A lot of vocal atheists have said for a while now that there’s a difference between legitimate criticism of Islam (which goes after its supernatural doctrines and political ramifications) and condemnation of Muslims (which we see in Donald Trump‘s repeated attempts at a Muslim ban). There are no doubt devout Muslims who want to reform a faith they believe has been hijacked by radicals as well as moderate Muslims who still believe it’s blasphemy for other people to draw images of Muhammad.
No matter where you stand on all that, though, it shouldn’t be controversial to point out that nations living under Islamic law aren’t the most welcoming to LGBTQ people.
University of Texas–San Antonio student Alfred MacDonald, an open bisexual, made a comment about that in September of 2016, during a conversation with another graduate student, when they were outside of the classroom.
As the story goes, their conversation mentioned the fact that a Christian classmate was engaged to a Muslim man.
At some point, MacDonald chimed in with a statement about how there were several Muslim-majority countries in which simply being gay could warrant a death penalty… which is literally true. We’re not just talking about ISIS throwing people off buildings over allegations of being gay. We’re talking about laws that literally criminalize homosexuality. The list includes Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. His comment wasn’t behind-the-back criticism of the Christian classmate’s decision. (She had every right to do whatever she wanted. Furthermore, there was no reason to criticize the man she was engaged to, since nobody knew anything about him or what his personal beliefs were.) It was just something that came to MacDonald’s mind during a conversation about Islam.
That doesn’t sound unreasonable to be. To be honest, if I heard a friend was getting married to someone from Bangladesh, my mind would immediately jump to how several atheist bloggers have been slaughtered in that country over the past few years by radical Muslims.
Yet, despite his innocuous (and accurate) comment, MacDonald was soon called in for a meeting with Eve Browning, the chair of the school’s philosophy department.
Good thing he brought a tape recorder.
According to Browning, and backed up by MacDonald’s recording of their conversation, he was being threatened for daring to criticize Islam. You have to read this portion of the conversation to understand just how ridiculous this got.
ALFRED MACDONALD:… I said that I was bothered that I could be killed in ten Muslim countries. I’m bisexual. So they’d definitely do that in the ten countries where I would be — you know.
EVE BROWNING: Doesn’t that strike you as an inappropriate thing to say about someone’s fiance?
ALFRED MACDONALD: I wasn’t talking about the fiance. The fiance could have whatever interpretation of the religion that they want. I said something like … (thinking) that I … yeah it wasn’t about the fiance, it was about the religious practices in those countries.
EVE BROWNING: How is it appropriate to bring that up in connection with someone’s fiance?
ALFRED MACDONALD: They brought it up. The Islam part.
EVE BROWNING: And you brought up the threat to your life as posed by this fiance?
ALFRED MACDONALD: No. We got to the subject of Islam, not the fiance.
EVE BROWNING: Do you understand how someone would find that offensive?
ALFRED MACDONALD: How someone would FIND that offensive, yeah; how they could perceive it, yeah; yeah, I mean, if I…
EVE BROWNING: It’s a confusing comment to me because Muslims do not all live in countries in which bisexuals are executed. Muslims live in the United States–
ALFRED MACDONALD: Sure.
EVE BROWNING: –Muslims live in France, Muslims live in every country in the world — it’s the fastest growing world religion.
ALFRED MACDONALD: Yeah, one of my good friends at the university is Muslim.
EVE BROWNING: And do you tell him that you object to his religion because there are places on earth where gay, lesbian and bisexual people are discriminated against, including your own country?
ALFRED MACDONALD: Well, “her.” And my verbiage was “killed” not “discriminated against.” I mean, Death penalty’s pretty severe.
EVE BROWNING: What does that have to do with her being engaged to a Muslim?
ALFRED MACDONALD: Nothing. I wasn’t talking about the engagement to the Muslim. I was talking about Islam in that particular moment.
EVE BROWNING: Well, let me just say that kind of thing is not going to be tolerated in our department. We’re not going to tolerate graduate students trying to make other graduate students feel terrible for our emotional attachments.
ALFRED MACDONALD: Um… all right.
I don’t know what Browning was thinking during all that, but MacDonald’s position seems abundantly clear. He had nothing bad to say about the classmate’s fiance. He was merely commenting on the way some Muslim-majority countries treat people who are gay. And Browning wrongly took that as a slam on all Muslims.
It’s a gross exaggeration of what he was saying, at least based on that clip. Ben Affleck would be proud.
There were other reasons MacDonald was called in for a meeting, but they were relatively minor and he could explain away the other issues. This is the one that garnered most of the attention. That’s because Browning said his “derogatory comments” could lead to expulsion. No amount of explanation from MacDonald seemed to help.
EVE BROWNING: Those are things that would get you fired if you were working in my office. The Islam comment would get you fired.
ALFRED MACDONALD: …Would it really get me fired to say that I could be killed somewhere?
EVE BROWNING: In that situation as you’ve described it, absolutely yes.
ALFRED MACDONALD: How?
EVE BROWNING: Don’t even ask. It’s clear you’re not taking my word for it. I don’t care to convince you. If I can’t persuade you that it’s in your interest to behave in ways that other people don’t find offensive and objectionable, then at least I’ve done my job.
ALFRED MACDONALD: Well I know that it’s in my interest. I’m just trying to understand the reasoning.
EVE BROWNING: You don’t have to.
What the hell is wrong with this school…?
MacDonald wasn’t expelled, but he decided he wasn’t going to stick around. When he made the conversation public earlier this month — a year after the incident took place — he also told Gay Star News that he had since transferred schools. (Why did he wait a year? He said he tried to get this story in the hands of other media outlets, but no one paid any attention. It was only when he posted a ten-minute clip of his 30-minute conversation that anyone noticed.)
The Washington Post‘s Eugene Volokh notes that it’s possible we don’t know the whole story here. Maybe MacDonald has a history of saying anti-Muslim things — but if that’s the case, they weren’t brought up at this meeting. Maybe MacDonald’s statement about which Muslim nations kill people for being gay was a case of bad timing. But none of that is an excuse for how the school reacted.
If I say that I’m a Scientologist or a conservative Christian or a Catholic or a Muslim or a Trump supporter or a Sanders supporter, or that my friends or family are that, classmates shouldn’t be punished for using that as occasion to criticize Scientology, conservative Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, Trumpism or Sandersism. (Perhaps if I’m repeatedly approaching them about a personal topic after they’ve told me to stop, the university might enforce that, but there’s no reason to think this was so here.) Indeed, a student should be free to speak to classmates about such matters in any department, but that’s especially clear in philosophy, which is supposed to be all about people trying to find difficult truths.
Browning hasn’t made any public comments about this story since it began circulating earlier this month, citing threats made against her online. But I am so curious to know why she misinterpreted comments that seem utterly non-controversial to me — and whether she still believes she acted properly. I understand the desire to make the university an inclusive space for all students, but criticizing bad ideas — which is all that MacDonald did — is a foundation of higher education. If MacDonald couldn’t bring up in an out-of-classroom conversation how certain Islamic nations execute gay people, when is it ever appropriate to mention that?
Call it political correctness, call it a misinterpretation, or call it one side of a complicated story. But I can’t even imagine a situation in which Browning’s reaction to what MacDonald said was appropriate. Unless everyone is missing some major piece of this story, administrators at the school — and Browning specifically — owe MacDonald and the other students an apology for treating a simple factual statement as an implied threat against Muslim students.