Free speech on campus

There should be no 'No Platform' policy for Hizb ut-Tahrir - or anybody else.

Jennie Bristow

Share
Topics Politics

‘There was an article in the Guardian called “twenty-first century McCarthyism”. I’m the first victim of this new form of McCarthyism.’

Keith Shilson, president of Middlesex University Students’ Union, is telling me how he became deeply embroiled in a battle over free speech that has led to him being barred from the university before term has even properly begun. Shilson had invited the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir to take part in a ‘question and answer’ session on campus, which he was instructed by the university to cancel. Shilson refused, and found himself suspended from duty and escorted from campus by security guards. The meeting was cancelled. Now Shilson faces a disciplinary hearing, students are organising a petition and meetings in his defence, and a new chapter in the saga of free speech on campus begins.

Shilson is a pleasant, articulate young man who is almost at the end of his studies in politics and history. With long hair, a hat and a little badge of Lenin (he wears his membership of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) on his sleeve), he looks like a caricature of a students’ union president. Then again, he also has some guts and some principles – rare qualities in the student body politic. Shilson’s fight for the speaking rights of Hizb ut-Tahrir should give some hope to all those who believe universities should be about encouraging students to think rather than policing their thoughts.

But Middlesex students’ union’s stance on Hizb ut-Tahrir is also problematic. It does not come out of an absolute commitment to free speech: Shilson, along with many of his colleagues in the SWP, passionately supports the National Union of Students’ policy of ‘No Platform’ for the fascist British National Party (BNP). Rather, this free speech campaign contains a strong element of opportunism. The liberal left, wrapped up in its own self-loathing, finds it increasingly difficult to criticise the opinions or actions of radical Muslim groups. In this sense, the union’s stance does not represent a hard defence of free speech so much as a soft approach to politics, which seeks to accommodate all manner of opinions and actively avoids ideological confrontation.

Defend free speech

The assault upon free speech on UK campuses has been building up since the terrorist attacks on the USA in 2001, and since the London bombings in July 2005 it has been swift and unapologetic. On 15 September, education secretary Ruth Kelly told vice-chancellors at the annual conference of Universities UK that they should inform the police when they suspect students or staff of ‘unacceptable behaviour’ (1). A few days later, the Social Affairs Unit published a report co-authored by Professor Anthony Glees of Brunel University, which argued that extremism is rife in campuses across the UK, and universities must do more to stamp it out (2).

Following the 7 July bombings, prime minister Tony Blair announced that Hizb ut-Tahrir, along with another radical Islamic group, al-Mujahiroun, would be added to the list of organisations to be banned as part of the UK’s clampdown on glorifying, condoning, or in any way appearing to be potentially sympathetic to any form of terrorism (3). The National Union of Students (NUS) has a policy of ‘No Platform’ for Hizb ut-Tahrir, which prohibits student union officers from speaking on a platform with the organisation and acts as a de facto ban (4).

So it’s left to the students’ union of Middlesex University, a sprawling, multi-campus new university in outer London, to take a stand for freedom of speech. Why did it decide to fight this battle? The Hizb ut-Tahrir ‘question and answer’ session was conceived of, explains Keith Shilson, after the students’ union voted to opt out of the NUS ‘No Platform’ policy last academic year. Some sabbatical officers on his students’ union were questioning this decision, raising the possibility that this year would bring a motion opting back in to the ‘No Platform’ policy. There was also the possibility that the Muslim Discussion Forum (the student society at Middlesex University which apparently contains members of Hizb ut-Tahrir) would table a motion opposing the government’s ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir.

‘Some suggested that there was a need for a fresh debate’, says Shilson. ‘The Muslim Discussion Forum suggested a meeting to discuss questions, so students could be fully informed.’ So Shilson went ahead and organised the meeting. ‘I was mandated to do it, by the union’s commitment to allowing Hizb ut-Tahrir to meet and speak’, he says. Of course, one would hope that defending a cranky Islamist sect’s right to meet and speak would mean leaving them alone – or at most, getting them on to a panel where their ideas can be crushed, or at least debated. The fact that Middlesex University students’ union opted instead for a Q&A session involving two of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s national representatives, alongside Shilson himself, indicates a rather naive, uncritical approach on the union’s part.

