+44 (0)20 7799 6677

Academic Freedom in an Age of Terror?

Tara McCormack, September 2016

The current Counter-Terrorism and Security Act places legal responsibility, known as the Prevent Duty, on universities to demonstrate that they are actively counterinWhy Academic Freedom Mattersg radicalisation and preventing terrorism.  Quite what this really means is still open to question, however it will have and is having a chilling effect on academic freedom, in particular on free speech, discussion and teaching within universities.

Freedom of speech within the university is the foundation of academic freedom more broadly. The university occupies a special position in a liberal democratic society and that is to be a place in which people should be entirely at liberty to argue, explore and contest all ideas, especially those that are hateful, unpleasant and/or controversial. This is not for the glory of the individual institutions but for the greater good of society. In the words of the 1940 Declaration of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP); the common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition.

Despite having a chilling effect on academic freedom, the Prevent Duty will not resolve any security problems. The attractions of Jihadism have very little to do with radicalisation as commonly understood. The chapter is structured as follows: in this first section I look at what the Prevent Duty is and what the government expects it to achieve. In the second section I look at some of the obvious problems that this policy entails and the immediate consequences in terms of freedom of speech and discussion in the university. In the third section I argue that the Prevent Duty represents a fundamentally bad faith exercise in that the attractions of Jihad are to be found in the domestic realm. Pragmatically, this legislation makes institutions responsible for something that is outside of their control and will result in a vast bureaucratic structure used by institutions to cover their own backs. These measures will simply erode liberal democratic freedoms further and strengthen the attractions of Jihad.

The Prevent Duty

On 21st September 2015 the government’s Prevent Duty became a legal obligation for British universities. This new legal duty has come into force as part of the government’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (CTSA). This means that British universities now have a legal duty in their day to day functioning to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’ (H. M. Government, 2015a, p. 3). The Prevent Duty that is part of the CTSA is not just focused on universities but applies to all public institutions in England and Wales. For example, in July 2015 all schools and child care providers (meaning also nurseries and child minders) also became legally obliged to comply with the Prevent Duty (Department for Education, 2015).

The Prevent Duty derives from the government’s Contest anti-terrorism strategy, which consists of four parts; Pursue, Protect, Prevent, Prepare (Home Office, 2015). The Prevent part of the anti-terrorism strategy is designed to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism and extremism (Home Office, 2015). The aim of the Prevent Duty for universities introduced in the CTSA bill is ostensibly clear. It is to stop extremists radicalising students on university campuses; to tackle gender segregation at events and to support students at risk of radicalisation (Prime Minister’s Office, 2015). It is also part of the government’s strategy to build a more cohesive society.

The government has issued guidance for higher education institutions as to how they can demonstrate compliance with the Prevent Duty. Firstly, the focus is on speakers and events. For example, when inviting external speakers, universities must make sure that they are complying with the numerous legal duties and obligations in terms of restrictions on speech already in place. For example, inciting hatred against a person on the grounds of their race or religion or sexual orientation or vocally supporting a proscribed terrorist group are already criminal acts.

There are also a number of other laws (to do with equalities legislation) that criminalise harassment or discrimination based on gender or religion that are part of the Prevent Duty framework.  So for example, institutions must pay particular regard to issues of gender segregation at university events. This is because some university Islamic societies have been holding events with gender segregated seating. There is also legislation about safety and welfare that universities have a duty to follow (Universities UK, 2013). Universities are also expected to keep a close eye on their students as students who have been radicalised off campus are understood to be a problem. Changes in a student’s behaviour, for example, are to be noted. The Contest counter-terrorism strategy was developed under the Labour government in 2003.

Thus when we discuss Prevent we are discussing a number of already existing measures and legal obligations that are about preventing people being drawn into terrorism. The Prevent Duty has not in itself created new legal obligations and duties as such. What the Prevent Duty does do is give universities explicit orders that they must actively demonstrate how they are fulfilling all these existing legal obligations and duties. Therefore, universities must be able to demonstrate that they have mechanisms in place to make proper actions plans, risk assessments, IT policies and staff training to ensure compliance (H. M. Government, 2015b). All of this applies to the main body of the university but also to students’ unions (which are in law separate bodies but subject to many of the same legal obligations), and other organisations or institutions that are part of the universities.

While this chapter will be discussing current developments under the Conservative government, it needs to be kept in mind that Prevent itself and the ideas and assumptions that underlie it are part of a cross party consensus on the causes of so-called radicalisation and how to deal with it. The current CTSA itself is part of a number of on-going measures, including a new five-year plan to deal with extremism and a Counter Extremism Bill that will be forthcoming later this year (Dearden, 2015).  Cameron has stated that the government’s anti-extremism strategy will also entail actively building a more cohesive society (Greirson, 2015).

