Last week I was suspended from Middlesex University. I was told I could not enter the premises, nor talk to staff or students at the university. I was escorted off the premises by security. Why? Because I organised a meeting to which Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic political party, was invited.
Last academic year, a motion was passed by our student government (the policy-making body of the union) defending the right of Hizb ut-Tahrir to meet and speak on campus. Then, in August, Tony Blair mentioned that Hizb ut-Tahrir might be included on its list of proscribed organisations.
I was asked by a group of students to put out a press statement saying that the union opposed the proposed ban and defended the group's right to free speech. I was happy to do this. However, from the reactions I received from students, it became clear that renewed debate on this issue was needed and that it was possible that new motions would have to be brought to the first student government meeting of the year.
To facilitate that renewed debate, students asked if we could invite members of Hizb ut-Tahrir to a meeting at which students could discuss any problems, queries or difficulties they might have with the group. They would then be able to make a balanced and informed decision in the student government meeting.
However, as soon as the proposal was announced, university managers called me in for a meeting and "instructed" me to cancel the invitation to Hizb ut-Tahrir. They said that if I did not comply with this request, the meeting would be banned. I explained that I could not cancel the invitation as students had requested the meeting and that they had invited the group. I was mandated by the union to uphold their right to speak on campus, so if I was to tell students to cancel the invitation, I would be contravening my union's own policy and failing in my responsibilities as president. Without further ado, I was suspended and ushered off campus.
This raises all sorts of questions about the autonomy of student unions, academic freedom within universities and wider issues of Islamophobia and the role of vice-chancellors in the implementation of government policy.
It should be made clear that I, and many others in the student union, do not agree with the politics of Hizb ut-Tahrir, but the fact is that the party is not a violent group and that it condemned the July 7 bombings in London. The group has not been banned by the Government, and so it seems perfectly reasonable that it should have the right to free speech.
The union has taken a principled position on the issue, and it is arguable that the vice-chancellor should not be able to interfere unilaterally with the democratically decided wishes of the student body.
This could be seen as part of a wider issue with the way the Government has acted since July 7. In a poll, 85 per cent of British people said they thought there was a link between the war in Iraq and the bombings in London. It raises the question of whether the Government is worried that people will believe that it should share responsibility for the London bombings? It is possible that the Government is seeking to scapegoat the Muslim community as a whole by attacking legitimate political parties to deflect attention from itself? This helps to foster a climate of Islamophobia.
Banning political ideas does not destroy them, it simply pushes them underground where people may be led into more "extreme" ideas. The way to get rid of ideas is to confront them, to debate them and to win the argument. It is regrettable that a university cannot provide a forum for that debate.