Written by Student Rights on 20 February 2012 at 5pm

University of Westminster cancels debate giving platform to Hizb-ut-Tahrir chief: A student's perspective

This article was written for Student Rights by Amy Wilkes, a student at Westminster University. All views are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of Student Rights.

This time two years ago Student Rights reported on the cancellation of an event due to be hosted at the University of Westminster which was planning to give platform to Jamal Harwood, a chief member of the executive committee of Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). Now, I find myself disappointed, as a student of The University of Westminster, to be reporting on a near identical situation.

In 2010, the University sent a clear statement declaring that the reason for the cancellation was that it “supports the National Union of Students (NUS) and its policy of providing No Platform for Hizb ut-Tahrir”.

Since then, Tarik Mahri and Jamal Achchi, both thought to be influenced by the extremist organisation, are the President and Vice President for Education elected by the university. I was involved in the campaign against the 'Three Brothers', as they (and one other unsuccessful candidate) called themselves, helping some friends of mine as they unsuccessfully, stood against them.

When they were elected I was unsure of what this would mean for the Student's Union, now it seems it is becoming clear as their Global Ideas Society, which has in the past been said to have supposedly declared such extreme views as the belief that homosexuality should be punishable by death, and complete segregation of the sexes outside of the home, have again invited Jamal Harwood to one of their events.

This time around however, students of the university have been assured by  the Student's Union that :

“The decision to cancel the event had nothing to do, whatsoever with the scheduled appearance of Jamal Harwood (the Media Representative of Hizb ut Tahrir). The no-platform policy is not an adopted policy at Westminster University and is not binding on the Univeristy of Westminster Students’ Union. Therefore, the NUS have no authority to dictate Westminster SU policy.”

The blame is instead placed onSeveral students, a lecturer and Peter Tatchell, according to the University, who opposed the appearance of a Hizb ut Tahrir member, posed a violent threat to the event.

Prior to the event, students who opposed the views of Harwood had organised a Facebook event calling on students to attend in order to “confront and debate Hizb-ut-Tahrir”at no point on the page was violence or disruption mentioned.

More interesting is the mention of Peter Tatchell, a prominent human rights and equality activist, who has irritated HT HQ in the past in objecting to their far right views. No doubt placing blame on Mr Tatchell was intended to smear his name and aid their own discriminatory views, but was perhaps also fuelled by their fear of him attending another event at the University on the same evening.

Mr Tatchell told me that he was unaware of the Global Ideas event taking place, or of Mr Harwood's intended presence at the university, saying “I had no knowledge of this event at all. I did not seek its cancellation or threaten to disrupt it. If I had known about the Hizb ut-Tahrir speaker, I would have protested peacefully against him (as I have done in the past). The idea that I had threatened violence is absurd.

He also suggested that the organisation has given him more reason to be afraid of them, than they of him, telling me that “In May 1994, at their Wembly conference, I was subjected to death threats from members of Hizb ut-Tahrir. They explicitly threatened to track me down and kill me.”

He added, about his view of the organisation, that “It should be opposed at every opportunity. The rights and freedoms of ordinary Muslims should be defended against these fanatics who are, first and foremost, a threat to fellow Muslims.”

The Student's union has refused to apologise for their fabrications about Mr Tatchell's involvement in any potentially violent or disruption plan, and today the reason for the cancellation remains hazy. The university has been contacted but has thus far made no statement in addition to the one already issued by the Student's Union.

Their risk assessment cites “disorder leading to physical injury to individuals” and members of staff, as well as “press coverage that portrays the university or its students in a bad light”, and a mention of last year’s Evening Standard article about the election of suspected HT members, as reasons for their decision to cancel the event. Many students and members of staff would like an answer as to why the University supposedly no longer supports the NUS' no-platform policy.

I have also spoken to Noel Doyle of Occupy London who was scheduled to speak alongside Harwood at the event. He told meI had not heard of HT as an organisation before, it was my fellow occupiers who alerted me to the organisation and led to my subsequent withdrawal from the event. I did not know the event had been rescheduled for the 8th so do not know if I will be taking part.”

It is interesting that no mention has been made of Doyle's choice to withdraw from the event from either the Student's Union or the Global Ideas society, possibly because it would further demonstrate scrutiny at their decision to invite Harwood, particularly as a lecturer at LSE had already pulled out of the event due to this fact.

Fellow students which I have spoken to were mostly pleased that Jamal Harwood would not get to air his views, but a discussion about whether free speech has been blocked has developed amongst some students, with some feeling that they would have preferred to confront his views and reveal them for their true nature.

The Global Ideas Society was unhappy with the decision made by the university to cancel the event, and have already rescheduled, with the intention of including Jamal Harwood, for 8th March. We can only wait to see if the new date will go ahead, particularly as, although they are still advertising Doyle to attend, they now have only two speakers. Should this event go ahead as planned, I will report for Student Rights shortly after.