James Cleverly bans Hizb ut-Tahrir – twenty years after NUS banned it

The Home Secretary has announced that the government will ban Hizb ut-Tahrir in the UK - some twenty years after the National Union of Students formally “no platformed” the group.

James Cleverly announced yesterday that he had laid a draft order before parliament (under the Terrorism Act 2000) to seek the Sunni Islamist group’s proscription – which will likely see it banned as early as 19 January.

It means that belonging to, inviting support for or displaying articles in a public place in a way that arouses suspicion of membership or support for the group will be a criminal offence – punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

It’s interesting for HE because of the history here.

As campus free speech expert and historian Evan Smith noted for us on the site a few years ago, HuT’s activities became a key concern for universities and SUs in the 1990s, as it undertook a major youth and international student recruitment drive centred on London.

Both gay rights group OutRage! and the Union of Jewish Students raised concerns about homophobic and antisemitic pronouncements by the group, student media across the capital started to cover it, and students’ unions passed formal “no platform” policies to ban it.

NUS Conference 1996 approved a deal with the then Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (what we now know as Universities UK) that banned “extremists” from standing for full-time representative posts in students’ unions, and then NUS formally banned Hizb ut-Tahrir in its entirety in 2004, adding Al-Muhajiroun and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee to its “No Platform” list.

In the intervening period its tactics often involved the setting up of “front groups” within SUs whose universities had substantial numbers of muslim students – called things like the “Global Ideas Society” or the “Ideological Society”. And for a time, NUS itself was funded by the government to help SUs develop risk assessments for external speakers that could spot this sort of activity.

The idea was that because the group wasn’t proscribed, SUs should themselves take steps to tackle the group – which they were usually willing to go along with on the basis of their hinterland of homophobia and antisemitism.

But this was never straightforward – not least because plenty of people argued that their actual activities on campus rarely crossed the line into actual promotion of terrorism, and because of a set of complex arguments about where the line should be when a group promotes an extreme ideology albeit in a nonviolent way.

The vague expectation that universities, SUs and wider civil society should do what some saw as the government’s dirty work was neatly encapsulated by a meeting I had with John “Common Sense Group” Hayes at the time, who said:

Thank god you’re banning them, because for some reason we won’t.

Even noted neocon lobby group the Henry Jackson Society thought that proscribing HuT would

…not be viable under current anti-terrorism legislation and would likely prove impractical and ineffective.

By 2015, the Counter Terrorism and Security Act 2015 had started to harden up the expectations a little – requiring universities (and by proxy, although not directly, SUs) to take steps to “safeguard” people from being drawn into becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

That “welfare” framing has never washed with student activists – who led an NUS campaign on “Preventing Prevent” in the following years, despite most SUs student groups operations going along with whatever risk assessment regimes were being put in place under the Prevent duty over external speakers.

Although evidence suggests that HuT’s activities on campus have not been much of a priority in the last decade, the government has repeatedly toyed with banning it, but usually deciding not to.

David Anderson QC, who was the independent reviewer of terrorism legislation in 2011, advised the UK government against banning it despite David Cameron promising to in the election. The Quilliam Foundation, a prominent anti-radicalism think tank put the problem problem as follows:

Legally it is quite difficult if the group isn’t actually conducting violence in the UK. Having nasty opinions is not a good enough reason legally to ban them.

What’s changed this time is the resurgence of the group and its role in the major London demonstrations we’ve seen over the past few months, and its apparent explicit support for Hamas:

In light of the heroic feats carried out by the Mujahideen in the Blessed Land – Palestine under the slogan Al-Aqsa Flood against the usurping Jewish entity, which continues and persists in its ongoing assault on the Blessed Al-Aqsa Mosque and its siege and bombing that has continued for 17 years on the Gaza Strip, Hizb ut Tahrir / Britain is organizing a demonstration.

As well as some international relations concerns and a fear over principle, a repeated reason for not going as far as proscription has always been about good community/campus relations – worries that banning it would actually radicalise young people toward supporting its views.

It’s not at all clear whether it will have that impact now the decision has been made – but what is interesting is that the work that many SUs have undertaken over the years would be much more difficult to do now if another group of its ilk was to start recruiting.

Universities and SU are now specifically prohibited from restricting the speech of individuals on the basis of their ideas or opinions, or groups on the basis of their policies, objectives or the ideas or opinions of any of their members.

By definition, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act is aimed at creating a more permissive environment for free speech within the law than is currently perceived to the the case on campus now.

But the current version of the Prevent guidance applicable to universities says that radicalisers create and take advantage of permissive environments to “promote or condone violence” and to spread “poisonous ideologies” that “undermine our values and society” – and puts a duty on universities to identify and consider opportunities to disrupt those who seek to radicalise others, having policies in place limit radicalising influences (including online), and ensure that facilities are not used inappropriately – as well as challenging extremist ideas often linked to a terrorist ideology, “some of which may encompass more broadly harmful ideas, such as misogyny and antisemitism, or the concept of blasphemy to justify or condone violence.”

HuT’s proscription is one thing – but navigating the heavy and apparently incompatible sandbags of anti-extremism and free speech with the law will remain spectacularly difficult for universities and their SUs.

One response to “James Cleverly bans Hizb ut-Tahrir – twenty years after NUS banned it

  1. “but navigating the heavy and apparently incompatible sandbags of anti-extremism and free speech with the law will remain spectacularly difficult for universities and their SUs.”

    And there in lies a huge problem, many Universities have no idea who is invited to preach in the segregated, at their insistence, Muslim prayer rooms.

    At a University I know only too well the London based radical preachers would arrive every Friday to preach pre-COVID, with those from any different strand of Islam effectively excluded. Whilst some would walk several miles to the town mosque, others would take over disabled toilets to perform their ritual washing (leaving the floor wet and slippery, thus dangerous for disabled staff and students) and pray in stair wells to avoid conflict.

    Balancing the legal requirements of Prevent, H&S etc against not affecting the income stream will always be an issue.

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