On 2 February a crowd of maddened professors wrote to the Guardian to protest against the government’s latest counterterrorism and security bill, which was being hustled through parliament with unseemly haste. The larval bill has now emerged from its neo-Gothic chrysalis to become a beautifully inelegant act. What the professors were so crazy about are the provisions in Section 5 that place an obligation on their universities to assist the police and security services in monitoring extremism. In fact, the so-called Prevent strategy has been in place and affecting universities for over a decade. It has hitherto been incumbent on universities that have been signed up to the strategy to allow the state authorities access to relevant computer data, including students’ emails and web history. Now that requirement will become universal and mandatory.
The maddened crowd of professors sought to remind our legislators that academic freedom is enshrined in the Education Act 1986, which places an obligation on universities to “ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and visiting speakers”. Those ludicrous Branestawms seemed to think there was some conflict between the law on the statute book and the new legislation. In fact, any British student who’s a member of a group affiliated to Fosis (the Federation of Student Islamic Societies) is almost certainly under some kind of surveillance; not – as regular readers of this column will know – that I regard this as being particularly intrusive, given that the secret affairs of HMG are more often typified by egregious cock-up than by effective conspiracy.
Nevertheless, as a Muslim student recently put it to me, “I came to university believing that I was going to be educated in the Socratic method: that there’d be no bounds on what could be thought or said, and that this was an integral aspect of the inquiry.” No, really, this is pretty much verbatim – and I was tempted to reply: “With eloquence like that at your disposal you hardly need what passes for a higher education nowadays.” But of course I didn’t, because the truth of the matter is that although I’d heard this debate rumbling on in the background since the 7/7 bombings, I never really considered what its impact might be on young and impressionable minds.
The nub of the problem is that if the aim of Prevent is to, um, prevent young people from thinking extremist thoughts, then any course of study that encourages them to consider extremist viewpoints is, ipso facto, against the law. But if the aim of Prevent is to encourage our espoused values – such as tolerance for different viewpoints, critical thinking and democratic accountability – then precisely such a course of study must be mandated. This catch-22 epitomises our confused and paradoxical thinking about the threat that Islamist extremism represents to our society. (And I say “our society” advisedly: the threat Islamism represents to people in, say, Raqqa, is entirely different.) At a White House conference on extremism and terrorism on 18 February, Barack Obama bloviated: “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” and added: “No religion is responsible for terrorism – people are responsible for violence and terrorism.”
It’s difficult to know how to unpick this conceptual tangle, but one place to begin might be to say: OK, clearly nobody can be “at war” with an abstraction such as religion (or “drugs”, for that matter) but surely we can agree that religious ideas are present in the disturbing ideological gallimaufry of Islamist extremism? Well, no, not if you’re a western policymaker, because to acknowledge that religious beliefs can be a prime political mover is to lend them the very sort of credence they claim to represent. In the States, where millions of voters regard their religious beliefs as precisely that, Obama’s words must induce still more cognitive dissonance into the collective consciousness; yet for both him and our own rather more secular leaders, “politicising” the militants doesn’t help either. After all, to concede that the terrorists may have political aims is implicitly to acknowledge that Muslim communities – both in the Middle East and globally – may have justifiable grievances.
And so the whole sad, sorry go-round of equivocation-masquerading-as-moral-certainty continues. Fatally compromised by its own historic compromise between religion and politics (as if the two could ever be entirely decoupled), the west continues to substitute paranoia for the quality most needed to combat extremism: belief. Belief and, dare I say it, nerve. We need to believe in just those values of tolerance, openness and free speech that the new act so clearly vitiates; and we need the nerve to maintain such beliefs in the face of threats against them. Naturally, if we western secularists could admit to ourselves that our own values are articles of faith rather than demonstrable truths we would probably have more success with the young and impressionable crowd of potential jihadists. They may not all be as acute as the student I spoke to, but if there’s one thing young people detect in their elders – and one thing that repels them from their elders’ values – it’s a urinous tang of hypocrisy, such as hangs over a crowd of MPs as they rush through a division lobby.