Earlier this week, Kingston University’s Department of Journalism hosted a panel discussion on the government’s Prevent Strategy.
Last term, we saw a series of events where speakers from extreme groups went unchallenged as they condemned Prevent, spreading misleading and divisive information in the process.
Monday’s event saw a rare and welcome attempt to provide an element of balance on this issue, with two panelists speaking against Prevent while Kingston Vice-Chancellor Julius Weinberg defended aspects of the strategy.
However, it is concerning that the opposition consisted of CAGE Outreach Director Moazzam Begg, who has already had “extraordinary access to students” this academic year, and Shenaz Bunglawala, Head of Research at MEND.
Begg conceded he had travelled to Syria to train fighters while contesting terrorism charges which collapsed in 2014.
He has also admitted to visiting militant training camps on the Afghan-Pakistan border, as well as to fighting in Bosnia in the 1990s.
MEND’s senior officials, meanwhile, have a long history of worrying statements, with the group’s Head of Community Development & Engagement, Azad Ali, losing a libel case in 2010 which found he:“…was indeed…taking the position that the killing of American and British troops in Iraq would be justified.”
Ali has also been criticised for opposing democracy if it is “at the expense of not implementing sharia”, while MEND CEO, Sufyan Ismail, has claimed British law “allowed violence against Muslims” and British society hates Muslims.
Begg allegedly told students at the event: “Prevent is something that is causing, not fighting radicalisation”, while Bunglawala agreed and claimed there is no evidence radicalisation occurs on campus.
This ignores the students and recent graduates convicted for terrorism-related offences plausibly suggested to have been at least partially radicalised during their studies.
While it is disappointing to see individuals like Begg treated as legitimate voices on counter-radicalisation policy, Professor Weinberg provided some balance to the debate, saying he supported “quite a lot of what the Prevent strategy stands for”.
He also talked about the need to prevent the marginalisation of ex-Muslims and LGBT Muslims, who he said must have their voices heard on campus.
Begg, who rarely comments on social issues, allegedly responded to this point by claiming all Abrahamic religions oppose homosexuality.
Overall, the attempt to balance the debate and ensure controversial speakers were challenged by the Vice-Chancellor shows Kingston University is taking this issue more seriously than some institutions.
We would prefer if MEND and CAGE were not treated as experts on Prevent given their efforts to undermine the strategy, but when speakers from these organisations are invited to appear on campus they must be robustly challenged.
With this in mind, Monday’s event can be considered a step in the right direction, and an example which could be replicated at more universities should speakers like Begg be invited to address students.