Freedom to Speak

After filing their most recent reports, on the 22nd of November 2012, two journalists left an internet café in the small town of Binnish in northwestern Syria. Some miles later, in a no-man’s land between checkpoints on the road to the Turkish boarder, a Hyundai van sped past and forced the taxi to a standstill.

Three armed men jumped out screaming from behind masks, in foreign-accented Arabic, instructing them to lie down on the pavement. They were handcuffed, and thrown into the back of the van – kidnapped by an organisation that didn’t yet exist.

Two years later, following long and intense negotiations for release, James Foley donning a Guantanamo Bay-style orange jumpsuit was forced to his knees somewhere in Syria. A man, face covered, and clad head to toe in black, stood behind Foley, knife in hand, and said in a London accent; “any attempt by you, Obama, to deny the Muslims their rights of living in safety under the Islamic caliphate will result in the bloodshed of your people”.

With several brutal slashes of the knife James Foley was decapitated. And his murderer, studied at my university.

Nicknamed ‘Jihadi John’, on the 26th of February it was revealed that James Foley’s killer was in fact West Londoner Mohammed Emwazi.

American journalist Steven Sotloff; British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning; US Army Ranger Peter Kassig; Japanese military contractor Haruna Yukawa and journalist Jenji Goto; and some of the 21 kidnapped Syrian soldiers’ are reported to have been killed by the savage stroke of Emwazi’s blade.

“What’s important to note” says Student Rights director Rupert Sutton “is that his upbringing and attendance of university isn’t that unusual at all. At the time there wasn’t a general thought that the university was one in which extremism was a problem”.

Students Rights was set up by a think tank in 2009 to help research the growing public concern of religious extremism at UK universities. In 2011 they started recording times when extremist speakers were invited onto campus for lecture-style talks.

“The work we’ve done about the University of Westminster has shown a long history of extremist speakers being invited onto campus and extremist material being shown to students. In the majority of cases the speakers were Hizb ut-Tahrir members” says Sutton.

The Hizb ut-Tahrir debate is polarised. They’re a legal group with similar end goals as terrorist organisations, such as establishing a caliphate, although through non-violent means. No member has ever been convicted of a terrorism charge.

Whilst Hizb ut-Tahrir are officially outspoken against acts of terrorism, their ideological agenda is strikingly similar.

David Cameron said that the group should be banned as it “seeks to poison young minds against our country”. And the National Union of Students, the UKs largest student union, has forbidden the organisation, alongside the British National Party, on campuses across the country.

People have the right to freedom of religious expression, but where is the line drawn? Often discussions surrounding ‘limiting’ citizen rights are met with out-moded philosophies in place of context. Common sense commands that expressed views are typically loaded with the inclination to change another’s beliefs, or to inspire action.


“Emwazi was connected to a network of people often referred to as the London Boys, a number of whom were later killed or involved in fighting alongside al-Shabbab in Somalia. He was involved with this very obvious group of extremists, and was under the scrutiny of the security services” said Sutton.

During Emwazi’s time at Westminster two official societies existed with known links to extremist organisations. The now defunct Global Ideas and sister group Women’s Take on Current Affairs societies, belonged to a London university network who communicated through Facebook to organise talks across campuses.

Sutton explains, “you had Global Ideas at Westminster, the Ideological Society at Queen Mary, the Belief and Reason Society at the School of African Studies (SOAS) and the Perspective Society at City” all running the same events with the same speakers.

“It was clear this was quite well organised, probably not directed by Hizb ut-Tahrir, but certainly inspired by and in close contact with.”

Since March 2012, there have been 24 instances where extremist speakers have been invited onto Westminster campuses to talk to members of the Islamic Society (ISOC) including the controversial Uthman Lateef and Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad.

Global Ideas was banned by the university in 2010, following the invitation of radical Islamist Jamal Harwood to speak at an event. The Islamic Society (ISOC) invited Harwood to speak again in 2012 with his ‘Economic Future, the Real Solutions’ speech, without repercussions.

Some observers said, “the Global Ideas Society was a Hizb ut-Tahrir front, it’s used by students to talk about the ‘difficult issues’ that other groups don’t talk about”.

On the 5th of April 2012 the most severe out of a series of four videos was posted on ISOC’s Facebook page by an account called ‘The Names of Aweys”.

The account has been attributed to Hassan Dahir Aweys, a senior figure in Somalian terrorist organisation al-Shabbab, who has been described by the United Nations as “associated with al-Qaida and the Taliban”.

