UCT: The academic freedom farce continues

David Benatar says Mahmood Mamdani defended the violation of such freedom in the 2017 TB Davie memorial lecture

Mahmood Mamdani continues the academic freedom farce at the University of Cape Town

One thing one should not do in an academic freedom lecture is defend the violation of academic freedom. Yet that is exactly what Mahmood Mamdani did when he delivered the 2017 TB Davie academic freedom lecture at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Curiously, Professor Mamdani’s lecture itself, “Decolonizing the Post-Colonial University”, had nothing to do with academic freedom. However, in an (oral) addendum to his lecture [at 1:37:27 in the recording], he responded to those of us who had previously written to him. We had requested that he refuse to give the TB Davie lecture until Flemming Rose had been permitted to deliver the TB Davie lecture he had been invited to give in 2016 before the invitation had been rescinded by the University’s Executive.

Professor Mamdani explicitly congratulated the University’s administration for having disinvited Mr Rose, whom he portrayed as an Islamophobe (and who he repeatedly called “Rose Flemming”).

Flemming Rose had been the cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper when, in September 2005, it published twelve drawings and cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Those who have read Mr Rose’s The Tyranny of Silence and other of his writings, will know that these cartoons were published not to single out Muslims but instead to treat them exactly the same as other members of Danish society. In that book, Mr Rose carefully lays out the developments that precipitated the decision to publish the cartoons. The Jyllands-Posten was responding to ample evidence that expression about Islam and Muslims was curtailed in ways in which expression about other religions and groups was not. Moreover, Mr Rose has defended the anti-democratic speech of fundamentalist Muslims, hardly the action of an Islamophobe.

Professor Mamdani either ignored or was ignorant of all this. (I am not sure which of those alternatives is worse.) The only purported evidence he offered for his assertion that Mr Rose is an Islamophobe is the claim that the Jyllands-Posten had once refused to publish cartoons of Jesus on the grounds that this would have been offensive. However, as Mr Rose noted in his book, the rejected cartoons in question were those of a freelancer, and the reason they were rejected was that they were of poor quality. In any event, they had been rejected by another editor – not Mr Rose. Moreover, the Jyllands-Posten had repeatedly published cartoons that made fun of Christians and Jews. It is thus simply false that the Jyllands-Posten had singled out Islam.

Professor Mamdani offered no further evidence that Mr Rose is an Islamophobe. Instead, he endorsed, without argument, Günter Grass’s comparison of the Mohammed cartoons to anti-Semitic cartoons in the Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer, and compared the Mohammed cartoons, again without argument, to incitement that fomented the Rwandan genocide. The Rwandan trials, he said, were “the latest to bring out the dark side, the underbelly of free speech”.

These comparisons are, of course, patently absurd, as is the suggestion that advocates of freedom of expression must also permit incitement to genocide. Anybody can say – as those who seek to curtain freedom of expression so often do – that speech they do not like amounts to incitement. It is quite another matter to have evidence for such claims. Denmark is neither Nazi Germany nor the Rwanda of 1993-1994. Flemming Rose is neither Julius Streicher nor Hassan Ngeze, Kantano Habimana, Valérie Bemeriki or Noël Hitimana. The suggestion to the contrary is as vicious as it is disingenuous.

Professor Mamdani also cited with approval, the actions of Allen Lane, co-founder of Penguin publishing, in response to complaints about the French cartoonist Sine’s Massacre. That book, published in English by Penguin in 1966, contained anti-clerical and blasphemous cartoons that offended many Christians. Allen Lane, along with four accomplices, entered Penguin’s warehouse, removed all the remaining copies, transported them away in a trailer, and burned them. The moral of this story, Professor Mamdani claimed, was that Allen Lane “a lifelong devotee of free speech … when it came to upholding peaceful coexistence in a society with a history of religious conflict … did not hesitate to set fire to a trailer full of books”.

This is argument by anecdote. Principled defenders of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons will also disapprove of Allen Lane’s bonfire of the blasphemies. Simply citing that earlier outrage and imputing some “moral” to it tells us much more about Mahmood Mamdani than it does about Flemming Rose and whether the University Executive were correct in disinviting him.

Professor Mamdani provided one other anecdote – about the long-running United States radio and then television show, Amos ‘n’ Andy. The lesson of this example, according to Professor Mamdani, is that despite years of objection by the NAACP against the racist character of the show, it was only cancelled after the Watts Riots of 1965 “taught CBS a lesson in how to recognize bigotry”. This anecdote sheds no light on whether the Jyllands-Posten cartoons were like Amos ‘n’ Andy in relevant ways. Professor Mamdani offered no argument to this end. He merely assumed it.

Professor Mamdani was correct about one thing. There is no right to give the TB Davie lecture, at least if we interpret him charitably to mean that there is no right to be invited to deliver it. Once one has been invited one does have a right not to be stopped from doing so. Delivering such a lecture is, instead, an honour. Professor Mamdani’s unsupported claim was that Flemming Rose was not worthy of that honour. Professor Mamdani’s pastiche of anecdote and “alternative facts” in defence of Mr Rose’s disinvitation and in favour of censorship, show that it is Mahmood Mamdani and not Flemming Rose who was undeserving of the honour of delivering an academic freedom lecture.