The price of freedom, as we all know, is eternal vigilantism. In its quest to build the Big Society, the coalition government, like its predecessor, has determined to let a thousand grasses squeal. So the general public is regularly exhorted to rat on housing benefit frauds, bogus asylum seekers and in-the-pink incapacity benefit cheats, not to mention suspected ‘terrorists’. Shop a looter! posters currently grace Manchester’s Piccadilly station. As its trains pull out of each station, the ever drear TransPennine Express enjoins passengers to report ‘anything suspicious’ to the TE conductor. I’m writing this on one of their trains, and there’s a bloke on the other side of the glass partition in First Class who looks a bit dodgy. He could be a serial tax evader. Time to tip the clippie the wink.
Stasification got up as civic virtue plays a leading role in the government’s Prevent strategy, revamped by the Home Office in June. Universities and colleges are, says Prevent, in the front line of the crusade against terror, the bogey being ‘radicalisation’. Its authors aren’t talking about bilking a British Anders Breivik: it’s Muslims they want us to worry about. Theresa May said that universities had been ‘complacent’ about the would-be terrorists in their midst. Prevent tells us that under a third of those convicted of Islamist terrorism-related offences over the past ten years went to college. As the attendance rate in the whole population is pushing 45 per cent, one might think that higher education is doing a fair job of deradicalising Muslims. May and her colleagues may benefit, on this showing, from a tutorial on the availability error and base rate fallacy.
Armed with this ‘evidence’, campus staff are expected to show their gratitude for the government’s axeing of the humanities and social science teaching budget by moonlighting for it as unpaid narks. From next year students can arrive with their £9000 fees in used notes and wonder if their lecturers are snitching on them for wearing a hoodie or beard. Depressed students are thought especially liable to ‘radicalisation’. Prevent pretends that this is all for the students’ benefit: they’re to be shielded from the risk of radicalisation as part of colleges’ ‘duty of care’. But of course no one gives a tinker’s cuss about the risks to students posed by poverty, drugs, cheap booze, predatory Christian fundamentalists or conservative clubs – unless they react by planning atrocities.
The upper reaches of the ulama have reacted to Prevent with gastropodal spinelessness. Nicola Dandridge, CEO of Universities UK, underlined that ‘universities must continue to be vigilant.' By contrast, the Universities and Colleges Union has raised the alarm about conscripting campus staff to inform on their students. Well, one might say, most things may never happen, and maybe this one won’t. In fact, though, it already has. In 2008 Hicham Yezza, the principal school administrator at Nottingham University’s School of Politics and International Relations, was arrested under the 2000 Terrorism Act, on suspicion of possessing ‘an al-Qaida training manual’ on his computer; Rizwaan Sabir, an MA student of Dr Rod Thornton at Nottingham University, arrested at the same time, had the same file on his PC, as Sabir had forwarded it to Yezza as background reading for his PhD application. A Nottingham employee had shopped them to the police after noticing the file on Yezza’s machine. The ‘manual’ was downloaded from the US Justice Department website and is available in the university library. Other materials ‘seized’ from Sabir’s office included copies of Foreign Affairs and the Middle East Policy Council Journal. Sir Colin Campbell, then Nottingham’s vice chancellor, did his bit for academic freedom, arguing that ‘there is no “right” to access and research terrorist materials.'
Sabir and Yezza were later released without charge. Now Thornton himself has been smacked for publicising the fiasco in a heavily footnoted 110-page academic paper at last April’s British International Studies Association (Bisa) conference. Nottingham suspended him in May for allegedly defamatory remarks about colleagues in the paper. Bisa pulled the paper from its site for fear of being in contempt of non-existent legal proceedings (it can be accessed via the Unileaks site). Thornton remains in professional limbo. Like Sabir and Yezza, he is, you might say, paying the price of freedom.