Recently my organisation reported on the cancellation of an event at the University of Westminster which was due to feature Jamal Harwood, a senior member of the Islamist organisation Hizb-ut-Tahrir, as one of its speakers.
Following complaints from students that Hizb-ut-Tahrir members are banned from most campuses under the National Union of Students' (NUS) No Platform Policy, and a suggestion that they would be attending the event to challenge Harwood's views, the university authorities decided not to allow the debate to go ahead.
In response to this, the Student's Union released a joint statement with the organisers of the event; a group called the Global Ideas Society (GIS). This statement falsely claimed that students planning on attending the debate, along with the human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, "posed a violent threat to the event". This is an utterly risible accusation and here at Student Rights we have been in contact with Mr Tatchell, who has released a statement saying:
"I had no knowledge of the Global Ideas Society event at Westminster University on 16 February 2012 until after it was cancelled. I was later informed that I had been falsely accused by the GIS and UWSU of "posing a violent threat" to the event. This accusation is untrue. I have a long history of non-violent direct action and I am one of its best known exponents in the UK. I have never in my 45 years of human rights campaigning committed any violent acts, even when violently assaulted myself. The idea that I threatened violence or posed a violent threat is absurd and defamatory. I call on the UWSU and GIS to withdraw this untrue, libellous allegation and apologise."
Despite this, and despite numerous emails from students who have contacted both us and the Union to complain about the libel contained in the statement, the Student's Union still refuses to retract it and as of 23 February it is still in place. As well as this, Mr Harwood has found the time to pen an article on the Hizb-ut-Tahrir mouthpiece website New Civilisation in which he opens by misrepresenting my piece from last week before repeating the accusations against these students.
He also suggests that the cancellation of the event was because those who opposed his ideas were admitting defeat, declaring that "rather than engaging Muslim speakers and students in direct debate, time and again we have seen liberal activists put their efforts into getting talks cancelled and speakers barred". Obviously this ignores the numerous students who spoke to us about peacefully confronting Harwood's ideas before his supporters in the Student Union complained that "we have reason to believe that you're bringing unauthorised externals to the event.. .and as a result the University is treating the matter as a potential security risk".
This complaint is taken from an email sent by the Student Union President Tarik Mahri, whose support for Hizb-ut-Tahrir has been documented by both Student Rights and by national press. His views also appear to chime with those of the Global Ideas Society, who have been criticised for inviting Jamal Harwood in the past. They have also linked from Facebook to New Civilisation before and have members who have declared on the social network that "it is haraam [forbidden]" for Muslims to integrate into British society, and that have expressed deeply homophobic views.
If the Student Union President and the Global Ideas Society complained to the university about possible violent opposition to this debate despite there being no evidence that this would be the case then the university would have had no choice but to cancel the event. To then suggest that you are being silenced by "liberal fundamentalists" whose efforts to debate with you "resemble the tactics of fascists" is simply ridiculous and does a grave disservice to the brave students who were willing to brave an unfriendly audience to challenge Harwood. If anything, it shows that when confronted with organised opposition it is apparently easier to smear your opponents than risk debating with them. Of course, this could simply be because Hizb-ut-Tahrir speakers are unused to such balanced discussion.
The event has now been rescheduled for 8 March, and the students who have spoken to us are adamant that they will attend the new date to challenge Harwood. If the event is allowed to go ahead it will raise further questions about why a speaker from a group banned by the NUS is being supported by the Student Union. However it will also enable students to expose Jamal Harwood's totalitarian ideology for what it is.