The Universities UK (UUK) has recently published a guidance on external speakers in higher education institutions with the aim of providing practical guidance for universities on the issue. This follows from their previous guidance on freedom of speech on campus in 2011. The National Union of Students (NUS) has its own guidelines on this issue, called “Managing the risks associated with external speakers”.
The NUS and UUK documents are complementary; they apply to a range of activities involving external speakers on campus and events such as debates, speeches and conferences organised by staff, students and external bodies.
The UUK guidance suggests: “Universities have to balance their obligation to secure free speech with their duties to ensure that the law is observed, which includes promoting good campus relations and maintaining the safety and security of staff, students and visitors.”
The guidance starts with the legal context mentioning, ”Whilst the law promotes and protects freedoms of speech and debate, the law also places limits on those freedoms, both in a university setting and elsewhere. The freedoms which the law protects and promotes are freedoms within the law.”
Reputation once lost…
As law may have its soft and hard ends, depending on how it is framed by law-enforcing agencies, this is an area where some groups or communities may feel disadvantaged. There are also areas where laws may not be broken, but reputational damage could be huge for an institution. Reputation is not tangible and may not be related with the quality of an institution. A vocal group of opposition, for whatever reasons, may attempt to damage an institution through media or political lobbying. For a charity, this could perturb the Charity Commission for genuine reasons, political and regulatory.
One high profile case that came into prominence when a former University College London (UCL) student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (often referred to as the “Underwear Bomber”) was arrested for attempting to detonate plastic explosives on board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. The UCL was heavily criticised for its “relaxed attitude” towards radical preachers.
Abdulmutallab finished his degree in June 2008, 18 months before the incident. During his tenure at the UCL he was president of its Islamic Society once, and organised political discussions and activities such as martial arts training and paintballing. One commentator even suggested, “UCL has not just failed to prevent students being radicalised, they have been complicit.” The college initiated an independent inquiry, chaired by Professor Dame Fiona Caldicott, which concluded unequivocally that “there was no evidence to suggest that he had been radicalised during his time as a student.” But the criticism did not end even then.
While not the same, universities and religious institutions share some similarities in terms of accommodating a wide range of external speakers, events and organisations. Universities, with better public relations infrastructure, can hold out criticisms when something goes wrong; but religious institutions, particularly of Islamic faith, may not have the capacity to endure a barrage of criticism from the far right media and blogosphere in a similar situation.
In recent times, some major Muslim institutions have been unfairly smeared over their third party bookings of mainly socially conservative speakers (who are often termed as “extremists” and “hate-preachers”). The attacks are coming from what are, in my view, discredited groups such as Student Rights, Stand for Peace and Harry’s Place, with poorly researched and incendiary statements. The aim appears to damage the reputation of these Muslim institutions and to frighten off others.
Long way to go
Starting from a lower level on the playing field, some Muslim groups are in a steep learning curve when it comes to external speakers and bookings, and the vetting processes required. They are also seeking to adapt to geopolitical, socioeconomic and legislative changes in recent years.
Unfortunately, the post-7/7 Muslim community has often been stigmatised for apparent “fifth column” instincts: for desiring to “take over”, to “impose Sharia law”, for oppressing women, rampant homophobia, harbouring terrorist sympathies, and apparently being unwilling or unable to adapt to “Western” ways. This has nothing to do with the reality of an overwhelming number in the community
Sadly, one government policy that has badly damaged the image of the Muslim community and Muslim students is the “Prevent” agenda, promoted by the Blair government in the aftermath of 7/7. The current Coalition government’s “Conveyor Belt” theory (that treats Muslim groups as insufficiently moderate) have put a heavy burden on Muslims in the community and in universities. This has given far-right groups a stick to beat Muslims. “Securitisation” of government policy has put Muslim students at the sharp end of unfair scrutiny. There is a risk of alienating a generation of young Muslims who, like others, are simply trying to secure better futures for themselves and their families. Baroness Warsi, the Tory politician, rightly claimed about three years ago that Islamophobia was now socially acceptable in Britain.
The consolation is that student groups and universities themselves consider the Prevent strategy “discriminatory“ against Muslims. The NUS, in fact, warned ministers that “wild sensationalism” over claims about radicalisation on campuses would “only serve to unfairly demonise Muslim students“.
Britain has come a long way with its unique and successful model of social inclusion and pluralism, far better than any European country. The Muslim community and its large number of students in the universities today are different from what they were before. The UUK guidance is a useful attempt to help universities address some contemporary issues on campus. Properly and consistently implemented for all in the campus, this will hopefully streamline the process of using external speakers without maligning any community, and allow creative debate on issues that affect us all, including Muslims.
Religious institutions can hopefully make use of the guidance and tailor-make it to best serve their communities.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist, writer and freelance parenting consultant. He is former Secretary General of Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10).
Follow him on Twitter: @MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.
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