The debate over Islamic “extremism” on university campuses took a turn for the bizarre on 21 September, when Middlesex University suspended its student union president, Keith Shilson, from office and escorted him off campus for refusing to cancel a discussion forum with the right-wing Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir.
On 15 September, in speech to Universities UK, Education Secretary Ruth Kelly argued that universities should “identify and confront unacceptable behaviour on their premises” in order to “root out extremism” on campus. This followed the Government’s announcement that it plans to ban Islamist groups including Hizb ut-Tahrir.
We should oppose state bans on even the most reactionary groups, including fascists. Such bans merely strengthen the repressive power of the state against all its opponents, including socialists and the labour movement, while allowing the outlawed reactionaries to present themselves as champions of democratic rights. This is clearly true in the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has won extensive publicity and no doubt recruited many new members as a result of the Government’s decision to ban it.
We should also be highly sceptical of attempts by the government and university authorities to regulate political discourse and activity on campus, particularly when this is done in the name of fighting “extremism”. The problem with groups such as Hizb is not their radical dissent from the bourgeois mainstream, but the fact that their alternative is worse, more reactionary, than the status quo.
When NUS talks about opposing “extremism”, rather than radical right-wing groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the BNP, it strengthens the hand of those in university and increasingly student administrations who would like to see an end to all inconvenient and disruptive political activism by their students.
It is also extremely worrying that a university feels able to dismiss its student union’s president because of a political decision it disagrees with. Although we do not yet know what Middlesex University Student Union’s response will be, activists need to be very clear that we support student unions’ right to operate independently of and clash with their university administration, even when we disagree with what that union is doing.
At the same time we need to be very clear about the reactionary politics of Islamism — both the “extremist” variety now causing such controversy at Middlesex and the milder, respectable brand which now dominates the Federation of Student Islamic Societies. The event organised by Keith Shilson was described in the press as a “debate”, but this was not the sort of debate against Hizb ut-Tahrir the AWL organised in 1996, where we openly denounced them as fascistic. The indications are rather that it was a public meeting designed to whitewash Hizb ut-Tahrir and help it make propaganda.
If so, is the logical conclusion of a political culture in which large sections of the student left have allied themselves with Islamism. If “socialists” in SWSS and Student Broad Left can help the Muslim Association of Britain, through FOSIS, gain a foothold in the student movement, then why shouldn’t Middlesex student union promote Hizb ut-Tahrir?
The left needs to combine sharp opposition to state bans and crack downs on political activism with equally sharp denunciation of groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir and everything they stand for.