What was different about the campus free speech battles of the 1990s?

When it has been accused of threatening free speech at British universities with its “no platform” policy, the National Union of Students (NUS) has emphasised that, at the national level, the policy “lists just six fascist and racist organizations” which are prevented from speaking.

These are the far right British National Party (BNP), English Defence League (EDL) and National Action, as well as the Islamic fundamentalist groups Al-Muhajiroun, Muslim Public Affairs Committee and Hizb ut-Tahrir.

In the public discourse on “no platforming”, it is often overlooked that Islamic fundamentalist groups have been placed on the same level as the far right – although there is rarely defence of these Islamic groups from the various free speech proponents in the British media and politics.

Of these groups, the campaign against Hizb ut-Tahrir in the 1990s is under-explored – and represents an interesting contrast with the high profile campaign against the BNP at the same time, which I explore in my new book on the history of “No Platform” in universities.

Back to the 90s

Hizb ut-Tahrir is a pan-Islamist organisation that began in Jordan in the 1950s, seeking to re-establish the caliphate through armed insurrection or military coup. Although it projects a highly conservative version of Islam, Hizb ut-Tahrir is not a jihadist organisation like Al Qaeda. Establishing localised groups across the world, Hizb ut-Tahrir emerged in Britain in the early 1990s, with a concerted recruitment effort amongst Muslim youth and international students at British universities, especially in inner London.

This led to complaints from some groups, such as the gay rights group OutRage! and the Union of Jewish Students, about the homophobic and anti-Semitic pronouncements of the group. There were also complaints in the student press from the various London universities about the presence of Hizb ut-Tahrir on campus and on the streets in the vicinity of the universities.

In December 1994 the NUS, alongside anti-fascist magazine Searchlight and the Union of Jewish Students, set up Campus Watch – a 24/7 hotline to report racial incidents at universities and colleges. However a report released in October 1996 stated that more than 70 per cent of the 381 calls made to the hotline concerned Islamic extremists, primarily Hizb ut-Tahrir.

In the meantime, the students’ unions at several universities in London and around the country used a “no platform” policy to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir from organising and speaking on campus – including the University of Birmingham, Middlesex University, University College London, the University of Leeds and LSE. For example, editor of the student newspaper at LSE, The Beaver, explained in October 1996:

At present Hizb-ut-Tahrir is banned from the LSE because its doctrine goes against the LSESU policy on Equal Opportunities. Believe me when I say that these people are very extremist and their views could be offensive to many of the minorities (and majorities) whom they are against; gays, jews [sic], blacks, democrats, socialists, women, or indeed anyone who doesn’t agree with them.”

In October 1995, The Times reported that more than 100 students’ unions had “banned” Hizb ut-Tahrir from campus – supported by the NUS. At the NUS conference in March 1996, a code of conduct was agreed to with the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals that banned “extremists” from standing for full-time representative posts in students’ unions. The Times explained that the code “would stop short of banning such groups [as Hizb ut-Tahrir] from campuses”, but that its members “would be barred from elections for sabbatical office”.

Pushing back

However there was some resistance against this. When SOAS tried to ban a group linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir, the students’ union protested against this decision by the university administrators. This decision was made at an urgent general meeting that was attended by over 400 students, but was criticised by the Jewish Society at the university.

Members of Hizb ut-Tahrir were quoted by the Times Higher Education Supplement as saying, “universities such as SOAS espouse ideas such as freedom of speech, but these become redundant when Muslims want to express their views”. Although the ban was overturned after this student dissent, the press attention upon the Islamic group led them to temporarily suspend their activities at SOAS and other London universities.

After the bans from campuses in the mid-1990s, Hizb ut-Tahrir sought to soften its image and promote its ideas through Islamic student groups at select universities, rather than explicitly as Hizb ut-Tahrir, particularly after 9/11. Nonetheless with concerns about the radicalisation of Muslim students in Britain during the “War on Terror” years, NUS eventually banned Hizb ut-Tahrir in its entirety in 2004, alongside Al-Muhajiroun and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee.

Despite many reservations from NUS about the treatment of Muslim students after 9/11 and the Iraq War, sections of the national student body were able to adapt the “no platform” policy to cover these Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Prevent

The discourse around the “no platforming” of Islamist groups is often overshadowed by the implementation and practice of the Prevent strategy on campuses, which has been a major part of the government’s counter-terrorism approach since the July 2005 bombings. NUS, alongside the University College Union, has heavily criticised Prevent for the suspicion placed upon Muslim students and suggested that this is a significant freedom of speech issue at universities that has not had the same attention as student protests against right-wing speakers.

When criticised for its “no platform” policy, NUS has been keen to stress that as well as banning the far right, the policy also applied to three Islamist groups and that NUS took a similar approach to both far right and Islamist extremists. A reason for this oversight may be that the “no platforming” of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other groups fits into a broader Islamophobia that exists in Britain (and elsewhere around the world) where Muslims are seen as a “suspect community”.

The banning of Hizb ut-Tahrir and other Islamic fundamentalist groups in the 1990s and 2000s, with NUS revising the “no platform” policy to include these groups in 2004, shows that “no platform” – as both a policy and a tactic – is not static and constantly being re-evaluated by students’ unions, at both the institutional and national level.

Although Prevent has been criticised by students and academics for its alleged chilling effect upon higher education and student activities, it has never grabbed the attention of the punditry and politicians in the same way as the “no platforming” of right-wing speakers.

Evan Smith’s “No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech” is published by Routledge.

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