A UEA student has been questioned by counter-terrorism police after accessing pro-Islamic State (Isis) material online as part of their course reading.
Students taking Clash of Fundamentalisms, a third-year PPL module, were directed to read passages from Dabiq, the online Isis-supporting magazine. Concrete understands that links to the Islamist material were posted on Blackboard, but that they have now been removed.
Shortly after accessing the material, a student was questioned at their home by counter-terrorism officers from Norfolk Constabulary’s Special Branch. A university spokesperson said: “The university can confirm that a politics student taking the Clash of Fundamentalisms module was questioned last week after clicking on a link to a website. The site analyses and challenges the publications of extremist ideologies. The legitimate academic study of such causes is fundamental to countering them, however this particular link has now been removed from the course materials. We will continue to work with our partners to avoid any future issues arising”.
A student on the module, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “Our lecturer told us that a student had been visited at their house by Special Branch for having done the course reading, which included a magazine associated with Isis and another with Al-Qaeda. The point of the reading was to understand how jihadism is promoted by these groups and how they try to influence people’s opinions”.
They added: “I was really shocked that a student was questioned. It just goes to prove that the government really are watching our internet history. It’s a silly policy. It’s reactionary rather than being proactive. People need to be allowed to learn about this stuff in order to know they disagree with it”.
Clash of Fundamentalisms, which is convened by PPL’s head of school, Lee Marsden, examines “the clash between competing ideologies of neoliberalism and Islamism since the late 1970s” and aims to foster “critical thinking on religious and socioeconomic fundamentalism in a globalised world”.
Chris Jarvis, Campaigns and Democracy Officer at the Union of UEA Students, said: “The prospect that a UEA student studying fundamentalism can’t now surf across Isis propaganda without a visit from counter-terrorism police is worrying and confirms our suspicions that the government’s Prevent [counter-terrorism] agenda is quickly turning students into suspects. If we’re not careful, the Prevent strategy could end up preventing the wrong thing – learning about, critiquing and ultimately defeating terrorism – and could lead to the criminalisation of study”.
This incident comes as the government pushes to codify internet surveillance powers, specifically in order to combat terrorism. Furthermore, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act (2015) places on universities the legal responsibility to develop action plans for combatting radicalisation on campuses and requires that they work with the police and local authorities when necessary. However, the act also stipulates that higher education providers must take “particular regard to the duty to ensure freedom of speech” and must be mindful of “the importance of academic freedom”.
[su_spoiler title=”Comment – Meg Bradbury ” style=”simple” icon=”chevron-circle” anchor=”Comment”]Much about this story is currently unclear. However, it seems likely that Norfolk Constabulary’s Special Branch would have established fairly swiftly that a mistake had been made, and that the student in question did not represent a terrorist threat to the city of Norwich. Completing your course reading is not, after all, a criminal offence (although given how adept some students are at avoiding it, you could perhaps be forgiven for making this assumption). In theory, no harm was done. Nonetheless, the message which this sends out is more than a little concerning. It’s understandable for police to be on red alert at the moment, but the more you think about this incident, the more absurd it seems. What exactly has this achieved, other than quite possibly scaring the living daylights out of the student involved? I can’t pretend to be an expert in counter-terrorism strategy, but I find it difficult to believe that questioning anyone who accesses such material is the best way to go about it. We cannot effectively oppose an enemy whose methods we do not understand. If we want to combat radicalisation, then this has to start by looking at the source. I’m not suggesting that we should be broadcasting Isis propaganda around the Square, in order to put people on their guard against the no doubt fiendish terrorist recruitment tactics, but blocking anymore from learning more about this issue, about any issue, isn’t going to make it go away. University has always been – and indeed, has to remain – a place to discuss the subjects you can’t discuss anywhere else. It’s what we’re best at. But if this is the sort of response we can expect, then you can forget about it. [/su_spoiler]