SOAS academic John Game writes on the victimisation of Nasser Amin, which he says raises “the question of racism and Islamophobia. We should speak plainly. SOAS is easy to target in this way because a large part of the student body come from the Arab world and a larger part are Muslims. In our society today it is possible to say anything one likes about Muslims (rather like asylum seekers)…. One of our students, the author of the article on political violence, has been subjected to a vicious witch hunt in the pages of the national press and the response of our college has been to force the SU to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him. Islamophobia in the wider society means that SOAS’s ‘reputation’ is under assault. Either one aggressively stands up to such Islamophobia or one decides to sacrifice a few students to it, sending the message that one regards Muslim students as a liability (despite perhaps privately knowing that the whole business is an artificial storm in a tea cup) and promising the relevant authorities that there is no need for them to keep ‘a close eye’ on Muslim students because, you see, we are doing it for them”.
What is SOAS For?
Political crisis often creates crisis of cultural identity. A jazz musician from Israel who has renounced his citizenship recently gave a talk in SOAS in which he argued that Judaism should not be equated with Zionism. Defending this position when faced with some hostile questioning he argued that the identification of Judaism with Zionism made attacks on synagogues rational. The quote made its way into the national media in the shape of a claim that it was the policy of SOAS SU that ‘bombing synagogues was rational’. In a frenzy of unsolicited concern journalists asked whether the authorities in SOAS would wait until Jewish students were killed in SOAS before acting. As if this wasn’t disturbing enough for SOAS students, whether Jewish or not, this quote was then recycled by a member of the NUS Executive resigning over the alleged refusal of that body to oppose anti-Semitism, indignantly declaring that they had refused to “condemn” this comment. This is hardly very surprising. Taken in its actual context, the quote represented an argument which suggested that Judaism should not be equated with Zionism, and that this was important because Jewish people should not be blamed for Israeli policies just because they were Jewish. This seems entirely unexceptional and it’s impossible to imagine any union condemning such a sentiment. Perhaps more controversial was the jazz musician’s argument that Jews should renounce Zionism. It is not however the business of anti-racists to lecture minorities about the relationship of their cultural or religious identity to particular political ideologies or government policies or to censure or indeed censor such discussions, and again, its hard to imagine any union doing so.
There was a similar media frenzy surrounding an article, which appeared in the last issue of the Spirit in which it was clear that political crisis has generated a similar kind of cultural crisis of identity, and similar debates, except this time amongst Muslims. An article written by a distinguished Islamic scholar based in the US, Sheik Hamza Yusuf, suggested that problems of Islamophobia could be addressed by Muslims ‘categorically’ condemning Palestinian violence. This line of argument was indignantly rejected by a student from SOAS, Nasser Amin, who argued that such a position was unreflective about the roots of violence in the Israel/Palestine conflict, and argued further that ‘the “categorical rejection” of such violence…is as naive as supporting a particular cause merely because it affects your own people, regardless of the moral status of the cause’ (an argument which Nasser was at pains to reject as inappropriate in his article). Very unfortunately our authorities do not appear to have the mature judgement of the National Executive of our Students Union (or apparently Nasser’s obvious philosophical sensitivity, which it would probably be presumptuous to claim he picked up in SOAS), and decided that an appropriate intervention into this argument, following on from the usual hysterical slander excited in the media by this debate, was to force the SU to conduct a disciplinary investigation of the student, reproducing exactly the kind of colonial snooping which has prompted such debates about appropriate responses to Islamophobia in the first place. Apparently Muslims are not permitted to have discussions about such questions in SOAS, even if on reading lists on courses in the school, there are books which discuss problems connected with the ethics of political violence (hardly surprising in an institution which studies, amongst other things, the history of anti-colonial movements, hardly surprising on reflection, in a university of any kind. Thinking is something we do in institutions like this. It’s what they are for).