However, that does not justify the university’s over-the-top response. The press statement issued by Middlesex University explaining its decision to ban the meeting – issued three days after Ruth Kelly’s instruction that universities should play more of a role in policing the thoughts of their students – shows just how easy some universities have found it to ditch the once-cherished principles of free speech in favour of promoting conformism and censorship:

‘The University has taken this step in the light of concerns about the reputation of Hizb ut-Tahrir for extremist views. The University does not rule out entirely that Hizb ut-Tahrir might be invited to take part in a debate in the future, but would only agree to this happening if it could be assured that Hizb ut-Tahrir were now a moderate organisation operating within the law and rejecting extremist views…. The University is also concerned about the risks of disorder if such a meeting took place.’ (5)

That a university can state that ‘concerns about the reputation’ of an organisation for ‘holding extremist views’ is grounds enough for banning it is bad enough, without the mealy-mouthed hint that the organisation could come to campus if only it changed all its views and showed itself to be ‘moderate’. What is a university for, if not to allow for the free exchange of ideas?

Ruth Kelly has one answer to this. ‘Higher education institutions need to identify and confront unacceptable behaviour on their premises and within their community’, she told the Universities UK conference (6). ‘They should be alert and be unafraid to set their own boundaries – within the law and with the law in support – in consultation with their own community and the wider community. That means informing the police where criminal offences are being perpetrated or where there may be concerns about possible criminal acts.’ In other words, universities should stop being a breeding ground for extremism by allowing people to debate ideas, and turn themselves into an arm of Special Branch, attuned to alerting the cops to any individuals thinking the wrong thoughts.

Kelly’s grand vision for The New University Cop-Shop is predicated upon a profoundly patronising view of students: ‘Institutions have a duty to support and look after the moderate majority as they study, to ensure that those students are not harassed, intimidated or pressured.’ Students should not be treated like adults, capable of thinking for themselves (indeed, she went on to argue, with some cheek, that universities must continue to ‘teach people to think for themselves and express themselves and to listen to and consider the opinions of others’). Her fear about allowing extremists to speak is founded upon a fear about the audience, as passive, rather stupid people who are easily led.

This insulting view of the masses is shared by many others. In an hysterical article promoting his new pamphlet on how extremists are overrunning UK campuses, Professor Anthony Glees argues that ‘[T]he high dropout rate in some universities and the number of students with poor qualifications who are happily accepted into British higher education show that campuses can bring together the very bright and the very gullible’. In view of this problem, universities should up the thought control, by bringing plainclothes police on to campus to stop individuals from becoming ‘subversive’, banning faith societies, and adopting rigorous screening of students. Glees ends his rant with a very Kelly-esque formulation:

‘[S]ecurity measures are vital, but it is equally vital for universities to remember what their social purpose is: to promote debate and the exchange of ideas. Not any ideas, of course, but those that help sustain our free, liberal and democratic way of life.’ (7)

So, according to this argument, we need free speech – so long as it doesn’t mean speaking about ‘any ideas’ that could be seen as somehow subversive.

And then there is the National Union of Students. Keith Shilson claims that the NUS is supporting him in his fight for reinstatement – which they should, of course, but which seems faintly bizarre, given that the main function of NUS in universities over the past decade has been to ban anything it can think up a motion against. The NUS adopted a ‘No Platform’ policy against Hizb ut-Tahrir back in the mid-1990s, before the UK had even thought of having a war on terrorism. Then, it was enough to talk in vague terms about the group’s record of ‘violence, intimidation and harassment towards other Muslim students, Jewish students, Hindu students, lesbian, gay and bisexual students and women students’ (8). I remember one NUS conference where almost every candidate for election to the national executive boasted of having been personally subjected to ‘death threats’ by Hizb ut-Tahrir.

At least the National Union of Students could not be accused of singling out one particular group for a ban. As the NUS’ black students’ officer, Pav Akhtar, told the Guardian in July: ‘NUS is working with [Universities UK] on their project to combat extremism on campus – including extremism related to political issues, animal rights, the BNP, homophobia and racism, for example – and we welcome moves by any organisation that seeks to highlight this issue.’ (9) Every NUS ban is predicated upon the assumption that ordinary, vulnerable students need to be protected from dangerous ideas by a ban.

