According to a leaked report, lecturers will be asked to watch out for signs of extremism in their students. Jo Shelley discovers what this possibility could mean for our campus
Tube stations, mosques and now universities: according to the Guardian, the campus is the government’s new focus in its fight against ‘extremism’. In a report published a week last Monday, the newspaper claimed to have obtained a document from the Department of Education and Skills warning of the potential spread of radical Islam amongst undergraduates. Worryingly for civil rights campaigners, the 18-page file also laid plans to ask academic staff to spy on suspicious-looking students. Suspicious, and – in a spectacularly un-P.C. twist – “Asian-looking” students, that is. After suggestions of snooping that had critics screaming ‘McCarthyism’, came a disastrous new low for relations between Downing Street and the Islamic community that any ‘extremist’ would have been happy to have orchestrated.
Time, yet again, for the government to shift gears and accelerate into damage control mode. The Communities Secretary, Ruth Kelly – an experienced handler of these potentially problematic political situations – predictably rubbished the Guardian’s report. There was absolutely zero possibility of “picking on individual students or spying on them”, she reassured listeners of BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme, and the Labour government would not dream of discriminating against Muslims or Asians, or anybody else.
Amidst all these denials, however, was an admission from Kelly that the government did consider it its duty to “protect” university students. She defended what she tactfully described as the “sensible monitoring of campus activities”, arguing that it was necessary in the ongoing – and ever expanding – War on Terror.
Her words had the National Union of Students fuming. In a statement, President Gemma Tumelty said the Union was “deeply concerned” that the proposals could border on “contempt” for students’ “basic civil liberties”.
Talent-spotting terrorists arriving in York would survey the overwhelmingly white, smugly middle-class student population and head down the road to Bradford instead
Professor Anthony Glees, Director for the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies, is one of a number of academics – and Kelly supporters – who disagrees. An advocate of an aggressive approach to the War on Terror, who also supports imprisonment without trial, he believes that university campuses are liable to infiltration by Islamist groups. Writing in his online blog, he claims that “campuses offer a secure space for extremist activity” because of the value that universities traditionally place on freedom of speech. Last year, he conducted research that depicted extremists as keen recruiters to their causes on campuses. In ‘When Students Turn to Terror: Terrorist and Extremist Activity on British Campuses’, he said that extremist organisations, such as the BNP and various Islamist groups, including Hizb ut Tahrir, had been detected in more than thirty higher education institutions. Many of those institutions were high-profile, such as London School of Economics and the University of Manchester. The BNP was suggested to be at work in York and an Islamist group in nearby Leeds.
The case made by politicians like Kelly and academics like Glees forces us back onto an age-old but ever more relevant debate: how far can the government justify an intrusion into people’s private lives in the name of public protection? There are two striking aspects to these proposals, however, which help explain the unanimous fury that the report has provoked from academic, student and religious bodies. Firstly, the suggestion that universities, an arena of free speech and supposedly healthy, intellectual debate, may be subject to supervision by the state. And secondly, the idea that one group, Muslims, should be singled out as a danger – despite all the reassurances from British Muslims to the contrary.
Both of these prospects have set alarm bells ringing amongst some of York’s Muslim students. “It is freakishly reminiscent of Hitler’s time when you’d have kids sitting in school spying on Jewish neighbours and reporting them to their teachers,” says Sara Sayeed, a non-practising Muslim in her second year of a degree in English Literature. “It just doesn’t breed a good atmosphere at university, which is often the first real opportunity that people have to find their own voice.”
Sitting around a table in Vanbrugh Dining Hall at lunchtime, members of the University’s Islamic Society committee, past and present, agree. Heads nod as Ogtay Huseyni, the current President, says that: “One of the great things about British society is that we have free speech.” The worry is, as they go onto explain, that in the future, Muslim students may feel unable to openly discuss the sensitive issues that some other people find ‘uncomfortable’. Their main concern about this form of self-censorship is that the implications of stifling discussion and debate could be counterproductive, and even lead to the extremism that the government fears.
“We need to be able to debate things,” says Ogtay. “If people can’t express themselves through free speech at university, they are going to turn to other avenues. If they can’t air their own views, they’re going to turn to more extreme views. We at ISOC encourage discussion, even amongst ourselves. It’s an important part of our society.”
Indeed, the Islamic Society at York considers itself “a forum for debate”. Its members include Muslims and non-Muslims, practising and non-practising, moderates and fundamentalists. They invite speakers to the University, celebrate religious calendar events together and hold weekly meetings exploring the religion and the Quran, which anyone at the University can attend. Its current society membership has decided not to use itself as a tool for outsiders to use; e-mails considered to be attempting to stir up opinion amongst young Muslims, for example, are deleted rather than passed on to to its members.
With this self-moderation already in operation within the society, the immediate implications of the government’s proposals for ISOC will, in all probability, be limited. The chances of ‘extremism’ reaching York in the first place are minimal. Our concrete campus seems to be a barren, rather than a “fertile recruiting ground” for extremists. Any talent-spotting terrorists arriving in the city would survey the overwhelmingly white, smugly middle-class student population and likely head down the road to Bradford or Leeds instead.
Furthermore, the proposals themselves seem unworkable, in York at least. The response from the academics who were approached for this article was unequivocal: they would not take up this government-issued directive if it meant jeopardising the trust that they have built up with their students. Dr. Paul Chirico, a lecturer in the York English Department, says: “I expect this kind of racial profiling would be pretty universally unacceptable. It’s obviously not the job of lecturers to spy, or to take guesses at students’ non-academic ideas or intentions, or to spend teaching time trying to investigate their political opinions.”
