Trigger Warning: Frequent references to the Guardian.
In May, David Cameron announced a counter-terrorism bill handing powers to police and government ministers to limit the “harmful activities” of any individual or group deemed a threat to democracy.
The announcement came couched in language so vague and totalitarian to make George Orwell swell with pride/roll in his grave:
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone. It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and ignorance.”
In an interview with the Guardian that month, Scotland Yard commander Chishty Mak expanded on Cameron’s definition of extremism to include subtle changes in behaviour, such as the shunning of certain shops.
Defending the new bill, he claimed the need for a “move into the private space” of Muslims. Asked to define “private space,” he said:
“It’s anything from walking down the road, looking at a mobile, to someone in a bedroom surfing the net, to someone in a shisha cafe talking about things.”
These announcements should have raised alarm bells for anyone concerned that individual liberty and freedom of speech are being eroded in this country. Unfortunately, we were too busy chastising Katie Hopkins for her latest offence against civility, and they slipped through the cracks.
The Counter-Extremism Strategy
In July, the Guardian outlined the “four pillars” of Cameron’s counter-extremism strategy. These were:
• Confronting extremist ideology through deradicalistion programmes, with additional measures taking aim at internet companies that don’t actively target extremism online.
• Tackling individuals and groups that don’t perpetrate or advocate violence but promote so-called extremist views and material, with further measures to guard against the radicalisation of children in supplementary schools and tuition centres.
• Emboldening the Muslim community by actively encouraging reform and moderation of Muslim voices.
• Building a more cohesive society by promoting integration in schools and communities.
In his announcement, Cameron issued a “challenge” to British broadcasters to reconsider giving airtime to extremists. Additional powers enable media watchdog, Ofcom, to take action against foreign channels that broadcast hate preachers.
Last week saw further measures to root out potential terrorists enter British universities, with a student at Staffordshire University falsely accused of being a terrorist. His crime? Reading a textbook titled Terrorism Studies in the college library while Muslim.
Mohammed Umar Farooq, who was enrolled in the terrorism, crime and global security master’s programme, told the Guardian that he was questioned about attitudes to homosexuality, Islamic State (Isis) and al-Qaida.
His replies, Farooq said, were largely academic but he stressed his personal opposition to extremist views. However, the conversation in the library was reported by the official to security guards, because it raised “too many red flags.”
“I could not believe it. I was reading an academic textbook and minding my own business. At first I thought I’d laugh it off as a joke,” Farooq said, who then instructed a lawyer to help him challenge and rebut the claims.
The university, based in Stoke-on-Trent, subsequently apologised to Farooq, and admitted that the accusation that he was a potential terrorist had exposed the difficulties in implementing the government’s new anti-radicalisation policy. Groups representing universities and students said the episode represented infringements on academic freedom.
One of the groups alluded to in the Guardian’s report, the National Union of Students (NUS), has called for an “all-out defiance” of Cameron’s counter-terrorism strategy. Its president, Megan Dunn, recently told the Huffington Post:
“I believe it is absolutely unacceptable for individuals or groups of students to be targeted because of their race, religion or mental health conditions. I have consistently raised several serious concerns over the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act and Prevent. Students must feel free to learn, explore their politics and campaign on social justice issues while at university.”
As admirable as it is that Dunn has chosen to take a stand against unwarranted government intrusion into universities, why is it only when a student is targeted because of their race / religion / mental health that it becomes a matter worthy of our concern? Why only students involved with, quote, “social justice issues?”
Slowly but surely, we have been led to believe that restrictions on freedom of speech are justifiable where the state deems it necessary to preserve public order. Activists like Dunn, who with the best of intentions advocate on behalf of those deemed most vulnerable in our society, help sell this idea.
With their insistence on “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” they promote safety and security over free speech. When they demand to be protected from words that make them feel unsafe, prosecutors are all too happy to oblige.
Freedom of speech is not an ideological issue. If you’re willing to defend speech you agree with, you should be willing to defend speech you disagree with. Otherwise, when it comes back to bite you in the ass you’ll be left wondering: how did it come to this?