I Think, Therefore I Am: Identifying Potential Terrorists In British Universities


These crude words of iconic American actor Humphrey Bogart were echoing in my head  this week when I learned that a review of policy on radicalisation by Lord Carlile

“They’ll nail anyone who ever scratched his ass during the National Anthem.”

These crude words of iconic American actor Humphrey Bogart were echoing in my head  this week when I learned that a review of policy on radicalisation by Lord Carlile, due to be published in May, will suggest that lecturers should more closely analyse essays and work submitted by students to spot troubling or revealing ideas. The suggestion is just one of many in Carlile’s call for more monitoring of students by university and college lecturers. His call has obtained the support of leading politicians, including the Prime Minister who just before Christmas said that the UK had to "de-radicalise" its universities.

While Bogart’s statement was made in response to the growing witch-hunt of suspected Communist sympathizers in America during the 1950s, known as McCarthyism, it could just as easily have been said about the criminlisation of political thought in the UK today.

University campuses have traditionally been celebrated for providing the space for academic thought, debate and discussion, an arena in which ideas and concepts, however controversial, can be exchanged and analysed. It is for this reason that universities around the world have produced renowned thinkers, academics and leaders with revolutionary ideas which have served humanity. Yet in today’s climate of fear, politicians are deliberately stoking up paranoia to stifle non-conformist thinking.

This academic witch-hunt has been taking place for the last six years following the July 2005 bombings. On 15 September 2005, the then Education Secretary Ruth Kelly told a conference of university vice-chancellors and principals to spy on student activists to prevent the spread of Islamist extremism and terror. Speaking at the annual conference of Universities UK, Ms Kelly said that vice-chancellors had a duty to inform the police where they believed that students or staff were breaking the law or committing “possible criminal acts”.

Earlier that year, a Muslim student at the School for Oriental and African Studies, Nasser Amin, wrote an article in the student magazine Spirit in which he discussed the morality of Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation. The article, ‘When Only Violence Will Do’¸ was a response to views expressed by American cleric Hamza Yusuf that violence was not the answer for the oppressed Palestinians. The article describes the whole of Israel as a Jewish colony that should be dismantled and calls on Palestinians to violently resist Israeli oppression.

Amin’s article faced repeated accusations in national newspapers of being anti-Semitic and supportive of terrorism. Calls were also made by journalists and also in parliament for him to be prosecuted and he became the subject of numerous death threats on Zionist websites. The legal threats came to nothing since Amin had not breached any laws in his article. Amin was however publicly reprimanded by SOAS without any formal disciplinary hearing. Amin’s views are not unique and are shared by numerous students, activists and academics coming from a diversity of religious and cultural backgrounds. Under current proposals, Amin would be reported to the anti-terror police for engaging in an academic debate.

In relation to the respectability and credibility of British universities, the proposed measures will be counter-productive and serve to censor legitimate research and discussion. They are likely to severely restrict the legitimate study of controversial historical events, terrorist activity, the motivation of those who use terrorist means and the use of violence for political ends during which students are required to read, listen to or watch texts and statements that do indeed glorify terrorism or could be seen to encourage it.

One of the terrifying aspects of this experiment in thought control is that no student is too young. Project Channel is the Home Office’s £12.5 million plan that encourages teachers and community leaders to identify and report Muslim teenagers and others they suspect to be at risk of becoming involved with violent extremists. Teachers and community leaders were asked to identify individuals who had not committed any criminal offence but who were accessing controversial websites, writing messages in support of jihad in their notebooks, or frequently talking about taking part in violent activity. Materials sent to schools highlight case studies in which pupils talked about "wanting to be a bomb maker when they left school", the "duty" of Muslims to join groups who will kill American and British soldiers, and pupils who turn up with swastikas cut into their hair. Once children have been identified as being at risk they are referred to a "programme of intervention tailored to their needs" which range from discussions with their families, outreach workers or their local imam, to direct intervention by the police.

In the first 20 months since it was set up in April 2007, as part of the Prevent counterterrorism programme, 228 people, the majority who were aged 15 to 24 and nearly all male were identified as potential terrorists at risk of radicalisation and referred to the police. The majority were suspected of being involved in undefined Islamism. However, chillingly, even children as young as 7 were identified as potentially vulnerable to violent extremism and in need of multi-agency support.

So what factors should teachers be looking out for?

