Cambridge fights losing war with Tory terror law
The government’s controversial “Prevent” policy looks set to take the fun out of Islamic fundamentalism
Described in the Guardian as ‘Extremism in the name of security’ and ‘Giving people permission to hate Muslims’, Theresa May’s Prevent initiative is finally being launched in Cambridge.
From having their social media closely monitored by university staff, to being questioned by MI5 for writing essays on fundamentalism, it is hardly surprising the legislation has already provoked uproar among students across the UK.
The deeply controversial scheme, which is being applied to Oxbridge six months later than most universities, aims to limit student radicalisation by legally compelling professors to monitor their pupils, and report anyone who seems at risk of being radicalised.
It also demands colleges and universities vet the speeches of speakers for extremist ideology, which some academics argue will stifle freedom of speech. Indeed, in an open letter signed by over 500 British academics, it was claimed that any criticism of UK foreign policy could be censored for being ‘extremist’.
The legislation has been severely criticised by students and faculty members at dozens of universities across the country, with a Teacher’s Union, the NUT, and the NUS coming out in strong opposition to the changes.
Both organisations deep concerns are echoed by what Ken Macdonald, head of Wadham College at Oxford, describes as the ‘chilling effect’ Prevent’s internal surveillance demands could have on student-teacher relations. Indeed, Malia Bouattia, the new president of the NUS, courted controversy recently for describing Prevent as a ‘Zionist’ scheme. CUSU has not yet taken a position on the issue.
Cambridge’s university council is meeting next month to discuss the implementation of Prevent. Student activists have attempted to challenge the legislation, starting a pithily titled ‘Preventing Prevent at Cambridge University’ Facebook group. However, it seems their message has failed to resonate with students, as the page has only received 90 likes in several weeks.
Concerns from university staff pressured the university into hosting a forum on Prevent at Senate House on Tuesday 10th May, where anyone who wanted to speak was given the chance to make a 15 minute speech outlining their views. The event was fairly disappointing, with only 11 Cantabs actually willing to speak. Surabhi Ranganathan, a King’s law fellow, charecterised the Prevent as both “extraordinarily intrusive and extraordinarily vague”, and commenting on its deeply controversial focus on so called “thought crime”.
Mezna Qato, an AMES fellow at King’s, went even further, claiming that Prevent was “in intent and spirit, if not openly in the letter, making the University complicit in singling out one minority” and also of “cultivating racism in the community”.
However, Prevent has already been passed into law by parliament, so students have very little power over the implementation of the policy. Indeed, the University Council seems mostly resigned to accepting the legislation.
It seems likely that some harshly worded criticism from students is the most that can be done to ‘prevent Prevent’ at Cambridge.