Why I...feel the values of my institution are a bulwark against the bombers

July 15, 2005

The explosion from last Thursday's bus bomb was heard all over Bloomsbury.

At first everyone thought it was a freak thunderclap. Looking back, of course, the sound could only have been that of an explosion.

The irony of bombing London is that it is such a multicultural city. The victims themselves typify London: black, white, Asian, Arab, Christian, Muslim and Jewish. The more local irony is that the bomb exploded beside Tavistock Square, where a statue of Ghandi sits among plaques and trees dedicated to world peace and against violence.

Around the corner is the School of Oriental and African Studies. If any institution in London exemplifies the depth possible in the multicultural project, it is Soas.

The latest translation of humanity's first epic poem, Gilgamesh , came out of Soas, as did the latest translation of the Koran. You can study sixth-century Afghanistani or any number of endangered languages at Soas - and learn how to write a modern, democratic, Islamic constitution; or the wherewithals of Iranian diplomatic style.

Few other British universities have such a diversity of overseas students, particularly at graduate level.

The students have always engaged in robust, occasionally ferocious debate, particularly on Middle East questions where Israeli and Palestinian students will "rip into" one another.

But these debates have never been accompanied by violence, and their protagonists can show great chivalry.

Recently, Soas hosted simultaneous conferences with Israeli and Palestinian themes. When the Israeli conference could not activate its PowerPoint presentation, it was one of the organisers of the Palestinian conference who trooped over and did some judicious hacking into the Soas system and got things up and running.

I am just terribly grateful that the bombings did not occur during term time. It would have been these very multicultural and differently idealistic students who would have been travelling on the bus and on the Underground train that was blown up between King's Cross and Russell Square. Not all the Bloomsbury institutions were spared, and the concentration of neighbouring campuses is so tight and intimate that the entire suburb was awash with concern and sympathy.

The day of July 7 was spent waiting for the police all-clear, doing the rounds to make sure people could get home, setting skeleton staffs into place for Friday and the weekend, pondering whether to allow a conference booked for Friday night and Saturday to proceed.

And that was another irony, for it was a socialist conference, and one that would normally have been in full solidarity with the theme of anti-imperialism. It is harder to speculate abstractly about whether violence can be just, or justified, if that violence has just paid a visit to your doorstep. The conference was told to go ahead. The theme of "business as usual" was seen as important.

The faculty members of Soas come from around the world. Many are Middle Eastern. Almost all speak a non-European language and most have read the great sacred books of the world.

It is an institution of which I feel inordinately proud, as do almost all its staff and student members. I am absolutely sure there will be no backlash against any section of our mixed staff or student group.

I feel it is not untoward to say that everyone sees the importance of learning, reason, reasoned - even if voluble - debate, and constructive - even if radical - scenarios to take the world forward.

The mission of Soas is against every fundamentalism and every cheap exploitation of what is simultaneously sacred and humane.

Stephen Chan Dean of Law and Social Sciences at the School of Oriental and African Studies

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