Turkish students protest their freedom of speech in Ankara (placards read “Universities belong to the students and they will be free with us”). Photo: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images
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From Ukraine to the UK, academic freedom is under threat

The freedom to think, discuss and disagree is being eroded in institutions around the world.

When Resat Baris Ünlü sat down to write an exam question for his students, he didn’t suspect that the consequences would include death threats on his life.

Ünlü, a modern historian who teaches at Ankara University, asked his students a question on the 1978 Kurdistan manifesto written by Abdullah Öcalan.

But when a Turkish newspaper found out about the content of the exam question it was suggested that academics were supporting “terrorist activities” and hiding behind “the cloak of freedom of expression”.

Since the newspaper article, Ünlü has received multiple threats on his life.

This is just one incident from many around the world that we have charted in a special report about to be published in Index on Censorship magazine, that show the variety of threats to the principle that academic life is about presenting, debating and reviewing different attitudes and evidence from a multitude of sources without fear of harm.

Another case that sends out chills was the report from academic Tatyana Malyarenko in Ukraine about how the fighting in her country has led to massive divisions between those working at universities. Special committees have been set up at universities in Ukraine to uncover “separatist” attitudes among those teaching on campuses. Reports, like those made to witch trials centuries ago, are being filed by students and other faculty to these attestation committees. Those named are being calling before committees for investigation, where lecturers can end up being denounced and losing their posts. When words like “patriotism” are flung around as weapons, then leaders of nations are drawing on the bluntest, and most pathetic, of instruments to keep their citizens in check.

Faint echoes of McCarthyism cannot be ignored when you hear of the details of these accusations and those called before such committees. Those infamous trials in the US during the 1950s have dark memories for a nation where first amendment rights are often touted as fundamental to their values, and where people self-censored their views.

But today the US is certainly not immune to placing limits on what academics and students can argue. Shockingly, certain US campuses have created small free speech zones, painted areas, often in remote parts of the universities, where people are allowed to speak about “controversial” subjects. Just there. Nowhere else.  What does that say about attitudes to learning and questioning? Most people outside the US are absolutely astounded to find out about these free speech zones. “Really? They can’t possibly exist, can they?” Yes, they can, and do. These zones are small, but significant, symbols of the limitations that are appearing in each part of the globe, ranging from the ridiculous to the downright frightening.

Painting a white line around a square and saying “here is where you can do your free thinking” does nothing but undermine the idea of academic excellence being about an inquiring mind and an ability to challenge preconceptions.

Meanwhile in the UK, academic freedom is also being challenged. Over the past couple of years, Index and others have also challenged “safe space” policies adopted by many UK universities. These policies have been used to ban speakers or debates that groups of students disapprove of.

Students are freed from the cotton wool when they head off to university; they are out of the clutches of mum and dad, and get to make their own choices. Quite rightly. But they are also, many for the first time, hearing people speaking about policies, politics and ideas they might have never heard before, and with which they might vehemently disagree with. But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are sure that your position is right, then you lose nothing by hearing the counter arguments. It might help you work out how to win over the opposing side, or, it just might, convince you to change your point. Sure, there should be a chance to argue back. Yes, panels should carry a range of positions.  But when powers that be, and even students themselves, want to wrap up their world so they can’t hear opinions they don’t like or agree with, then they are doing themselves no favours.

Trigger warnings, where students are told that passages in textbooks might cause offence and no-platforming policies are being used to close off avenues of discovery and inquiry. Putting together this report has shown that the threats to academic thought are different in different regions. But all around the world, the freedom to think, study, teach and discuss is coming under threat from a variety of forces.

That’s why it was no surprise that around 70 academics and authors have signed an open letter of concern that is printed in the upcoming magazine.

The freedom to think, discuss and disagree should be central to every institution of education, and, sadly, that idea seems under debate.

Rachael Jolley is editor of the quarterly Index on Censorship magazine, which will publish its summer edition in mid-June. Index on Censorship's debate on academic freedom is on 1 July. It is called "Silenced on Campus". Details here.

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.