The video is a slideshow of insurgent fighters posing with weapons, mostly RPG launchers. A coarse voiceover shouts “ask Allah to remove those Kuffar from our lands, ask Allah to let their blood run on the streets of Fallujah, let their blood run in the mountains of Afghanistan, let the Mujahdeen kill them and destroy them one after the other”.

The voice belongs to Abdul Rahman Saleem, a man found guilty of inciting racial hatred in 2007 following a recording which showed him chanting “UK, USA, 7/7 on its way. UK you will pay, bin Laden is on his way”.

The following three videos were of less intensity, but with similar inflammatory messages. A video entitled ‘Is the Ummah Living in the New Gold Rush’, posted to ISOC’s Facebook page on March 29th 2012, features a speech from Anwar al-Awlaki, a man considered to be a senior recruiter and propagandist for al-Qaeda, until a hellfire missile killed him in 2011.

In the same year Awlaki met his explosive end the Telegraph reported that then Student Union President Tarik Mahri and vice-president Jamal Achchi, had substantive links with Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Former vice-president Jamal Achchi, who declined to comment, used social networking site Sribd to post memos calling all Muslims to overthrow democracy.

The Telegraph reported that in the past society members had disseminated sexist and homophobic material and had been encouraged to commit street violence against non-Muslims.

According to Sutton the University of Westminster is a particular concern, and one of the most active across the London community. “Westminster over the years, whether or not intentionally, has created a fairly permissive environment for extremists to operate on the campus”.

He recalls an event he attended in 2012, organized by ISOC, the talk featured a Hizb ut-Tahrir member; “the chair said that he wasn’t going to accept questions about [the organisation] because he didn’t want to upset anyone. What happened is that a speaker with very extreme views was allowed a free pass. Someone did stand up and challenge what he was saying, but the chair shut it down and said ‘that’s going to cause disorder’”.

A spokesperson from the university has said, “we condemn any behaviour that promotes terrorism and violence on any of our campuses. We have strict policies to promote tolerance among our 20,000 student community, who come to study from over 150 nations”.

The evidence suggests that the university has done very little in preventing extremist speakers having free reign on campus, they hide behind the dogmatic idealism of liberty, they are openly allowing extremist speakers to give talks on university grounds without allowing students to stand up against those views.

Academic freedom is a foundational cornerstone of university ontology, professors-turned-activists are touting constitution out of dogmatism, without lifting their heads to see what’s actually happening inside the lecture theatres. Of course learning about and empathizing with extreme views is essential to progression, but allowing teaching of extreme views, as truth, is a failure of the system.

We only need to look at recent history and a startling pattern emerges. Recent acts of terrorism, still painfully fresh, can be attributed to UK university graduates. Lee Rigby’s killers Michael Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo, for example, studied at Greenwich and Brunel universities respectively.

Roshonara Choudry, who was found guilty for the attempted murder of MP Stephen Trimms in 2010 graduated from King’s College London. She admitted to being inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki video sermons, similar to the one posted on Westminster’s ISOC’s Facebook page.

Others include the ‘underwear bomber’ Farouck Abdulmutallab from University College London, the ‘Stockholm bomber’ Taimor Abdulwahab al-Abdaly from the University of Bedfordshire and Abdulla Ahmed Ali and Assad Sarwar, convicted along with others for the 2006 transatlantic bomb plot, studied at City and Brunel respectively.

Universities have a role of pastoral care over their students; a major concern for Student Rights is that at times this safeguard fails. “Whilst the vast majority of students will be fine, and will be able to see through [extremist speakers], there has been cases of young naïve vulnerable students being affected by those views”.

A University of Westminster spokesperson said, “the Education Act 1986 places two competing responsibilities on universities: to promote free speech and a duty to protect students from harm. We have introduced a comprehensive external speaker policy and processes to manage these legal obligations, which event organisers must adhere to”.

I read the university’s policy on external speakers, several clauses within the statement offer opportunities to exclude Hizb ut-Tahrir speakers from campus, and yet this hasn’t been the case, there simply isn’t the inclination.

Instead the university protects radical organisations from debarment, and allows their continuous efforts to inspire Islamic extremism. Something that ISOC, at least at the organisational level, seems to be encouraging.

The university also said “any student found to be engaging in radicalised activity would be referred to disciplinary procedures. The safety and security of our students is our foremost concern”.

Following a safely worded, politicked PR response from the university I approached the Dean of the media, arts and design faculty who declined to interview on the grounds that it was ‘inappropriate’. Geoffrey Davies, head of journalism and mass communications, also declined to interview.

