Students gather to quiz Vice-Chancellor Stephen ToopeMATHIAS GJESDAL HAMMER

At a mass assembly with students and staff, Vice-Chancellor Stephen Toope affirmed that the Prevent duty threatens the core values of the University and everyone’s civil liberties, going so far as to reject the underlying legislation as “fundamentally misconceived.” He went on to justify the University’s approach by reminding the hundreds present that the Prevent referral group, the central administrative body tasked with its enforcement, has convened only twice, consistent with the University’s declared commitment to ‘light touch’ implementation.

Toope offers a comfortable defence of our civil rights and the University’s commitment to freedom of thought and of expression. But denouncing government legislation which mandates policing and surveillance of political expression in pre-criminal space, from the reception classroom to the GP waiting area, should be a given in a liberal democracy. This same position was articulated by Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor two years ago, then describing Prevent as “wrong-headed.”

“Protection of everyone’s freedom of expression, and the active promotion of debate and discussion about empire, both past and present, must be our first step”

These denunciations, however, have not stopped its steady encroachment into the university system. Our University will be neither democratic nor decolonised until it is actively protected from Prevent. This policy promotes the marginalisation and silencing of resistive and dissenting voices against the disastrous foreign policies of the British government and its allies, pursuing illegal invasions and other war crimes. It is no coincidence that the most notable incidentsat Cambridge where the Prevent duty has been applied was at an events on the Palestinian struggle for freedom from Western-backed colonial and imperial domination.

This silencing has been chillingly effective in quashing debate, depriving of a voice those who most need to both speak and be listened to. One third of Muslim student respondents to a recent NUS survey said Prevent had a negative effect on them, and of these, 43% felt unable to express their views or be themselves as a direct result. This invisible silencing of democratic voice, rather than its impact on large political spectacle, is Prevent’s gravest danger. Our collective democratic freedoms are diminished every time, for fear of the consequences, Muslim students self-censor in supervisions or in essays, or Islamic societies feel unable to engage in political discourse on campus without being profiled. As the Washington Post now keenly reminds us: democracy dies in darkness.

The racism of Prevent cannot be understood without appreciating Islamophobia as an ideology of empire; its engines of intellectual production and popular dissemination accompanying the F-16 fighter jets that blew apart Kabul and Baghdad. Muslim communities are targeted with racism, state surveillance, harassment and incarceration because they are, as were the Irish decades ago, those most likely to be angry about the injustices of the British state: the same human rights lawyer represented the Guilford Four as the British men wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo.

The post 9/11 fixation on ‘Islamic extremism’ has unashamedly racist and ‘tolerant’ liberal strands in our public discourse. Bigots argue that violent extremism is inherent to Islamic scripture and culture. But multiculturalist liberals tend to predominate here, asserting that the problem is not Islam per se, but an extreme, perverted version of it. Hand-in-glove with American theorists of counter-insurgency, liberals claim the state must distinguish good Muslim from bad, and battle for the hearts and minds of the former. “Islam is peace”, declared George W. Bush, before setting the Middle East on fire.

For these guardians of tolerance, Muslims count among us so long as they conform to British ‘values’. Their citizenry is now contingent upon political compliance. With these colonial values, symbols of loyalty and fidelity are invariably militaristic — patriotism, the red poppy hijab, the Muslim marine—aiming to marginalise legitimate rage at the crimes of the British government. Within the warm embrace of this popular liberal multiculturalism lies the barely-coded threat of violent excision: be like us, or else.


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Both these strands hold an erroneous conviction in common: the causal centrality of ideas. Terrorism is caused by “bad ideas”, plain and simple. This logic, which chimes with the theories of radicalisation that inform the Prevent duty, precludes critical consideration of Western state and jihadist non-state agents as co-constitutive producers of terror. Next, Prevent defines discussion of Western foreign policy and Israeli settler-colonialism as examples of extremism, painting ordinary political speech as an indicator of ‘radicalisation’ to be suspicious of.

Visions of Western empire were made in Cambridge and Oxford: colonial bureaucrats trained; the plunder of empire glossed with the intellectual facade of civilisational hierarchy and cultural difference; and, more recently, neo-conservative adventurism cultivated. Only by claiming the University as our own, democratised and decolonised, can we demolish them.

Protection of everyone’s freedom of expression, and the active promotion of debate and discussion about empire, both past and present, must be our first step. Cross-faculty decolonisation initiatives now offer hope that some day politics students will be as familiar with Fanon as Hobbes; historians with L’Ouverture as Napoleon. Yet such gains are futile while essential democratic discussion about the active sites of imperial domination and colonialism is at risk of censorship, and silencing — the lighter touch