Preventing free thought on campus
Ever since the revelation that Mohammed Emwazi (aka Jihadi John) was exposed to extreme Islamist views in the UK, the obligations placed by governments on universities to root out extremism have become farcical. Towards the end of last year, the anti-extremism Prevent Stategy hit the headlines when prime minister David Cameron singled out universities that, he said, were ‘at-risk’ of exposing their students to dangerous Islamist views. The Home Office consequently suggested that university faculties be aware of the relationship between extremist views on campus and terrorism. It also emphasised that universities hosting potentially ‘dangerous’ speakers should vet content, including presentations, two weeks before the event – because we all know that ISIS supporters love a Powerpoint.
Last week, the absurdity of the Prevent crusade was further demonstrated when the University of Westminster Islamic Society discovered that university authorities had installed secret CCTV cameras inside campus prayer rooms. This disrespectful intrusion had an immediate impact. Female muslim students thought it was no longer appropriate for them to remove their headscarves and wash in the prayer room. They have been forced to relocate to the toilets.
The insensitivity of the university authorities demonstrates the hypocrisy of Prevent. According to Prevent’s guidelines, the strategy aims to defeat extremism by combatting ideologies contrary to ‘British values’. In the ensuing list of values the government ironically highlights the importance of ‘mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths’. These values apparently don’t apply to the University of Westminster.
The university’s decision not to consult with the University of Westminster Students’ Union (UWSU) or the Islamic Society is worrying. UWSU president Jim Hirschmann highlighted the secrecy of the cameras’ installation, arguing that it displayed a ‘lack of trust’. This distrust towards UK citizens is made clear in Prevent guidance documents. Contained within one of Prevent’s educational presentations, we are reminded that the ‘Prevent policy aims to safeguard vulnerable individuals’.
This paternalistic approach underpins Prevent. The government believes that the best way to safeguard against extreme ideologies is either to shut them down or weed them out via Stasi-style espionage. Of course, both tactics are counterproductive. Stifling extreme ideas only means they will ferment underground. Moreover, the aura of mistrust created by these covert schemes is likely to enhance the appeal of the extremist views the government is supposed to be targeting.
A brief scan of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act, which extended the powers of Prevent when it passed last year, is even more concerning. Despite paying lip service to freedom of speech, it mandates even more vetting and censorship. The act’s blatant disregard for the intrinsic value of absolute free speech is so evident that even the censorious National Union of Students (NUS) has condemned Prevent for ‘attacking freedom of speech’. If the NUS is standing up for free speech, the situation must be pretty dire.
UK citizens, let alone university students, don’t need protection from extreme ideas. We need the opposite. We need to be subjected to as many extreme and abhorrent opinions as possible, and then given the opportunity to defeat them in open debate. Free speech is key to exposing and combating extremism. If the University of Westminster wants to avoid Jihadi John II, it should stop installing baby monitors in prayer rooms and encourage discussion instead.
Jacob Furedi is a writer and student.