Today, Westminster University was to be the venue for a debate between Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) member Jamal Harwood and Swiss academic Dr. Jean-Francois Mayer. Yesterday, HT released a statement claiming that the government have intervened, and forced the University to cancel the event.
That the government has seen fit to step in here signals a potentially significant shift in the previously passive policy towards the presence of extremists on UK campuses.
Up until yesterday, the Westminster Union refused to cancel the debate, despite the fact that HT is subject to the National Union of Students (NUS) ‘no platform’ policy – along with the BNP and MPACUK – because of its anti-semitism. Anti-extremism group, Student Rights, sent a message to the Westminster Union expressing their concern that a neo-fascist group was allowed on campus. This was the response they received:
We have had a few enquiries about the nature of the event scheduled to take place at our university this Friday. After reviewing the arrangements for the event, Westminster Students Union has made the decision that there are no grounds to stop the event from going ahead. We do not have a no-platform policy regarding Hizb Uttahrir, so we cannot prevent any society from inviting members of that orgnisation for events on campus. Furthermore, the speaker invited for this Friday participated in a debate at Westminster in December which passed without incident, so we do not anticipate anything happening could harm student welfare in this week’s event. We also believe the fact that the society involved has organised the event in a manner which will enable students to participate by raising their objections and views. In view of these factors we decided that we would leave it to our students make their own decision about whether they wish to attend the event or not.
Like most student unions, Westminster’s was unwilling to take a stand against Islamists on campus. In theory, they have a point: university campuses are important venues for debate and the discussion of radical ideas. However, I am certain that were this debate to include a member of the BNP, the union would not have hesitated in banning them. Whereas the BNP have an isolationist fascist ideology concerned only with Britain, HT’s fascism is on a global scale, as this report by the Centre for Social Cohesion demonstrates. At the very least, universities must give equal treatment to all fascists, be they nationalist or pseudo-religious.
The question then moves on to: should we ban them all or not? Strong debate may be the key – if a member of HT had a debate about extremism with, for example, Shiraz Maher or Rashad Ali (also a former leading member of HT and now head of CENTRI), their hate filled message would be robustly challenged and defeated in the presence of hundreds of students. As it currently stands, Islamists are usually given free, open platforms to spew their propaganda with no effort to challenge or delegitimise them, and debate is certainly a better alternative to this.
However, debates also have a flaw. Islamist groups like HT will often organise ‘debates’ on campuses through members and sympathisers at the university in which an HT member would be put up against either someone sympathetic to their cause or oblivious to it. In the case of today’s debate, Dr. Mayer is not someone I am familiar with, and it would be unfair to pass any judgment on his views or ability to counter HT, although I will attend the event at its new location to see for myself.
Student Rights have just informed me that, according to the Westminster University press office, it was the NUS that intervened to secure the ban and NOT the government. If this is true, then it instead signals a significant shift in the NUS approach to Islamism, which has thusfar been lackluster at best.
An NUS representative has just me the following:
While we accept that Westminster Union does not adopt the NUS No Platform policy in relation to Hizb ut-Tahrir, we did advise the university’s marketing department to consult the Government’s guidelines on preventing violent extremism. We can only assume that the university made its decision in response to the Government’s guidelines.
This is all rather confusing, and I think we may need Westminster to clarify this. At the moment, they claim that the NUS intervened to cancel the event, but the NUS are now telling us that their intervention did not directly lead to the cancellation. Although it’s encouraging to see the NUS taking some action, it sounds like no one really wants to take the the credit for this.