A month and a half ago, our campus was treated to a minor scandal. The Buckley Program invited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a controversial women’s rights and anti-Islamic activist, to speak on campus. In response, the Muslim Student Association, along with many co-signees, sent an email to the student body calling on Hirsi Ali to limit her remarks to her own personal experience or to have a scholar of Islam on stage to provide a contrasting viewpoint.
I think it is worthwhile to return to this incident, after the dust has settled, to reflect on what it says about our campus’ understanding of free speech and communal respect. Hopefully, by understanding this latest controversy, we will be better prepared to deal with the next one. In my view, the invitation of Hirsi Ali to campus, and the accompanying campus response on all sides, is a testament to the strength of the University and an example we should look to as a model going forward.
There is an inherent tension between the University’s goals of being a place for the free discussion of ideas and a place where people feel welcome and safe. Most ideas offend someone, and most really powerful ideas offend many deeply. I find Hirsi Ali’s depiction of Islam personally offensive, fundamentally wrong and dangerous. That such views would be welcomed and celebrated on this campus is something I find disturbing.
But Yale is not meant to be a comfortable place. It is meant to be a place where we confront ideas we find repulsive and grapple with them. It is only in doing this that we discover what we really do believe. The sad fact is that Hirsi Ali’s view is one that many people find compelling. But if I want to combat this, my tactic should be engagement, not censorship. After all, I hold ideas that others find deeply offensive, and if I were silenced at Yale, I would feel justifiably outraged. It is too difficult a task to determine objectively which speech is “hateful” and which is simply objectionable but permissible. Given this ambiguity, we should lean toward encouraging controversial speech instead of suppressing it. The Buckley Program should thus be praised for standing by its invitation, and the MSA should be praised for not publicly requesting that the invitation be withdrawn.
At the same time, however, all students must be valued members of the University. This was the point of Dean Holloway’s address at the MSA’s annual Eid Banquet. We all have some ownership of Yale, and it is important that we recognize and celebrate that fact. That is why I found the MSA’s letter to be so moving. Although there was a small confusion over the signatories, that so many student groups on campus would sign onto this letter to demonstrate their concern with Hirsi Ali was beautiful proof of the regard Yale holds for its Muslim community. For a population that is often marginalized nationally and has been subject to covert police surveillance here at Yale, the steps large and small taken by the administration, the student body and the MSA to affirm their belonging are of immense importance.
Meaningful intellectual discourse can only take place in a space of trust. We are only willing to open ourselves up to other ideas or present our own when we feel we will be respected throughout. Some ideas or speakers will inevitably erode this trust, but that does not mean they should be shut off from this campus. Instead, we as a community must seek to support those who may feel vulnerable or attacked, even while we engage meaningfully with these difficult ideas.
It is a difficult balancing act. But luckily, a university is not a monolithic thing. It is not the responsibility of the Buckley Program to look after the Muslim population; their mission is to bring in conservative voices to campus. Nor is it the job of the College Democrats to provide support for young Republicans. A well-functioning university is able to create a space for controversial speakers while also supporting those who are hurt. Yale is imperfect in this regard, but I take pride in how the community handled this latest incident.
Isa Qasim is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.