Here at Student Rights, we have often highlighted the need to ensure extremists face challenge on-campus, and encourage students to debate speakers with extreme and intolerant views.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough. Unbalanced platforms and hostile environments which suppress views different to the panellists often result in students’ voices being marginalised.
Before the event, a group of students gathered outside the building distributing Student Rights leaflets which debunked a number of myths about Prevent and denounced the NUS links with CAGE.
They also featured a quote from the prominent human rights activist Gita Sahgal, former Head of the Gender Unit at Amnesty International, who has famously described Begg as “Britain’s most famous supporter of the Taliban”.
We have long argued CAGE is a pro-terrorist group whose officials have past links to violent extremism, and our leaflet aimed to inform students of the group’s history.
Neither Begg, nor any other member of the panel refuted the claims made about CAGE, and instead repeated many of the false claims about Prevent we have highlighted in the past.
As the other panellists decided to turn a blind eye to CAGE’s record, it fell to students to raise these concerns during the Q&A.
One student asked why the NUS was prepared to share a platform with CAGE considering their links to Haitham al-Haddad and their refusal to condemn his support for “FGM and stoning”.
CAGE’s links to al-Haddad were ignored by the panellists. Later, another student chose to question Begg over an interview he gave to Julian Assange alongside CAGE Research Director Asim Qureshi.
In the interview, Qureshi stated that in an ideal state, if all conditions were met, a women could be stoned to death for adultery.
At first, Begg dismissed the question as a “red herring” and tried denying Qureshi had supported stoning adulteresses.
The audience member replied by calling him a liar and disingenuous and another student called out, asking Begg to “disassociate from these comments”.
Begg asked the audience to allow him to answer the question, insisting “I’m not dodging it”.
He then completely dodged the question, leading the questioner to say: “he didn’t answer the question, but he’s going to keep on doing it, because he always does when he’s asked about this.”
After the event, the student pressed Begg for an answer, and told Student Rights Begg refused to condemn stoning adulteresses again.
Begg also failed to answer a question asking how he is able to present himself as a civil rights campaigner when he took his wife and three young children to live under the oppressive Taliban regime.
Meanwhile, when challenged on working with CAGE, Shelly Asquith stated she is able to work with people despite disagreements, citing the work she does as part of the NUS despite pro-Israel figures within the organisation.
When questioned about what alternatives she would put in place instead of Prevent, she replied: “What should we do instead? Don’t ask me, I’m not an expert on counter-terrorism policy”.
One of the main problems during the Q&A was the some students didn’t get a chance to ask questions, as the event started late and two of the panellists left before the event ended.
A student who had their hand raised from the beginning of the Q&A session was also completely ignored for the entire 50 minutes by the chair, who was one of the organisers.
The student had made his concerns about Moazzam Begg well known on campus, which was undoubtedly the reason he was denied the opportunity to ask a question – a prime example of why these events need independent moderators.
Despite the questioning, it appeared many students were prepared to applaud Begg’s obfuscations, and it was disappointing to see the Feminist, Palestine, Socialist and Islamic societies stand by a group like CAGE.
However, this event was a step in the right direction, with Moazzam Begg and the NUS being vigorously challenged about their views for the first time on a campus this academic year.
Even though the panel was completely unbalanced, through leafletting and a robust Q&A students in the audience got to hear both sides of the argument, and CAGE were not allowed to present themselves as a mainstream civil rights groups without challenge.