Just last month Universities UK published a report calling for Vice-Chancellors to avoid banning controversial speakers on campuses; consequential debates regarding student extremism and freedom of speech spawned across the web, and, last week the issue could not be more relevant to students in Southampton as controversial former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg gave a lecture to students at the University as part of Islamic Awareness Week.

Freedom of speech is one of the greatest and most taken for granted aspects of democratic societies and, traditionally, students are looked to as champions for its promotion and the advocating of new liberal ideas permitted by this freedom.

Students are seen to lead the revolutions. Campuses are meant to be where intellectual debate is expected at its most broad-minded and advanced, and the next generation are looked to for an understanding of sociological development that the older generation may have overlooked, or have become too accustomed to the traditional that they are unable to understand. Or, at least, this is the common thought.

A report published last month advising Vice-Chancellors to avoid banning controversial speakers on campuses relies on the generally accepted opinion that Universities are hot beds of liberal-mindedness and open discussion; but the recommendations made by Universities UK overlook the unfortunate fact that institutes of higher education are now churning out their first graduates from society’s ‘PC Generation’, brought up on an increasingly sensationalist tabloid-led society.

‘Freedom of Speech on Campus: Rights and Responsibilities in UK Universities’, published February 18 by Universities UK, looks at how universities can ‘promote freedom of speech on campus’, and calls for Vice-Chancellors not to prevent controversial speakers like Moazzam Begg being given platforms at universities across the country.

The report acknowledges that for universities, freedom of speech is ‘fundamental to their functioning’, as a place where ‘debate, challenge and dissent’ such as Begg’s opinions and discussion regarding his visit to the University ‘are not only permitted but expected’.

However, campuses may be seen to be places of debate, challenge and dissent, but are today’s students equipped to discuss the ideas at the edges of taboo conversation in the same way that students of the 60s and 70s represented the liberalism of thought and discussion?

I argue that, after the events that unfolded as a consequence of controversial former Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg’s visit to the University of Southampton last fortnight, no.

I argue this for two reasons. Firstly, some of the comments and opinions expressed in reference to Begg’s visit by students were not only ignorant, but at points could be described as islamaphobic; secondly, two student news outlets at the University avoided real debate by adopting polemic views on the matter – one did not engage in actual discussion regarding Begg’s controversial views, and one withdrew its original opinion.

Let me explain.

Moazzam Begg has not been charged in relation to any of his originally suspected terrorist links to Al-Qaeda and was released from Guantanamo Bay detention camp without charge in 2005. Since then, Wikileaks cables have also revealed that a US ambassador in Europe has actually applauded Begg’s subsequent campaign after his release to persuade European countries to take detainees, and the former prisoner has also spoken on behalf of educational peace charity Foundation For Peace on conflict and non-violent protest.

However, controversy still surrounds Begg after it was reported in the media last February that Gita Sahgal, head of the gender unit at Amnesty’s international secretariat, believed that collaborating with the former inmate ‘fundamentally damaged’ the reputation of Amnesty, describing him as ‘Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban’.

According to The Independent and The Times, Begg praises the Taliban for trying to rebuild Afghanistan after decades of war, calling them ‘better than anything Afghanistan has had in the past 25 years’ and Joan Smith points out the consequential relationship with controversial views on women’s rights as a result.

Begg has also published online an article titled Jihad and Terrorism: A War of the Words which he defends as emphasising the difference between jihad and terrorism, yet nevertheless contains what can be interpreted as inflammatory remarks, summarising violent jihad in the following way:

‘An inseparable component of Islam which embodies the very highest principles of faith, morality and rules of wartime engagement. It is the belief of Muslims that jihad is an ‘ibaadah’ (act of worship) that will continue until the Final Day. But as it is waged, in all its forms, Muslims must neither allow their oppressors to overcome them nor to become their teachers in the process. In doing so, the concept of jihad in Islam can be reclaimed once again by the Muslims.’

In his article, Begg supports the call to arms for resistance of the occupation of Muslim lands, and acknowledges that ‘there is sometimes a fine line between resistance and terrorism, and we often can’t tell the difference – or make distinctions based not on principle but on how the language has been defined for us.’

There is clearly a debate to be had regarding Mr. Begg’s views, indicated already by the diverse reports and opinions discussed in national media regarding his innocence, and prompted by his relationship with Amnesty International.

The diversity of this debate was reflected in the seven student-written articles published regarding Mr Begg’s visit to the University of Southampton the week before last by two different student media platforms. Over 250 comments have been generated on the articles so far.

However, the comments on these articles, and even the articles themselves, suggest that students today are not equipped to discuss the ideas at the edge of taboo conversation in the same way that students of the past have been seen to be able to do.

