The government’s very public naming and shaming of universities that have hosted hate preachers took many in higher education by surprise.
Institutions have been working diligently and with barely a whisper of complaint to update their procedures in line with new Prevent counterterrorism regulations that came into force last week.
However, instead of welcoming universities’ compliance with the new checks on external speakers and the staff training requirements (which some consider to be onerous and an attack on free speech), the Downing Street press release to mark the advent of new rules was distinctly hostile to institutions.
Citing “at least 70 events featuring hate speakers” at universities last year, it went on to accuse four – Queen Mary University of London; Soas, University of London; King’s College London; and Kingston University – of welcoming the most speakers known to express “views contrary to British values”.
The institutions were quick to respond – and all raised concerns about the Downing Street data.
Soas said that just one of the six extremist speakers named in the release had visited its campus, and had done so only to discuss Islamic finance. The event featured the controversial cleric Haitham Al-Haddad, but it had been vetted and stewarded to ensure that he remained on topic, Soas added.
Kingston said that the talks to its Islamic Society by the clerics named by Downing Street were about the Central African Republic and “How one needs to strike a balance between the worldly life and the hereafter”. King’s stated that its speakers complied with all Home Office guidance.
Queen Mary’s principal, Simon Gaskell, said that his institution had never hosted an extremist speaker against police advice, had rigorous vetting policies and had no contact with the newly formed Extremism Analysis Unit, which had apparently drawn up the list.
“We would be happy to cooperate with them to ensure the information they have based their report on is accurate and would welcome sight of their definitions for ‘hate or extremist speakers’,” Professor Gaskell said.
So where did the government’s information come from? When Times Higher Education asked the Home Office for a list of the 70 events cited in the release, it was told that the department would not provide a more detailed breakdown.
However, a researcher at the transparency campaign group Spinwatch highlighted “striking similarities” between the Home Office release and a report published this year by Student Rights, which is part of the Henry Jackson Society, a thinktank that has been condemned by several students’ unions for “targeting Muslim students”.
All four London universities named by Downing Street are listed in the Student Rights report, titled Preventing Prevent, as having hosted the most events (Queen Mary is top with 11 in 2014), observed the researcher, Hilary Aked, who recently co-authored a book on the Henry Jackson Society that details its origins in the neoconservative Peterhouse Right movement based at the University of Cambridge college and its funding from pro-Zionist backers, including Tory donors.
Also featured in both the Student Rights report and the Downing Street document are four former students-turned-terrorists and four allegedly radicalised students who had travelled or tried to travel to Syria.
“The almost identical wording used to describe people convicted of terrorist offences suggests that the material has simply been recycled,” Ms Aked said.
Both reports cite the example of the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to set off a bomb on a Detroit-bound plane in 2009, even though an inquiry by University College London found no evidence to suggest that he was radicalised while a student there.
Roshonara Choudhry, who was jailed for life for stabbing Labour MP Stephen Timms in 2010 shortly after dropping out of King’s, appears in both documents. She admitted to having been radicalised by watching more than 100 hours of speeches on YouTube and said that she left King’s because she felt it to be “anti-Islamic”.
Ms Aked said that the government’s apparent use of the Student Rights material is “extremely worrying” because she felt the Henry Jackson Society’s political bias was readily apparent despite its claims to be “non-partisan”.
She said it was “little wonder the legitimacy of Prevent” was “in tatters” when the government’s Extremism Analysis Unit appeared to be allowing such a thinktank “to decide which individuals and which universities are to be smeared as ‘extremist’”.
However, Rupert Sutton, director of Student Rights, accused Spinwatch of itself accepting funding from questionable sources, including the Cordoba Foundation, which he said Prime Minister David Cameron had described as a “political front for the Muslim Brotherhood”. Mr Sutton added: “So it is no surprise to us to see [Spinwatch] working to undermine Prevent.”
Other commentators also worry that the “naming and shaming” policy indicates that the goalposts of the Prevent strategy have shifted considerably. Are those holding unpleasant or extremist views now in essence blacklisted from appearing on campus regardless of the subject to be discussed or the checks made on them?
Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of the free speech campaign group Index on Censorship, said that she had “no doubt that the government’s rhetoric and intention had shifted since the election”.
“It’s extremely worrying that they should go out and name these universities but provide almost no detail on the instances in question,” Ms Ginsberg said.
Using the “extraordinarily vague definition of an extremist as someone who does not hold British values” was also problematic, she added. “Going public with these examples on very sketchy evidence is simply scaremongering.”
Some may also wonder if the new focus on the National Union of Students’ opposition to Prevent is inspired by the Henry Jackson Society, which has long been a critic of the NUS.
Jo Johnson, the universities and science minister, wrote to the NUS last month calling for it to drop its policy, which was passed by its conference in April.
“As students’ unions are not public bodies, and therefore not subject to the act, it’s confusing that the government is so focused on our work,” NUS president Megan Dunn said.
“The NUS is a campaigning organisation, so our opposition to this agenda – based on both principled and practical concerns…is both valid and appropriate.”
Aminul Hoque, lecturer in education at Goldsmiths, University of London and a critic of Prevent, said that the new efforts to stop potentially extremist speakers visiting campuses were a worrying development.
“I always say to my students that they should feel free to say whatever they want, as long as they can justify their rationale for doing so, provide evidence and examples and also be respectful of others,” Dr Hoque said.
“Ironically, there is something very ‘un-British’ about restricting freedom of speech,” he added.