Upholding British Values

Recent counter-terrorism measures, introduced to prevent “hate preachers” from speaking at universities, have yet to snare the elusive enemy in our midst, the student terrorist. David Cameron’s facile attempts to tackle the roots of Islamic extremism have so far served only to poke holes in the theory that England’s universities are hotbeds of terrorist activity.

Last month, the Guardian reported that a postgraduate student of counter-terrorism was falsely accused of being a terrorist after an official at Staffordshire University spotted him reading a textbook titled Terrorism Studies in the college library. Friday’s acquittal of Yousif Badri, a medical student at Aberdeen University accused of being involved in conduct “with the intention of committing acts of terrorism,” does not bode well for the cause.

But maybe these are just outliers, raised to undue prominence by the media. According to intensive research carried out by the government’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), within the last five years eight people from UK universities have been convicted of terrorist-related offences, two of whom are said to have been radicalised during their studies. 

The release also states that in 2014 there were “70 events [held on campuses] involving speakers who are known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy.” Honouring the Prime Minister’s pledge to “name and shame” universities that give platforms to extremist speakers, four universities are singled out. Spokespeople for all four  have denied the Prime Minister’s accusations.

Via the Independent:

• Professor Simon Gaskell, principal of Queen Mary, said that nobody from the EAU contacted his institution prior to publication.

• King’s College said that its vetting processes for external speakers complied with Home Office guidance and all relevant legislation. 

• Laura Gibbs, SOAS registrar, said the university did not host any of the speakers named in the release.

• A spokesman for Kingston University said that two of the speakers named had each addressed the university’s Islamic Society in 2014. Their topics, respectively, were: “How one needs to strike the balance between the worldly life and hereafter,” and the crisis in the Central African Republic.

The EAU failed to take even the most basic steps to fact-check its claims. What’s more, the information contained in the release appears to have been derived from a report by Student Rights, an arm of the Henry Jackson Society. Times Higher Education has the scoop:

With the statement released by Downing Street – citing work by its new Extremism Analysis Unit – few journalists thought to question the information, which included the claim that “at least 70 events featuring hate speakers were held on campuses.”

But was it not a bit strange that there was no list of the supposed events and speakers held at each of the four universities?

None of the institutions appears to have had any contact with the analysis unit, nor was a list of the speakers issued to them, prior to their being smeared by the announcement. All of which makes this naming and shaming a bit Kafkaesque.

There were other questions, too. Why for example, did the government release a list of former students who had gone on to commit terrorist acts or travel to Syria to join radical groups, despite there being little or no evidence that these individuals had been radicalised while at university?

Looking at the Downing Street release, it seems almost certain that its most inflammatory passages are taken verbatim from a recent report by Student Rights, part of the Henry Jackson Society (which used the exact same wording in many parts).

If you run the relevant passages through any plagiarism checker used by universities, it confirms the similarity.

My guess is that Cameron’s government, tired of pursuing terrorism charges to their inevitable dead end, needed a quick fix, something that would allow prosecutors to obtain easy convictions. Or, better yet, silence those pesky law-abiding citizens who refuse to get in line. After browsing Google for ten minutes, someone at the EAU found the report by Student Rights, which was deemed fit for purpose. Its findings were taken, without qualification or attribution, and used to smear British citizens and universities.

Tell me again how you plan to uphold British values.

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