In the midst of all this censorship, it is refreshing to hear some voices of dissent. When, back in July, higher education minister Bill Rammell told Universities UK that they would be expected to play a role in rooting out extremism, Roderick Floud, president of London Metropolitan University, said: ‘I believe that students are members of society and should, therefore, be treated like other adults in society.… It’s not academic freedom, it’s freedom of speech, which is not only a feature of democracy, but also enshrined in the statutes of all universities. Why should students be subjected to some additional, apparently unspecified, restriction on their thought and expression?’ (10) He went on to reject the widespread conceit that universities are in loco parentis and responsible for all the debates their members were having, arguing that students were adults responsible for themselves.

And it is good to hear Keith Shilson arguing the common-sense point. ‘If the government starts banning legitimate political organisations, it’s not going to make their ideas go away’, he says. ‘You don’t get rid of ideas by banning them, but by challenging them intellectually.’

The fact that national bans on Hizb ut-Tahrir have resulted, not in its disappearance, but in a flourishing network of student societies going by such names as ‘Muslim Discussion Forum’ would seem to prove his first point. Shilson’s second point, about defeating ideas through intellectual challenge, is also right – in principle. Unfortunately, when this argument is marshalled in defence of Hizb ut-Tahrir today, it often comes less from a principled commitment to free speech than from a nervous kind of relativism. Defending free speech is one thing – promoting the expression of objectionable opinion with no riposte is another thing entirely.

Free speech v flattery

Shilson is not a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir and nor, he insists, does he agree with its politics. But it is ‘a non-violent organisation’, and it ‘condemned the bombings on 7 July’. He argues that there needs to be a debate about what the word ‘extremism’ really means – he suspects it is ‘really about silencing critical voices’. Shilson refers to recent polls showing that a large proportion of the British public believes there was a link between the war on Iraq and the 7 July bombings, and that ‘Blair is not wanting to accept it’. Consequently, the prime minister is ‘scapegoating the Muslim community’ with terrible results: ‘In the weeks after 7 July, racist attacks went up by 600 per cent.’ We have to ‘stand in solidarity with groups being oppressed’, he says, because ‘if we accept a society where legitimate groups can be banned, who will be next? The Stop the War coalition?’

Compressed into this little conspiracy theory is every prejudice of the British liberal left. This argument is not that Hizb ut-Tahrir should have free speech because everybody should have free speech – it is that Hizb ut-Tahrir should have free speech because it is not (according to some) a violent organisation. Banning groups such as this, it is said, encourages the non-Muslim community to give vent to their base, racist instincts. And in banning Hizb ut-Tahrir, goes the complaint, the government is preparing to ban anybody who was critical of the war on Iraq – which, commentators can complacently observe, means every right-thinking member of the liberal intelligentsia.

This is not a case of ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’. Rather, it is ‘I do not agree with what you have to say, but you should be able to say it because it’s too dangerous to stop you and you might have a point really’. Revolutions were never made of this.

Shilson’s provisional attitude towards free speech is revealed by his support for the NUS policy of ‘No Platform’ for the BNP. ‘The crucial issue is if it incites violence’, he explains. ‘Statistics show that whenever the BNP does well in elections, racist crimes increase. Actual members of the BNP have been guilty of criminal acts. There is hard evidence that members of the BNP are violent thugs.’ He concludes wryly: ‘I believe in free speech but also in the right not be assaulted’.

This is nonsense, of course. Supporting freedom of speech does not amount to licensing violent thuggery: those who firebomb mosques can be charged with arson, just as those who blow up Tube trains can be charged with murder. The high-profile charges recently levelled at the BNP have been precisely those new, speech-related offences made up by the government to use against organisations such as the BNP: on 6 July, BNP leader Nick Griffin was charged by police with four offences of using words or behaviour intended or likely to stir up racial hatred. How does this differ from the government’s attempts to bring in new laws to use against groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir – by attempting to outlaw such vagueries as ‘glorifying’ and ‘condoning’ terrorism?