Curtailing academic freedom in the name of preventing radicalisation

There are many obvious problems with the current sprawling legal regime. The numerous obligations on universities mean that academic freedom within universities is curtailed. In particular, freedom of speech within universities is limited. Without freedom of speech in the university, there is no academic freedom. However, curtailing freedom of speech within the university is explicitly the point of the numerous prohibitions. The argument made is straightforward and open. Freedom of speech is allowed only up to a certain point within any British university. Freedom of political and religious speech is allowed to the point that it does not contravene the laws on say, incitement to hatred based on religion, or sex. A religious speaker who for example argues that homosexuality is a punishable perversion would be committing a criminal act as that would be categorised as inciting hatred on the basis of sexuality. Thus academic freedom is severely curtailed today within British universities. There have been many examples in the last few years of universities and students’ unions dis-inviting or banning speakers because they will fall foul of legal obligations.

Even under previous counter-terrorism legislation universities were considered problematic sites of radicalisation and extremism because they were thought to be places in which it was easy for radical ideas to spread. It is of course the case that over the last decade or so a small number of high-profile university educated British Muslims have engaged in murder in the name of Islam. For example, one of the murderers of Daniel Pearl was privately educated Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who attended the London School of Economics for one year.  However, the Prevent Duty under the CSTA focuses even more on British universities as problematic sites of radicalisation and extremism. As part of the launch of the Prevent Duty, Cameron ‘named and shamed’ a number of British universities that that had hosted extremist speakers (Whitehead, 2015).

With friends like these…

There have been a number of sensible critiques made from within the University establishment of the Prevent Duty. In particular, attention has been drawn to the fact that the Prevent Duty will have an adverse effect on academic freedom.  Sally Hunt, the leader of the academic trade union, the University and College Union (UCU), has strongly argued that the Prevent Duty will mean that universities will shy away from difficult subjects that could end up falling foul of the laws on, for example, incitement. The university, argues Hunt, must be a forum in which difficult subjects can be discussed (Hunt, 2015). The National Union of Students (NUS) has also made official objections to the Prevent Duty on the basis of academic freedom (Whittaker, 2015). This is all absolutely right. Of all institutions in society, universities must be a genuinely safe space in which students can argue, debate, be upset and be exposed to difficult and unpleasant ideas and opinions. Without this, the university is no longer a university.

However, a fundamental problem here is that UCU and NUS have systematically eroded academic freedom when it comes to difficult subjects. Both institutions have supported the ‘no platforming’ of everyone from feminist Julie Bindel to anti-Sharia campaigner Maryam Namazie. So it is rather surprising to hear the case for academic freedom being made here. If one refuses to accept Julie Bindel the renowned British feminist because of her (most would say non-controversial and non-hateful) views on transgender people, then it is highly unlikely that the National Union of Students (NUS) will come out in support of a radical Islamic preacher who thinks homosexuals should be stoned to death.  In order for the NUS or UCU to fight for freedom of speech both need to argue against the idea of ‘no platform’ as whole.

A second argument that has been made from within the university is that Prevent is a fundamentally racist duty that will criminalise Muslim and Black students by making them objects of suspicion and surveillance. There is good evidence of this, demonstrated by a recent preposterous example. Staffordshire University postgraduate student Umar, who is studying for a master’s degree in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, was found reading a book called Terrorism Studies in his university library. He was hauled off for questioning by university security. Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. In 2008 Hicham Yezza was arrested and prosecuted at the University of Nottingham for research related activities (Yezza, 2015). Certainly Prevent as a whole has been argued to increase fear and alienation of Muslim communities in the UK and there is little reason to doubt this (Anderson, 2015) as even children are being reported (Whitehead, 2015b).

However, within universities there also exists a counter-veiling fear of being branded racist. So for example, university administrations are knowingly allowing gender segregation at Islamic Society events. Regardless of whether one agrees that university societies should be allowed to make their own decisions or not, the fact of the matter is that university societies are governed by equalities laws and thus gender segregated society meetings are against the law. One can only imagine the reaction if the rugby society hosted an all-male event or if the UKIP society hosted a ‘UK-born only’ event. There is merit to the argument that the Prevent Duty criminalises and will criminalise Muslim students but it co-exists with university administrations allowing Islamic societies freedoms that would not be allowed to other student groups.

