Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A poor showing by Leeds university

Further to my post about the Matthias Küntzel affair, here are two letters, one from the university, giving rather weak excuses for their action, and my response to that.

On 19 Mar 2007, at 19:03, Roger Gair wrote:

Dear Dr MacEoin,

As the responsible officer, I write in response to your messages to the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor.

Dr Kuentzel's proposed public lecture last Wednesday evening was cancelled neither for any reason of censorship nor because of pressure from any interest group. It was cancelled because the organisers did not give us enough notice to provide the normal level of portering, stewarding and security (around twenty people in total) for such an event.

It is simply not true that we somehow capitulated to threats or complaints. As a matter of fact, we received no threats, and only a handful of complaints – fewer indeed than for a talk delivered on our campus the previous evening by an Israeli diplomat. The talk by the Israeli diplomat went ahead; the difference was that the organisers (the University’s Jewish Society) told us about that talk the week before and worked with us to make the necessary arrangements.

Assuming that we are given enough notice, and appropriate logistical information, I know of no reason why Dr Kuentzel should not deliver his lecture in Leeds at a future date.

For the record, and despite press reports to the contrary, the University did not in any way seek to prevent two other talks by Dr Kuentzel on (I believe) the same theme: as internal academic seminars, they did not require the same level of support as a large public meeting.

Yours sincerely,

Roger Gair


Dear Mr Gair,

I have had now had a chance to garner further information about the cancellation of Dr. Küntzel's lecture and seminars, and I have to say that I do not find your explanation of the university's action at all convincing. Nothing you write adds up. You speak of security matters, yet deny any threats or menaces that might make such measures necessary. You suggest that the need for such security came up entirely at the last minute, on the day Dr. Küntzel arrived in Leeds to give his lecture, yet it is patently clear that the university had known of this event for four months and had advertised it for three weeks. That can only mean that something fresh must have intervened some very short time before the 14th. Since I know that e-mails from Muslim students had been received by the university administration during that time gap, and that these messages might easily have been interpreted as indicators of possible protest or worse, I find it remarkably easy to connect the two things as cause and effect.

If those messages (and perhaps other communications to which I am not privy) did not serve as prompts to suggest a need for a very high level of security, I would like to know what other factor or factors did in fact prompt you. I have studied and worked in universities for forty years, teaching, among other things, Islamic Studies, yet I have never once known a situation in which a university has felt it necessary to provide other than the most regular level of security for an event — a porter usually, or notification of the university police. Dr. Küntzel's lecture was to have been on a valid academic subject, one on which I have myself written and talked, and to whose validity and urgency I can testify. The subject matter of Islamic anti-Semitism is neither unacademic nor, frankly, particularly controversial except to some (and by no means all) Muslims. Why should this one lecture out of a series have been singled out at the last minute for such draconian attention? It really isn't good enough to say that the department had not arranged for proper security soon enough, since I have to imagine that the same problem would then have applied to all lectures in the series. Or did the department only forget to do so for this one lecture?

I think the university did something disgraceful in cancelling this important lecture. I think veiled threats were made, or an assumption of threat was deduced (it would be naïve in the extreme to believe that a university based in Leeds of all places would not be sensitive to the potential results of Muslim grievance), and that the result was a denial of academic freedom. That it should be more important to give in to someone wishing to censor the dissemination of information than to grant a responsible academic the freedom to pass on the fruits of his research is to act in direct contravention of all standards of academic responsibility and, I am sure, the charter of your university itself.

Although I am not a member of staff at Leeds, I concern myself with this issue because I have known other examples of such pressure and am seriously frightened of the consequences of letting extreme Muslim opinion dictate what happens in academia wherever something seems to touch on radicalized sensibilities.

In conclusion, may I ask if it might not be appropriate for the university to hold or allow to be held an enquiry into the circumstances that led to this sorry business? You have a responsibility to everyone involved to provide better explanations than you have done so far and, should my interpretation or an approximation of it turn out to be correct, you owe an apology to all concerned. Such an apology must, without question, include a formal invitation to Dr. Küntzel to deliver his lecture and hold his seminars at a later date, the event to be given full and appropriate publicity.

I hope action can be taken to restore the university's integrity and to make it clear that censorship, threats, and bans form no part of Western academic norms.

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Denis MacEoin

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