Academics have internalised the fatwa. It is time to defend free speech, no ifs, no buts.

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In a little over a week the attempted murder of Sir Salman Rushdie has vanished from the headlines. At the outset there were condemnations of the attack declaring it a ‘wake-up’ call to the West about the threat of Islamism not to ‘Western’ values but to the universal values of the Enlightenment. If you attack free speech, you attack the foundational value of the Enlightenment and without free speech the values of reason, truth and progress are lost.

Islamists and their fellow travellers supported the killing and said that Rushdie brought it upon himself just as they had in 1989 after the fatwa was issued.

Brave statements were made in support of Rushdie and free speech by J. K. Rowling who was told by an Islamist on Twitter that she would ‘be next’. Many other authors made statements expressing their horror over the attack and defended artistic freedom. But as Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill said – where is the #Je suis Salman movement?

What was missing was condemnation or comment in academia.  Like other professionals they have internalised the fatwa and live in fear of giving offence.

As AFAF Advisory Board member, Stuart Waiton, commented: When the Rushdie fatwa was first issued, some on the left believed that this was a foreign problem, but this was never the case. As Rushdie himself found out, the underlying problem was the collapse of liberal values in the West. Today, it is academic institutions and publishing houses themselves who are often at the forefront of limiting speech and thought.

There is a way forward, said Ellie Lee, another Advisory Board member: “The argument needs to be had even more strongly in the wake of this terrible attack about the idea that ‘there is no cancel culture’ or that ‘the threat to free speech is exaggerated’. What has happened is the consequence of a situation were turning a blind eye to attacks on speech, and telling people that the ‘real problem’ is something else, has become ingrained, markedly in academic life and culture. Academics have the responsibility to put a defence of free speech first and all who are shaken by what has happened need to do that routinely and at every opportunity.” 

On social media many people asked ‘What can we do?’

Any academic, student or alumnus/alumna can begin to make a stand and put free speech first by signing the AFAF Statement of Academic Freedom or forming with colleagues and friends a local university AFAF Branch.

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