Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg labelled the government’s anti-terrorism strategy Prevent as “a toxic brand” and claimed it “creates dissent among the community” in a debate at Kingston University last Monday.
Begg, founder of CAGE, appeared alongside Shenaz Bunglawala, head of research at MEND, and Vice Chancellor Julius Weinberg, at the panel entitled ‘Censoring Universities?’ moderated by Professor Brian Cathcart.
“Prevent is already being recognised by a large group of people, including a senior police superintendent, as a strategy which targets and lays blame [for radicalisation] on the Muslim community,” said Begg.
The debate signalled Weinberg’s defiance of the Government’s anti-terror strategy, allowing Begg, who has become one of the Britain’s most controversial speakers, to take part in an event on campus.
A number of universities have faced criticism in recent months for failing to comply with the legal requirements set out by the Government’s Prevent strategy. But those singled out, among them Kingston at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, have insisted that the Government’s accusations are based on inaccurate information about their events.
The debate at Kingston tackled the Prevent strategy in the midst of the swirling national debate around the government’s counter-terrorism policies, where universities find themselves on the front lines.
The media, swinging between a staunch defence of free speech and support for censorship under the rubric of ‘safeguarding’ universities, has made higher education the testing grounds for how far the state will go in curtailing liberties in the name of security.
Begg added that “in the same way that we’re speaking out against Prevent, many others have started to do the same – the teachers’ body, the student body, women’s groups – they’re saying Prevent is something that is causing, not preventing, radicalisation.”
“If you want to challenge power, you have to be prepared to being hammered.”
Prevent aims to provide practical help to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, ensuring they are given appropriate advice and support, and works with a wide range of sectors where there are risks of radicalisation.
Vice Chancellor Julius Weinberg has previously condemned Prevent in front of the Home Affairs Select Committee, and reiterated his stance, blasting the Prime Minister for ‘naming and shaming’ Kingston “for allowing what he called hate-speakers.”
The Vice Chancellor told the Committee that the government had used “flawed data from a very dubious source” to label Kingston a hot-bed for radicalisation, and that some aspects of the Prevent strategy were “counter-productive.”
“We, as an organisation that is part of civic society, have a responsibility to reduce risks to the public. I don’t think our duty under Prevent is any different. The best way to curtail radicalisation is to challenge people’s ideas. Universities are a neutral place for ideas to be challenged and for the truth to come forth.”
Shenaz Bunglawala, whose organisation MEND is “at the ‘soft end’ of the Prevent agenda,” voiced concern that Prevent may raise a number of issues conflicting with freedom of speech, and believes universities should eradicate no-platform policies, such as the one promoted by the National Union of Students (NUS).
The NUS’ No-Platform Policy was established in 2007 to prevent the preaching of hatred, marginalisation, or discrimination on campus, but many believe it may have the opposite effect, and promote radicalisation.
Bunglawala said “if we recognise, as a society, that racism is wrong, is it necessary to allow racists on university campuses, this idea of eradicating the no-platform policy and letting them speak as they will? We should challenge those ideas, not silence them.”
The topic of freedom of speech was intrinsic to the debate, with the Vice Chancellor centring his contributions around a quote by 19th Century academic and bishop J.H. Newman.
“Newman said that ‘Within the university, the clash of ideas brings forth truth,’ and I think that is at the core of what we’re trying to do – universities are places where ideas should come together, and there are no safe ideas. Ideas should be tested, and challenged.”
Professor Brian Cathcart, lecturer of journalism and moderator of the debate, also focused on freedom of speech, emphasising that himself and fellow organiser, Journalism Lecturer Azadeh Moaveni, had made “considerable efforts” to recruit a pro-Prevent panel member, but had been unsuccessful.
Organisations approached include: the Quilliam Foundation, the world’s first counter-extremism organisation; the Henry Jackson Society, a controversial far-right think tank; the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank which aims to promote matters of common concern to the peoples of the United Kingdom, Germany and France; Inspire, a counter-extremism and human rights organisation seeking to empower British Muslim women; and Douglas Carswell, Britain’s only UK Independence Party MP.
“A society which doesn’t allow freedom of expression, and particularly doesn’t allow it in its universities, is not a free one, and it’s going to have more difficulty solving its problems than ones that do allow that freedom,” Cathcart said.
Cathcart introduced the speakers, commenting that “if you were to read the papers, or look at the views of the Home Affairs Select Committee, you would see that there are many people who regard Moazzam Begg as an extremist” – something Begg did not take lightly.
“I have to say it’s the first time I have been introduced, in ten years and over a hundred universities, as somebody who is regarded as an extremist. I’ll tell you why some people might regard me or the organisation I work for as an extremist – because being subject to cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment is extreme, being tortured is extreme,” Begg said.
British authorities dropped all terrorism charges against him last October, which had arisen from trips he made to Syria in 2012 and 2013.
He went on to state that “the primary criterion for being a prisoner in Guantanamo, the world’s largest gulag, is that you have to be a Muslim – and then, a terrorism suspect. The nature of the British and American governments has been this – that first you abuse, you torture, and then you vilify.”
Begg also maintains that the British government has actively supported jihad – both by supplying anti-aircraft weapons to mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan and by training them in Snowdonia and the Scottish Highlands.
The event drew a lively crowd of students and staff, a number of whom, during questions, echoed the speakers’ concerns about the chilling effect of Prevent on the spirit of open debate on campus.
Some critics have raised concerns about universities allowing speakers like Begg to address students. One such group, called Student Rights, identifies itself as a group dedicated to supporting democracy on university campuses but has been condemned by the National Union of Students (NUS) as a campus watchdog group of the right-wing Henry Jackson Society.
Rupert Sutton, of Student Rights, called the Kingston event “a step in the right direction, and an example which could be replicated at more universities.
“The attempt to balance the debate and ensure controversial speakers were challenged by the Vice-Chancellor shows Kingston University is taking this issue more seriously than some institutions.”
The Vice Chancellor also made reference to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last January, stating that one of the first things any regime does is stops cartoonists and satirists from criticising those in power.
“Universities are not places where you have cosy conversations, because if you have cosy conversations you don’t move on,” he said. “I think we need to have tough conversations in universities and I think we need to talk about tough issues at university, and there are tough issues out there.”