Is freedom to debate next casualty of terror?

June 2, 2006

Christoph Bluth fears academic discussion could break laws banning 'glorification' and 'encouragement' of bombers

Terrorism has become one of the most popular subjects at my university. I receive a flood of e-mails from students begging to take the third-year module on the subject. But talking about terrorism is getting dangerous because those who hold unorthodox views about it are at risk of committing serious criminal offences.

In the aftermath of July 7, 2005, the Government introduced legislation to strengthen the hand of police against those who exhort others into acts of terrorism, such as radical Muslim clerics preaching hate against the West and enticing young Muslims to join the jihad. However, the legislation is so broad that it could stifle academic debate. The Government has denied this. But a close analysis of the Act shows that academics and students debating terrorism could indeed be committing criminal offences and in principle could be prosecuted.

As in any other subject, students who study the phenomenon are encouraged to challenge conventional wisdom. This means questioning the standard accounts of the sources, tactics, objectives - even the very definition of terrorism - as well as Government responses to it. To encourage critical analysis, essay and exam questions can include fairly provocative statements, such as "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter - discuss". The question implies that judging who is a terrorist is subjective. It is possible to develop clear criteria that distinguish between the justifiable and the unjustifiable use of violence by individuals against a government. This implies, however, that in some situations a moral case for the use of violence could be made. And if such an argument was applied to cases that the Government believes refer to individual terrorists, it could fall foul of Clause I of the Act, which makes the "direct or indirect encouragement of terrorism" a criminal offence. Indirect encouragement includes statements that "glorify the commission or preparation of acts of terrorism".

In my experience, most political science students back the Palestinian cause and see Israel as the oppressor. Although most reject suicide bombings, support for the violent struggle against Israel is sometimes articulated. Should such talk be forbidden?

A firm rejection of all forms of "terrorism" is now the politically correct position; anything else is taboo. But the key problem for free academic debate centres on the fact that the definition of terrorism remains contested, and that in the literature a case for "just violent resistance"

under certain circumstances is debated. Indeed, the essay title referred to above is a statement made by former US President Ronald Reagan who "encouraged" the Afghan Mujahidin. Support for liberation movements in the Third World was popular among academics and students in the 1960s and 1970s but now might be considered "glorification of terrorism". If we look at liberation theology and the adoration of figures such as Che Guevara, "glorification" is indeed an appropriate term.

Take as another example the standard essay question: "9/11 was the result of US foreign policy - discuss". This could be taken to imply that the attacks on the US were justified, and by extension that other attacks might be justified. Whatever the intention of the lecturer, that could be the answer that the student comes up with.

Indeed, varying degrees of sympathy for terrorists exist throughout the student body (albeit involving only a small minority), and a module on terrorism provides a forum for the expression of such views. So are these students committing an offence under the Act? Are lecturers obliged to report them to the authorities?

It might be argued that the legislation does not apply unless there is a clear intention that terrorist acts should be committed. But "encouragement" and "glorification" are very vague terms. Much will depend on how the law is applied. At this time, the risk to academics appears slight. I do not expect Special Branch to beat down my door in the near future. But things may change if there is another terrorist atrocity, perhaps linked to university students.

More insidiously, it may become too dangerous to freely discuss some subjects related to terrorism. This would be a further erosion of civil liberties as a result of legislation.

Christoph Bluth is professor of international studies at Leeds University.

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