We are deeply concerned that Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the British far-right group the English Defence League, was invited to address the Columbia University College Republicans on Tuesday night.
Mr. Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, is not allowed to enter the United States, and instead spoke to students via Skype. In the U.K., Mr. Robinson has been repeatedly censured for his links to extreme right-wing groups like the EDL, which he co-founded, and the British National Party. He has been arrested and convicted numerous times for abusive and violent behavior and identity and financial fraud.
Mr. Robinson has radical anti-Islamic views. Although he has claimed that his stance on the religion has changed, the speech he gave to the College Republicans was loaded with virulently Islamophobic tropes. Among these were the falsehoods that Islam "cannot assimilate" into British culture, that it "promotes violence", and that it had wreaked "destruction" on his hometown, Luton.
Mr. Robinson's defense that he has nothing against individual Muslims but thinks Islam is "a bad idea" is patently illogical. Creating a meaningless distinction between like terms to peddle hate basically amounts to saying that you're OK with Muslims as long as they don't believe in Islam. Can you imagine the uproar if he'd replaced "Islam" with "Hinduism"? With "Christianity"? With "Judaism"?
Perhaps most depressingly, some in the audience even applauded Mr. Robinson when he described the Prophet Muhammad as a "barbarian." It is sad that young Republicans are defending such blatantly anti-Islamic discourse but perhaps, in this age of Donald Trump, it is not surprising. Mr. Robinson's views might not represent those of CUCR or all its members; in fact, they almost certainly don't. For us, however, this makes it doubly baffling that he should be invited to talk with no organized opposition and no real context of his history of extreme right-wing activism.
Posters around campus advertising the event gave no information on Mr. Robinson, an obscure figure in the United States, and instead quoted the journalist Christopher Hitchens on the topic of taking offense. It also billed the evening as a "discussion" when Mr. Robinson spoke alone for over an hour before arguing with students who had questions. Perhaps inviting a student to debate with him toe-to-toe might have been a better reflection of the freedom of expression CUCR purports to promote.
As students at the Journalism School here at Columbia, we understand the importance of free speech and open discussion. Defining "free speech" as a one-handed monologue full of unchallenged smears, however, is a lazy cliché currently in vogue on the right. It robs free speech of notions of responsibility and balance, and thus, its richness.
The University has a responsibility to the truth above all else, and much of what Mr. Robinson said was demonstrably not the truth. In this febrile and exclusionary political climate, pointing out vicious lies matters now more than ever. Islamophobia must be rejected.
The authors are M.S. students at the Journalism School.
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