New counter-terrorism legislation which requires universities to monitor students and police so-called extremist speakers will legitimise Islamophobia and xenophobia, union leaders told a meeting at Goldsmiths last week.
The National Union of Students (NUS) met with representatives from the University and College Union (UCU) and students at Goldsmiths on Wednesday to discuss the government’s Prevent agenda which came into force at the end of September.
Patricia McManus, the UCU National Executive, told a packed room: “Safe spaces inside universities are being turned into spaces of surveillance, discrimination and potential criminalisation, all under the rhetoric of taking care of vulnerable students”
“Our curriculum and our research is not safe,” she added.
Prevent, section 26 of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015, requires colleges and universities to monitor students who are suspected of being drawn into terrorism, and to closely manage external speakers. The government says extremism in public forums could popularise views which terrorists could then exploit.
Its introduction in September sparked concern with many condemning it as an attack on free speech.
Muhammed Patel, President of Goldsmiths Islamic society (ISOC), told ELL: “The prevent strategy is another attempt from the government to shut down the religious freedom of Muslims.
“The strategy essentially allows Islamophobic organisations to openly express their sentiment, whilst Muslims have to think before they can even respond.”
Patel said that Universities are supposedly places where students are allowed to “freely express themselves,”, and “voice their opinions to one another.
“What the prevent strategy attempts to do is shut people out and it limits the potential for debate and discussion,” he added.
The NUS and UCU have been mounting a campaign against the prevent strategy since it came into force on September 21, in particular criticising its definition of extremism as vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect.
In a letter published in the Independent in July leading academics and campaigners warned about the agenda’s potential to cause a “chilling effect to open debate, free speech and political dissent”.
Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) point out that it is “perfectly legitimate” to criticise government foreign policy; the wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan; or express support for Palestinian rights.
Deeming these views as “extreme” could pose a serious risk to freedom of speech and potentially lead to the “unacceptable” racist labelling of students. The UCU guidance stated: “The monitoring of Muslim students will destroy the trust needed for a safe and supportive learning environment and encourage discrimination against BME and Muslim staff and students”
Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities and Science, said: “Universities represent an important arena for challenging extremist views” adding that the strategy was about “protecting people from radicalisation. He said has disappointed about the “overt opposition to the Prevent programme”.
“The legal duty that will be placed on universities and colleges highlights the importance that the government places on this,” he added.
Back in September the Guardian reported that a student at Staffordshire University was accused of being a terrorist after being seen reading a book on terrorism.
Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, ISIS and al-Qaida.
— Darshna Soni (@darshnasoni) October 14, 2015
#StudentsNotSuspects circulates on Twitter with testimonies from victims of discrimination as a direct result of this legislation.
0.3% acts of terrorism in Europe between 2013-14 committed by Muslims. Where is the focus on the 99.7% who weren’t? #StudentsNotSuspects
— samayya (@mayyasa1) October 14, 2015