Commentary Magazine


The Closing of the European Mind

The Times of London reports today on yet another episode in the closing of the European mind—in this instance, a shocking case of academic censorship.

Matthias Küntzel, a German political scientist from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was invited by the German department at Leeds University for three days of lectures and seminars this week. His lecture on “Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-Semitism in the Middle East” was expected to draw a large audience. Then the university’s student Islamic society complained about the lecture’s “provocative” title. Last Tuesday, at the behest of university authorities, the words “Hitler” and “Islamic” were excised and the title was amended to read: “The Nazi Legacy: The Export of Anti-Semitism to the Middle East.” But when Küntzel arrived at Leeds this Wednesday, he was informed that his lecture and the rest of his program had been cancelled “on security grounds.” Küntzel was understandably indignant: “I value the integrity of academic debate, and I feel that it really is in danger here.”

What had happened? Stuart Taberner, the head of the German department, says he was summoned to a last-minute meeting with staff from the office of Michael Arthur, the university’s vice-chancellor, and the head of security, after which he was obliged to cancel Küntzel’s lectures and seminars. The university claimed that proper arrangements for stewarding the lecture on anti-Semitism had not been made, and that it had been cancelled for purely bureaucratic reasons. “The decision to cancel the meeting has nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia,” a Leeds spokeswoman said. (She added insult to injury by accusing “those claiming that is the case”—including Küntzel—of “making mischief.”) The spokeswoman did not explain why the university had not offered to provide additional security during the visit, nor whether the police had been involved.

Was there a threat to security? The president of the Islamic society, Ahmed Sawalem, denied responsibility for the affair: “We just sent a complaint, we did not ask for the talk to be cancelled.” Küntzel was shown two e-mails, one of which—apparently written by an Arab Muslim student—is quoted in the Times. The writer claims that the lecture is an “open racist attack” but makes no explicit threats.

The Küntzel case shows that Muslims do not even need to resort to the threat of violence in order to close down academic debate on subjects they dislike. Anthony Glees of Brunel University has been warning for years of the danger posed by Islamists on campus—a danger to which university authorities are notoriously weak in responding. Before his death last year, I spoke to Zaki Badawi, the leading Muslim opponent of Islamism in Britain, about this problem, which he saw as one of appeasement. This case, however, goes beyond appeasement. Leeds has set a new precedent: the pre-emptive cringe. Islamists everywhere will take heart from the spectacle of a reputable university setting a lower value on academic freedom than on the possibility that Muslim students might take offense.

It will be fascinating to see whether any other British university tries to efface this shameful episode by inviting Küntzel to give the lecture cancelled by Leeds. Perhaps Oxford will follow the example of Yale and many others by offering Küntzel a platform to explain how the Nazis supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. After all, Oxford is proud to provide just such a platform for that scion of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan.