MP writes to SOAS over extreme speaker events

Last week, it was reported that ‘Helping Households under Great Stress’ (HHUGS) had campaigned at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) during an event calling for the release of convicted terrorists.

Journalists were given a card claiming Islamist terrorist Adel Abdel Bary was detained without charge, despite Bary’s 2014 conviction for his involvement in the 1998 Al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies in East Africa.

HHUGS has since claimed it was an oversight that these cards were handed out.

Student Rights first covered this event the day after it took place, highlighting how Harris Farooqi and Asif Uddin had appeared alongside CAGE outreach director Moazzam Begg as representatives of campaigns supporting convicted terrorists Munir Farooqi and Anis Sardar.

Today, Student Rights can also reveal the event so troubled one senior MP that she wrote directly to SOAS to raise her concerns.

In a letter dated 10 November 2015, Theresa Villiers wrote to Baroness Amos, the director of SOAS, to raise her “concern about the number of extremist speakers that have been invited to attend events at SOAS.”

She specifically mentioned the ‘Brothers behind Bars’ event, as well as previous events hosting Haitham Al-Haddad and Uthman Lateef, before saying she was:“…gravely concerned at your decision to give a platform to extremists, particularly where it is not clear that these events have included other guest speakers to counter extremist viewpoints.”

Nearly a month later, Baroness Amos responded, in which time Begg had appeared on campus at SOAS on two more occasions, on the 15th and 11th of November.

Thanking Villiers for her letter, Amos claimed SOAS “has a robust code of practice for events”, but is “committed to the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge” which can only be conducted “in an atmosphere of open enquiry, mutual tolerance, and intellectual freedom”.

This failed to address that the ‘Brothers behind Bars’ event had no opposing speakers on the panel and saw no attempt to challenge the speaker’s claims – hardly an example of “nuanced, informed debate”.

It also ignored that other events mentioned by Ms Villiers, such as Uthman Lateef’s ‘Women in Islam’ event, gave a cleric with a history of extreme statements an unchallenged platform as a religious authority.

Alongside this, the letter from Baroness Amos argued SOAS staff “were satisfied that Mr Al-Haddad was visiting SOAS as an expert in his field and not as a ‘radical cleric’” – as if such a distinction can be made.

Finally, the letter said SOAS would work closely with the Student Union to ensure extremist viewpoints were “robustly challenged” – yet in a tweet the day after the letter was sent, Student Union members claimed they had been told by the Director that no students would be referred to Prevent.

Meanwhile, the Student Union was busy fundraising for HHUGS, with Co-President Tom King repeatedly encouraging people to donate to the charity.

The inability to recognise and take responsibility for the problem shown by SOAS in this letter highlights the challenge facing the Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) in its new duty to ensure universities comply with their Prevent requirements.

If the university management continues to bury its head in the sand in this way, this will pose a serious challenge to HEFCE’s new regulatory regime – something HEFCE will have to consider if it is to be successful in 2016.

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