Article
29 September 2017 at 3pm

The Telegraph: Extremist speakers are still visiting universities. Here is how we can challenge them

By Richard Black, Research Manager of Student Rights

29 September 2017 

 

This week, tens of thousands of students will begin at university. Yet rather than the pleasure of university, the focus is once again on the dangers posed by the presence of radical speakers on British campuses. New steps are needed to strike the right balance between freedom of expression, and safeguarding young minds from extremism.

In March 2015, the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CTSA) imposed a statutory duty on universities and other public bodies to pay “due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism”. The Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) reports that almost all universities are fulfilling their formal obligation to do so.

Yet this is only half the story. A new report published on Thursday by Student Rights, reveals that in the last academic year, 112 student events were scheduled that either featured a speaker who meets the government definition of an extremist, or were arranged by an organisation with a history of promoting speakers who do.

Islamist speakers dominate the list. Moazzam Begg, who has publicly defended individuals convicted of travelling to Syria, and suggested that Al-Qaeda associated clerics such as Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi are the “most credible voices” against ISIS, appears no less than six times.

Also included are individuals who have supported proscribed terrorist groups. For example, Yvonne Ridley, a journalist who converted to Islam while detained by the Taliban in Afghanistan, has admitted funding Hamas, publicly defended the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu-Musab Al-Zarqawi, and referenced anti-Semitic tropes in her criticisms of Israel.

This was not sufficient to prevent her finding an audience at the University of Bradford and the University of Southampton. Far from being shunned, extreme speakers are often given a warm welcome. Anas al-Tikriti, who has referred to a “Holocaust industry”, and dismissed concerns about Isil appeared at a panel event at Brunel University alongside the then President of the National Union of Students (NUS).

Though the problem is a significant one, it is not insurmountable, provided students and universities are provided with sufficient information about who is coming onto campus. Just six individuals accounted for over half the total number of events. Likewise, eight universities played host to over 40 per cent of the events. The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was the most frequent location, hosting 14 events in total.

There is now widespread acknowledgement that non-violent extremism is a factor which can lead to radicalisation.

Following the London Bridge attack in June 2017, Prime Minister Theresa May said there had been “too much tolerance of extremism in our country” and that “we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out across the public sector and across society”.

It is vital that those efforts are extended onto university campuses, in order to prevent unfiltered hatred from pouring into the minds of young people.

No one wishes to enforce an arbitrary definition of who is or is not an extremist, or trample upon freedom of expression. Yet there are plenty of steps that could be taken which are reasonable and feasible.

For instance, our research found that of the 112 events that were cause for concern, only one was structured in such a way to enable extremist views to be challenged effectively, by featuring additional panellists capable of offering critiques. As a matter of principle, controversial speakers and organisations should not be hosted in forums that are likely to be one-sided. Balanced platforms are the best way to challenge extremism and ensure a healthy debate with a diverse range of views.

The situation could also be improved if Universities UK were to formulate a national speaker policy, an approach that would foster consistent approaches to external speakers across the higher education sector. As a last resort, universities should impose sanctions on student societies that consistently flout external speaker guidelines.

Universities are places of learning – but they aren’t simply libraries. They exist so that professors with knowledge and judgement can guide students towards a greater understanding of the modern world, with all its complexities. Radical individuals, preaching dogmatic intolerance without challenge, should find no quarter.

 

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