In a move presumably inspired by too many stoned late-night sessions reading Derrida, Warwick University Student Union last week banned ex-Muslim and prominent anti-religion activist Maryam Namazie from speaking on campus on the basis that she qualifies as a “hate preacher” with a record of “insulting other faiths” before being later forced to backtrack.
The National Secular Society branded the initial decision “absurd and sinister,” decrying the ban as “capitulation to an Islamist agenda.” What they failed to mention is that since the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 was passed earlier this year, universities have a duty to tackle “all forms of extremism” under the so called-Prevent agenda – something the NSS have strongly supported. The language used by the Warwick Student Union consciously draws on the terminology and requirements of Prevent in its rationale for banning Namazie.
That the Namazie ban was ever even conceivable highlights the central problems at the heart of the Government’s decision to move from combatting violent radicalism to taking on forms of speech and action that remain within the law but cross a poorly-defined boundary into “extremism” that, in the language of Prevent “go against fundamental British values.”
The first of those problems is that the definition of “extremism” by its very nature is not and cannot be fixed. The term “extremism” is necessarily a relative one. The extreme can only exist in relation to the “moderate” and so it is impossible to create a test that ensures a consistent application of this, either in a court of law, or in the court of public opinion. Thus, something may be deemed “extreme” simply because there is a body of opinion that it is so. Who holds that opinion and what they deem ‘extreme” is impossible to police, particularly given that the touchtone is “British Values” a term that is so vague and contradictory that people have already been referred under prevent for, among other things, using the term “l’ecoterrorisme” in French class and attending a Boycott Divestment and Sanctions demonstration. In fact, children as young as two have been referred.
The second of those problems is that the highly complex jurisprudential and political science questions being posed by Prevent’s attempt to create legal sanction for actions and words that are not illegal are not being decided by High Court Judges. They are being decided by Student Unions, by teachers, by low-ranking civil servants in town halls across the UK. Such people are simply not qualified to decide what does or does not qualify as “extremism” and so will almost always err on the side of caution, reporting first and asking questions later. Given the lack of understanding and of oversight, there is also a risk that the Prevent regime could be used to pursue personal vendettas or as a vehicle for prejudices otherwise deemed unacceptable in a civilised society.
The third, and greatest, problem is that Prevent is a gigantic euphemism. It hasn’t been put in place to tackle extremism in Irish communities in Ulster, it isn’t there to take on homophobic prejudice in Catholic schools, it has not been created to tackle the rogue general who threatened to mutiny if Jeremy Corbyn was elected. Prevent was designed to tackle what the government sees (according to the comprehensively debunked “conveyor belt theory”) as the root cause of violent extremism in Muslim communities. But it isn’t actually possible to say this, in guidance or in statute. The Race Relations Act, The Human Rights Act and the quirky, out-dated principle of equality before the law ensure that no specific ethnic or religious group can be named at the target of legislation. The result, as Ms Namazie has discovered, is that all that is needed for one to be silenced as an extremist is to be named as such.
Except, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. After playing the martyr to the media, Namazie has whipped up enough support for her right to free speech that the university has backtracked. The post signalling their u-turn is instructive. In an angry and admonishing tone, it declares that “speaker invitations that may involve such issues are routinely considered by the SU President who will also take advice from senior SU staff. This did not happen on this occasion.” Somebody, one presumes, will be sent to bed without their dinner.
Now it is impossible to know, on the basis of a few news reports and statements how the decision was reached, but the phrase “routinely considered” should be of interest to spin-watchers. It implies that there is a process without actually saying as much, giving the CU president and their “senior staff” a way to climb down and save face after the media backlash despite what was, presumably, a democtratic decision by the organisation they represent.
The initial ban may have been serious or it may have been playfully absurdist in its appropriation of the language and logic of Prevent, but the fact that it could be overturned after media pressure raises serious questions about the Prevent programme quite apart from its inherently contradictory nature as a programme that undermines the British values of freedom of thought and expression in order to preserve them. It means that those with the greatest access to opinion-formers have the ability to marshall Prevent’s not inconsiderable powers in a way that others do not. It means that in practice, only those forms of hate speech that go against public prejudices will be censured, while those that chime with the public mood will be allowed to stand. It means that the day-to-day application of Prevent doesn’t even conform to the programme’s own convoluted logic.
In short, Prevent is a terrible idea from conception to execution. Given that it does, exist, it needs to be applied equally across all forms of extremism, including those espoused by avowed secularists. One would think that Namazie, who represents an organisation called One Law For All, might understand this concept . If this is not done, it is hard to see how a policy that combines vague terminology with unaccountable power and apparent double standards will prevent anything other than allowing a generation of British Muslims to feel that the are allowed to take full part in the intellectual and civic life of their country.