The free exchange of ideas was alive and well at UBC Thursday evening when Canadian ex-Muslim activist Yasmine Mohammed was hosted by the UBC Free Speech Club. She told her story of growing up in an Islamic fundamentalist household, being physically abused by her stepfather while in her elementary school years, and eventually leaving an abusive arranged marriage to a member of Al-Qaeda.
At the time she was a woman with little self-confidence who donned a niqab, but her story didn’t end there. She ended up obtaining three degrees from UBC, becoming a college professor, leaving Islam, and running an organization that helps ex-Muslims called Free Hearts, Free Minds.
Yasmine also launched her book, Unveiled: How Western Liberals Empower Radical Islam, revealing that she received two years of rejection letters before being convinced by author and prominent atheist thought leader Sam Harris to self-publish.
During her presentation, Yasmine stated she was in favour of screening future immigrants to Canada with a Canadian values test; ensuring they believe in women’s equality, LGBT rights, free speech, and freedom of thought, which was met with applause by the audience.
Critics tend to dismiss Yasmine’s experience as a complete outlier that has little relation to how most Muslims live, yet there were many ex-Muslims in the audience, as well as individuals currently questioning the tenets of their faith, who were thanking Yasmine for speaking out.
Although Yasmine is a feminist fighting for freedom, minority rights, and equality, she was opposed by some in the UBC community.
A group called “UBC Students Against Bigotry” showed their disapproval to the UBC Free Speech Club’s event by hosting a three-hour teach-in called “Fighting Islamophobia Together” the same night as Yasmine’s talk. The teach-in was co-hosted by The Talon, which dubs itself “UBC’s alternative press that uplifts marginalized voices on an anti-oppressive & social-justice oriented media platform.”
A piece in The Talon called Yasmine a “far-right grifter” who is useful for Islamophobes, a point Yasmine refuted in her presentation by saying that was something she could not control. The piece also claimed Yasmine “bullies” Muslims, but Yasmine emphasized in her presentation that the religion of Islam—not individual Muslims—is the force she is fighting against.
In the past year, UBC’s Free Speech Club has brought numerous high-profile and controversial speakers to campus, making the University a beacon for the free exchange of ideas on campus in a climate where universities across North America are disinviting controversial speakers and banning discussions about some of the most important but controversial issues facing our society.
UBC should be commended for allowing Yasmine’s talk to go ahead without imposing additional security fees in light of opposition. In the past, UBC has demanded—without reason—organizers pay a $500 security fee for a public lecture on campus by Jenn Smith, a well-known local transgender speaker.
On June 19, four days before the lecture, UBC demanded an additional $750 security fee to be paid in less than 24 hours as a condition of the lecture proceeding. UBC administration made vague allusions to safety as the reason for the sudden and last-minute imposition of an additional security fee.
UBC has an obligation to uphold the rule of law on campus—including ensuring that University-sanctioned events can take place without vandalism and disruption. By charging security fees to student groups seeking to exercise their right to free expression on campus, UBC is effectively downloading responsibility for upholding the rule of law on campus onto cash-strapped university students.
This approach blames the victims of disruption while exempting from responsibility those who seek to disrupt, vandalize and shout-down speakers with whom they disagree. UBC has effectively blamed the victim and encouraged the law-breakers.
Yasmine’s presentation served as a much-needed reminder that not every country enjoys the social and cultural freedoms and values that Canada does, and how crucial it is that freedom of speech and freedom of thought are not something we take for granted—especially on campus.