A free society leaves theocratic patriarchy alone in the home and the place of worship, but cannot countenance it in the public square
By Mathew d’Ancona
It is two years today since the great Christopher Hitchens died, in Houston, Texas, aged only 62. As a lifelong observer of British politics – even as an expat – he was singularly unimpressed by David Cameron, of whom he once said, witheringly: “He doesn’t make me think.”
Yet I cannot help wondering if Hitch, had he lived, might have revised his opinion just a little in the past week, as he watched the PM wade into the controversy over the segregation of men and women at campus meetings addressed by Islamist and other fundamentalist religious speakers.
Last month, Universities UK (UUK), the body that replaced the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals in 2000, issued an apparently routine guidance paper on how institutions of higher education should deal with external speakers. Amid all the stupefying blandness and bureaucratic jargon was an astonishing series of contentions that seemed, at a stroke, to call time on the movement for women’s equality in British civil life that stretches back to Emmeline Pankhurst and beyond. One felt uncomfortably reminded of the early pages of Brideshead Revisited, where, as Charles Ryder recalls, “in Eights week, came a rabble of womankind, some hundreds strong, twittering and fluttering over the cobbles and up the steps”, and his scout, Lunt, explains with horror that “I’ve got to buy a pin-cushion for the Ladies’ Cloakroom.” This was Oxford in 1923. Are we really still discussing the place of women in universities 90 years later?
It should be noted that, in a 2008 YouGov poll, nine out of 10 Muslim students said that segregation was unacceptable. This is not a story about Islam versus the West. It is a case study in the way in which our institutions deal with the one in 10 who want men and women to sit in separate spaces in campus meetings.
Most shocking in the guidance is the lack of drama with which the document surrenders hard-won rights. The crucial passage reads thus: “concerns to accommodate the wishes or beliefs of those opposed to segregation should not result in a religious group being prevented from having a debate in accordance with its belief system. Ultimately, if imposing an unsegregated seating area in addition to the segregated areas contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs of the group hosting the event, or those of the speaker, the institution should be mindful to ensure that the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker is not curtailed unlawfully [my italics].”
First out of the traps last Thursday was the Cabinet’s doughtiest opponent of Islamism, Michael Gove, who accused the universities of “pandering to extremism”. On Friday, the PM’s official spokesman said that Cameron felt “very strongly about this” and “doesn’t believe guest speakers should be allowed to address segregated audiences”. He added: “We want to support the universities in taking a tough approach, and if more may need to be done then of course the Government would look at that.”
This was not, please note, an instruction. Universities are not part of the public sector in the same way as state schools, prisons or embassies are: they are educational charitable corporations. In Downing Street, however, this distinction is regarded as technical. As far as the PM is concerned, universities are part of the public square and – though institutional autonomy is the essence of the system – not everything that happens on campus and in the cloister can be ignored by a responsible politician.
Lurking behind his statement – as with the question of MPs’ pay and the proposed 11 per cent rise – is the implicit threat of legislation. But Cameron’s hope is that the moral force of his office, sparingly applied, will do the trick. In response, UUK has withdrawn the guidance on segregation pending legal review.
So far, so good. But this is a test case about much more than fringe events on provincial campuses. It is about the very basis of a pluralist society and what philosophers call “value incommensurability” – the clash between principles, and the dilemmas that such conflicts pose. As a ferocious opponent of theocratic creep, Hitchens argued that secular society was becoming far too emollient and unwilling to defend Enlightenment values against attack. Diplomatic immunity, equality before the law, the right of the novelist to free expression: all are now weighed against the risk of upsetting the theological apple cart.
The segregation row has forced us to confront the friction between religious sensitivities and core aspects of our common citizenship. The heart of the matter is the word “freedom” and its abuse. The original guidance claimed that forbidding segregation by gender on campus might infringe “the freedom of speech of the religious group or speaker”. This is babble, but it is dangerous babble. It implies that upsetting the religious sensibilities of an individual or congregation – and it is possible to take offence at anything – is a form of censorship.
I heard a similar argument made during the gay marriage debate: that same-sex weddings would somehow infringe “religious freedoms”, even though they were to be held exclusively in civil settings. In the segregation row, the hurt feelings of a believer or group of believers are weighed against the entire principle of gender equality – as if core principles are upheld only on the probationary basis that they do not upset the faithful. This amazing proposition reverses the polarities of the 20th century and replaces the totalitarian state with the totalitarian individual – the person who claims that absolutely anything that offends him is an assault on his “religious freedom” and has to be stopped. And let us be frank: because, collectively, we have grown fearful of religious extremism, we, too, often nod respectfully when we should be fighting back.
Nicola Dandridge, the chief executive of UUK, has said that “where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear”. Voluntary segregation? Pull the other one. Hobbes teaches us that fear and liberty are consistent – but only in the sense that “as when a man throweth his goods into the Sea for Feare the ship should sink, he doth it neverthelesse very willingly, and may refuse to doe it if he will.”
I do not believe that the gender segregation under discussion is freely practised in any meaningful sense. It is an expression of theocratic patriarchy that a free society leaves alone in the home and the place of worship – as long as the law is observed – but cannot possibly countenance in the public square.
In any society, pluralist or otherwise, we are constantly forced to assign priorities to different values. Religious freedom – the right to worship, to free association, to a diet consistent with one’s faith, and so on – is rightly accorded respect. But that freedom cannot be allowed to distort and trump the ideals of the modern academy, at the heart of which is the notion of a scholarly community divided by civilised argument, not race, faith or gender.
Cameron – often accused of believing in nothing – was right to take a stand. But the story is not over. Christopher Hitchens liked to quote Auden’s line in “September 1, 1939” about “The enlightenment driven away”. Two years since Hitch’s death, the struggle to keep the Enlightenment safe is as fierce as ever.