Fellow English tutor and lecturer, Dr. Helen Smith, agrees with her collegue: “I suppose if I did stumble across some terrible plot – whether constructed by Muslim students or anyone else — I would feel the need, after consultation, to contact the appropriate authorities, but that’s a long way from being asked to “check up” on students who are under suspicion only because of their surname or the colour of their skin.” She adds: “I feel strongly that universities should offer support and understanding to those who may become victims of racism and the current culture of fear, rather than add to the dangers of oppression and misinformation.”
It’s not likely, therefore, that our small campus will turn into a haven of spying and intrigue. For its part, the University says that it is “unaware of any communication from the Government to members of the University on this issue” and there has been no “suggestion in the past about monitoring Asian or Islamic students.”
In the current political climate, however, members of the Islamic society committee say that government-authorised spying on British Muslims is not, in their opinion, unimaginable. “I believe that this leaked report is probably true,” says Ogtay Huseyni, President of ISOC. “It’s the gradual next step in the ‘War on Terror’ on the domestic front. I am surprised at it happening in Britain, but then politicians just do whatever they want now, anyway – they don’t care what Muslims think. They reckon that they can do anything and justify it by saying, ‘we need to protect Britain’.”
In a worrying statement, he adds, “For me personally, Tony Blair, Jack Straw and Ruth Kelly – they are inherently against Muslims, as seen in the last couple of weeks.”
Ogtay’s view is one being rehearsed over and over again in the media by those on the frontline of Britain’s increasingly angry Islamic community. Only the day before the Guardian’s report was published, the Muslim Council of Great Britain, responding to what it considered an inflammatory speech delivered by Ruth Kelly in Parliament, said that while the Communities and Local Government Department she headed claimed to be “promoting community cohesion,” it appeared to have subscribed to a “blinkered anti-Muslim vision.”
Accurate or “inaccurate”, as Ruth Kelly described the Guardian report, it has been taken by many followers of the Islamic faith as evidence of the government’s antagonism towards their members and religion. That even a reported leak of a draft document can really upset things is evidence of the extreme sensitivity of the relationship between the Muslim community and the government.
Professor Haleh Afshar is a prominent Muslim academic at the University who has sat on various committees set up by the government to look into race and related issues. She says that the government must be careful, in its fight against ‘extremism’, not to demonise the Muslim community. When I made an initial telephone call to Professor Afshar about this article, she dismissed the proposals as “a load of rubbish”. When we meet the next day, she is more thoughtful.
“It’s would be very problematic to identify one particular group, be they Catholics, Communists or, in this case, Muslims, and then decide to supervise their activities but not other people’s,” she says. “It just feeds the fact that they have now categorised Muslims as ‘the enemy within’. It’s like saying, ‘They are the baddies and we are keeping an eye on them.’ It’s very reminiscent of the Americans persecuting the Communists and there’s a danger that Muslims will see themselves as under siege.”
The picture Professor Afshar paints is one of a government not really trying understand the situation and being too ready to ‘think in snapshots’, instead. “My problem is that the government’s approach here is not participatory. The government is into snapshots, and snapshots don’t tell you anything. They’re superficial and more trouble than they’re worth.
“They’re targeting universities only because it’s more manageable. They can’t get into the mosques, they’ve tried. The universities seem much more permeable – anybody is allowed in, anybody is allowed out.”
If the government wants a greater understanding of the Islamic faith and Muslim students, they should join Islamic societies on campus, says Professor Afshar. “Spying isn’t good. I don’t think you can just get names and say, ‘This is a baddie, and this is a goodie.’ If they’re interested in Islamic societies or want to monitor activity, they should join the societies. They should come in, and they should find out what’s going on. They would be very welcome. Muslims have nothing to hide – put this in big letters! And if it’s a learning process then I don’t see any reason why anybody would not welcome it. If measures are intrusive, if it’s about finding ‘the enemy’, then of course it’s a problem. No society wants someone who’s spying on them. Every society welcomes people who want to participate.”
Participation, according to Professor Afshar, is the only way to avoid taking a simplified snapshot of British Muslims. “It would be jolly good for them to come and see that these Muslims are not the ‘enemies within’. They do have conversations about controversial issues, and some are for and some are against in the debate, but there is a dialogue. If you actually go to the Islamic societies then you will discover a huge diversity of opinion, that Muslims are not monolithic with one view about everything. The dialogues within universities are very vibrant between Muslims when they discuss their different interpretations of their religion. It would be very instructive. The government might learn something. Come on in!”
Which other societies could be targeted?
Scott Franklin, Christian
“If these ideas come into force, it won’t affect my behaviour at all. When you look at countries around the world where, every day, Christians are persecuted and murdered for their beliefs, it really puts into perspective how lucky we are to live in a democracy. There’s little that the government could do that personally would make me feel less comfortable about talking about things that I believe to be true. So long as we all approach sensitive topics with maturity and love then, in my experience, we can all have discussions without a problem.”
Michelle Wheeler, Socialist
“It is shocking that such measures can be proposed. Everyone has the right to think independently, even if their views are not universally acceptable to the overwhelmingly white and middle-class based political norm.
“If socialists were to be monitored, I would feel victimised by an oppressive and Orwellian government. I see these proposals as severely misguided and threatening to democracy; my opinion of the government has only been further battered after these measures came to light.”
Michael Rutherford, Tory
“We at the Conservative Association would be very worried if professors were spying on us. We might feel unable to express our opinions and under pressure to conform to mainstream thought. I am completely against these proposals – they would compromise civil liberties and, in a liberal democratic system, anything that could compromise free speech must be avoided. Sadly, this Labour government has not stood up for liberty. As Britons, we must defend free speech – otherwise, what have we spent decades fighting for?”