Feeding culture of fear won't defend freedom 1

July 24, 2008

Let it be noted: the vice-chancellor of a prominent university in Britain has caved in to the culture of fear ("Researchers have no 'right' to study terrorist materials", 17 July).

The University of Nottingham should be celebrating the contributions of its staff and students to knowledge and analysis, which should be at the forefront of free thinking, discussion and debate. Instead, its officials sacrifice their scholars to a craven bending of the knee before government authorities who can no longer distinguish between threat and reflection, before those gatekeepers of "common sense" who show no sensibility to our ability to think without falling prey to extremism, and before those who have carried out acts of violence these past years not only to kill us but also to bully us into giving up those liberties and qualities that should have enabled us to rise above their intimidation.

This is not a question of "access (to) and research (of) terrorist materials". No page or picture frame or moving image is "terrorist" in and of itself. It is how that material is used to fan the flames of division and hostility that can lead to acts of violence. The problem was never the typeset pages of Mein Kampf; rather, it was in the use of those pages to justify bigotry, racism, war, genocide. The problem was never Marx's Das Kapital or Mao's Little Red Book or Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations or the Koran or the Bible. It was, still is and always will be the manipulation of those texts to justify the taking of lives.

Vice-chancellor, do you think that, through your denial of texts to us, you make us safer? Do you think that, by denying us our ability to think, consider, criticise, you shelter us from harm? Do you think that you protect us from ourselves, prevent us from becoming extremists?

I am proud that, before and after 11 September 2001, I have worked in a British system in which my supervisors, my colleagues, my friends and my students have not only read these documents, essays and books but have used them to construct responses, critiques and publications that show that we are not enslaved either to the "terrorist" or to an ill-defined "War on Terror".

"There is no 'prohibition' on accessing terrorist materials for the purpose of research. Those who do so are likely to be able to offer a defence to charges," says the vice-chancellor. Thus we are allowed freedom of thought under the caution that we are guilty before being proven innocent. Perhaps, vice-chancellor, you know of other times and places where scholars, students and citizens have been advised that they may read their books and then, as those books are burnt, explain why they have not committed a crime. Perhaps you know of those not-so-distant times when people have been threatened, arrested, terrorised in the name of protecting them from "terror". Perhaps you know the instances where those scholars, students, citizens fled to countries where they could read, think, speak without fear of detention.

One of those countries was (and still is) Britain. Perhaps you know that some of those individuals who escaped the restrictions on their freedoms came to British universities. The professor who opened the door to my career at Birmingham was a scholar who left Nazi Germany as a teenager to work as a groundsman at the University of Oxford. The British system not only saved his life but allowed him to build that life as one of our finest historians - he took up his first chair at Nottingham at the age of 39. He was proud of that. On the day I was offered my post at Birmingham, he set me two challenges. First, he said with a smile, beat 39. Then, he added, always be inquisitive, always realise what you do not know, always put yourself in the position of another (the President, the General, the infantryman, the groundskeeper and, yes, the "terrorist"). Then, and only then, I would have earned the right to put my thoughts and my work before others.

At the age of 37 I was able to give a professorial lecture at Birmingham. But, pondering your words, I realise that my false pride was in meeting my mentor's first challenge. The real pride should be that, as I quoted both "American fundamentalists" and "Islamic fundamentalists" in that lecture, I was not giving way to either of those groups, laying down my ability to think and judge. I could not be reduced to the "us" following an injunction to avoid scandalous, dangerous texts. And, in reading those texts, I did not become part of "them".

This is why I write. And why I will defend any of my colleagues, including colleagues at Nottingham with whom I have worked for 20 years, who continue to pursue their research at risk of your approbation or the prosecution of any misguided law. And why I hope that, one day, you will not feed the culture of fear with your proclamations, but challenge it (and the terrorists) in your defence of academic freedom.

Scott Lucas (in a personal capacity) Birmingham.

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