Academic freedom and 'dangerous ideas'

As much of the West becomes increasingly Islamophobic - universities are assumed "breeding grounds" for radicalisation.

    Universities have always been venues for discussion of ideas that change society - but self-serving managers now collude with state officials to criminalise academic research considered 'dangerous' [GALLO/GETTY]

    There is this absurd idea that universitiesf are somehow "ivory towers", that they are separate from the real world, from the influence of politics and power. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the exponential growth of "terrorism studies" demonstrates.

    Academics and universities are profoundly shaped by power. And they, in turn, shape politics and society. Anthropology developed alongside empire. Physics looks the way it does because of funding for nuclear weapons and nuclear energy research. Area studies was more or less a creation of the US department of defence, which sought knowledge of all the places threatened by communism.

    Naturally, entrepreneurial academics and university administrators are on the lookout for whatever new knowledge power and money think they need - mostly science, technology, and medicine but also law schools, business schools, and public policy programs. Their efforts attract funding, which provides resources, which further develops these areas, shaping the very nature of the contemporary university.

    The illusion that knowledge can be free from power is the supreme marketing advantage of universities. Free inquiry produces the best ideas, which then can be put to work in the real world for profit, comfort, health, and security. The great universities of the developed world grew under this illusion, and society and economy benefitted enormously from their research and teaching.

    But ideas are also volatile and potentially threatening, and they can be untoward and inconvenient, especially when they concern politics and violence. I once was invited to a particularly inspired conference on a sub-industry in terrorism studies called "radicalisation". This is the idea that one can study how people - Muslims, primarily - become "radicalised" and turn to violence.

    'Radicalisation' as a dangerous theory

    The conference was inspired because it was held in South Africa. Radicals who had fought body and soul against apartheid were present. They had a rather different appreciation of what it meant to be radical than the Western and Israeli security academics and officials in attendance.

    Back in the West, "radicalisation" was concerned with identifying and combating dangerous ideas and their bearers. But the politics of "the War on Terror" determined the limits of thought. In Tony Blair's Britain, radicalisation of British Muslims could not be blamed on the war in Iraq. As elsewhere in Europe, it was supposed to be about the failure of Muslims to properly integrate, the result of a multiculturalism that was too tolerant.

    "Radicalisation" was indeed a dangerous idea and began to affect what was happening in both politics and in universities. Research councils in the UK funnelled money into "policy relevant" research on the topic. The imprimatur of academic research helped foster the belief that various texts and websites, personalities and forums were a threat to public security.

    The universities now found themselves portrayed as sites of radicalisation, as places where dangerous ideas infected vulnerable Muslims. Apparently, University College London is to blame for the bomb in Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's underwear.

    A conflict ensued between the university's purpose-free inquiry - and the politics of "the War on Terror". Controls on reading lists, libraries, outside speakers, and student organisations were debated. In a delightful Catch-22, some of the very texts and websites used by teachers and researchers in terrorism studies were now considered "radicalising".

    Universities in the rosy blush of Enlightenment self-confidence would brush off the notion that they were supposed to restrict rather than foster debate about "national security".

    Even the cynical university manager would know that the brand of his enterprise was at stake. Give in to too many demands to control thought and adapt to the politics of the day, and it would be fatally compromised. The communists and homosexuals can be handed over to Senator McCarthy - but after that he will have to be stopped for the sake of freedom of thought.

    But there is another domain in which universities are not separate from society: neoliberalism's destructive management culture. There is little notion here of free thinking, but much desire to radically restructure everything existing in the cause of one's own career and bank balance. The university version is astounding for its combination of incompetence and acute sensitivity to prevailing winds.

    Freedom to think, just not about Islam

    The result is beyond farce, as events at the University of Nottingham have demonstrated. A graduate student, Rizwaan Sabir, asked his friend for advice on a document he was using for his research on terrorism. The document was originally called "Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants" and the friend, Hicham Yezza, was a member of staff in the modern languages department. Versions of it were in the university's own library.

    In the hysteria generated by fears of "terrorists" in our midst, the model citizen, channelling their inner Jack Bauer, is the one who turns in their neighbours in a timely fashion.

    And so when a colleague discovered the document on Yezza's computer, the police were called with undue haste, within hours. University officials did not pause to consult Sabir's teachers or the university's own terrorism experts, which included a former British army officer, Dr Rod Thornton. But an academic involved from the very beginning, a professor of literature no less, did assure police officers that the document in question was not "legitimate material" and was "illegal". A university official announced the document had "no valid reason to exist" and was "utterly indefensible".

    Sabir and Yezza were sent off to six days of detention and interrogation, the beginning of a long saga for them and their families with counter-terror police and, in Yezza's case, the immigration authorities. They were eventually cleared.

    The university reacted like a company whose brand was under threat, but one which had forgotten its brand was academic freedom, not witch hunting. An apology and a campus-wide period of reflection and debate would have settled the matter. Instead, no mistake was to be admitted - lest harm come to the careers of university managers.

    In the neoliberal era, when a company is publically criticised for good reason, managers seek redress in the courts over matters of libel, as in the McLibel affair. When their own employees speak out, they are disciplined, fired, or sued. In such ways does the cold grip of private power strangle public speech.

    Accordingly, the University of Nottingham has used disciplinary procedures and harassment to silence any criticism of its actions from its own staff. Most recently, it suspended Dr Thornton for presenting details of the sordid affair at an academic conference. For good measure, it used legal threats to force the academic association that sponsored the conference to remove his paper from their website. Al Jazeera readers can find it here.

    And so, in the twilight days of a war fought in the name of civilisation, a Western university has substituted logics of libel and defamation for free speech, and filed academic freedom away in some forgotten corner of its human resources department. A civilisation dying to the smooth roll of filing cabinets closing and pens scribbling on the bottom line, so completely have neoliberalism and "the War on Terror" hollowed out the values of the West - even in its "ivory towers".

    Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge. He specialises in the study of war, armed forces and society with a focus on conflict between the West and the global South in historical and contemporary perspective. He is author of Globalisation and War, as well as many scholarly articles.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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