A tale of two lectures
This coming weekend, the University of Cape Town (UCT) will host Hamza Tzortzis, a highly controversial lecturer who propagates a radical version of Islam.
His visit to the campus follows hot on the heels of an executive decision to bar Danish journalist Flemming Rose from delivering the 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom.
Tzortzis is due to teach a course on “Dawah Power” at the university’s P.D. Hahn Building.
UCT’s move to ban Rose but accommodate Tzortzis reveals, along with double standards, something of the current executive’s ethos, values and priorities.
Tzortzis is a regular speaker on the university circuit in Britain. Last year, he was identified by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s Extremism Analysis Unit as one of several speakers who had promoted on various campuses rhetoric that undermined the values of “democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.
Tzortzis has allegedly called for the establishment of a caliphate and been linked to extremist organisations.He seems to regard homosexuality as a crime, having written about it in the same breath as cannibalism and paedophilia. He is especially notorious for his views on free speech, having said “we as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even the idea of freedom.” However, his website states that this quote was ”taken out of context”, and that “the opinions of Hamza have changed” since he expressed them.
Of course, there is no neat equivalence between (what would have been) Rose’s presence on campus and that of Tzortzis. Rose would have delivered an officially sanctioned lecture at the invitation of the Academic Freedom Committee. Tzortzis, on the other hand, will come to UCT in an unofficial capacity, not at the university’s behest.
Still, the executive’s attitude to Tzortzis’s forthcoming appearance in the Hahn Building, regardless of who invited him there, seems a bit odd in light of the reasons provided by vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, for Rose’s disinvitation.
Rose apparently ran the risk of “provoking conflict” on campus because he is a “highly contentious” speaker, someone whose statements have been “deliberately provocative, insulting and possibly amount to hate speech”. We are led to believe that the “turmoil in the Middle East”, the “Palestinian question”, the rise in extremist terrorist groups” and the “violent consequences of these factors in the world” are the “context in which one must consider the consequences” of hosting Mr Rose.
Yet, if security risks and the threat of terrorism are such overriding considerations, there is every reason why they should be applied to Tzortzis’s visit, too, no matter the capacity in which it is conducted.
In fact, given his history as a campus radicaliser, Tzortzis would – on the vice-chancellor’s terms of reckoning – pose much more of a threat to UCT than Flemming Rose.
As David Benatar has argued, almost all of the arguments marshalled by Price could be used to deny a platform to the many “Israel-bashers” who regularly speak on campus.
Why the doublethink? The brutal truth is that the letter rescinding Rose’s invitation is an extended exercise in weaselese.
The missive is so feeble, it doesn’t even have the courage of its author’s own convictions. It relies instead on the second-hand, straw-man epithets of unnamed sources: “Mr Rose is regarded by many around the world as right wing, Islamophobic”, etc. etc.
In an ideal world, where the right to freedom of speech is consistently upheld, both Rose and Tzortzis would be able to say whatever they like at UCT, within the bounds of section 16(2) of the South African Constitution. In fact, Rose would go even further than this assertion. He recently defended the right of radical imams to utter hate speech. Somehow I doubt Tzortzis would return the favour.
So, what does all of this suggest about the state of play at UCT?
The danger is that any principled commitment to the university’s traditional values of freedom, tolerance, “intellectual honesty, rigour in debate [and] openness to alternative ideas” (I’m quoting from the official bumf) will, in future, be firebombed along with the vice-chancellor’s office.
There is a risk that they will be sacrificed on the altar of political correctness; tossed on the pyre where “whiteness” (that vacuous concept peddled like snake-oil by the intellectually-deficient) is supposedly sent to burn.
Too often in the recent past, the UCT executive has been prepared to cede to the forces of illiberalism and intolerance.
First it was Rhodes Must Fall and the intersectionals (not a campus rock band) that stormed a Council meeting last year, and held it hostage while making their demands. The statue of Rhodes fell in a climate of intolerable pressure.
In January, the same group pressured the university into dismantling an art exhibition that paid tribute to Molly Blackburn. Blackburn was the Black Sash campaigner and anti-apartheid activist whose mortal sin was to have been white, or perhaps a vector of “whiteness” – effectively the same thing.
The following month, the self-same group of crypto-fascist identitarian cry-bullies proceeded to set fire to artworks in a kind of pagan ceremony of decolonisation. The university’s Artworks Task Team, a body whose name must surely owe something to Orwell’s 1984, tried to mollify them by removing over 75 artworks from display in an act of censorship masquerading as curatorship.
Now, the “no-platformers” have won the day, and Flemming Rose has been prevented by the UCT executive – the ostensible champions of academic freedom – from delivering a lecture on academic freedom. This is at once superficially ironic and deeply alarming.
UCT has denied a platform to speakers before. In 1986, the Irish politician and writer, Conor Cruise O’Brien, was prevented by students from lecturing on campus because of critical remarks he had made about the academic boycott. Then, as now, the executive failed to stand up for academic freedom, disgracefully and patronisingly pinning the blame on O’Brien himself for his “colourful and volatile personality, not easily able to maintain academic detachment under conditions of emotional stress and excitement”.
The latest episode signals an escalating trend of pusillanimity on the part of the executive. Those who wear the mantle of victimhood while violently opposing views different to their own now have the upper-hand. Having sniffed weakness so early on, they have become more emboldened with each consecutive concession and capitulation. Freedom is the loser.
This year, there is no-one to deliver UCT’s flagship lecture on academic freedom. That is lamentable. Perhaps Mr Tzortzis should stick around and volunteer his services. Who knows how he might be received?
Michael Cardo is a Member of Parliament and serves on the new UCT Council