“Freedom of speech is not a litmus test that divides westerners from Muslims,” said Professor Omid Safi during his visit to Carleton last week. Rather, Safi explained, it is a right that must be extended to “all the unknown people whose freedom of speech has been assaulted.”
Safi is a leader of the progressive Muslim movement and a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. In his talk, entitled “Whose Free Speech Counts”, he addressed how freedom of speech and the freedom to practice one’s religion form part of a strong foundation of human rights, and how these two issues, in turn, play out both in the Middle East and for Muslims in America.
Safi’s presentation, which was hosted by the Humanities Center, was part of a series of talks on free speech and censorship, leading up to a visit from controversial and renowned author Salman Rushdie in October.
Professor Safi’s talk focused on the need to defend and preserve the freedom of speech while also understanding that such a freedom is only part of a greater web of human rights. Our “commitment to freedom,” said Safi, “must go beyond just speech.”
“What if,” Professor Safi asked the attentive crowd in the athenaeum, “people are being shackled by other means?”
Safi had also touched upon several other means of oppression in his speech at the Weitz Center the previous evening. This particular talk focused on the relationship between America and Middle Eastern countries, and the prevalence of Islamophobia and militarism in American society.
In exploring the nature of this relationship, Safi cited U.S. military spending numbers and how, after 2001, this country spends more on its military annually than the next 12 highest-spending nations combined. “Militarism is a drug we have injected all aspects of our society with,” he argued.
To counter militarism and a general sense of American hubris, Safi promoted the concept of “one inclusive human community” and advocated for mutuality and love. He urged audience members to action against injustice out of concern that “grows out of love,” frequently citing the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Safi presented MLK’s claim that love and power are divorced – that the people with the greatest love are not in pursuit of righteous power, and vice versa. Americans, he said, must stand up and assert that love and empire do not mix.
Safi also believes that the process for American reform in these areas “starts with realization – noticing that the very mechanisms used to attack Muslims are also used to attack Latinos and immigrants and people who identify as LGBTQ.” He said that “we must seek to combat this sort of intolerance in daily life in all spheres, not only religion.”
Safi’s visit to Carleton was made possible by the Ira Wender Visitor in Cultural Understaning Fund.