A Conservative minister has voiced concerns over plans to ban extremist speakers from university campuses, turning a row between the coalition partners into a Conservative party split.
The difference of opinion has been ongoing for some time, but the issue was brought to the fore with the revelation of Jihadi John’s true identity. He was discovered last week to be Mohammed Emwazi, a former Londoner who studied computer science at Westminster University, which has a long history of links with extremism. It was while he was engaged in his studies that Emwazi was radicalised.
Greg Clarke, the Conservative universities and skills minister, has relayed his concerns that the plan to ban extremists may prove unworkable, the Times has reported. According to sources, his intervention provoked a furious response from David Cameron and from the Home Secretary, Theresa May. One witnessed described the ensuing fracas as a “rare example of genuine disagreement, openly expressed”.
Writing for the Sunday Times, May has expressed strong support for the idea, saying “If colleges and universities did not realise before what we are up against they should now. We are not talking about regulating legitimate debate – we’re saying we need to do more to stop radicalisation on campus.”
Previous dissent on the issue appeared to lie on coalition lines, with the Conservatives in favour of a ban and Liberal Democrats opposing. The Liberals have insisted that it ought to be up to universities to decide who to ban, and who to engage in debate with.
One Lib Dem source told the Guardian: “There is a power in rational, thoughtful debate changing impressionable minds. Sometimes it is better to defeat these ideas in argument rather than simply banning someone. That can simply drive the debate underground or off campus to somewhere else. If anyone is inciting violence that is already unlawful, and if a university believes someone should be banned they should be open to do that.”
Conservative chairman Grant Shapps has accused business secretary Vince Cable of trying to water down guidance handed to universities, telling Sky News “Yes there is a difference. The Conservatives think there needs to be proper, decent, tough rules that don’t ban free speech, but do ban preaching death.”
The government has already passed legislation which imposes a statutory requirement on universities and other public bodies to prevent terrorism. But they are struggling to agree on wording for guidance to be issued to universities detailing exactly how that should be done. The unmasking of Emwazi has brought the issue to the forefront.
On the day that Emwazi’s identity was revealed, Westminster University was forced to postpone a talk by a shiekh known for his homophobic views. According to the Henry Jackson Society, over the last three years the University has played host to speakers with radical Islamist views no less than 22 times.
Universities have been lobbying hard for flexibility, meeting with both Mr Clarke and Mr Cable, as they believe that they already take the problem of Islamic extremism seriously. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities take the issue of violent extremism very seriously.
“The sector has engaged extensively with the government’s Prevent agenda and there are strong partnerships with the police and security services. Universities UK is involved in the ongoing discussions about the government’s proposed statutory guidance. We do not believe there to be a simple, either/or dichotomy between taking steps to tackle violent extremism on the one hand, and balancing freedom of speech on the other.
“Universities already do a significant amount of work in this area and Universities UK’s priority will be to ensure that there is an appropriate . . . balance.”
However the vice-chancellors’ trade body itself came under fire for getting that balance wrong two years ago when it ruled that it was ok for speakers to insist on audiences being segregated, as long as men and women were placed side by side, rather than having women at the back. Michael Gove, then education secretary lambasted the ruling, saying it was “pandering to extremism”.
And liberal journalist Brendan O’Neill has suggested that the problem with extremism on campus lies not with visiting speakers, but with the institutions themselves. In his Spiked editorial yesterday, he wrote: “The current obsession with hate preachers, and the notion that they’re stealing through the academy and corrupting minds, dodges the far bigger problem of intellectual and moral corrosion within the academy itself, the emergence over the past 30 years of a relativistic, ‘safe’ climate that actively discourages the elevation of any way of thinking over any other and calls into question the value of knowledge itself.
“When Cameron and others say we must ban hate preachers, they’re missing the point, and making the problem worse. Rather than think about how we might re-fortify the academy, and breathe life back into the Enlightenment side in the battle of ideas, they avoid the battle of ideas entirely in favour of silencing those who spout Islamist rubbish. In doing so, they advertise their intellectual defensiveness, which can only further inflame those students who already think freedom is a sham and ‘the West’ is a hollow and phoney phenomenon.”