Late September heralds not only the onset of autumn but also the commencement of the academic year for millions of university students. Campuses the length and breadth of Britain will be welcoming this year’s fresh intake as well as the previous year’s returnees. For many academe is their first experience of life away from the constraints – social and intellectual – of their childhood and presents a golden opportunity for all manners of experimentation. I refer not to the clichéd debut cannabis experience or even the numerous bacchanals that take place in the halls of residences but rather to a more cerebral form of experimentation – the ideation for forming a political and religious identity. The campus environment has always been one of great intellectual ferment where myriad competing ideas collide, are debated, challenged, refined, refuted and hybridised. It would not be too much of a stretch to state that the intellectual advancement of a nation rests largely upon the sense of freedom afforded to its undergraduates who will in years to pass form the backbone of its leadership.
All of which makes the stifling provisions of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act and its concomitant statutory guidance that much more worrisome and chilling. A piece of legislation ostensibly enacted to curtail the growth of religious (and far-right) terrorism, it came in to force yesterday, September 21st and now threatens to radically (pun intended) alter the aforementioned long standing dynamic of free speech and free debate. Universities will now be required by statute to deem those who espouse ideas contra the established state ideology as a threat and employ extraordinary measures to “combat” them. This new policy will apply both to external speakers that university societies wish to invite onto campus and even more worryingly to the students themselves. Lecturers and tutors will be under a statutory duty to effectively spy on their charges, to monitor their views and report those the newly formed “Extremism Analysis Unit” adjudge as heterodox. An unguarded remark on the Iraq war or perhaps being spotted reading the “wrong type” of publications (this has already happened) could now signal the cue for an interrogation by senior staff with implied serious repercussions on your academic and future professional career. The CTS Act has effectively created an all-enveloping state thought-police apparatus, one manned by an army of conscripted public (and even many private) sector personnel acting as ground level spies, the police providing the logistical struts and cogs and the security services and Whitehall mandarins as operational overseers. Hyperbole you may cry but such a scenario to my mind is but a stone’s throw from the dystopia Orwell envisioned in, “1984”; all remains is for every university to have a designated room 101.
Perhaps even more disturbing than all this though is just how easily such a state of affairs has come to pass, the distinct lack of clamour, the deafening silence of civil society. As a consequence you might be forgiven for thinking I’ve herein confused Iranian state policy with Great Britain’s but alas you’d be wrong and recent pronouncements from the Prime Minister and his senior aides have made it abundantly clear that adherence to the law and divestment from terrorism will not be enough to spare you from the attentions of the nation’s newly constituted Stasi. Now anything short of a wholehearted embrace of the tripartite ideology of secularism-liberalism-capitalism in conjunction with unqualified support for British (and Western) foreign policy will earn one a place on a list of “subversives” (or “potential subversives”). And under this new policy it is becoming increasingly apparent that Muslims are to be accorded default suspect status.
The government and its civil society supporters, most notably the neocon Henry Jackson Society, have sought to justify such legislation on the basis of tackling terrorism at its roots; “extremist” ideas inexorably lead to extremist actions and by forbidding the former one prevents (again pun intended) the latter. Except such logic is fatally flawed, in fact doubly so. Neither will state sanctioning of “extremist” views lead to their attenuation, in fact quite possibly the precise opposite nor does “extremist” thinking necessarily lead to violent actions – in fact more often than not quite the opposite. The overwhelming majority of Muslims who believe in Shariah law, manifested in an Islamic state, are no more a threat to Britain’s national security than socialists who believe in and aspire to a utopian Marxist state (though judging by his reaction to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader clearly David Cameron disagrees). At the height of the cold war period nobody seriously suggested that as a result of the defections of high profile Oxbridge alumni to the Soviet Union all students ought to be monitored for communist inclinations. Thankfully in that regard Britain never succumbed to the paranoid hysteria that for a period engulfed her trans-Atlantic ally. What actually leads to political violence is a perceived sense of injustice and its only remedy is either to present to its perceivers a cogent argument explicating why such perception is verisimilitude rather than verity or alternatively, if the perception happens to accurately reflect the reality, to alter the policies giving rise to the offending injustice(s) – banning discussion and debate simply does not work. You cannot simply legislate your way to victory.
