It's part of the job to 'justify' terror

December 23, 2005

The Terrorism Bill leads Maria Misra to turn her thoughts from a cosy campus life to contemplating a spell behind bars

There are two persistent cliches about the nature of academic life, both turning on its essential irrelevance. In one, benign and be-tweeded academics pootle pleasantly in the meadows of arcane esoterica; in the other it is a world of endemic back-biting where the stratospheric peaks of aggression are matched only by the lowness of the stakes. But in reflecting on the year just gone, it seems that universities' place in the broader social context has undergone a radical change. Far from irrelevant, they now occupy a central place in politics, both here and abroad, not seen since the 1960s.

A number of events have called into question the fundamentals of academic freedom. In France, a law was passed in May forcing teachers and academics to present the "upside" of French imperialism. In the wake of the Paris riots, lecturers have joined with the so-called French Algerian riff-raff to have this absurd legislation repealed. In the US, the Patriot Act has led to academics being denounced and blacklisted by outfits such as the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch.

In Britain, too, the screws have been tightening. There have been murmurings among the political classes about the essential goodness of the British Empire - though not as yet the statutory requirement to replace serious analysis with encomiums to the railways of the Raj. More worrying is some institutions' internalisation of pervasive paranoia about radical Islam as demonstrated by Imperial College London's recent banning of the wearing of hoodies and headscarves in a manner likely to obscure the face from security cameras. Again this has not affected me directly, though I might have to revise my planned purchase of a most competitively priced cashmere hoodie.

I have, however, been affected directly by perhaps the most serious of recent state incursions into academic freedom, the Terrorism Bill, and particularly the issue of the justification and glorification of terrorism.

Many have noted that this affects university teaching directly. My own is affected more than most.

Indeed, there is not really a single course I teach that does not touch on terrorists. From violent resistance to 19th-century colonialism, to the more organised violence found in almost all instances of de-colonisation, the papers I teach are centrally concerned with the issue of the efficacy and justice of "terrorism". Indeed, I set as a source the last testament of the most famous terrorist of the Indian national movement, Bhagat Singh.

Singh was a self-proclaimed revolutionary atheist Marxist who blew up a Raj official (admittedly by accident) in an act of violence designed to show the futility of Gandhian methods. He was executed by the British and became overnight, and has remained, a great hero in India. Can one analyse this phenomenon without explaining or "justifying" terrorism?

The "glorification" element in the Terrorism Bill has been amended after the Government's near-defeat in November; now it is a crime only if it can be shown that one intended to encourage others to commit terrorist offences. But the whole issue of intent is fraught with ambiguity.

Having gone into academic life because of its apparent cosiness, it is perplexing to find oneself in the maelstrom of political upheaval, though it is gratifying to be thought "relevant". Should the going get so tough that I end up residing in one of her Her Majesty's correctional facilities, I can at least reflect that the one true route to intellectual productivity is a prolonged period of enforced incarceration.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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