There is a crucial difference between speech and action; and free speech is either absolute, or it does not exist at all. So far as I am concerned, the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir are equally risible organisations. Both should have freedom of speech because free speech is absolute; but the ideas and activities of both organisations should be robustly challenged by those who believe in equality and democracy.

So far as Shilson is concerned, the only difference between the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir is that he dislikes the BNP rather more than he does Hizb ut-Tahrir – a precarious position to be in, for those dishing out the bans do not do so according to the preferences of one young student. As left-wing organisations like the SWP watch the government and university authorities take the very arguments they put forward for banning the BNP and use them to ban Islamist organisations, one might think that they would recognise the logical flaw in their arguments. Unfortunately, they do not, choosing instead to ride the liberal wave of self-loathing, and to ally themselves far too closely with the backward, anti-democratic outlook of the Islamist movement.

Of course, it is not only the SWP that has found itself in a pickle over all this. The Guardian has found itself in the tortured situation of publishing anti-Western commentaries by a Muslim journalist, and then having to sack him upon finding out he was a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir (11). Presumably his views were considered okay, until he was revealed as a suspect personality by dint of his political affiliation. Following publication of a lengthy explanation as to why they had to sack this journalist, the Guardian published a comment piece by ‘new feminist’ Natasha Walter, headlined ‘Twenty-first century McCarthyism’, and arguing that Hizb ut-Tahrir was sort of like communism, which was a legitimate attempt to overthrow the state. ‘Undoubtedly Hizb ut-Tahrir has an ugly face’, she conceded – which was why the Guardian had to sack that journalist. ‘But the organisation has other faces too’, she continued – nicer, female faces, and surely we should be listening to them? (12)

This confusion about what to do about those individuals and organisations whose beliefs and activities go against every principle of Western democracy speaks to the heart of the liberal-left dilemma. The paucity of intellectual debate is such that the very fact that Hizb ut-Tahrir et al opposed the war on Iraq and the liberal intelligentsia did too is taken as implying a commonality of ground. Many critics, and some supporters, of the Stop the War Coalition have expressed their unease at the extent to which left-wing anti-war activists have modified their arguments in the interests of an alliance with Muslim organisations. And as Brendan O’Neill has argued on spiked, the banal character of the coalition’s politics – the notion that the war on Iraq somehow meant that Britain deserved to be attacked through bombs on the Tubes – means that it is sometimes even difficult to distinguish between the anti-Westernism of radical Islam and the self-loathing of the mainstream British liberal press (see After 21/7: still hiding behind the terrorists, by Brendan O’Neill).

In reality, the SWP’s vision of a secular socialist future surely shares nothing with the outlook of Islamic supremacism. Its attempt to pretend a consensus is pure opportunism. And the fact that the liberal left views the white working class, who might vote BNP and attack black or Muslim people, as a greater threat than disaffected Muslim youth, indicates the depths of its own cultural disaffection.

Above all, the fact that so many of those protesting against the ban on Hizb ut-Tahrir do not support free speech, as an absolute, inalienable right, shows their distrust of people. We are all capable of listening to wrong ideas, and coming to our own conclusions. Whether it’s Hizb ut-Tahrir or the BNP or, indeed, the Stop the War coalition, we do not need politicians, university administrators or Guardian editorial boards to filter out inappropriate material – not because we’re interested in what Hizb ut-Tahrir has to say, but because we know we are strong enough to hear it.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Free speech

(1) Universities urged to root out extremism, Daily Telegraph, 15 September 2005

(2) Beacons of truth or crucibles of terror?, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 September 2005

(3) Full text: The prime minister’s statement on anti-terror measures, Guardian, 5 Friday 2005

(4) National Union of Students (NUS)

(5) Middlesex University press statement, 19 September 2005

(6) Universities urged to root out extremism, Daily Telegraph, 15 September 2005

(7) Beacons of truth or crucibles of terror?, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 September 2005

(8) Letter to the Times Higher Education Supplement by NUS president, 9 August 1996

(9) Minister urges action on campus extremism, Guardian, 20 July 2005

(10) Minister urges action on campus extremism, Guardian, 20 July 2005

(11) A word or two about the writer, Guardian, 27 August 2005

(12) 21st-century McCarthyism, Guardian, 21 September 2005

Share
Topics Politics