Although one professor at the university said, “these people should be allowed to come onto campus, but as long as others have the opportunity to challenge them. It’s important we hear these views, but they need to be discussed on an intellectual platform”.

I spoke at length with Souhill Kara-Bernou, a young Muslim man who lives locally to Westminster’s Harrow campus. Born in Algeria and immigrated to the UK during his childhood, he shared his views with me on what it’s like to be a Muslim in British society today.

“It’s not hard for us to live in the western world, but I certainly feel it’s getting harder.

“My family is a prime example, my mum used to wear a niqab (a half-length hijab), something which is both religious and cultural in Algeria, not because my dad made her, but because she wanted to. In the wake of 9/11 she stopped wearing it, she felt she was being looked at, and judged.”

In France the hijab is banned from public places, including schools, universities and government buildings, “how many problem cases are there to justify that decision” Kara-Bernou adds.

“You’re essentially banning a Muslim from going to university, you’re forcing a choice between her faith and education”.

Explosive Islamophobia is ever prevalent in the minds of the West; we are industrially fed iconoclastic inculcation that reduces a religion to barbaric, misogynistic dynamite. “I’m sick of it, I don’t read newspapers anymore. If I’m on the tube I don’t even pick up the Metro – it’s depressing. It’s the most demeaning thing to see someone else saying they’re part of Islam and committing these terrible acts” says Kara-Bernou.

Green MP Dr Mahreen Faruqi writes in the Guardian, “expecting constant apologies implies two things: that Muslims, of which there are over 1 billion worldwide, are a generally homogenous group; and that we are not truly accepted as part of western society.

Islamophobia is reflected not only on the far-right of the spectrum but closer to the centre. Some people, through gentle ignorance, lack real education about the Islamic tradition, instead they see only what the media delivers in pervading associations between the very worst criminal acts and the Islamic faith. As Kara-Bernou puts it, “I’m not blaming them, if I weren’t a Muslim then I would have the same views”.

The English Defence League (EDL) is perhaps the best-known organisation that openly opposes Islam, and sees it as having no place in the West. Or as EDL founder and ex-leader Tommy Robinson told me “our culture is better than theirs.

“Muslims are causing disruption and mayhem in every country in Europe… every mosque in the country is preaching jihad and teaching Muslims to hate us” said Robinson.

A British soldier nails it and Tweets Robinson, “I have met generations with the same ethos and morals and hatred of people like you”.

I read Robinson a statement from a 1998 TV interview. The man, from the Middle East, articulated a cold truth; “the US has set a double standard, calling whoever goes against its injustice [in the Middle East] a terrorist. It wants to occupy our countries, steal our resources, impose agents upon us to rule us, and then wants us to agree with all this”.

Robinson said, “I empathise with these guys, to be honest Iraq and Afghanistan was wrong, I don’t blame those people for feeling that way when they’re being bombed”.

This man was shot dead by US Navy Seals under Operation Neptune Spear on May 2nd 2011, nearly ten years after the World Trade Centre attacks; his name was Osama bin Laden.

It’s too simplistic to say that an imperialistic foreign policy is the sole cause for the existence of Islamic extremism. But it certainly has played a central role throughout the last forty years.

We’re seeing foreign policy blowbacks boomerang back at the West. During the 1970s, in the biggest covert operation since WW2, the Taliban were armed and trained by the US and Saudi Arabia to fight the Soviet Union, and today we’re seeing the US send heavy artillery to the Free Syrain Army to fight Assad’s regime, weapons which are known to end up in the hands of IS.

Official figures are inaccurate, but humanitarian NGO Next Century Foundation (NCF) have told me unofficially that around 2,000 British citizens have travelled to fight alongside IS. “These people are doctors and lawyers, educated people, not barbarians”, said NCF chairman William Morris

Universities are fertile ground for recruitment to an ideology created by a self-assured US and it’s Downing Street puppets. We ineffectively wage a ‘war on terror’ overseas, almost always with a slippery subtext of oil and under the honourable guise of liberty and democracy. But in reality it just hands terrorists ammunition (not really much of a pun).

UK universities are internationally famed and intensely proud; they are one of the last true vanguards of intellectual ideals. They are simultaneously quaint and endearing, progressive and traditional, astute and balanced.

But I can’t help a feeling of saddened disappointment towards an institution that over the last three years I have learned to call home. We need to reconfigure the emphasis away from protecting the free speech of religious extremism, and focus on protecting individuals from influence, and society from attacks.