SOAS fights against implementation of PREVENT+ regulations
Categories: Latest News
Wednesday May 16 2018
In the latest series of backlashes against the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, PREVENT, academics from SOAS, UCU and UNISON have signed a statement urging the SOAS Board of Trustees to vote down the implementation of PREVENT-minded strategies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
On Thursday, 17th of May 2018, the SOAS Board of Trustees will discuss the ‘SOAS Freedom of Speech Proposal’, which aims at introducing a more stringent process in the organisation of public events.
The statement makes numerous criticism of the contested proposal, highlighting that the introduction of questionnaires which include calling on students and staff to consider whether “the speaker, or the organisation they represent have a controversial profile in the media”, is “effectively allowing right wing media outlets to set the parameters for acceptable debate at SOAS”.
Other strange questions that are part of the questionnaire include: “Is the event likely to attract a heightened media interest?” and “is the event likely to attract unusual interest or unusually large numbers?”
As such, this proposed strategy is not restricted to flagging guests who pose a potential threat to UK national security, but rather, extends to individuals who are considered controversial by the mainstream media.
It is worth remembering that the Daily Mail, for example, is part of this “mainstream media”. Consequently, this strategy would prohibit speakers who are deemed controversial merely by the Daily Mail. This is an interesting choice for setting standards considering that the newspaper is banned as a reliable reference on Wikipedia. Therefore, one may question whether the mainstream media constitutes a reliable authority.
The statement continues to argue that it is inappropriate the SOAS Board of Trustees discussing a policy which has not been discussed with the Academic Board, the Students’ Union, the Academic Senate, or any of the relevant trade unions at SOAS despite the “obviously controversial nature of its proposals”.
The statements ends with urging the Board to vote down the proposal, and asks for a more democratic process to be instigated in the consultation of the policy.
The statement reads:
“We, the undersigned, therefore call on the Board to vote this proposal down and to call on SOAS management to move to an open process of consultation with SOAS staff and students about this policy, in order to find a way to balance their legal obligations and the safeguarding of free speech, academic freedom, and basic discrimination policies in our institution”.
Whilst the statement is primarily criticising the proposal going beyond the boundaries of the PREVENT duty, by attempting to flag up individuals that constitute no perceivable ‘threat’, one should also bear in mind that the PREVENT strategy has itself been heavily criticised in the past.
The PREVENT duty requires public bodies to have “due regard to the need to prevent individuals from being drawn into terrorism”, enforcing students and staffs of schools, colleges and universities, as well as all other public bodies, to report anyone they suspect may be vulnerable to becoming radicalised.
Critics of the counter-terrorism strategy argue that it has disproportionately targeted the British Muslim community and has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in public space.
These critics include (but are not limited to) two special rapporteurs to the UN, the NUT, the NUS, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Rights Watch UK, the Open Society Justice Initiative, and more than 140 academics, politicians and experts in a single letter alone.
Notable infamous cases highlighting the ineffectuality of the strategy include the case of ‘Rahmaan Mohammadi’ and ‘Mohammed Umar Farooq’.
In the first case, a 17-year old, Rahmaan Mohammadi, was flagged up because of his solidarity with Palestine. Mr Mohammadi was distributing leaflets outside his school highlighting the need for humanitarian intervention in Gaza due to the lack of water and food in the area. His leaflets were confiscated and was questioned by a staff member described as a ‘special constable’ responsible for PREVENT referrals in his school.
In a further case, Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was a student at the University of Staffordshire was flagged up by a University staff member and a magistrate for reading a course book on terrorism. Mr Farooq was undertaking a Master’s degree in Terrorism and Security Studies at the time and had explained this to both people during a brief chat. However, subsequent to the chat both the staff member and the magistrate complained to the university security that “there [was] a man, who is Asian, and with a beard, who is not a student and is reading a book on terrorism”. The University eventually apologised noting that the incident was the result of PREVENT training which was “devoid of detail” and was underpinned by guidance that contained “insufficient detail to provide clear practical direction”.
As such, it is extremely worrying that a strategy that has been shown to demonise, stigmatise and marginalise minority communities is being expanded upon by particular universities to further alienate students, staff and potential speakers.
It is equally worrying that universities (who are supposed to remain the beacons of fair and legitimate debate) may potentially restrict opportunities for dialogue and open discussion, purely on the basis of the mainstream media’s designation of controversial speakers, and without prioritising the academic analysis of arguments.