And what of these oft-touted expressions “extremism” and “British values”? The working definition the government has provided reads as follows: “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs”. If believing in Shariah law does constitute extremism might HM Treasury then be deemed a den of extremism for its desire to make London a hub for trade in Shariah compliant financial products – or maybe Shariah law for the purposes of enriching the exchequer (and a select financial elite) is an exceptional case? Would inviting the Saudi ambassador to speak at a university constitute extremist behaviour, given his status as the representative of a state that denies, on a statutory basis, many of the individual liberties we in Britain take for granted (it’s also not renowned for being especially tolerant of differing faiths and beliefs)? Would evangelical Christians – who believe all except those in acceptance of Jesus’ alleged atoning sacrifice are doomed to eternal hellfire – be deemed as “extremist”? Will opposition to homosexual marriage – which would include numerous MPs – be a marker of extremism? What of those who in blatant disregard to the rule of law authorised, acquiesced in or otherwise supported the illegal violent invasion of Iraq resulting in the deaths of thousands? Many of these same individuals advocate further similar such extra-legal violent activity – are they to be added to the list? Will those, like prominent members of the Henry Jackson Society (an organisation previously headed by the current chair of the Charities Commission) who aver that “torture works” in complete defiance and contempt of every legal statute domestic and international, be classed as “extremists” and “hate speakers opposing fundamental British values”? As an aside perhaps revelations about the UK government’s direct complicity with the Gaddafi regime in illegal rendition and torture mean that “the rule of law and individual liberty” are not such British values after all?
When pushed on live radio to provide clarity on the dividing line between “legitimate” debate and discourse and “extremist speech” the Home Secretary, Theresa May was at a loss to proffer anything beyond the vague and platitudinous. The reality is that short of inciting or plotting violence no practical definition can exist in a pluralistic society and unless Britain has decided to adopt the values of the regimes of Saudi Arabia, Iran or Baghdadi’s Caliphate any efforts to draft one is futile and unenforceable. Moreover, the definition would be like a line drawn in the shifting sand dunes of the desert, inevitably it would be subject to creep until it came to encompass the exposition of any viewpoint the establishment of the day deemed troublesome. Students have often been at the forefront of causes that were unpopular with the government of the age. Be it the protests against apartheid in South Africa, the campaign for nuclear disarmament, the ongoing struggle against racism or the current BDS (boycott, divestments, sanctions) movement, all have drawn upon the verve of student activists which in turn has drawn upon a historic laissez-faire attitude of university governing bodies towards the beliefs, opinions and (legal) activities of their students.
The task of university lecturers must be to encourage and stimulate the intellectual faculties of their students, to incite their inquisitorial spirit and to instil within them the mechanisms of critical thought; it should not be to act as enforcers/indoctrinators of some form of state ideological orthodoxy. Like a priest with the penitent, a doctor and his patient (perhaps not the best example upon reflection as this relationship also now falls within the ambit of PREVENT), a parent and their child (perhaps only a matter of time), the relationship between lecturer/tutor and student requires a high degree of trust and implicit confidentiality. When you vitiate this relationship, as the CTS Act undoubtedly will, you inevitably curtail the ability of universities to provide the highest standards of education to their students and in doing so you likely stunt the progress – scientific, industrial, literary and intellectual – of the nation. Something Britain simply cannot afford in a globalised highly competitive world.
Thankfully there is finally a nascent pushback movement gathering apace. Earlier this year before the CTS Act was passed by parliament a group of university vice chancellors fired the opening salvo in the form of an open letter to The Times expressing their misgivings about the impending legislation. Since becoming law, several university student unions as well as the national union of students (NUS) have made clear their unequivocal opposition to the CTS Act and a joint communique expressing a similar sentiment, initiated by the advocacy group, CAGE – an entirely legal organisation currently subject to an intense campaign of state intimidation and harassment – was signed by dozens of academics spanning a host of different universities. I can only hope that this movement snowballs into a full-scale revolt against the pernicious, doctrinaire policy that is PREVENT, I can only hope it is not too late.
May the peace and blessings of Allah (swt) be upon our master Muhammad.
Eid Mubarak in advance to all my Muslim readers.