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Written by Student Rights on 6 November 2015 at 5am

Ex-student who fought against Islamic State banned from UCL (Update: UCLU reverse decision)

UPDATE: 16/11/2015: Following a high profile campaign by UCLU Kurdish Society, the Student Union has reversed their decision to ban Macer Gifford from speaking on campus.

In a statement released today, UCLU said: 

"On Friday 13th November, UCL finally received a response from the police, stating that they felt it would be safe and legally acceptable for us to host Gifford. In light of this information, UCL and UCLU staff, including Sabbatical Officers, have overturned their decision. The relevant organisers have been made aware and the event will now take place on 2nd December at 7pm in Darwin lecture theatre B40.

Although UCLU continues to be concerned about the alleged human rights abuses associated with YPG, we do realise that freedom of speech is of paramount importance on any university campus and in particular on the UCL campus. As a membership-led organisation it is our duty, once safety has been taken into consideration, to listen to our students’ opinions. We believe that our membership values freedom of speech and now that it has been deemed to be safe, we are pleased to be able to facilitate hosting an event that students are so passionate about.

In addition, we would like to apologise to anyone who misconstrued our intentions behind the original decision. UCLU would like to take this opportunity to unequivocally state that we fully condemn the acts of violence and hatred committed around the world by all extremist groups, including ISIS".

Earlier this year, Macer Gifford spent five months in Syria fighting against Islamic State (IS) alongside the Kurdish People’s Defence Units (YPG).

He was invited to speak to students at University College London (UCL) on Tuesday by the Kurdish Society about his experiences, yet the event was cancelled after the intervention of UCL Student Union (UCLU), who told the society:

“…there are concerns that an event with a person speaking about their experiences fighting in Syria could lead to others going and fighting in the conflict.

While this may have been a risk, it could have been mitigated by ensuring the speaker directly told attendees not to travel - potentially part of the provisions the organisers claimed to have put in place - as well as by the presence of other speakers. 

This appears to have been overlooked by the union, but what is more concerning is an email to the organisers from UCLU Activities and Events Officer, Asad Khan, which justified Gifford's ban on the grounds that “in every conflict there are two sides” and that the union wanted to “avoid taking sides”.

Khan said “one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” and attacked the human rights record of the YPG, allegedly telling event organisers he “doesn’t agree with western definitions of groups”,

In a statement to the Tab, he wrote:

“…although I understand YPG are fighting against ISIS the situation is far too complex to understand in black and white”.

And

…despite the fact YPG aren’t a terrorist organisation, I think there is enough evidence to show they have committed human rights abuses, for which reason it is not appropriate for UCLU to be associated with someone who chose to go and fight for them”.

This equivalence between IS and the YPG, made in order to prevent a man with first-hand knowledge of IS brutality from discussing it on campus, is astonishing.

IS is responsible for countless egregious crimes across Syria and Iraq, including the beheading of aid workers and journalists; the execution of homosexuals; the selling of women and underage girls into sexual slavery; and the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities.

Unlike the YPG, it is proscribed by the Home Office as a “brutal … terrorist group” which “adheres to a global jihadist ideology”, and any attempt to equate the two organisations is deeply disingenuous.

The same is true of Khan’s most recent statement on the issue, which compares the YPG to two other designated terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Here at Student Rights, we believe that those who’ve fought for the YPG against IS should not be banned from campuses – and should certainly not be equated with the jihadist group, something which excuses IS by pretending all actors in Syria are as bad as one another.

As Khan said, there are two sides to every conflict. When students find themselves banning those who have fought for the Kurds against IS, they should ask themselves which side this helps.