Common Sense on Campus
When Esme Allman, a second-year law student at Edinburgh University, issued a maliciously-worded complaint to the university authorities concerning Robbie Travers on September 6, she must have been confident that her status as a black female politically correct activist would guarantee a listening ear. Her complaint (see below) was constructed in such a way that it seemed Mr Travers would find no way out of the predicament in which she had placed him. Had the university acted on her charges, there is little doubt that Travers's university career and future prospects would be damaged beyond repair. That certainly seems to have been her intent. The story was widely reported in the British press and here on Gatestone, for whom Travers had written. Her specific claim -- that Travers's calling Islamic State fighters "barbarians" and mocking their aspiration to marry 72 virgins in heaven should they die as martyrs in battle was racist and Islamophobic -- did not go down with members of the British public, who were only too aware of the multiple barbarities committed by IS terrorists abroad and in Europe, including in the UK.
However, even if this charge did seem no more than silly, her full complaint could not, on the face of it, be so readily dismissed. Here is the complaint as it was sent to Travers:
I am submitting a complaint about Robbie Travers due to his targeting of minority students and student spaces at the University of Edinburgh. While I have not met him personally, given my matriculation at the University of Edinburgh, my membership of the Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) liberation group [Liberation from what? Question by MacEoin] at the university, and how I identify personally, I take issue with this clear and persistent denigration and disparagement of protected characteristics and blatant Islamophobia.Over the past two decades, many universities in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and parts of Europe have shown themselves to be supine when faced with disruptive, hate-filled, and at times violent behavior on the part of students and student groups that agitate on issues concerning racism, homophobia, or, above all else, efforts to demonize Israel to get it excised by the international community. From time to time student activists have been exerting pressure on university and college administrations to deny a platform to people with whose views they disagree.
In 2014, for instance, a heroic Somali-born best-selling author, former member of Parliament in the Netherlands, and womens' rights activist, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, respected for her campaign against female genital mutilation and forced marriage, as a victim of both -- was blocked from visiting Brandeis University, where she had been invited to receive an honorary degree and deliver a commencement address. Students who disliked her criticisms of Islam (a religion which she had abandoned and about which she has serious human rights concerns) delivered a petition that called for her to be silenced.
George Leef, writing for Forbes magazine summed it up:
The pressure of an online petition with over 6,000 names was too much for Brandeis to bear. On April 8, the university released a statement announcing its cancellation of the honorary degree. In it, Brandeis said that although Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a "compelling public figure and advocate for women's rights" it could not grant the honorary degree because some of her statements "are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."Encouraging a clash of different opinions, however, is the most central value of any university, and without it such an institution would cease to be worthy of the name. Despite that, student bullies continue to rant and make demands that only serve to destroy the reputations of the schools they attend. Administrators cave in, speakers are banned, and students across the board who disagree with what is regarded by some as the latest politically correct dogma are attacked, scorned, bombarded with threats, and sometimes death threats.
Why do administrators cave in so easily? It pays to take a step back. From the 1960s onwards, university heads learned to take positive action on genuine issues that arose on campus as part of wider social change. It was considered noble to act against racism, to support women's rights, to end discrimination against gay students, and to ensure that members of minority groups (Jews, Muslims, Blacks, Latinos, gays and so on) were protected and respected. Important steps were taken to end discrimination. Import codes of ethics were created, often in line with state or national legislation. It became difficult for college officials to appear to be weak when confronted by charges of racism, homophobia, and -- a new and ill-defined concept -- "Islamophobia". As the Hirsi Ali case demonstrated, many serious-minded people simply could not distinguish between genuine, often racist, hatred for Muslims and informed criticism of Islam as an ideology.
It was (and still generally is) only when things got out of hand that administrations stood up against angry narrow-minded students and faculty. Anti-Israel movements have been among the most unjust and prevalent. The best summary of the many incidents over the years can be read here. In addition to criticizing the only democracy in the Middle East that actually protects equality under law and the human rights of all its citizens, the most notable aspect of this assault is the extent to which genuinely anti-Semitic words and behavior have been allowed to pass with a lack of constraint tantamount to complicity.
It is only when things escalate to the point where protesters have to be dragged out by security guards or the police have to be called that administrators wake up to the fact that more is involved than polite disagreement. There are, however, small signs that some administrators are waking up to the wider issues. That was demonstrated recently when UC Irvine acted to clamp down heavily on its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), sanctioning it with "disciplinary probation" for two academic years after its use of extreme disruption at events organized by Students Supporting Israel. Positive though that this is, Edward Kunz has said:
"While the disciplinary probation at UCI will send a message that SJP's disruptive and uncivil activities will not be tolerated, it demonstrates a troubling trend of administrators refusing to take strong action against students violating their own policies until pushed to do so."Which thought brings us to the extremely good news that officials at Edinburgh University have acted against that trend in a manner that gives cause for celebration. It took only days for two officials there, Catriona Elder and Gavin Douglas, to investigate the charges laid against Robbie Travers by Esme Allman. By the time they had finished, they dismissed the charges and wrote to Travers in clear and balanced terms giving their reasons for that dismissal. It may have been tempting for them to sanction Travers in order to avoid further protests from Allman and her supporters, but the investigators declined to do that in the interests of justice and the values of the university.
Here is the letter sent by Elder to Travers:
Dear Mr Travers,Backing this up, one of the investigators provided further details as to the factors that led them to dismiss the allegations. It has been received in a private communication to this author.
In the course of my investigation, I have not seen any evidence that Mr Travers targeted Ms Allman or any other individual on the basis of their race or another protected characteristic as detailed in section 12.7. Mr Travers told me he planned to "expose" the BMELG in a series of posts, and described it elsewhere as a "sting". There is no evidence to suggest that Mr Travers planned to target the group before he became aware of the comments made by Ms Allman, or that he would have acted very differently had it been a different Students' Association group concerned. While I have seen rather controversial comments with the potential to cause offence made by Mr Travers on his Facebook page, I have also seen some evidence of Mr Travers actively disagreeing with others who have expressed racist or xenophobic comments in response to Mr Travers' (sic) posts. Mr Travers expresses frequent provocative opinions on Islam, however it is usually clear where he delineates between commentary on Islam, and more specifically political Islam, and condemnation of Islamic fundamentalism. I do not therefore believe that Mr Travers' online activity jeopardises the safety of Edinburgh University students. I have seen no evidence of individuals or groups being targeted based on their protected characteristics, and in relation to Ms Allman, I am confident his actions were in response to her comments and her position, and unrelated to her race. I find therefore that there has been no breach of section 12.7.Let us breathe sighs of relief that, at least on this occasion, a vindictive accusation has been relegated to the obscurity in which it belongs. And let us hope that this will be the first of many more recognitions that it is improper, not least in a university setting, for one side to silence the other, especially by deceitful means.
Dr. Denis MacEoin took his second degree (in Persian, Arabic and Islamic History) from Edinburgh University in 1975 and has spent many years since then researching and writing on Islamic topics. He writes as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.