Leanne Mohamad is a 15 year old British Palestinian student at Wanstead High School in London. She recently won the regional final of the Jack Petchey Speak Out Challenge with her speech ‘Birds not Bombs’ in which she describes the historical and contemporary reality facing Palestinian children under Israeli occupation.
Jack Petchey’s “Speak Out” Challenge! is a programme run by Speakers Trust and funded by the Jack Petchey Foundation. The programme provides public speaking training at secondary schools and runs one of the largest public speaking competition for young people.
After Leanne Mohammad’s video was circulated online, the board received complaints in regards to the content of the video one of which is by anti-Palestinian blogger Edgar Davidson. While Edgar Davidson states that he did not ask for the video to be removed, the Speaker’s Trust and Jack Petchey Foundation judging panel voted unanimously to disqualify Leanne and prevent her from speaking at the Grand Final of the competition. In a statement by the CEO of the Speakers Trust, Julie Holness stated that Leanne breached “two fundamental rules that are made explicit during the training”. She said: “There are two fundamental rules that are made explicit during the training: the speech must have a positive and uplifting message – in fact this is one of the core terms of the agreement with the Jack Petchey Foundation [and] a speaker should never inflame or offend the audience or insult others and this, by definition, means that propaganda is ruled out absolutely from the outset.
Firstly, I find the grounds on which Leanne Mohammad has been disqualified to be outrageous to say the least. Her speech did have a positive and uplifting message, one that called for an end to the discrimination against Palestinians. She uses a personal account of the death of her cousin in Palestine who was unable to access medicine as a result of the blockade that restricts access to needed items such as drugs. Secondly, since when did speaking about reality become propaganda? If she won the regional final, clearly the judges did not find it offensive nor insulting. By their own definition one of the aim of the Jack Petchey programme is to provide “students with the opportunity to talk openly and honestly on any subject they feel strongly about.” This is an issue that Leanne clearly feels strongly about yet she has been silenced and censored. A Youtuber went as far as calling her a recruiter for ISIS.
I find this censorship interesting in the background of the recent discussion that Muslims have been subjected to in regards to British values. Freedom of speech is often cited to be an example of British value that we should all uphold and this I agree with, yet in this case the hypocrisy is blatant. By censoring Leanne’s narrative under the disguise of propaganda we are being told that we have freedom of speech until we start speaking about the oppression of Palestinians, whose narrative are either ignored or sidelined. Muslims find the drawings of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH offensive but we’re told to ‘just deal with it’ because freedom of speech allows people to offend. What I find offensive is the label placed on Leanne’s speech which speaks accurately to the experience of Palestinians under Israeli occupation.
I am also tired of the excuse that seeks to justify the aggression of the Israeli government on the premise that Muslims fight or kill each other. Much like the ‘black on black’ crime myth that is used to undermine the black lives matter movement, this argument is also completely absurd. It presupposes that Muslims don’t speak out against oppression when committed by Muslims and implies that due to this flimsy reason Muslims don’t have the right to acknowledge or criticise the actions of other states, no matter how discriminatory they may be.
Since her disqualification, Leanne’s video has been removed from the Speaker’s Trust website but has been re-uploaded unto the Youtube by a user. You can watch the video below.
Just for future references, this post is not anti-Semitic and I completely denounce antisemitism. I strongly believe that all forms of oppression and discrimination needs to be spoken about and rejected. So I’ll end this post with a quote that Leanne uses from Nelson Mandela at the end of her speech ‘Our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’