She was sitting there quietly in the middle of the classroom — a Swedish Muslim all dressed in black with a white powdered face. I was lecturing on John Stuart Mill at Sweden’s University West. What did I say? I said that while religion may not be true, it still gives people a sense of belonging and trust, and liberal society cannot give you that. The liberal soup is thin, and most of us want something richer, some kind of political main-course goulash. When people say that liberal society is empty, they actually mean this: I cannot give my life any purpose, so can someone kindly do it for me? Please hand me some grandiose message to live by because I cannot figure out anything on my own. Emptiness? Well, that could be another word for limitless opportunities.
Two days later, the Muslim student sent me an email. She accused me of not being “neutral”. She wrote that I had called religious people “pathetic”. I had not. She accused me of defaming Islam, herself as a woman and as an individual student.
As for Islam, I had never mentioned it, and as for her, I had never seen her before. Possibly in her vanity, she seemed to think the lecture was about her; in fact, it was about John Stuart Mill. She said (and this shook me a bit) that she would keep me “under surveillance”; she signed off with: “The student dressed in her pride”. Too bad she could not find something else about which to be proud. She was proud of her submission, not of her achievements. If you cannot give your life meaning, perhaps somebody will chip in and do it for you.
Other than that, her email was full of post-modern nonsense such as science as a “belief” just like religion. In fact, science is doubt based on knowledge, while religion is certainty based on faith. We had given her the tools of postmodernism, and here she was trashing the fabric of Western society. Would she, I wondered, also “deconstruct” the Koran?
But I was not bothered by her email, really. Students have the right to say all kinds of things, perhaps even to write inappropriate emails to their professors. It is, someone said, a human right not to “get it”. All it takes is to talk. If a student fails to understand the basic principles of a university — free inquiry, the need to question our views — the university will introduce the student to them. So I did not reply, but calmly awaited the next step by my department.
A few days later, an email requesting a meeting was sent out. But she never got it. I did. How odd, I thought, but I went there and, in front of a wide-eyed administrator, explained the rise of the modern university as a realm of free discussion, unhampered by the power of the state and the church; and spoke about the principles of free speech, and cited Karl Popper, Mill, George Orwell, Voltaire, and others on the way. She looked happy.
A few days later came another email. Now I was called in for consultations with Head of the Department and the Head Administrator. “Look”, I told them, “this is a university. Do you know what that means?” They said they did. “Do you know why I am here?” I gave them the answer. “For lecturing on John Stuart Mill.”
“Ten years ago,” I went on, “I wrote an article about a performance of Ideomeneo — a Mozart opera that was cancelled in Berlin because it might offend Muslim sensibilities. The title of the article was ‘The Enlightenment may end up as a historical parenthesis.’ Do you know what the Enlightenment is about?”
I looked at them and they looked back at me.
“We just want you to explain what happened,” they said. “I just did,” I said. “I lectured on Mill. Of course, if you are a religious fanatic, you must be horrified of Mill. If not, what are you doing at a university? I have to give her that.”
“She is just a curious student,” they said. They were nodding, one to the other. “She studied law, and is obviously interested in testing a case like this, isn’t she?” they said. “She is a gifted student, a very gifted student.” Two educated women were mistaking an assault against the modern world for reverence toward a student they thought was “independent.” It was a heart-breaking scene.
“Have you talked to her?”, I asked them.
“Well, no, we haven’t.”
“Perhaps you should,” I said. “You could talk to her about the university, and about freedom of expression.”
Putting a chill on freedom of speech: University West in Trollhättan, Sweden. (Image source: University West)
Then things got interesting. I got an email from a “Health Coordinator”. My health? Was something wrong with it? I thought this was an issue about differences of opinions. I thought about “mental corrections” in the Soviet Union, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell.
The health-coordinator turned out to be hands-on. He said his job was “to put an end to the whole thing.”
“And the woman,” I asked?
“She never showed up.” he said.
“She did not?”
“Too bad,” I said. “She throws out accusations and threats, and then refuses to talk. Is that a good approach if you want to learn new things?” He gave me a faint smile, and I thought we agreed on something.
What is the point of going to university anyway? If you only want your views confirmed, then go to a Koran school. Why does this young woman attend a university, if we say things she cannot stand? She does it because she wants us to change.
Three? Five? I have lost count of how many more times I was summoned. What I do know is that I sent hundreds of letters during my “case”. Eventually, after interminable months, after lawyers and God knows who had “thoroughly investigated Mill, me and it,” I was “acquitted”. My lecture on Mill had, the “authorities” decided, “not been discriminatory” after all. What a surprise. But there was a serious side to it. A student pressed button D for Discrimination, and an academic was thrown into a pit of bureaucracy. The total cost? Do not even ask.
“Who ever will lecture on Mill when things like this can happen?” I asked them. “Do you understand the implications of bending over backwards to the enemies of an open society?”
Finally, case was closed. Or so I thought. Recently, I was told the student had taken the case to the Discrimination Ombudsman (Diskrimineringsombudsmannen) — the highest recourse in Sweden for cases such as this. A female student bids farewell to hundreds of years of the battle for women’s rights — suffragettes and feminist icons, socialists and liberals marching, conveying, demonstrating — and she does it, notably, out of her own free will. She had exercised her freedom only to give it up.