An exercise in bad faith

Current criticisms of Prevent have much merit to them.  But whilst there are racist and problematic aspects to Prevent, the government argues that such legislation is necessary in order to prevent radicalisation, terrorism and ultimately to build a more cohesive society.  It is the traditional argument that liberty and security must be balanced. Of course there is an argument to be made that limiting freedom is necessary in order to create a safe, secure and cohesive society.

However, the point of this chapter is to consider the specific case for Prevent and academic freedom.  My argument here is that even if one accepted these restrictions on academic freedom in the cause of preventing radicalisation, extremism, terrorism and building a more cohesive society, that is, that the university must be sacrificed in order to save society, the Prevent Duty cannot achieve any of this. This is because radicalisation is very little to do with radical preachers as such or exposure to bad foreign ideas. Rather these measures will simply further erode the case for liberal democratic values and society and increase the attractions of radical Islam for a minority of British young people.

The fundamental problem with the government’s Prevent Duty is that it is an exercise in bad faith.  It is certainly true that a number of young British people feel so angry and or alienated from their own society that they seek (and have successfully done so) to commit murder in their own country or travel abroad to join Jihadi groups. The current social context is of course the growing number of young British (and European) Muslim men and women who have travelled to join ISIS.

The problem with the assumptions of the government (and of previous governments) that underlie these policies is that they are based upon a fundamentally flawed idea of why young people join up with ISIS or seek out radical preachers. For the government, the narrative is simple. There is a thing called ‘radicalisation’ and it entails young people being seduced or beguiled or simply brain-washed by radical preachers or ISIS publicity on the internet. This straightforward process makes young British people espouse radical Islamist ideas and reject mainstream Western ideas about sexual equality, secularism and so on. Or, in the worst case scenario, radicalisation motivates them to travel to Syria or Iraq and join the Jihad.

In this respect, radicalisation is a simple problem. In the same way that young people should be protected from sex offenders, young people should be protected from poisonous radical religious ideas that will turn their heads and send them off to commit atrocities in the name of some skewed vision of Islam. Cameron specifically uses the term ‘grooming’ (Dearden, 2015). Thus the obvious answer is to stop exposure to these radical ideas and protect vulnerable young people from wicked preachers who promote these ideas.

This has been the main assumption behind the Prevent Duty since it was launched in 2003. The London bombings in 2005 in which four young British men blew themselves up on the London Underground, killing themselves and murdering 52 people, simply served to entrench this narrative. A narrative that runs alongside is that a lack of opportunity will push young people away from mainstream society and increase the attractions of radical Islamist ideas (hence Cameron’s cohesive society ideas). The problem is, this narrative bears little relationship to real life.

There is clearly a serious problem of alienation felt by those seeking out radical Islamic, anti-Western views or travelling to Syria to join the Jihad. However, this is a result of a much more complex process that is not to do with being brainwashed by radical preachers nor being pushed out by a hostile British (or other European) society. The journey from average Western teen/young person to radical rejection of liberal democratic society (or in worst case scenario committing mass murder at home or abroad) is a far less obvious and far more complex process than the government narrative allows.  Government assumptions start at the end point of the Western Jihadis view and assume that this explains the journey (Malik, 2015).

First of all, the relationship between radical ideas and young people who adopt them is the opposite to brainwashing. Young people seek out these ideas and arguments; they are ‘self-radicalised’ rather than seduced into a world of evil. The London Underground bombers are a good example of this. Thus the radical preachers and ISIS videos are sought out by those already feeling alienated. The starting point is a rejection of liberal democratic society and values and a desire to search for alternative moral and religious frameworks through which to give meaning to life (see for example, Sageman, 2008).

Thus although it may seem impossible for most people of all faiths and of none to understand, there is often a great deal of romantic idealism attached to an individual’s choice to join ISIS, for example. Notable work has been done on this by Dr Katherine Brown of King’s College London. Brown’s in-depth research has focused on British women choosing to join or support ISIS. Amongst other things, Brown has found that joining the Jihad is seen as positive step towards building a good and better society. In this respect going to Syria is an act of positive idealism (Brown, 2014).

Arguments about lack of opportunity and deprivation driving young Muslims into acts of violence are not borne out either (Sageman, 2008). This is not to claim that British society is free from racial and or class barriers, far from it.  But the levels of education or professional employment of British Muslims as a whole certainly does not suggest a society in which to be born a Muslim condemns one to a life of poverty and deprivation (Gani, 2015).  Moreover, British Muslims of a generation or two earlier experienced a far more racist society without turning to radical Islamist ideas.

Now the fact that young Western Muslims join the Jihad rather than set off on a gap year to poorer areas of the world cannot be understood outside of very complex set of specific circumstances and broader social factors such as the development of official multiculturalism. Such arguments lie outside of the parameters of this short chapter. The point here is that it is clear that the government’s simple narrative of brainwashing and/or social rejection does not hold up when the problem is investigated seriously (Malik, 2015).