This was in marked contrast to the response of our Director to a further manifestation of the political crisis we are discussing when a student was struck by the incongruity of two policies of SOAS SU. One policy on the Israel/Palestine conflict included the famous quote from the UN, which declared Zionism to be a form of racism and the other, unconnected policy, held that the SU should not provide a platform for racists. This struck the student concerned as logically incongruous and he suggested that the SU should withdraw funding from a forthcoming visit by a representative of the Israeli embassy. Of course such logical incongruities in the world are legion and, as with the examples discussed above, their sudden visibility have as much to do with changing social realities as with sudden discoveries about logical entailment. The motion was passed at a rather badly attended SU meeting with many being unsure whether this was the right response to the logical difficulty. The Director suffered from no such anguished self-doubt however. He was clear, quoting no less an authority then Noam Chomsky, that freedom of speech was inviolable and the motion was ruled out of order without reference to the students. This is now, it should be said, becoming something of a habit: an attempt was made to rule a motion electing Ken Livingstone honorary President of SOAS out of order until it was pointed out that the school had no right to abrogate Student Union democracy in this way. So for representatives of the Israeli embassy the standards to be applied are to be drawn from anarchist philosophers whilst for students disciplinary procedures and coercion will suffice.
Apparently normal methods of democratic debate and argument will not work and a special kind of liberal paternalism has to be exercised over students at SOAS. This extends to discussions of problems of ‘political polarisation’ in SOAS (since when was student politics not polarised?) and the rather curious implication that debate needs to be more ‘balanced’ as if students need special monitoring when it comes to the Israel/Palestine conflict. One understands that the recent decision of the AUT to conduct a selective academic boycott of Israeli universities has prompted calls for a ‘government enquiry into extremism on campuses’ rather then an attempt by opponents of this measure to frame their arguments more persuasively (the usual procedure in democracies) and it is disturbing to see our School effectively echoing such arguments, transforming legitimate questions for debate into security matters. From Colonial snooping to Colonial mind control.
I would suggest that there are two features about this increasingly surreal debate that should be noted. SOAS is being targeted in this way largely because of the political crisis, which has produced different, and often anguished debate, on a national and global scale in various communities. SOAS is obviously a place were such debates will be reflected inside the student body and indeed, if such debates cannot take place here, one wonders where they can. Our Director is no doubt more then aware of this but one wishes that he would understand that if these traditions of lively and partisan debate are not defended aggressively in the current climate then the reputation of SOAS would not be something worth defending. If there is no freedom of political opinion amongst students then academic freedom becomes meaningless and eventually ceases to exist. One hopes that academics also understand this. There is however also the question of racism and Islamophobia. We should speak plainly. SOAS is easy to target in this way because a large part of the student body come from the Arab world and a larger part are Muslims. In our society today it is possible to say anything one likes about Muslims(rather like asylum seekers) and slanderous accusations of anti-Semitism will not make anyone bat an eyelid. One of our students, the author of the article on political violence, has been subjected to a vicious witch hunt in the pages of the national press and the response of our college has been to force the SU to initiate disciplinary proceedings against him. Islamophobia in the wider society means that SOAS’s “reputation” is under assault. Either one aggressively stands up to such Islamophobia or one decides to sacrifice a few students to it, sending the message that one regards Muslim students as a liability (despite perhaps privately knowing that the whole business is an artificial storm in a tea cup) and promising the relevant authorities that there is no need for them to keep ‘a close eye’ on Muslim students because, you see, we are doing it for them.
Students and Staff are quite capable of resolving their differences in SOAS without collapsing into this kind of racist policing of minorities. Political polarisation is inevitable in the current situation but there is no necessary connection between this and forms of discrimination and exclusion, which can be the subject of
disciplinary procedures. Unless a clear distinction is made between these two things it will not be possible to tackle questions of discrimination and exclusion should such problems arise (one of the most distressing things about the last few weeks has been the grotesque trivialization of anti-Semitism with one commentator having the bad taste to compare British universities to universities in Nazi Germany. Apparently he was a historian. One wonders what kind of historian is capable of making such comparisons).
One hopes that at some point it will be possible to return to Nasser Amin’s article and actually discuss the very interesting philosophical arguments in it without having to waste everyone’s time in an argument about whether he has a right to write it (this is something I had initially set out to do and part of the tragedy of the situation is that the current context makes it impossible to do so. This is deeply shameful). The school owes both Nasser Amin and all of us deprived of this opportunity an apology. It is possible that they owe Nasser something more then an apology.
John Game, SOAS Academic