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Why students at SOAS and the University of Westminster are organising against Prevent

Authors: Katherine Berjikian and Boris Kilgarriff

On 8 March, Janna Jihad (the youngest journalist in the world) was invited to speak at the University of Westminster by Westminster Students for Palestine, as part of their celebration of International Women's Day. Janna is eleven years old and spoke to the audience via Skype from the occupied West Bank. She spoke about her life under occupation and said that when she is older she wants to be a footballer.

Katie Hopkins' screenshot of her tweet [Twitter]

Katie Hopkins' screenshot of her tweet [Twitter]

Just before the event was scheduled to take place, Janna was flagged as a security risk by the University of Westminster's administration staff. They postponed the event and made the society give them the questions that they planned to ask her. The administration then picked the questions which the society was allowed to ask the young guest speaker.

Student societies at the University of Westminster have invited many speakers from across the political spectrum before Janna Jihad, including Katie Hopkins. Hopkins is well-known for making unashamedly racist and anti-immigrant comments on national media, describing refugees as "cockroaches" and calling for a "final solution" to the threat of "Islamic terror". She wasn't flagged as a security risk by the university administration.

Prevent's impact on student activism

Since 2015, universities throughout Britain have been legally obliged to implement the Prevent duty on campus. This means that they are responsible for monitoring their campuses for threats of extremism and terrorism, including far-right extremism.

However, in practice, this has been abused to stop leftist and pro-Palestinian activism and has targeted Muslim students disproportionately. This has created a legal grey area where universities are now allowed to discriminate against Muslims based on their religion. In the cases mentioned above, Hopkins was not considered a threat, but an eleven-year-old Palestinian Muslim was.

Westminster Students for Palestine has recently accused the University of Westminster of discrimination against the society as well as the campus Islamic Society. Measures introduced recently include CCTV cameras in the university's prayer rooms, ID checks for all students attending events run by Students for Palestine or the Islamic Society (this has not been required for other societies' events), and the cancellation or postponement of almost every event organised by either society, sometimes as late as the day before the event was scheduled to take place. The Islamic Society and Students for Palestine appear to have been singled out by the university to be monitored aggressively.

Read: #ApartheidOffCampus – SOAS protest against Israeli ambassador visit

According to the members of Westminster Students for Palestine, one of the people overseeing the implementation of this crackdown is a specially-appointed interfaith advisor named Yusuf Kaplan. He fits the profile of an interfaith advisor as mentioned in the School of Oriental and African Studies' (SOAS) annual review of the Prevent Duty. According to this report, an advisor with a history of working with Prevent will start working part-time at SOAS next year. An anonymous source at the SOAS Student Union informed us that they have already been introduced to Kaplan via email.

Free Ahed Tamimi, International Women's Day – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The SOAS Palestine Society and Islamic Society have also experienced heightened pressure from the university administration over the past year. In 2017, both organisations were investigated by the Charity Commission, and the Palestine Society was suspended informally by the SOAS Student Union, suggesting that the management already perceived these student societies as adversaries.

The double standard demonstrated at Westminster University can also be seen at SOAS. The same year that the SOAS Palestine Society was suspended, the school hosted Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev, who was the chief spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from 2007 to 2015. He is notorious for his comments during the 2014 Israeli military offensive against civilians in Gaza, when he justified the murder of three children killed by Israeli artillery while they played football on the beach.

The SOAS administration bent over backwards to aid the Israeli Embassy in its efforts to get Regev onto the campus. This included hiding details of the event from the students and allowing embassy security staff onto campus. They did this despite the event being denounced by over 100 academics, students and the Student Union.

In its own Prevent Annual Report, the SOAS administration stated that this event was their biggest security threat during that academic year. As with the case of Katie Hopkins, the SOAS staff seem to have a double standard when it comes to implementing the Prevent duty and maintaining "campus security".

The student response to Prevent

As far as we know, these universities aren't reporting students directly to Prevent officials. However, they appear to be exploiting the mandatory Prevent duty in order to stop activists organising on their campuses and to target Muslim students specifically. The powers given to university management by the Prevent duty are used, not when events are considered high risk, but according to an apparently discriminatory policy that seems to be based entirely upon which society is organising the event.

Read: SOAS votes for academic boycott of Israel

Universities use bureaucratic measures to postpone events and exhaust the organisers, making it ever harder for students to get involved in political activism. In this sense, therefore, the Prevent duty legitimises the pre-emptive targeting of students.

In response to this, the Westminster and SOAS Palestine Societies are organising a Prevent crisis meeting at SOAS, University of London. This meeting will include speakers from Students Not Suspects, and from both SOAS and the University of Westminster. This event is meant to bring awareness to student activists about the nuanced ways in which Prevent is being implemented on both campuses and to prepare students for a protest march between the Westminster campuses scheduled for Friday; this will be for students only, and IDs will be checked at the door. The march will end at the office of Vice-Chancellor Geoff Petts.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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