On February 29, 2016, Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford, debated the atheist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie at the Oxford Union. The debate centered on whether French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was Islamophobic because of its caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In responding to this question, both speakers addressed an array of issues, from freedom of expression to pluralism to Islam’s place in the West. Two particular points stood out.

The first was Ramadan’s argument for the responsible exercise of the right to free speech. While arguing that Charlie Hebdo’s editors and contributors should be free to express their opinions without backlash, Ramadan also descried the magazine’s cartoons as an example of irresponsibly using free speech to promote Islamophobia.

Ramadan suggested that the magazine’s Islamophobic cartoons were but a small symptom of a bigger problem in the West. In his view, Islamophobia is driven by the pernicious belief that one’s right to express scathing opinions trumps (and indeed blinds one to) all other social and moral obligations. As he argued, exercising one’s right to free speech to propagate prejudices is “very arrogant and [fosters] ignorance of the other.”

The implication of Ramadan’s argument is simple—and important. One can support the most excessive forms of malicious speech without also endorsing its message or potentially heinous outcomes. This is why many have accepted Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish caricatures of Muslims, Africans, women, and Jews while also recognizing its vitriolic actions promote prejudices and contribute to the disenfranchisement of the Other.

The second point is Namazie’s claim that “Islamism” is a form of modern-day fascism. In making this argument, Namazie described Ramadan’s discussion of responsible free speech as a way of limiting speech. Namazie also accused Ramadan of being an Islamist hisemlf.

For Namazie, “Islamophobia” is an illegitimate term, “[because] criticism of religion, however offensive, is not racism.” In her view, Islamophobia is invoked “in order to defend and protect criticism against Islam and…impose Islamist norms on the wider society.”

During their debate, Ramadan questioned the integrity of Namazie’s claims, asked her to define Islamism, and challenged her to provide concrete evidence about his own alleged “Islamist” tendencies. Namazie brushed this all off, saying, “it doesn’t matter, I don’t have to, [the audience] can read lots of things.” 

Namazie’s response is telling and reflects a desire to use the Islamist label for subjective purposes. Commenting on this increasingly common tendency, Islamic scholar and Georgetown Professor Jonathan Brown observed, in a recent essay published by the Brookings Institution, that Islamism “is an amorphous and contested term that reflects the worldview (perhaps deepest fears?) of whoever is using it more than any fixed reality. Those who are suspicious of ‘Islamism’ almost always imagine it…to be some durable transnational network, uniform in its most threatening characteristics wherever it appears.”

In the Oxford debate, Namazie clearly used Islamism as an epithet to attack and delegitimize her opponent. This is precisely why Ramadan’s point about the responsible use of free speech is so important. When we ignore the consequences of our words, we will, to quote Ramadan, turn language into “the starting point of [a] dogmatic mind,” rather than a medium for genuine discourse.

The full Oxford Union debate can be viewed here.

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