One need look no further than to the Government’s toolkit for schools entitled ‘Learning together to be safe’ which provides guidelines to schools on preventing violent extremism, by which teachers are expected to report any child they suspect of harbouring extremist views. Within these guidelines is included advice from the discredited Gaddafi-linked Quilliam Foundation about danger signs which teachers should look out for including “Political ideology — use of political propaganda that describes political systems and countries as 'Kufr' or anti-Islamic, and expressing the need to replace them with 'The Islamic system', or Caliphate…’ Suspended morality…; Conspiratorial mindset and 'westophobia'…Ultra conservative outlook…” I guess as long as the kids are talking about sex, drugs and rock and roll, they should be safe.

Numerous questions arise as to what then happens to little Abdullah who is caught scribbling the ‘J’ word in his notebook and taken by his teacher to the local police station, having been identified as a potential terrorist. Will his parents be arrested? Will Social Services be asked to intervene? Will the child be labeled and placed under surveillance for life? Will an aspect of a control order or a T-PIM be used to deradicalise him? Will there be any form of accountability for any harm he suffers as a result? Nobody knows the answers to these questions.

The reality is that such actions are no more an indicator of one’s chances of becoming a suicide bomber than of a teenager who listens to gangsta rap about murder and rape and writing crude graffiti becoming a hardened criminal, or university students obsessed with the Godfather trikogy actually becoming mafia bosses.

 

Having grown up in the Republic of Ireland during the Eighties, I can testify to almost every second student having drawn an IRA slogan in their schoolbooks, their copies, their desks or on the wall at some point during their time at secondary school. Even I, a Muslim of Pakistani origin with no historical link to the conflict, contributed my fair share of artistic graffiti. Tiocfaidh ár lá was our motto. Bobby Sands was our hero. We sung pro-IRA rebel ballads in chorus when we attended football matches and cheered whenever British soldiers were killed while watching the movie, ‘Michael Collins’. Many of us entered university, joined political parties, Sinn Fein or otherwise, and engaged in healthy academic discussions about politics, international relations and war, including whether attacks on civilians were justifiable or not. In small places like the town I come from, one tends to keep informed of what your former classmates are up to. I can honestly say that not one, not even the most hardcore Fenian from our school, ended up engaged in any form of terrorist activity. 

While studying for my masters in International Human Rights Law, I recall vigorously debating with my lecturer about the legality of targeting Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. She vehemently disagreed with my opinion but the environment to freely discuss ideas meant we could challenge and try to persuade one another with the use of reasoned argument and logic. Were I to be in university today, I am positive that I would be reported to the police with potentially career and life destroying results.

Incidentally, another student at the same university, whose identity and politics of choice fluctuates between the Black Panthers, the IRA and Al-Qaeda, recently chaired a meeting on human rights abuses at which my former lecturer spoke. This young man was suspended from the same school which I attended for painting ‘We will avenge the death of Sheykh Yasin’ on the toilet walls following the assassination of the Hamas leader in 2004.

If students are not given the freedom to discuss controversial ideas, then those who may be inclined towards acts of terrorism will only discuss them with others who already agree with them. Many will conceal their opinions and their ideas will be left to fester unchallenged. On the contrary, if permitted to freely debate and discuss their viewpoints, such individuals may be able to focus their passions regarding their respective causes in more positive and productive ways, which do not lead to the loss of innocent life. 

During the McCarthy era, thousands of Americans were accused of being Communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations and questioning before government or private-industry panels, committees and agencies. Suspicions were often given credence despite inconclusive or questionable evidence, and the level of threat posed by a person's real or supposed leftist associations or beliefs was often greatly exaggerated. Many people suffered loss of employment, destruction of their careers, and even imprisonment. Most of these punishments came about through trial verdicts later overturned, laws that would be declared unconstitutional, dismissals for reasons later declared illegal or actionable, or extra-legal procedures that would come into general disrepute.

In January 2006, I authored a briefing for the Islamic Human Rights Commission regarding the clampdown on academic freedom for Muslim university students in which I said that we stand “at the edge of a defining moment in British history. We could resort to a neo-McCarthyite hysteria and route out all dissenters starting with all Muslims regardless of their beliefs. Or we – and that includes government, the security community and academia, as well as minority and majority communities – can work towards a security discourse based on thorough and open research that makes the goal of a cohesive society its main aim. For the ethically minded, there really isn’t a choice except the latter.”

Five years later, it seems Britain has made its choice. Let us hope that when the crowds rise to their feet for God Save the Queen, nobody gets a sudden itch. 

Leave a comment