The question that is obvious from any of the serious analysis and research on the topic is why is there such a sense of rejection of their own society amongst a small minority of British people and a perception that going to join the Jihad presents a fulfilling vision of life. Why do young British people seek out Islamist ideas? This of course is a complex question to which there are no straightforward ‘child protection’ type solutions. It is notable that the government is aware on some level that there is a much more complex dimension to ‘radicalisation’ than exposure to radical Islamist ideas, hence current pledges to build a more cohesive society.

However, the solutions proposed by the government are themselves fairly empty. Cameron pledges to bring our communities together and give opportunities for all; promoting British values; giving a platform to more ‘moderate’ Muslims. These are great sound bites but what do they mean in practice? What does it mean to promote British values? Promoting liberty and freedom that the government is undermining with its expanding restrictions on free speech?  State sponsorship of ‘on-message’ Muslim speakers ignores the well-known reality that young British Muslims who seek to join ISIS have already actively rejected mainstream Islam. Moreover, given that British multicultural policy of the last few decades has explicitly been premised on state patronage of specific religious or ethnic identities, the government is caught in a contradiction.

Cameron’s vague grasp that the problem is much more complex than one of ‘grooming’ explains also why the Prevent Duty is simply restating what are already criminal acts. It is notable that the Prevent Duty fits into a broader pattern of what has been dubbed by critics ‘legislative hyperactivity’ that began under New Labour.  The problem is not just a relentless churning out of legislation but new legislation that simply repeats things that are already illegal acts.  At best this is legislation as displacement activity, being seen to be doing something. At worst it simply contributes to eroding freedom of speech and of religion, in the very places they should be protected.

Another impact of the Prevent Duty under the new legislation is that it is making universities very nervous and leading to a general clamping down on political speech. As is customary with these kinds of measures, it is being used to police other political activities. Prevent has targeted everything from campaigns against pay cuts to anti-Israeli protests. Thus this Duty will further curtail general political freedom in the university.

It is impossible, in reality, to prove or disprove where a person might have been ‘radicalised’ and therefore there is an increasing nervousness among university managers and administrators of being found guilty of not complying with the Prevent Duty. This will inevitably lead to a rise in such ridiculous cases as the Staffordshire University student discussed above in which nervous university administrations act on the basis of better safe than sorry. This will of course have the obvious effect of creating an increasingly hostile atmosphere at universities in which Muslim students are objects of suspicion who will be having to constantly ‘prove’ their innocence or be at risk of being hauled off for questioning. This is unlikely to decrease any sense of alienation from mainstream society.

The immediate practical outcome of the Prevent Duty, one that is already clunking into place with the recruitment of Prevent officers, is the establishment of a large bureaucratic structure that will be put in place in order to demonstrate compliance with the Prevent Duty. This will be along the lines of the equal opportunities structures in place in universities, consisting of committees, risk registers, training courses and various other structures. Thus there will be a vast structure that will spring up to demonstrate compliance.

The answer is free speech and more free speech

The problem for the government is that banning radical speakers from university campuses will do nothing to promote a cohesive society or stop young people from becoming radicalised. The clamp down on free speech in universities undermines the case for an enlightened liberal society to which the government wants to draw disenfranchised youth. Banning radical Islamic preachers will simply add grist to the mill of those disaffected and make claims to liberal freedoms ring hollow and hypocritical, which under the current anti-free speech regime they are.

The university does have a specific duty to be a truly safe space for ideas, a place in which no ideas or speakers are censored. Universities have a specific role here to promote and allow all types of free speech.  Not just radical Islamic preachers but those arguing against Islam, those arguing for and against anything. The university should be exactly the place where all students can make their arguments and explore their opinions. If students want to argue in favour of ISIS and invite speakers in support of ISIS, then universities need to let it happen. Of course they also need to allow speakers who are critical of ISIS and of Islam in general to speak. This would be to allow the promise of a free liberal democratic society to become true. Free speech is a fundamental freedom necessary to human flourishing and ultimately to creating a better society. However, in order for this to even begin to be realised, there would have to be a dismantling of the existing restrictions on speech. As has been argued above, the Prevent Duty is part of a growing network of restrictions on free speech and cannot be countered on its own.

This essay is taken from the Civitas book, Why Academic Freedom Matters, a multi-author collection which can be bought or downloaded here.

About the Author

Tara McCormack is Lecturer in International Politics at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Leicester.


Keep up-to-date with all of our latest publications

Sign Up Here