Moazzam Begg's visit to Southampton University – Why John King was wrong.

Henry Taylor, Opinion Editor of the Soton Tab, replies to John King’s recent and controversial article on Moazzam Begg’s visit to Southampton University.

Last night I had a telephone call that bore some shocking news. The call was from the director of the Monitors for Islamophobic Speech Tediously Attempting to Kick up Excitement where not Necessary (MISTAKEN) and the news was that John King had written an article on Moazzam Begg.

Now you may react, as many have when first reading this name, with puzzlement and apathy. John King is the Southampton University Branch Chairman of the Freedom Association, an organisation that describes itself on its website as:

a non-partisan, libertarian pressure group dedicated to fighting for individual liberty and freedom of expression. As such, we seek to challenge the erosion of civil liberties and we campaign in support of freedom for the individual and free speech.

It is quite worrying then given that the head of their Southampton branch this week wrote a controversial opinion piece for The Tab on Moazzam Begg’s visit to the University last night.

Begg was at the university to deliver a speech on the media’s portrayal of Islam, but prior to this, King had called for students to boycott Begg’s visit and deny him a platform for speech by writing to Vice Chancellor Don Nutbeam, to tell him that they feared for their safety, feared for the reputation of the university, and wouldn’t stand idly by while the university gave a platform to extremist rhetoric from a man that:

intends to deliver a dangerous and subversive message

The article was especially at odds with the resulting speech that Begg gave last night following a fierce war of words on the comments section of King’s piece.

What followed a tense few minutes before the once-Guantanamo detainee arrived was actually a speech that included emphasising the importance of acceptance and open-mindedness to people of all faiths, something that he only rarely encountered in Guantanamo.

The poster displayed on CagePrisoner's website regarding the event.

The speech was in no way directed towards a ‘vile, pro-jihadist message’ as King presumed it would be. It was also not given in Arabic, as one idiotic rumour that continued to circulate and be accepted by a minority of reactionary students suggested (ironically some of the same students that are the first to slag off the Daily Mail for the same criticism). The article did highlight however the hypocrisy of the poster selected to advertise the event on Cageprisoner’s website. Given that Begg was giving a speech on the negative portrayal of Islam in the media, a less provocative poster could perhaps have been chosen.

Dr Redwan El-khayat, Chairman of the Muslim Council of Southampton said:

As the chair of the Muslim Council of Southampton, I have  known the Islamic Society of Southampton University for the last 11 years. I have never seen in their activities anything which indicates even remotely any endorsement of violent extremism.

Unfortunately, something like the article we saw on sotontab, has created  out of intent or sheer ignorance, further disharmony and alienation, and should be challenged strongly by everybody who cares about British society.

While part of me wonders about Begg’s links to terrorism (and rightly so), I am reminded of the fact that he spent 3 years in the Bagram Theater Internment Facility and Guantanamo Bay, without charge and without trial. If the Pentagon, CIA, and FBI are are still convinced that Begg poses a serious threat, then it is not inconceivable that they have methods at their disposal to detain him once again, especially as his release was as a favour to past Prime Minister Tony Blair. There is no reason to believe that this past promise now needs to be upheld.

Do we also forget that our country emphasises the presumption of innocence in law, and requires the burden of proof to be with the prosecution?

Some of Begg’s critics fail to notice the US government’s U-turn leaked in a Wikileaks cable in November last year, praising him for his efforts in attempting to persuade European countries to accept Guantanamo detainees for resettlement. His presumed status as a terrorist is also at odds with the substantial compensation he received from both MI5 and MI6 (reportedly totalling millions of pounds) and his affiliations with various human rights groups, despite some condemnation of these affiliations by a number of journalists.

Despite these various criticisms of Begg, we are reminded that the controversy caused by John King’s article was over the presumption that Begg would use his speech as an opportunity to radicalise young impressionable Muslims in the audience, turning more young followers of Islam over to terrorism.

According to some, this controversy is the direct reason that Begg didn’t actually end up peddling any extremist views – because he was alerted to the potential backlash of him doing so. If that is the case, then surely those who didn’t want to permit him a platform for hate have fundamentally won? Those who did not want extremist views being expressed on campus got what they wanted. Conversely, those of us who were compelled to allow Begg a platform based on freedom of expression so that we could actually hear some extremist sentiments with a view to challenging them ended up being disappointed,.

I myself was hoping for the evening to be a lot more heated and animated, but I, nor anyone else can blame Begg for that. He was invited to talk about Islam in the media and that’s exactly what he did.

Perhaps the fact that Begg didn’t spout fury and vitriol was the precise reason for the absence of applause from John King. Perhaps it was just a lack of manners. Either way, there was a certain sense of irony to be witnessed in the events of the evening unfolding in a way that was exactly opposite to the prediction of King’s article, but exactly consistent with the message that Begg had come to deliver.

However, as an opinion editor of The Tab, I wholly stand by the Editor’s decision to publish King’s article. It would have been utterly hypocritical to deny John King the publication of his opinion whilst supporting Moazzam Begg’s freedom of speech.

King’s suggested letter to Don Nutbeam stated that he feared for his safety. An unfortunate paradox that resulted from the comments on this article was that for the first time after speaking at hundreds of universities, Moazzam Begg felt afraid to visit our university to exercise his right of free speech.

They say that the Greeks love their tragedies, but it seems that Southampton loves its irony that little bit more.