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Should ISIS have the Right to Recruit on US Campuses?

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Representative Martin Daniel (R-Knoxville) was speaking in favor of the “Tennessee Student Free Speech Protection Act” (which he sponsored) when he was asked by Rep John DeBerry Jnr (D-Memphis) whether he supported the right of ISIS to recruit on campus.

"Yes,” Daniel replied. “So long as it doesn’t disrupt the proceedings on that campus. Yes sir. They can recruit people for any other organization or any other cause. I think it’s just part of being exposed to differing viewpoints.”

DeBerry challenged Daniel, arguing that students are not ready to handle such dangerous ideas.

“There are young people who are not ready yet,” he said “they're half-baked, half-cooked — who are recruited to work against their own parents, their own nation, and I would be concerned as a parent and as a citizen.”

The bill was brought forward to challenge a wave of restrictions on free speech which have come into being on campuses across America and which are the subject of much controversy in the media.

Free-speech advocates hold that free speech is only meaningful if it applies to one’s political enemies as well as one’s friends.

This is not to downplay the problem of Islamist extremism. It is vitally important to challenge the Islamist ideology wherever possible and act to prevent radicalization. Yet free speech is one of the cornerstones of a flourishing democracy. To give it up in order to combat Islamism – an ideology that wishes to dismantle our way of life – would be to forget what we are fighting for.

Daniel’s stance that even ISIS should be allowed to speak may be in breach of existing laws, which prohibit incitement to violence, although such laws are very tightly defined. Since ISIS is a group which carries out violent attacks against Americans around the world, it can be considered to be a security risk to allow it to openly recruit on college campuses.

Nevertheless, the ideology of Islamism is shared by ISIS and non-violent groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir or the Muslim Brotherhood (at least their official policy). They too wish to establish a global Islamic caliphate and implement sharia law as state law, they just don’t support the use of violent means to do so.

Those people must be allowed to speak.

Clarion Project has opposed blasphemy codes that prevent criticism of religion and we have supported the campaign to free the blogger Raif Badawi who is a prisoner of conscience in Saudi Arabia. But we have also interviewed UK-based Islamist Anjem Choudary, in order to show our readers the truth about Islamism. For the same reason we provide our readers with an opportunity to read the Islamic State’s propaganda magazine Dabiq on our website.

In denying free speech to Islamists, we would not only betray our own values, but also undermine our struggle.  Preventing Islamists from speaking would allow them to claim the mantle of victimhood, while preventing those who are attracted to the ideology from accessing all the counter-arguments against it. We also open ourselves up to accusations of hypocrisy, which would be deserved.

It is only in allowing them to air their views and robustly countering them, in speech, in print, in media and in debates, that the Islamist ideology will be shown up for the regressive and totalitarian worldview that it is and confined to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org