This is because firstly, the comments published on these articles by students, the so-called broad-minded liberals of today, are surprisingly ignorant.

One comment on the first article published on Begg’s visit to the University by the Soton Tab titled ‘Alleged Al-Qaeda given platform at Southampton Uni’, posted by someone who calls themselves ‘God’, reads: ‘Dear Muslims, I never told you to blow yourselves up or kill people. So don’t do that. Also stop acting like you have something to prove, you don’t.’

On Wessex Scene online – the Union affiliated newspaper and website – another commenter says: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do. As a Brit, when I went to a Middle Eastern country, I respected their rules, culture and religion despite MY religious beliefs. Muslims should do the same but they don’t. They know they can do what they like here, hence the negative opinion Western people have of them.’ The comment received 12 ‘thumbs up’s.

Stuart also commented below another article about Begg’s visit on the Wessex Scene saying, ‘Terrorist scumbag Begg, should of [sic] been dealt with properly by the Pakistani security forces and never heard of again to spout his anti-Western hatred.’

One comment, by Megan S, states, ‘The purpose of a University is to foster an intellectual atmosphere where students think critically and openly about all ideas, so that they’re properly equipped to deal with extreme views and ideologies they’ll sometimes encounter in wider society.’

Megan S has hit the nail on the head and it can be easily imagined that the report from Universities UK intended on focusing on a similar practice of healthy discussion amongst students; however, these comments do not seem to depict or generate the type of intellectual atmosphere that Megan S and Universities UK seem to aspire to, or even presume. The comments published below these articles instead point to an ignorance amongst students that unease me.

Furthermore, student media platforms at the University cannot be seen to have handled the matter any better.

The Soton Tab broke the story of Begg’s visit to the University, and introduced the fact that the visit had the possibility to be a controversial one. This point, and the questioning of Moazzam Begg’s views are an acceptable point to make. As we have already explored, Begg’s views are ones which it would be difficult to not say are divisive. However, the Soton Tab shot themselves in the foot by categorising the article as ‘opinion’ and writing it in an ignorant and islamaphobic tone.

The author of the article, John King, writes in reference to Begg’s visit, ‘I cannot believe we have given him a platform to spread his vile, pro-jihadist message…I am afraid that at this Thursday’s meeting of the Islamic Society, he might intend to deliver a dangerous message to stir up racial tension and reinforce the claim that says Western society isn’t compatible with the Muslim faith.’

If the Soton Tab had written the article in an informed and balanced way, then perhaps then there would’ve have been more room for informed and healthy debate, as opposed to the arguments we instead saw emerging. Furthermore, understandably, in response to the comments and reaction to the original article, the Soton Tab then issued an apology, withdrawing their previous statements regarding Begg’s visit to the University. They stated that ‘the article was an unfair representation of Mr Begg and should not have been published.’

The website was right to publish an apology on the tone and accusations on their original article regarding Mr Begg, however, by then being seen to withdraw their overall opinion on Moazzam Begg’s visit to the University as a whole, the entire debate that could have been had over the views and opinions of Mr Begg was avoided all together.

This was further the case when the Union affiliated Wessex Scene student news website reacted to the original article published by the Soton Tab after Mr Begg spoke at the University.

The Politics Editor of the Wessex Scene wrote an article defending Begg’s freedom of speech, and responding to the talk that he gave. In the article, ‘Islamaphobia and the Media: Moazzam Begg’s visit to Southampton’, Begg is defended and it is explained that ‘what came across most strongly from his talk was his plea for tolerance, and a recognition of common humanity.’

The article was clearly a response to the original one posted on the Soton Tab, and is quick to sing the praises of Mr Begg – something which is again understandable retaliation considering the type of comments originally generated in response to the news of Begg’s visit to Southampton. The Wessex Scene rightly addressed the issue of freedom of speech, but by leaping to the defence of Mr Begg in response to the narrow-mindedness of the Soton Tab’s first article, avoided the discussion on the views of Mr Begg himself.

Moazzam Begg was far within his rights to speak at the University – bearing in mind that he has not been charged for any terrorist acts, and acknowledging Article 10, ‘Freedom of Expression’, of the UK Human Rights Act, 1998. However, there was an opportunity here to discuss what was actually expressed itself from Moazzam Begg’s related views and opinions, and this was for the large part missed.

The report published by Universities UK ignores two increasingly glaring point in media today that were then reflected in student media at the University of Southampton; this generation of students are emerging in an age where the topic of political correctness is vogue, and society is led by the sensationalist claims purported in tabloid media such as The Daily Star (remember, ‘EDL to Become a Political Party’, anyone?) Between the two, there unfortunately seems no room for meaningful discussion on political topics anymore.

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