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‘Prevent’: A threat to University Freedom

Universities are institutions which traditionally encourage academic freedom and the expression of individual, and, occasionally, revolutionary ideas. I do not speak for myself alone when I say that I chose to come to UEA because I wished to explore intellectual realms that were less accessible outside of the educative environment provided by university.

Protestsers vs. police forces. Istnbul. Events of June 15, 2013.

The free (well, free at a £27k price-tag) discussion of beliefs is something integral to the education of young people, and it is with this in mind that we should be more concern about one of the UK Government’s latest ‘anti-terrorist’ task forces, and the possible repercussions it may have for the student community. ‘Prevent’ is a device which has been introduced to, amongst other things, encourage universities to ‘deny their extremist speakers a platform.’

I do not write about ‘Prevent’ with a criminal agenda or extremist intent. Before plunging headlong into a cesspool of legal-terminology and controversial discourse, I would like to briefly clarify the UK Government’s current definition of Extremism. This is in the hope that you will be able to appreciate the article without judgement tainted by the hyperbolic tactics, and frequent racial prejudices employed by the media when discussing radicalism and terrorism.

Although less unnoticed in Post-9/11 Western society, especially since the coming to light of various human-rights abuses, and miscarriages of justice; the results of a corrupted system of extradition and detainment of accused terrorists (the wrongful imprisonment, and torture of prisoners after 9/11, for a start), but they still cloud the issue.

The current definition of Extremism in ‘Prevent, Police and Universities: Guidance for police officers & police staff to help Higher Education Institutions contribute to the prevention of terrorism’ reads as follows: “Extremism is vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. Calls for the death of British armed forces is also included.”

This official definition does, in fairness, seem to cover anything that may be of threat to the public’s ideals. However, when exploring the Government’s recent involvement with torture, illegal incursions, the funding and arming of military dictatorships, and what is confusingly dubbed ‘anti-terrorism’ (which surely is just terrorism as retaliation), the question is raised as to whether one can claim these as the British Government’s values at all.

Whilst freedom, the rule of law, and tolerance of other faiths may be the values we all hope to encourage, the values of the Government seem to be far less admirable. Besides, ‘fundamental British values’ is a phrase so ambiguous that it is possible that the vilification of Consumer-Capitalism could fall under its heading, if it so wished.

On a side note, this definition includes all ‘external speakers’ who may be condoning the rejection of British ‘democracy’, which sheds a harsher light on the support for Russell Brand’s recent revolutionary positions. Something which has been sparked quite the debate in universities, UEA included.

Whilst the detail of the task force does assure us that it is ‘not about restricting freedom of speech’, the definitions are incredibly vague, and I assume the ‘training’ they give our university ‘staff’ will not be much clearer.

Another very real concern is how the Islamic community within universities may fair. The knowledge that a frankly unbelievable proportion of the UK adopts such anti-Islamic prejudices already – Ban the Burka, and the rise of the support for UKIP in recent years (that may, it could be argued, break the above ‘tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’) – puts pressure upon individuals not to follow the more traditional aspects of their culture.

If there is one place in which all young people should feel comfortable expressing their views and beliefs it is university, without the fear of their information being passed onto an overly fearful government. If ‘British Values’ include those which make migrants fearful of being a part of their own culture, then they seem far more extreme than what ‘Prevent’ seems to be fighting against.

Without getting too wrapped up in definitions, there still operate a multitude of definitions for terrorism, and the severity of the threat is kept highly under-wraps; exacerbated by unofficial reports and conjecture in the media. There may be cause for caution concerning terrorism in the UK, but I for one feel comfortable granting all those I pass with the mutual respect and trust that they deserve, not least because of the interesting opinions they undoubtedly have.

Aptly named, ‘Prevent’ must not inhibit our ability to explore… this open the floor for further debate, with the hope that any of you who feel likewise, or otherwise, will feel comfortable speaking out; that is, after all, what university is all about.

28/01/2014

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