to check all forms of unbridled oppressive power) by primarily white individuals as a tool to defend a specific brand of hypocritical and limitless free speech.

This brand permits the publication of cartoons offensive to minorities and goes to great lengths to identify the attackers as Muslim killers (rather than people affiliated with a certain dangerous ideology) thus perpetuating racial divisions, a distinct ‘othering’ of Islamic identity which works to recreate and strengthen hierarchies of power and oppression. As Nadine pointed out, why did the media not categorise white supremacist Anders Breivik a ‘bad Christian’ (even though he portrayed himself as 100% Christian)? Interesting.

Day one of Birkbeck Law on Trial succinctly brought home a fantastic example of how the colonial logic of historical dominance under the ruse of a ‘civilising mission’ endures, now, under a rhetoric of security, protection and possibly, free speech.

The slow creation of an Islamophobic identity marks a new ‘dynamics of difference’, demarcating and racialising difference in an attempt to either assimilate or racialize the other. Colonialism has found a new laboratory.

Find out more


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.